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Saturday, October 06, 2012

Positivism Makes for Muddles

Razib Khan knows that there is something wrong with the idea that beauty is "purely subjective." But, entranced by positivism, he can only place this non-subjective aspect in biology and evolution. Although he makes a passing mention of the Greeks, he seems to have given little thought to Plato's conception of beauty.

The only small problem with his attempt to rescue some objectivity for beauty along biological lines is that it fails utterly. Biology can indicate to us fitness, but not objective truth. It is easy to come up with scores and scores of cases where believing a falsehood is more adaptive than admitting the truth, or where it is simply not important. A trivial case: Let's imagine that people from all cultures see the soldier on the right in the linked illusion as tallest. That certainly would not mean that objectively he is the tallest!

In fact, Khan's evidence could easily be trumpeted by someone who believes beauty is an illusion! "See," he might say, "what all of this shows is that 'beauty' is just a trick played on us by evolution to make us seek out healthy, fertile mates. All Khan has shown is that beauty, whether objective or not, is judged with certain cross-cultural similarities.

5 comments:

  1. Stop calling nominalism positivism

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    Replies
    1. Since I never call nominalism positivism, it will be easy for me to stop.

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    2. He's defining beauty in terms of what people find beautiful. Determining such factors is a scientific question, and the research he cites offers provocative, counterintuitive results that nonetheless appear to be true.

      This adds much more to our scientific knowledge than armchairing "better" definitions of "true" beauty. That isn't positivist for me to say that. That is methodologically nominalist.

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  2. "Determining such factors is a scientific question..."

    OK. That still says NOTHING about whether beauty is subjective versus objective.

    "This adds much more to our scientific knowledge than armchairing "better" definitions of "true" beauty."

    But adds NOTHING to our knowledge of whether beauty is objective or subjective.

    "That isn't positivist for me to say that. That is methodologically nominalist."

    I'd say your nominalism has led you to only consider positive evidence. SO your nominalism has led you to positivism, in this case.

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  3. A trivial case: Let's imagine that people from all cultures see the soldier on the right in the linked illusion as tallest. That certainly would not mean that objectively he is the tallest!

    Not that it takes from your central point, but: if you saw such an image in real life (rather than a 2-D image), you *would* be objectively correct to say that the soldier on the right is the tallest, because that is the real-world scene that would produce that sort of image on your retina -- and why your cognitive system interprets it that way.

    An interesting question for me is why we are intrigued at being told "squares A and B are the same color in this image, but not by being told that the same image "has no squares", which is true in the same sense!

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