Friday, July 05, 2019

Waddington, Science, and Ethics

In Chapter 14 of That Hideous Strength, Lewis has Frost refer to a philosophical discussion that broke out in the pages of Nature in 1941 and gathered together in book form the next year as Science and Ethics.

C. H. Waddington was one of the foremost biologists of his day; he gives us the term epigenetics, and developed a number of important ideas, like genetic assimilation, that are still around. He wrote an article, "The Relations Between Science and Ethics", which he submitted to Nature; the editor asked a number of other people who were notable at the time for their work on topics discussed in the article to comment on it. In it, Waddington considers a problem, that along at least four lines of inquiry, a scientific approach seemed to rule out the possibility of moral realism, i.e., ethics being grounded in the nature of the world: psychoanalysis, comparative anthropology, Marxist sociology, and logical positivism.* These four lines of thought could lead one to conclude that ethics and science have nothing to do with each other, but Waddington rejects this view:

I shall deny Carnap's argument that the typical ethical statement 'killing is evil' is merely a paraphrase of the command 'do not kill', and "does not assert anything, and cannot be proved or disproved". I shall argue that an ethical judgment is better typified by a statement such as "You are an animal of such a kind that you must consume 7 mgm. of vitamin C per diem, and should consume 100 mgm.", that is to say, by a statement which has scientific significance. (p. 10)

Later in the discussion he gives an analogy between moral behavior and feeding behavior. If you were to study feeding behavior the way many people study moral behavior (e.g., utilitarians), you might start by recognizing that people treat all sorts of things as food, and, in the attempt to give a more precise definition, might conclude that food is what satisfies hunger, just as classical utilitarians conclude that good is what gives pleasure. But this is not, in fact, how scientists study feeding behavior; they begin by tracing out the function that food performs, the role it fills, within the process of growth and development. This is complicated, but it is an objective matter capable of scientific study, and it gives you principles that account for feeding behavior regardless of the cultural differences in what and how people eat. We should, Waddington argues, look at good in a purely objective way in the context of the process of "progressive evolution" (p. 41)

It's somewhat interesting that of the four lines, only the conclusions Waddington discusses under anthropology have actually survived as in some way scientific, which I don't think anyone could possibly have expected at the time; psychoanalysis and Marxist sociology are no longer regarded as especially scientific, and logical positivism was already running into the problems that would eventually sink it as a general account of scientific methodology -- indeed, the version Waddington presents in his article was already beginning to be out of date, as it is based mostly on Carnap's Philosophy and Logical Syntax (published in English in 1936), and so does not take into account Carnap's more recent work.

(Logical positivists and and the broader family of logical empiricists have been making a comeback recently, but this is not, as it is sometimes presented, a serious revival of the -ism; in part because, contrary to the way the history is presented, and despite the importance of Popper and Quine, the primary work that showed the nonviability of logical positivism/empiricism was done by its partisans, particularly Carnap, who often anticipated the more powerful objections of the critics in his search for precision and accuracy.)

Perhaps also of note is that Waddington's notion of progressive evolution is no longer widely accepted, either. But his account very definitely requires that evolution have a discernible direction to which moral behavior can functionally contribute.

In That Hideous Strength, Mark asks Frost how, given Frost's particular insistence on objectivity, one can justify or condemn any actions at all, and Frost refers him to Waddington, even quoting Waddington's article in arguing that it makes no sense to say that the direction of evolution is bad. One can read the entire Space Trilogy, I think, as arguing that attempts to draw ethics from any kind of direction of evolution fail, since each of the three books shows a villain justifying abhorrent actions by a different form of this maneuver.

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