On 28 Jan 2004 Bruno Marchal wrote:

It is perhaps not as easy to get the H2O boiling point right, but you did not convince me of any fundamental impossibility of scientific ethic. Now, I believe that if there is any scientific ethic
then it cannot be normative and cannot give moral injunctions. It will only give theories, which can be applied to solve problems like "if you agree with this and that principle of ethic then you should agree with such and such other principles". You tell me that there will be too much theories. But I can imagine that some will win, or that some will be deduced from other more basic principles.

Actually, that's very well put: "if you agree with this and that principle, you should agree with such and such other principles". It covers everything from Euclidian geometry to physics and chemistry to ethics and aesthetics. I still believe there is at least a quantitative difference between the former and the latter, however. If I return to my example of alien civilizations, I would be surprised if an alien textbook of maths, physics or chemistry did not contain many items recognisable to humans when appropriately translated, and in fact this very expectation has been used by SETI - eg. looking for radio transmissions containing a sequence of prime numbers. On the other hand, I would be surprised if alien art or ethics were not very different to what we know as humans, as there are large differences even between human cultures, not to mention the differences between various terrestrial species. Borrowing a phrase from genetics, scientific statements are "highly conserved" between cultures, ethical and aesthetic statements are "moderately conserved", while nonsensical statements merge into the background noise. This is a quantitative difference, but I still think there is a qualitative difference which I have not managed to convey properly. Take these two statements:
(a) Dulce et decorum est/ Pro patria mori (Wilfred Owen)
(b) He died in the trenches during WW I from chlorine gas poisoning
The former conveys feelings, values, wishes, while the latter conveys facts. The former is not true or false in the same way as the latter statement is. This has always seemed obvious to me and it has been stated in one form or another by philosophers of an empiricist bent since David Hume. Does anyone subscribing to this list really disagree that (a) and (b) are different at some fundamental level?

Stathis Papaioannou
Melbourne, Australia

E-mail just got a whole lot better. New ninemsn Premium. Click here http://ninemsn.com.au/premium/landing.asp

Reply via email to