Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Falsifiability Is Overrated

Judith Lichtenberg, a philosophy professor at Georgetown, has a piece over NYTimes.coma that asks "Is Pure Altruism Possible?" The core point is whether people do good deeds for the sake of doing good or out of their own self-interest to get a sense of satisfaction from their good deeds.

She writes:
The doctor who gives up a comfortable life to care for AIDS patients in a remote place does what she wants to do, and therefore gets satisfaction from what only appears to be self-sacrifice. So, it seems, altruism is simply self-interest of a subtle kind.

This makes sense to FLG, but then again he majored in economics. She then attacks this theory thusly:
The impossibility of disproving egoism may sound like a virtue of the theory, but, as philosophers of science know, it’s really a fatal drawback. A theory that purports to tell us something about the world, as egoism does, should be falsifiable. Not false, of course, but capable of being tested and thus proved false. If every state of affairs is compatible with egoism, then egoism doesn’t tell us anything distinctive about how things are.

FLG has heard this many times. A theory is only good if it's falsifiable. "Poppycock," says FLG. That's true if you are talking about the material world. We can, to paraphrase Bacon, reveal the secrets of nature under vexations, but it's more difficult to do that with human behavior. Sure, we can vex people, but not in the same way as physical phenomena. The reasons for why we do anything are not easily separated and examined. Since we need to make broad assumptions for the purposes of policy, then we might as well make it on the assumption that people do what's in their interest, with interest rather broadly defined.

And ultimately it seems Prof. Lichtenberg has nothing else to offer us.  It boils down to what appears to be a deep-seated desire on her part to live in a world where pure altruism exists:
People who act in these ways believe that they ought to help others, but they also want to help, because doing so affirms who they are and want to be and the kind of world they want to exist. As Prof. Neera Badhwar has argued, their identity is tied up with their values, thus tying self-interest and altruism together. The correlation between doing good and feeling good is not inevitable— inevitability lands us again with that empty, unfalsifiable egoism — but it is more than incidental.

Unsurprisingly, FLG finds the best way to understand this entire concept is through Plato. We live in the world of becoming, not being. Therefore, pure altruism doesn't exist, only imperfect representations of the Form of Altruism, which is enough for FLG.


Andrew Stevens said...

Loved the NYTimes.coma joke.

It's not like her theory is any more falsifiable. How would I go about falsifying whether Mother Teresa was really altruistic or not? What possible experiment could I perform to demonstrate that she wasn't?

My argument (such as it is) against the egoism theory is simply that to the extent that it's true, it's just not that interesting. And if you make it say something interesting (everybody always knows that they're only acting in their own self-interest, apparent altruism is actually cynical calculation), it's pretty obviously false.

But, yes, we're running up against a close cousin of positivism with all this falsifiability stuff. The claim that "a theory that purports to tell us something about the world should be falsifiable" itself purports to tell us something about the world and is not falsifiable, except to the extent that it is self-contradictory and therefore not just falsifiable but false. Falsifiability is fine if it's used as a boundary for what is science and what is not science; it can't be fine to set a boundary for all knowledge whatsoever.

FLG said...

I toyed with the idea of mentioning this in my post, but I don't think it's a question of whether a theory is interesting or falsifiable, but how useful it is.

The assumption that people are always self-interested has proven itself pretty useful, even if it's ultimately not terribly interesting.

But then that's talking about practicality and applicability. If we want to talk about knowledge for knowledge's sake, then it's, well, less useful.

Andrew Stevens said...

Oh, you're just talking about the assumption of Homo economicus as it's used in economics. I don't think she was actually criticizing that use (though she might do, for all I know). That assumption is more defensible because most models based on it don't actually need the assumption to be as strong as "everybody always acts in their own self-interest at all times."

I think she was mostly criticizing evolutionists and certain moral philosophers and mostly I agree with her. If the falsifiability bit had been carefully circumscribed just to point out to Dawkins (and others) that they are no longer doing science when they make such speculations and have therefore lost their authority (and this may well have been what she meant to say, but was limited by space), I would be in full agreement.

FLG said...

"Oh, you're just talking about the assumption of Homo economicus as it's used in economics."

I didn't meant to imply that. For all practical purposes, assuming self-interest is a good rule of thumb if you need to make a policy choice.

I guess I'll put it like this:
The attack that something isn't falsifiable doesn't hold much weight with me insofar as things that exist in the human mind are concerned.

Andrew Stevens said...

Oh, by the way, we're going to have to discuss your Platonic realism some day. I want to convince you of Aristotelian realism (also called moderate realism or immanent realism). It's the view that universals exist, but they only inhere in particulars - there is no reason to believe in a free-floating Platonic realm where ideal universals exist. I am moderately convinced that it solves all the problems that Platonic realism solves, but doesn't come with an excess of ontological baggage. We still get to believe in moral values, the laws of mathematics, the laws of physics, and all that jazz which are either highly problematic or impossible under nominalism, but the metaphysics is less ethereal and more concrete. The most prominent modern defender of the view is probably David M. Armstrong, an Australian philosopher who wrote Universals and Scientific Realism and Universals: An Opinionated Introduction plus What is a Law of Nature?. (Armstrong, despite his metaphysics, is mostly a materialist and would likely not extend his theory to moral values as I do, believing that they inhere in states of affairs. On this and many other things, we disagree, but his work on universals is very well thought out.)

FLG said...


I've always summed up Aristotle thusly:
Look, Plato, your Forms and everything are nice, but we can't see them. What we can see is Nature. There exists teleologies in Nature that point toward something, you call it the Good and that's nice, but all we can do is infer from Nature and let's leave it at that. We simply cannot prove your theory.

Would you say that is what you want to convince me of?

Andrew Stevens said...

Somewhat. Aristotle's view is (always assuming that I'm interpreting him correctly, which is always a fraught matter), yes, Plato, you're right that universals exist. We can see greenness and all of that so I'm with you on the existence of universals, but there is no need to speculate on where these universals exist since they clearly exist in the things themselves and assuming that they also exist perfectly in an abstract realm is an unnecessary assumption since we can still do everything you want to do without taking that step.

I believe I am breaking from Aristotle here, but I would add: So, good still exists, but it exists in good states of affairs. We don't need an abstract Form of Good to believe in goodness. Laws of nature (and I would add mathematics and morality) are also universals (relations), but also exist only in their instantiations.

On the other hand, this probably isn't worth arguing about. Platonic realists are quite possibly correct and perhaps it is only the ex-materialist in me that is too eager to eliminate excess ontological baggage. So long as you're not a nominalist, I should probably rest content.

I'm with you on falsification. It's a useful demarcation for science, but there is more than just science.

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