Open Thread: December 2011

There is an unfortunate equivocation in the word theory (compare "Theory of Evolution" to "Just War Theory"). Popper says that theory can only be called scientific if it is falsifiable. Using that conceptual terminology, Freudian theory is pseudoscience, not a scientific theory. But many things that the vernacular calls theories are not falsifiable. (What would it mean to falsify utilitarian theory?)

Does that mean that we can't talk about moral theories? What word should we use instead? Because it seems like talking about moral th... (read more)

And just wait until you get to "critical theory". I fear the word "theory" in English is indeed stretched in a continuous fog from the hardest of physics to the foggiest of spurious postmodernist notions, with little in the way of joins to carve it at. Thus, cross-domain equivocation will be with us for a while yet.

0Bugmaster8yI personally would prefer to use the word "theory" to mean "a scientific theory that is, by definition, falsifiable". But it's not a strong preference; I merely think that it helps reduce confusion. As long as we make sure to define what you mean by the word ahead of time, we can use the word "theory" in the vernacular sense, as well. Regarding moral theories, I have to admit that my understanding of them is somewhat shaky. Still, if moral theories are completely unfalsifiable, then how do we compare them to discover which is better ? And if we can't determine which moral theories are better than others, what's the point in talking about them at all ? I said earlier that Utilitarianism is more like an algorithm than like a scientific theory; the reason I said that is because Utilitarianism doesn't tell you how to obtain the utility function. However, we can still probably say that, given a utility function, Utilitarianism is better than something like Divine Command -- or can we ? If we can, then we are implicitly looking at the results of the application of both of these theories throughout history, and evaluating them according to some criteria, which looks a lot like falsifiability. If we cannot, then what are those moral theories for ?

Open Thread: December 2011

by Tripitaka 1 min read1st Dec 201181 comments


If it's worth saying, but not worth its own post (even in Discussion), then it goes here.

If continuing the discussion becomes impractical, that means you win at open threads; a celebratory top-level post on the topic is traditional.