Thursday, 21 November 2013

What Borgen reveals to me about the philosophy of science

I watched episode two of the third series of Borgen after spending some time thinking about Viviana Zelizer's Economic Lives and the essays in Paul Zak's Moral Markets. This is all in the context of my general project to see if Pragmatic Philosophy has anything to offer with regard to mitigating financial crises.

 The link between Borgen/Zelizer and Zak are the law and race. The Borgen episode was entitled "The land is built on law" and has as a sub-theme the (fictional) Danish government’s attitudes to race. Zelizer writes about how culture drives economics and is related to aspects of Institutional Economics, particularly as put forward by John R Commons, that argue legal structures have a profound effect on economic activity.

 As a graduate in physics from Imperial College I have been trained to be dubious of the intellectual worth of any other discipline from any other institution. For a long time I took the view that "Lawyers start with a case and then gather the evidence, physicists start with the evidence and then build a case", i.e. lawyers are intellectual charlatans and it is an affront to Natural Law that they should, generally, wield more authority than physicists. This, for me, is essentially the same case as put forward by Britain's favourite physicist, Brian Cox, last December. I am an apostate.

What strikes me these days are the historic links between jurisprudence and science. Francis Bacon and Leibnitz were trained lawyers, while as many of the other giants that executed the scientific revolution were theologians or financiers. Scientific vocabulary borrows many legal terms, "proof", "evidence", judgement by "peers" and of particular interest to me, "probability". Mathematicians such as Bernoulli, Condorcet and Poisson, not to mention al-Khwarizmi, all placed legal issues at the centre of their research.

 Zak has put together a series of essays on the biological origins of morals, that is there are certain ethical concepts that are genetically wired into us. I am not a big fan of these biologically inspired arguments, they are a bit too deterministic for me, but I am enjoying the scholarship of the essays.

 What is often in my mind is the Pragmatic concern with the veracity of what physical scientists take to be "Natural Law".. Brian Cox responded to my criticism of his New Statesman article with the tweet:
Recently I read Richard Bernstein's The Pragmatic Turn and learnt about Alain Locke, an African-American philosopher who graduated from Harvard in 1910 when it was under the influence of William James. Locke was (one of the first) people to deny that race was a biological feature, rather it was cultural. Apparently this is the contemporary conventional view: an African American and a Somalian might be classed together racially, but there is a significant chance that the African-American is closer genetically to his white neighbours. Recently there was a lot of amusement when a white supremacist found out he was 14% "black".

Locke' s attitude to race brings to my mind the view, attributed to Stephen Jay Gould, that there is no such ting, biologically, as a fish. The basis of this statement is that genetically, "a salmon is more related to a camel than a hagfish". Gould was a strident opponent of "sociobiology", the view that genes drive human behaviour, and opposed the reductionist views of Richard Dawkins and Steven Pinker.

 My conclusion? I don't think I'm going to be convinced by Zak's collection of essays on the biological origins of ethics. Secondly, something that is apparently as "natural" as the existence of the biological class "fish"; my five year old son would probably group a salmon and hagfish separately from a camel, is actually a very slippery notion. In the end, medieval Danes and contemporary sociologists are probably right: "The land is built on law" or knowledge is built on culture, not "truth" or Nature.

1 comment:

  1. You might want to take a look at Hilary Putnam's books, e.g., Realism with a Human Face, for arguments that knowledge is built on culture, truth, and nature.