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Thursday, July 23, 2009

A Clarifying Note on Philosophy, Empricism, and Emotion

I had a small number of people lodge objections to my discussion of Timothy Williamson's talk, saying that I neglected a very real portion of human cognitive life - namely our emotional experiences - when I stated that worldly knowledge was rooted in empirical data. To clarify, my essay on Williamson was focusing on the philosophical underpinnings of the field of philosophy as a discipline that seeks to understand the fundamental system underlying the world and our existence therein. I very much recognize that not all thoughts are rational or based on empirical evidence, and, as one of my correspondents pointed out, emotions are facts to the people experiencing them. Not to belabour the point, but not so long ago I brought up the very real existence of irrationally motivated thought when I discussed the irrationality of our individual mental lives in relation to public policy. Thus, all I was trying to say in my post on Timothy Williamson was that, in the pursuit of knowledge and understanding, it is necessary to base our reasoning on empirical underpinnings and engage in informed cognitive introspection to try and eliminate subjective or irrational reasoning from muddling our conclusions. While in the essay I was concentrating on the field of philosophy, I think such a process should be applied to most professinal pursuits.

For example, I think it is an important ethical consideration for any political advocate to at least try and ensure his policy is supported by strong reasoning motivated by an empirical basis. While holding fast to an ideological stance is both easier and, unfortunately, usually more popular with voters (people seem to like certainty), it is irresponsible and damaging. A good example of this is with the debate over sexual education. There are numerous studies showing that abstinence-only education is far less effective at reducing sexually transmitted infections and teenage pregnancy than comprehensive sexual education, yet numerous politicians continue to advocate for abstinence-only education based on the ideological principle that sex outside of marriage is sinful. To the politicians, their feelings that premarital sex is a sin are fact, but it is not fact to everyone in their society, nor is the classification of a behaviour as sinful enough to dissuade everyone (including a good number of politicians) from doing it. Thus, in order to most effectively govern, one must put aside one's own biases and concentrate on the empirical evidence of what is the most effective strategy. This is the same way that effective scientists and philosophers must be willing to put aside their own possibly flawed intuitions in light of new evidence. The danger of any dogmatic ideology (religion is my most common target, but politics is rife with ideologies resistant to change as well) is that it actively resists the adoption of new practices despite new evidence. The power and beauty of science rests with its fundamentally self-correcting philosophy (even if self-correction is not always perfectly performed, complicated as always by the personal facts of the scientists themselves. The best we can do is simply strive to eliminate those tendencies).

Once again, I would like to stress that all of this talk of eliminating responses based on emotion is in the realm of understanding and interacting with the world at large. I am in no way advocating that people should strive to eliminate all emotion, but that they should not be afraid of introspection into why their emotions tell them that the world is a particular way. It is hard work, but I think it is worth the effort.

Also, I would like to point out that I recognize the practical reason why politicians are not so ideal as to be guided solely by the empirical ramifications of their policies. Elected politicians must pragmatically deal with the realities of getting elected, and if the majority of the population (or at least the portion of the population that controls their election funds) wants a politician to enact an ideologically based set of policies, the politician only has so much leeway before being replaced by someone more willing to follow the given ideology. I don't have a solution for getting around this, other than through public discourse and staunch resistance to ideological proponents. I recognize that my voice is a small one, but for now it is all I have. This, too, is hard work, but I think it is also worth the effort.

Note: I don't actually have a reference to any abstinence-only studies on hand. I believe this is fairly close to Robert's field of study, so perhaps he would be kind enough to offer some supporting citations (or tell me I am remembering the conclusions of studies incorrectly).

Edit on 29 July, 2009: Robert and I have continued to discuss this topic through private messages. While I have more to say on the topic, I am putting it to rest for now while I deal with the more pressing matters of report writing and exam preparation.

3 comments:

Robert said...

I think in some cases you might be getting dangerously close to deriving an ought from an is. On the subject of abstinence only education, you are mostly correct. Taking the virginity pledges does seem to delay sex in around 60% of teens by a year or year and a half, but when they do get around to doing it, that are some huge number less likely to use protection or practice any sort of birth control. And abstinence only sex ed really only is useful in the sexual lives of those that refrain from sex until marriage. and, depending on what study you believe, between 88 to 94 percent of Americans do have sex before marriage. So, abstinence only education is not effective in preventing people from having sex before marriage, and does not increase safe sex practices (which, it is not really designed to do).

I wrote a paper on this topic a few years ago. I will go back and see if I can dig it up, and maybe find a way to post it online. This will happen after I get off work.

But just because comprehensive sex ed is the most effective at preventing STD's and such does not mean we ought to teach it. We need more support than that to establish the program. While that bit of information is helpful in establishing the claim that we should teach comprehensive sex ed, I do not think it is either necessary or sufficient to the claim. Instead, our reasons for teaching sex ed should rest on the fact that everyone has agency, rationality, and the ability to make decisions for themselves. And we ought to be providing them with the tools and abilities to become the most free, and most self-actualized person they can be. And we do this by helping them understand and allowing them access to the accurate information about the world they live in.

I will admit that I struggle with this idea also. In part, because it is fairly easy to make claims that we ought to be doing something because we are doing it currently. It is comfortable. Also, though, once things get into the abstract realm in which realities of the world do not have any definitive say, then you get dangerously close to a world of moral relativism, which I think is undesirable.

In relation to your last post on this talk, I think my post and comment discussion on the post hits on what you are talking about.

I feel like my comments on the matter have been really muddled. Perhaps you can glean something intelligent from this.

Mozglubov said...

A muddled comment is understandable, since I think this post itself was muddled. I actually debated whether or not to publish it, or wait until I had more time to work on it, because it just doesn't quite feel like it says what I really wanted it to... as you can see, I eventually opted to just go ahead and put it up and then hope my readers could help me work out the kinks. Probably not the best habit to get into, but my brain feels like it's been running itself in circles for the last couple days and I'm feeling rather tired (if that's an excuse).

Thanks for the input, I shall have a gander at your post when I finish eating dinner.

Robert said...

Here is a link to that paper I mentioned. I loaded it as a google doc. It has information about the contemporary history of federally funded abstinence only education in the US, and some stats on how many kids are having sex. There are a number of references in the paper that you can look up also.