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Disagreement, Democracy, and the Goals of Science: Is a Normative Philosophy of Science Possible, If Ethical Inquiry Is Not?

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  22 September 2011

Arnon Keren*
University of Haifa


W.V.Quine and Philip Kitcher have both developed naturalistic approaches to the philosophy of science which are partially based on a skeptical view about the possibility of rational inquiry into certain questions of value. Nonetheless, both Quine and Kitcher do not wish to give up on the normative dimension of the philosophy of science. I argue that Kitcher's recent argument against the specification of the goal of science in terms of truth raises a problem for Quine's account of the normative dimensions of the discipline. However Kitcher's alternative suggestion, that the goal of science is to be specified in terms of an ideal democratic procedure, does not escape this problem, given Kitcher's own limited skepticism about rational inquiry into certain questions of value.

Research Article
Copyright © The Royal Institute of Philosophy 2011

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1 Quine, W.V., ‘Epistemology Naturalized’, in Quine, W.V., Ontological Relativity and Other Essays (New York: Columbia University Press, 1969), 6990Google Scholar.

2 Kitcher, Philip, Science, Truth, and Democracy (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001CrossRefGoogle Scholar).

3 Op. cit. note 1, 82.

4 See, e.g. Quine, W.V. and Ullian, J. S., The Web of Belief, 2nd ed. (New York: Random House, 1978), 6682Google Scholar, 135. For a somewhat similar point to the one made above, see e.g. White, MortonEthics, Normative, Epistemology, Normative, and Holism’, Quine's, in Hahn, L. E. and Schilpp, P. A. (eds) The Philosophy of W.V. Quine (La Salle: Open Court, 1986), 656–61Google Scholar.

5 Quine, W.V. ‘On the Nature of Moral Values’, in Quine, W.V.Theories and Things (Cambridge:Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1981), 5566Google Scholar.

6 For an argument against Quine's account of naturalized epistemology, which rests on the assumption that a key element of this account is the elimination of the normative aspect of epistemology, see Jaegwon Kim, ‘What is “Naturalized Epistemology”?' in Tomberlin, James. E. (ed.) Philosophical Perspectives, 2 (Atascadero, CA: Ridgeview Publishing Company, 1988), 381405Google Scholar. Quine rejects this interpretative assumption in Quine, W.V., ‘Reply to Morton White’, in Hahn, L. E. and Schilpp, P. A. (eds), The Philosophy of W.V. Quine (La Salle: Open Court, 1986), 663665Google Scholar.

7 Op. cit. note 5, 64.

8 Op. cit. note 5, 64.

9 Op. cit. note 6, 664–665.

10 See, e.g. van Frassen, Bas C., The Empirical Stance (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002), 7781Google Scholar and White, op. cit. note 4, for two examples of objections to the two Quinean claims. There are of course numerous others. In any case, here I will not examine these Quinean claims, and will take them, for the sake of the current discussion, as given.

11 While Kitcher maintains that science can attain significant truths, one strand of his argument does rest on a claim about the non-attainability of a certain specification of the goal of science in terms of truth. Kitcher maintains, that an influential conception of the goal of science must be rejected, because that goal cannot be had: the goal of obtaining a single unified store of truths, which would allow us to explain all other truths. See op. cit. note 2, 69–75.

12 Op. cit. note 2, 65.

13 There are other elements in Quine's philosophy, namely, his thesis of indeterminacy of translation, that may be used to cast doubt on the legitimacy of the suggested terms of agreed acceptance of values and goals: attribution of mutual acceptance of values and goals may require a claim about the synonymy of utterances expressing the accepted values and goals in various agents' idiolects; but Quine famously argued that there are no facts of the matter with regards to some synonymy claims (Quine, W. V., Word and Object (Cambridge: The M.I.T Press, 1960), 2679)Google Scholar. I will not be able to touch here upon these implications of Quine's discussion of radical translation, and will presume, for the sake of this discussion that the terms of acceptance of values and goals are unproblematic.

