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Re: Many Thanks and Some Questions ...
by Luke Rondinaro
26 July 2002 00:59 UTC
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  <[Luke:]  [S]ince so much of science is based on the utilitarian model of thought and upon pragmatism, what are the most glaring shortfalls of philosophical Pragmatism and Utilitarianism (i.e., in terms of the Utilitarian Calculus)?  Do they have any shortfalls?   [Mike:]  They do not say what should be done.  They can tell you how to do something but not why you would want to.  >

It’s interesting that you answer this question in what seems to be moral philosophical terms (“should be done”).  But don’t such terms and, hence, moral philosophy as their source end up falling into the same quagmire as P. and U. do (namely that they spend so much time on modes of behavior {the ‘how’ and/or the ‘ought’ of social theory}and praxeological concerns that they forget the “is” of human affairs primarily and secondarily the “is” and “what” of the natural world as well)?

Yes, P. and U. [“can tell you how to do something”].  I concur.  What’s neat here is your “but not why you would want to” clause.  This ‘why’ of yours juxtaposed with your “should” in the last sentence suggests moral imperative and agency (at least in the case of human action).  It seems to equate higher causes and factors of determination of either human action or natural processes with extrinsic moral absolutes (not that this was necessarily your intention at all in writing this); it does bring up a question on my part – Why should the categorical question “WHY” imply a moralist’s “SHOULD?”  (This isn’t the first time I read or heard a similar point made along the lines of what you just said here.)  The full analogy as I’ve heard it among Catholic classics scholarship runs like this:  WHY:SHOULD :: HOW : IS (which essentially means WHO, WHAT, WHERE, and WHEN) in their historical-based theory of human experience).

Yet, even aside from such discussions of moral philosophy in history – variations on the theme of Catholic Universal History - and Natural Law in the ethical sense, this WHY/SHOULD juxtaposed relationship is problematic.  Clearly the WHY and “WHY YOU WOULD WANT TO implies the extrinsic determination of human action in history and the issue of motivation.  Neither of these notions necessarily implies a universal moral qualifier to human activity over time; instead, “determination” (via evolution and other macro-cosmic phenomena) and “motivation” (the driving micro-cosmic dynamics of deep-seated human emotions & psychohistory) shape human action in history and through that, by shaping the active mental process of reflective/comparative judgments people make as individuals and via communities as they encounter new experiences in life, new ways of interacting with their environment, and new connections they can draw between external phenomena A,B,C and internal mental phenomena within themselves X,Y,Z, moral universals are formed.

Sorry for the digression, but your comment got a bunch of my mental gears going on this one …

<[Luke:]  If the ideas of rhetorical persuasion and concrete, practical demonstration are so important to empirical inquiry and to science in general, at what point do we as scientists and social scientists draw the line between true science and philosophy and the Sophism of Socrates contemporaries in Classical Greece?  In other words, is there a point at which ‘persuasion isn’t everything’ – (what’s entailed in such a point)?  Is there a point at which the conventions of a majority group of intellectuals in a given generation can be erroneous – even when they seem to have the facts and the power of demonstration/persuasion on their side?   [Mike:] What do you mean by erroneous?>

By this I mean, the majority not only got their “real” facts and truth wrong; but they still have a whole host of “good” facts plus demonstration/persuasion at their disposal [which in retrospect did not count for all that much in the history of knowledge] ((“good facts”/”real facts”, Babylon 5 sci-fi program, Season Four, final episode))

Examples:  The Galileo versus Church officials incident; regarding the Ptolemaic model - G. had his evidence and demonstrations, but so did his opponents – they had their facts, truths, and ways of demonstrating ideas.  An observer of that generation may not have been able to tell that Galileo was “in the right” in spite of this – but he was and the history of knowledge has proven him right in spite of what the majority opinion was in those days

Socrates versus the Politicians and the Sophists -- Socrates won the arguments; they – his opponents among the sophists and pol.’s were the majority; Socrates took the hyssop for it; they won the day as did their view; but I think it safe to say history proved Socrates – who went against the academic grain of his time – right, this is at least according to the Platonic version of the Socrates story                 

The whole ‘Columbus versus others who said the world was flat’ story (that’s sometimes told to children) Again history proves the individual right and the maj. academic viewpt. of his generation ;; I realize this story is largely myth, for many in Columbus’s day and before believed the earth was round; that was not was C. was after with his voyages, even this fantasy example proves the rule that the majority view of a generation can be dead wrong in the historical sense of the development of knowledge over the ages; The agreed-upon view of a majority of scholars in a given generation can be and sometimes most definitely “is” wrong.

