Procedural Definitions

In Enlightenment Europe, it was believed that in Ancient Sparta, part of the educational system was for young boys to steal things from the adults in their community. Their thinking was that the thinking was that, by training the boys to sneak around, they were aiding them in their military training, which was of tantamount importance to Spartan culture.

Is it theft for the boys to do that?

It doesn’t particularly feel like it ought to be understood as theft to me — the society that they’re in sanctions it, and presumably the objects taken that way could presumably be returned.  Though, some part of me still slightly feels like it is theft.

In Social Studies 10 today, the professor suggested a method of resolving such confusion. Namely, one should view the question of whether or not something is “theft” as simply being the question of whether or not a particular well-defined process labels it as “theft”. This view argues that, in the same way that “illegal” means “judged-by-the-law-as-illegal”, “wrong” means “judged-by-X-as-wrong”, and the main difference is just that when you’re part of the process that is doing the labeling, the label feels true rather than just trivial.

I think that there’s some truth to that, and  that it’s definitely interesting to think about, but I think it’s a little unnecessarily relativistic, and that most of the interestingness/use of this thought can come through in a way that still allows for correctness in ways that I want.

Sociology of Science and History of Science has bumped into similar issues. In particular, given that scientists are responsible for making theories and that they are humans in a particular social institution, why should we think that scientists are correct in a more universal way than are practitioners of other subjects, who also make claims and function within a particular social institution. Why do we feel that politicians or authors are relative, while scientists are not?

One might say that it’s because scientists make falsifiable predictions, but leaving it at is incomplete in the light of the history of science. There are many examples of scientific controversies in which a particular prediction is made, and scientists disagree as to whether or not the experimental results falsify or support a particular theory. Sure, the theory may be falsifiable, but any particular falsification attempt is open to interpretation. More worryingly, scientists are themselves the ones who determine the criteria by which falsification is or isn’t achieved.

And yet, I think that there’s still a fairly real sense in which Science is objective.

The resolution somewhat stems from the fact that most scientific arguments in fact center around whether or not an instrument works, or whether or not an experiment is valid, rather than being about what the instrument was observed to have said. If we take the predictions to be perfectly concrete and rather than saying for instance “an electron will pass through this slit”, say “we will observe dots on this plate”, then most of the arguments are resolved.

If we talk about what the measurement instruments do, rather than what happens in the world, we can dodge the social nature objections somewhat. What the instrument does is objective, and instead, its relation to the theory is contentious and somewhat subject to “social” influences.

Every test of a theory by an instrument implicitly includes the hypothesis that the instrument measures the thing that is thought to be relevant to the theory, and when you modify the theories as such, they all become falsifiable. If a scientist wishes to claim that their theory X was true even though the experiment B failed, they are in effect arguing that they are right about X, but that they were wrong about B.

In the physical sciences, this is a pretty okay position to be in, since the theories have so much influence over the instrumentation. As you build different instruments according to your theories, you can check your theory for inconsistency by using a variety of instruments, and then comparing their measurements to your predictions about what they would claim to have measured. If they are inconsistent, then your theory is effectively disproven.

That doesn’t sound particularly powerful as a method, but it gets you surprisingly far by the virtue of the fact that assembling a body of mutually consistent scientific instruments is very hard, and often this is all you need for a disproof.

For instance, in the 18th century there was an argument over how to build thermometers. The problem was that most thermometry assumed the linear expansion of some material with respect to increases in temperature, but it was difficult to know that something expanded linearly with respect to temperature when you didn’t have a thermometer yet that could tell you what temperature it was.

As is very nicely explained in “Inventing Temperature”, the problem was still tractable though — a frenchman built a ton of different kinds of thermometer of different shapes and sizes, then checked their temperature readings against each other across a variety of ranges. It turned out that only the air thermometers actually agreed with each other, and so the rest were abandoned.

If your theory about the instrument is correct, then it ought to behave as you expect. If you build a variety of instruments all differing in theoretically irrelevant ways, you can determine that a theory is experimentally consistent based on whether or not the things which were theoretically irrelevant turn out to in fact be theoretically irrelevant.

In both Political Philosophy and History of Science then, it turns out to be a useful trick to view “X” as the “The Procedure that we use to determine X says X”.

Originally this post was called “Cybernetic Government” because I wanted to emphasize how the professor only used the trick for definitions, and not for checking results. A government or society can define some X, but if there are other ways to look at X that within the bounds prescribed by the society should give the same result but which don’t, then it could be called “wrong”.

Suck it relativism.

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