14 I will not suggest a full translation of Kitcher's arguments into the language of agreed acceptance among members of HLC; I trust that such an exercise can be done, and will leave it unfinished here.

15 Op. cit. note 2, 63–76, 80–2.

16 Given the results of the second thread of Kitcher's objection, this variance in judgment of epistemic significance will then be a problem that scientific institutions would need to address. The agenda of science, as a communal enterprise, cannot respond in an optimal way to the significance judgments of all member of society. In light of the competing significance-claims of different individuals, the question is, how are we to allocate social resources to different programs of inquiry?

17 Of the various types of argument he considers, that which seems to be the best candidate for a possible argument for the defense is one that relies on an objectivist conception of what is valuable, in whose list of objectively valuable goals appear only goals to which knowledge and scientific inquiry are instrumental. Kitcher's objection to this view amounts to showing that it is doubtful that those who hold such a conception will be able to convince others that their list is the true list of objectively valuable ‘items’.

18 Op. cit. note 5, 89.

19 One reason for this variance, which was mentioned earlier, is that along with valuable significant truths, scientific inquiry engenders both benefits and harms, which differently affect different members of the community.

20 Op. cit. note 5, 65.

21 Op. cit. note 2, 114–116. As I will claim later, a more plausible way to interpret Kitcher is based on Rawlsian ideas, whose fit with the Quinean framework is only partial. Kitcher's reasons for skepticism about the possibility of value inquiry into questions regarding the right way of integrating the interests of different individuals are based first on his objection to suggested ways of divorcing what is good for a person from a person own reflective preferences. In particular, the most promising attempt to do this is through an essentialist appeal to particular kinds of ends, which are constitutive of human nature, and in terms of which the human good is to be defined. But such an appeal must either be caught in circularity, or define the human good in terms that would be completely unacceptable (Op. cit. note 2, 162–6). If however we admit to the impossibility of divorcing one's well-being from one's preferences, then we must face a problem, which may seem unsurpassable: that of interpersonal comparison of well-being.

22 This may of course suggest, that the question whether the goal of science is to be specified by an idealized democratic procedure is best decided by the democratic basic institutions of society. This I do not wish to dispute; I will discuss the import of this suggestion later.

23 For the original comparison of virtues of theories with those of social institutions, see Rawls, John, A Theory of Justice (New York: Oxford University Press, 1971), 3Google Scholar.

24 See, e.g. Rawls, John, ‘The Idea of Public Reason Revisited’, in J. Rawls, The Law of the Peoples: With The Idea of Public Reason Revisited (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001Google Scholar).

25 Op. cit. note 2, 211. Rawls' influence on Kitcher is evident in Kitcher's formulation of the ideal goal for science, ‘well ordered science’ (for explicit references to such influence, see op. cit. note 2, 117–135, 209, 211, 213). It should be noted however, that in formulating his ideal, Kitcher does not require that the hypothetical parties exclude from consideration their own moral conceptions, if these are unacceptable to others; that is, the hypothetical procedure does not require that the hypothetical parties act in accordance with what they believe that others would be able to accept as fair; but that their decision will conform with what they themselves take to be fair (op. cit. note 2, 119; compare with Rawls, op. cit. note 24, 136–137). Thus the question, to what extent Kitcher's ideal can be interpreted as following Rawls' idea of public reason, is one that requires further consideration.

26 It is partially for this reason that Rawls states that the idea of public reason belongs to a conception of a well-ordered society. It is within such an ideal society that this idea may be accepted by all (op. cit. note 24, 131). For a rejection of Rawls' reliance on the idea of public reason from within a liberal morality, see Raz, JosephThe Morality of Freedom (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1986), 127130Google Scholar.

27 Thanks to Jonathan E. Adler, John Collins, Christopher Peacocke, Joseph Raz, and Saul Smilansky for reading and commenting on previous versions of this paper. And many special thanks to Philip Kitcher for invaluable conversations, suggestions and comments.