<[Mike:]  What do you mean by legitimate?  You cannot tell what is the more accurate point of view.    All we as human beings can do is choose the most persuasive explanation that is backed by the most evidence.  A useful example may be to compare science with other ways of knowing.  For example, consider revelation.  A biblical literalist can tell that evolution is not the most accurate point of view because the Bible (the revealed word of God) says God created the Earth in seven days.  No amount of rhetorical persuasion or empirical evidence (e.g. science) will change his mind because he believes the Word of God over the words of mere men.  Similarly, to convince a literalist to support a particular political view it is simply necessary to show that it conforms with what the Bible says.>

I suppose I could have scratched the word “legitimate” from my point there in that passage.  The reason why I included it and also the word “good” was to make to make a crucial distinction between true scholars and pseudo intellectuals/ charlatans like Erik Van Daniken.  Because the problem is:  EVD had his “good” facts/”evidence” and he had his persuasion (that at least worked on the public who bought his books).  If a whole generation had gone in line with his ideas, and only one authentic scientist opposed his quackeries, would Van Daniken be anymore in the right and this other person anymore in the wrong (based soley on the merits of persuasion and the garnering of “evidence”)? … If persuasion and gathered “evidence” is so much the be-all and end-all of scholarship, then how can one possibly discern between the ‘science’ of the Leakey family and the ‘pseudo-science’ of an EVD [unless there be another factor or set of factors at play here which can characterize the work of the true scholar]?


Taking your biblical literalist example, I’d bet a good lawyer might be able to rhetorically convince this person (in the Pragamist, Utilitarian sense), beyond a reasonable doubt, to change his mind on the issue. 

… which leads me to these questions, supposing that “persuasion is everything” in scholarship (or at least a good chunk of it) when we present our research findings, if your ideas and arguments about persuasion are correct, why wouldn’t it be just as good for us to have (say) lawyers give our the presentation of our research conclusions to the public?  Why wouldn’t it be just as good for our public school teachers and college instructors be ‘speech communications’ majors?  Or, why not have “education” majors teaching college courses like they do for public K-12 in the U.S.?  Why have specialists in their disciplines doing such presentations when lawyers, communications and education majors, and advertising agents/marketers can do the job of persuading far better?  Why haven’t academics also be taught more often by these people in their methods/techniques besides just being taught by their own mentors in the various scholarly disciplines? … 

(Please pardon the rhetorical questions here, but if persuasion is so important, then there must be a reasonable basis to these queries …)(unless of course there isn’t and scholars can do better at presenting their own cases(s) than others can ->by virtue of both (their subject knowledge expertise/how to both convincingly and accurately present it) plus (the fact that it’s not just knowing the techniques and methods to use that’s important in convincing others of one’s ideas; it’s equally important – or perhaps more important – to find common ground on an issue in terms of the basic facts that both the presenter and the audience can agree upon, plus common ideas, shared applied paradigms, and so forth) before & even while the presentation takes place)  Persuasion would still be important, mind you, but it logically follows from both points of common ground and agreement based upon them; it logically follows from a consensus about something’s being a reality, & from that, a presenter’s directing an audience from premise “A” and “B” to conclusion “C.”  Hence, it would not be completely similar to what’s done in advertising, the legal profession, speech communications or marketing.  (These other fields base their work in the process of persuasion as a driving feature of their professions; the humanities, sciences, and social sciences, et al - and scholarship as a whole - use persuasion to teach others about their brands of knowledge and to some extent win people over to their perspectives, but instead of persuasion being their central animating principle, theirs is factual content, concepts, and general principles and the way such is presented to colleagues, students, and then the public)

I’d stand by my claim: persuasion isn’t everything.  Our job as scholars and academics is not about un-restrained PR like that which comes through on TV commercials; it’s about bringing people to an accurate understanding of the facts and a to a consensus in shared meaning about agreed upon real things ((that thinkers in the past have called “truth”)


Luke R.

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