Values, science, and contingency

I’ve been commenting on a thread over at Thinking Christian about Sean Carroll’s Discovery piece on why science and religion are incompatible. It’s an odd kind of discussion: the resident Christians excoriate Carroll, and in the same breath they assert that Christianity is always, authoritatively correct, which seems to rule out science as a way of answering questions. Anyway, I made a few comments about values being contingent, like language, rather than extra-human absolute truths, and a bunch of people piled on. I wrote:

On values: try substituting, mutatis mutandis the word “language” for “values”. Then your paragraph reads in part:
That we speak a certain language is (let us say) a physical state within the brain. Science can then look into its genesis and perhaps tell a plausible story about how it came to be. But the languages themselves are not physical states

But the last sentence doesn’t follow. In fact, languages are precisely physical states: patterns of utterance and interpretation replicated (with variations) in millions of brains, and transferred from brains to brains by socialization and education. Some have speculated that there are a set of “hardware” mechanisms which facilitate (and, presumably, constrain this process, but that’s relatively unimportant.
Nobody argues about which the “correct language” is. (Well, no sane persons.) We can’t say whether French or English is more correct. We can debate the origins of each, and the relative effectiveness of each in expressing certain things. And we would certainly note the existence of deep commonalities between different languages.
Well, values are languages. They are languages that we use to talk about patterns of behaviour that we collectively approve or disapprove of. Like language, values are contingent, in space and time. Just as it would be difficult to speak with an Elizabethan Englishman, because of the evolution of language, it would be difficult to communicate about values with an Elizabethan Christian, for who slavery, burning heretics at the stake, and treating schizophrenia with exorcism were perfectly Christian values.
Your values are patterns in your brain which influence your response to certain stimuli. Nothing magical, supernatural, or un-scientific about them. Values are not extra-human things that tell us the way things ought to be: they are linguistic expressions that we use to tell each other how we imagine things ought to be.

Most of the comments were silly, but there was one by Franklin Mason that I responded to at some length. After I’d written it, I decided that I liked it so much that I would replay it over here:

So, I take it that you think it impossible for anyone to be incorrect in the values they hold.

Incorrect according to whom? Flip back to the language analogy, and remember “My Fair Lady”. To be an accepted member of a social group is, in part, to use the language of that group. In school children learn what is, and is not, “correct” spelling, grammar, and usage. Same with values.

Second point: science itself is a value-driven endeavor. It values truth above all else. Moreover, in the construction of scientific theory, you’ll find many values called open: value is placed in simplicity, explanatory power, predictive power, etc.

Yup. Science is a human endeavor, and as such we use the language of values to express many aspects of it.

Lots of value is non-moral in nature. The values I’ve described above are epistemological in nature, but they are values nonetheless; and like all values, they don’t simply describe how things have gone, rather they describe how things ought to go.

Let’s correct your drift here. We use the language of values to describe how we think things ought to go. Values (and language) are not free-floating absolutes; they are aspects of human thought and communication.

Thus, if all value is contingent and culture-relative (as you seem to wish to say), so too is science. On your view, science, just like morality, would come to be one of a plethora of ways in which one might come to the world, with no objective reason to prefer one over the other.

You know, people seem to think that as soon as something is described as “contingent”, all bets are off: that it could be not just different, but anything at all. But “contingent” means “dependent”, and things like language and culture – and science – are strongly constrained by the facts that they depend on. Case in point: our eyes evolved to be sensitive to particular wavelengths of light and particular types of visual stimuli: they’re good at detecting vertically symmetrical patterns, not so good at horizontal or rotational patterns. There are good adaptive reasons for this (e.g. threat detection), but it’s not the only kind of vision, as a quick trawl through the evo-devo literature will explain. It’s contingent: it could have been different. We could have evolved as nocturnal creatures, in which case we might have large eyes like Tarsiers with increased sensitivity to infra-red.
Now the point about this is that while the form of our vision is contingent, it’s not random. We didn’t get to choose our vision. We could tweak it a bit (with glasses), but we couldn’t rewire it. (More on that carefully-chosen verb form later.) And the same is true of things like language and values – and science.
Our language and values are contingent on our biology. If we had evolved with enhanced infra-red vision, we would be able to directly sense many more physiological phenomena – we might be able to “see” certain kinds of emotions and pains. Our languages would reflect this. Or if, as nocturnal creatures, we had evolved an enhanced sense of smell, we might rely on olfactory evidence and prefer it over visual. Now think about all of the ways that vision, and metaphorical uses of “see” and “perceive” crop up in your language – and, yes, in your values. “Seeing is believing”. How about “smelling is believing”?
And of course you use the “objective” word, which suggests that you hold true to the obsolete dichotomy that everything is either objective or subjective: absolute, or personal. Sorry: those words don’t really mean very much. They are just another piece of the language of values: ways that we communicate about social preferences.

I take it that most scientists reject this. The values that science exemplifies are quite objectively good, they would say; and if you disagreed, they’d think you were just flat wrong.

Scientists are human; scientists use human language to communicate about science; when that communication involves “how” and “why”, scientists use those aspects of language which evolved to talk about such things, which is the language of values.
No scientist would say that there are no values. They would (mostly) say that they aren’t what you seem to think they are. Scientists have arrived at the “rules” and “values” of science because they work: they lead to repeatable results, and minimize the likelihood of fraud and deception (especially self-deception!).
I said earlier that I would comment on the “we couldn’t rewire our vision” thing. Well, of course we are now getting close to the point where we can, and things are going to get quite interesting. Will our values change as we change? They always have in the past.
We are, understandably, parochial creatures. We pay lots of attention to the time and space around us: the recent past (say, the last couple of thousand years, the next century), and the planet which we inhabit. These preferences are, of course, contingent: contingent on our physical size, our senses, our environment, our natural (i.e. evolved) life span, and historical factors like the invention of writing and social institutions. Humans had a long, rich history stretching over hundreds of thousands of years before writing emerged, but of course we have almost no record of their lives, their societies, their gods, and their values. From this point of view, the last two thousand years is just an historical blip. And if we take an even longer look, we’ll realize that this whole human thing is just a contingent blip; when the next cosmic collision wipes out 90% of life on the planet, as has happened many times in the past, what survives and flourishes isn’t going to be human. But that’s OK.