Thursday, December 06, 2012

Empirical or Scientific Description

Some basic thoughts on the descriptive enterprise, be it in the natural or social sciences.

While I believe in the necessity and value of the descriptive enterprise, I think we do need to be clear about the fact that that which aims to be “purely descriptive” is no less engaged in (normative) judgments as to what “counts,” what is relevant, what has bearing on the questions and enterprises that are important and meaningful to us, whether in the law* or elsewhere (the ‘context of application’ so to speak, which may be hypothetical, predictive, explanatory, educational, edifying, interpretive, and so forth). In other words, “what, precisely, is this knowledge for?” Or, “this data set may prove useful for the following reasons or purposes…..” We circumscribe a particular descriptive domain of facts because we believe it has function, purpose, and value for the kinds of questions we (or others) are asking (we have contestable assumptions as to what are the interesting and relevant questions that would motivate this particular descriptive task). It is a map designed to guide us to getting a grip on what is relevant: it is a RELEVANCE MAP. The act of description is at the porous boundary betwixt and between the domains of information and knowledge, it aims to enable comprehension of something significant. We need to justify this taxonomy rather than that one (i.e., ask ourselves ‘why this, and not that?’). Any description must select from a virtually innumerable number of possible “facts” and perspectives on such facts, so much so, that much hinges in the first instance as to the initial choice or act of circumscription with regard to what we decide to objectively or impartially describe as far as possible or practicable (this ‘objectivity’ may be simply or largely consensual in nature). And any particular descriptive endeavor involves (presupposes, assumes, and/or posits) any number of values (some would prefer here the less helpful concept of ‘interests’) and must exemplify certain cognitive virtues (coherence, elegance, abstractness, functional simplicity, or perhaps economy or parsimony, and the like) to be a worthwhile description. With regard to values, Robert Nozick wrote:

“Values enter into the very definition of what a fact is; the realm of facts cannot be defined or specified without utilizing certain values. Values enter into the process of knowing a fact; without utilizing or presupposing certain values, we cannot determine which is the realm of facts, we cannot know the real from the unreal.”

Or, as another philosopher (one, unlike Nozick, still with us), Hilary Putnam puts it, our knowledge of the world presupposes values, indeed, what comes to count as the real world depends upon our values (and these need not—and I believe should not—be construed in merely emotivist, subjectivist or conventional terms, nor should they be viewed as irrational or non-rational). This is evidenced in the “implicit standards and skills on the basis of which we decide whether someone is able to give a true, adequate, and perspicuous account of even the simplest perceptual facts….” It is Putnam who also reminds us that insofar as facts (or truth) and rationality are interdependent notions, a descriptive statement of fact entails “criteria of relevance as well as criteria of rational acceptability, and…all of our values are involved in our criteria of relevance.” So, should we want to proffer a description that is factual and thus true (that is, ‘true by our present lights,’ or ‘as true as anything is’), we will be answering the relevant questions that motivate the descriptive enterprise, and at the same time revealing (intentionally or otherwise) our values or system of value commitments. Putnam elaborates:

“The way in which criteria of relevance involves values, at least indirectly, may be seen by examining the simplest statement. Take the sentence ‘The cat is on the mat.’ If someone actually makes this judgment in a particular context, then he employs conceptual resources—the notions ‘cat,’ ‘on,’ and ‘mat’—which are provided by a particular culture, and whose presence and ubiquity reveal something about the interests and values of that culture, and of almost every culture. We have the category ‘cat’ because we regard the division of the world into animals and non-animals as significant, and we are further interested in what species a given animal belongs to. It is relevant that there is a cat on the mat and not just a thing. We have the category ‘mat’ because we regard the division of inanimate things into artifacts and non-artifacts as significant, and we are further interested in the purpose and nature a particular artifact has. It is relevant that it is a mat that the cat is on and not just something. We have the category ‘on’ because we are interested in spatial relations. Notice what we have: we took the most banal statement imaginable, ‘the cat is on the mat,’ and we found that the presuppositions which make this statement a relevant one in certain contexts include the significance of the categories animate/inanimate, purpose, and space. To a mind with no disposition to regard these as relevant categories, ‘the cat is on the mat’ would be as irrational as ‘the number of hexagonal objects in this room is 76’ would be, uttered in the middle of a tête-à-tête between young lovers. Not only do very general facts about our value system show themselves in our categories (artifacts, species name, term for a spatial relation) but, our more specific values (for example, sensitivity and compassion), also show up in the use we make of specific classificatory words (‘considerate,’ ‘selfish’). To repeat, our criteria of relevance rest on and reveal our whole system of values.”

Putnam also reminds us that norms and standards of a kind are intrinsic to our descriptive projects:

(1) “In ordinary circumstances, there is usually a fact of the matter as to whether the statements people make are warranted or not. [….]
(2) Whether a statement is warranted or not is independent of whether the majority of one’s cultural peers would say it is warranted or unwarranted.
(3) Our norms and standards of warranted assertibility are historical products; they evolve in time.
(4) Our norms and standards always reflect our interests and values. Our picture of intellectual flourishing is part of, and only makes sense as part of, our picture of human flourishing in general.
(5) Our norms and standards of anything—including warranted assertibility—are capable of reform. There are better and worse norms and standards.”

