Having recently commented here on the deaths of pop icons Bowie and Prince, or rather the public reaction to them, it would be remiss of me not to note the passing of another great, in March of this year. I remember visiting a student flat in 1997, shortly after the death of Princess Diana, and the residents had cut out the full page newspaper headline ‘the world mourns’ and beneath it pasted the small, half column obituary of a relatively obscure academic who had died at the same time (an academic whose name I have since long forgotten, so rather proving their ironic point).
And so, in the spirit of student idealism, let me pay small tribute to the intellectual giant Hilary Putnam, to my mind one of the most important philosophers of the last century: a thinker whose expertise in mathematics and deep knowledge of science were matched by the sort of restless curiosity and genuine humility that is often referenced but rarely seen. Never afraid to change his mind in public, he always gave the impression of being motivated more by the appeal of the puzzle than trajectory of his career. Putnam played a crucial role in the revival of the American pragmatist tradition, an appealing middle ground between the hopeless extremes of scepticism and foundationalism.
While Putnam’s contribution to modern thought is too broad to encapsulate in a brief remark, I’ll highlight just one idea that seems to me to be tremendously important. Putnam argued in his book The Collapse of the Fact Value Dichotomy, that the logical positivists’ public legacy was a new sense that while science dealt in cold hard facts, areas such as aesthetics or ethics were ultimately subjective, to the point that there was no rational discussion to be had about them, and rather one should simply accept that different people have different views and that’s all there is to it. In other words, it became part of the general western view that, while one could reason carefully about elements of the physical world, the moral sphere was to be approached rather as a matter of personal intuition and taste. This rather played into the hands of the capitalist narrative, whereby collective values are subsumed by the individual’s ambitions, and any attempt by the state to interfere in matters of personal value is to be treated with suspicion.
Putnam pointed out both the dangers in this view, and also the shakiness of its intellectual foundations. Putnam never argued that there weren’t differences between facts and values, indeed he said there are many, but he was at pains to point out these did not amount to the subjective/objective paradigm so often expressed. A relatively easy way to summarise this is to consider the way Putnam represented scientific endeavour. While it is quite reasonable to think of science producing models of the physical world, he was at pains to point out both the fallible nature of these models – they represent, at any given point in time, our best guess on the matter, and are subject to future revision – and the dependence upon theoretical frameworks (and hence values) when it comes to assessing what counts as ‘best’.
So, consider our model of the solar system, which seems as close to a cold hard fact as you are likely to get. If we think about how this particular model established itself as the best way of thinking about the relationship between planets, moon and sun, we see that certain values (simplicity, consistency, coherence, elegance, predictive power etc) all played important roles in the collective decisions that have seen the model first become accepted, and then refined. There are very good reasons for all of these values, it is difficult to see why anyone would want to embrace descriptions of the physical world that were not usefully predictive, or allowed unnecessary levels of whimsical complexity. Accepting that values underpin scientific judgements does not relegate science to the mire of subjectivity, it simply cautions us to be careful in our definitions of scientific facts. Scientific facts are, in a sense, defined relative to the collective values embraced by the scientific community. This notion of knowledge being collectively defined is central to the pragmatist argument. It is also important to note that this does not suggest science is not describing an actual world, and is purely a social construction. Rather, the conventions of science allow it to be tested against that world, and so the theories are constantly interacting with external constraints.
This view of science allows us to be more sensitive to the way value systems are in play, and makes more comprehensible some of the more interesting disagreements in modern science. For example many string theorists are seduced by its mathematical elegance. Others argue, that in the absence of confirming or refuting data, the elegance in itself should not impress us at all. The relative values of elegance and predictive power are hence in play. Similarly, the search for a grand theory of everything is, in part, predicated upon the prior assumption that reality will be best be modelled by a maximally simple and coherent structure, whereas others dismiss this as a wild goose chase, prompted by an undue attachment to the hope that the real world will indeed conform to the values the observers bring to the table. Equally, the very different reaction to quantum conundrums: from the ‘shut up and calculate’ brigade, who are quite satisfied by the predictive capacity, to those endlessly exercised by our inability to produce the coherent background model.
So, we have here a model where science is objective, but where this objectivity flows from the collective values of the community of inquiry. As is clear, then, the parallel with ethical enquiry can be fruitfully explored. A community with a collective sense of goals can meaningfully, and in some sense objectively, construct ethical systems that are true relative to those values. That we can not ground these starting values with any compelling certainty, in either the cases of science or ethics, is to the pragmatist relatively unimportant. That’s just the way it is, they might shrug, and our job is to deal with these limitations, through a process of collective negotiation and exploration. What’s more, we can still make meaningful progress in creating for ourselves moral and scientific frameworks that meet our social goals of collective flourishing. In this Putnam leaves us with a most optimistic legacy.