Any piece that aims to be “purely descriptive” is of course subject to subsumption within, or manipulation by, works of normative scholarship, or any number of possible research agendas, and it would seem that the decision to construct this or that taxonomy must at least bear this in mind. In other words, no description is merely an island of data set apart from the bulk of explanatory and theoretical research, even if it remains the case that (after Hume), logically at least, the normative or prescriptive “ought” does not follow deductively from the descriptive or empirical “is” (and yet, after Marx, we should not confuse the logic of things for the things of logic, hence there are, after all, other forms of reasoning: inferential, evaluative, practical). Scientific taxonomies and factual classification have long been basic to the natural and social sciences, and philosophers of science do in fact view them as steeped in theory: indeed, they acquire scientific respect or significance through theory. And our “purely objective descriptions,” that is, those worthy of the adjective “rational,” are indexed to conceptual schemes, indeed, facts are internal to conceptual schemes, so lucidity as to such conceptual schemes is yet another desideratum, and this is perfectly consistent with the (minimally realist) notion that truth is the correspondence of (relative) propositions with (relative) facts (truth itself being a value we care about: all truths are relative, but that need not mean that our conception of truth is a relative concept). Michael Lynch, who has well explained truth as “one and many,” elaborates:

“[T]he conditions under which a proposition is true are partly determined by the conceptual scheme in which the proposition is expressed. But what makes a proposition true is not its relation to a scheme but whether or not the conditions in question obtain. For a claim to be true (or false), the conditions must be relative to a scheme. Yet the reason that the claim is true is not because it is relative to a scheme (as the truth relativist must hold); it is true because it is the case. [….] A fact, in the human sense, is simply what is the case.”

Nicholas Rescher speaks to other relevant epistemic aspects of our aims to be purely descriptive, aspects that necessitate an appreciation of

“the diversity in people’s experiences and cognitive situations; the variation of ‘available data;’ the underdetermination of facts by data (all too frequently insufficient); the variability of people’s cognitive values (evidential security, simplicity, etc.); the variation of cognitive methodology; and the epistemic ‘state of the art.’ Such factors—and others like them—make for an unavoidable difference in the beliefs, judgments, and evaluations even of otherwise ‘perfectly rational’ people.”

Finally, we might give some consideration to the rhetorical presentation of descriptive facts. Herbert Simon here raises the question of how we might best learn certain facts of history:

“Perhaps some of you are familiar with Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon. It is a novel that describes what happens to a particular person at the time of the Russian purge trials of the 1930s. Now suppose you wish to understand the history of the Western world between the two world wars, and the events that led up to our contemporary world. You will then certainly need to understand the purge trials. Are you more likely to gain such an understanding by reading Darkness at Noon, or by reading a history book that deals with the trials, or by searching out the published transcripts of the trial testimony in the library? I would vote for Koestler’s book as the best route, precisely because of the intense emotions it evokes in most readers.”

Or, in the words of another Nobel Laureate in economics, Amartya Sen: “Fiction is a general method of coming to grips with facts. There is nothing illegitimate in being helped by War and Peace to an understanding of the Napoleonic Wars in Russia, or by Grapes of Wrath to digesting aspects of the Depression.” In short, perhaps a virtuous description can at the same time be both true and not true!

* The reference to law owing to the fact that the foregoing was inspired by Dave Hoffman’s post at Concurring Opinions: “When Is It OK To Be ‘Descriptive?’”

References & Further Reading:
  • Lynch, Michael P. Truth in Context: An Essay on Pluralism and Objectivity. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1998.
  • Lynch, Michael P. Truth as One and Many. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009.
  • Miller, Richard W. Fact and Method: Explanation, Confirmation and Reality in the Natural and Social Sciences. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1987.
  • Nozick, Robert. Philosophical Explanations. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1981.
  • Putnam, Hilary. Reason, Truth and History. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1981.
  • Putnam, Hilary (James Conant, ed.). Realism with a Human Face. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1990.
  • Putnam, Hilary. The Collapse of the Fact/Value Dichotomy and Other Essays. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2002.
  • Putnam, Hilary (Mario De Caro and David Macarthur, eds.). Philosophy in an Age of Science: Physics, Mathematics, and Skepticism. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2012.
  • Rescher, Nicholas. Pluralism: Against the Demand for Consensus. Oxford, UK: Clarendon Press, 1993.
  • Rescher, Nicholas. Objectivity: The Obligations of Impersonal Reason. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1997.
  • Sayer, Andrew. Why Things Matter to People: Social Sciences, Values and Ethical Life. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2011.
  • Sen, Amartya. Choice, Welfare, and Measurement. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1982: 436-437.
  • Simon, Herbert A. in Hal R. Arkes and Kenneth R. Hammond, eds., Judgment and Decision Making: An Interdisciplinary Reader. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1986: 111.
  • Ziman, John. Real Science: What It Is, and What It Means. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2000.


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