Is-Ought, and the Ship of Theseus
In a previous post, I claimed to have a solution to the Ship of Theseus thought exercise.
The solution is perspective. When you ask whether something is different or the same, the answer is that it depends on where you’re sitting and how you see the world.
If you’re one of the planks on the ship, or someone who cleans the ship every day, the ship is probably not the same. But if you’re someone who gets a promotion every time the ship shows up, it is still the same ship to you.
I’m reading The Big Picture by Sean Carroll right now, and in it he introduces a concept called Poetic Naturalism, which is the idea that there are multiple valid ways of describing something—again—depending on who’s doing the describing—and depending on what’s useful within their context.
An example of this that I’ve used before is the concept of an airplane wing. If you’re talking about the layer of subatomic particles, or chemistry, there is no wing. It’s just atoms and quarks and such. But if you’re an airplane mechanic, wings are quite real. The answer to which is correct comes down to this: They both are—because both are useful within their context.
Another example is the human body and one’s identity. Our bodies are constantly being remade through cell destruction and growth. And our memories—which are at the center of who we are—are constantly being deleted, reinforced, rearranged, and adjusted as we sleep. If you’re looking at the level of atoms or even the level of biology, we literally wake up a different person every day. In fact we’re different from minute to minute. But we don’t consider ourselves different because the primary observers—ourselves and other humans like us—don’t see that incremental change as significant.
That brings me to the Is-Ought problem problem. Although the book doesn’t talk about it, reading it got me thinking about puzzle in the same way. Is-Ought is an argument spawned by David Hume that it’s nearly impossible to determine what someone should do from looking at the world as it is. Or, put another way, it’s hard to move from descriptive statements to prescriptive statements.
I’ve not seen this argument in 15 years of reading on this topic.
I think the Is-Ought distinction is explainable in the same way as The Ship of Theseus.
Essentially, both need a third party to provide clarity. They both need a perspective—an observer—to cut through the confusion. For the ship, you cannot say whether it changed or not unless you also ask, “To whom?”
I think for Is-Ought, the analogous perspective is a human purpose.
It’s a goal or a desired outcome—-a statement that we’re trying to accomplish X for humanity. Examples include trying to reduce the number of people who are suicidal or depressed. Or reducing world hunger. Or improving the long-term happiness of a population within a country.
Not a perfect analogy because a magnetic field applies a force rather than providing a perspective, but still apt I think.
Applying a goal in this way is like applying a strong magnetic field to a table full of iron filings. The fillings are the IS, and they take on the pattern of OUGHT due to the external entity.
This is how to cross the gap between Is and Ought in a human context. And the irony is that Sean Carroll and Sam Harris have actually debated a similar topic, with Sean saying it wasn’t possible to use science to pursue moral questions.
What he was objecting to specifically was Sam’s Moral Landscape, in which Sam says you can bridge the distance between Is and Ought by applying science to a human problem. I suppose it would make sense that Sam’s work gets closest to this, given that he has been the most influential thinker on me since 2005 or so.
Effective theories will always be valid even if our understanding of underlying physics gets updated and improved.
It’s very strange that Sean doesn’t see the power of this perspective shift. Especially given his wonderful concept of Poetic Naturalism and his explanation of Effective Theories.
Much of his book is about how different ways of thinking about things are valid based on the level and context in which they’re observed. It’s not that far of a jump to realize Ought is just another instantiation of that.
Put another way, Ought = Is * Human Purpose.
So, no, you can’t get Ought from Is, but you can if you have a human purpose. Importantly, in order to establish this link, or to apply what’s in the Moral Landscape, you’ll need a society that’s advanced enough to apply science to extract the variables here.
Let’s take an example.
Let’s say we want to increase happiness for a population of highly depressed people in a country. And let’s say we have a super-advanced science function somewhere to do the work, as well as 100,000 years to conduct experiments, gather data, etc.
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So, we have a measurement of their happiness, and we have measurements of attributes of the society. Measurements such as how open and free it is, views on sex, politics, the role of government, the role of religion, etc.
Let’s say it’s a highly repressive government that doesn’t educate its women, they don’t allow you to smile for three days a week, and they worship Fraun: the Goddess of Celibacy.
What a science-based approach could do is start trying different things in this society. They could move to a different kind of religion. They could educate everyone and pursue gender equality. They could start having recreational sex with each other. Or they could become a nation of hippies that believe nothing.
Over the course of centuries, given the right application of science, you could theoretically (for the sake of argument) try lots of different combinations. Maybe some experts thought you just needed to have a different god. Or that you needed more education. Or that they should increase no-simile days to 6 days a week.
The point is that they could try many of the major combinations of the variables on different places on their spectrums—all the while continuing to measure the happiness of the population. Keep in mind, some changes would produce some happiness for a few decades, and would then turn worse than the previous system. And some would look worse for a while and end up producing more happiness in the long-term.
Now, let’s say it’s 43,721 years later, and we’ve tried countless iterations and ended up with lots of societal configurations that each have their respective Population Happiness Scores (PHS’s).
Given another similar society, which is now asking for similar help, the question is this:
We’ve learned a whole lot about Is. The Society Consulting team has over 40 millennia worth of great data. They know what works and what doesn’t work.
Now let’s say that in this new, primitive society they have someone named Hoome. He’s a smart Scoutish man who believes it’s impossible to know what kind of society to build. It’s impossible to go from describing the world to prescribing what you should do within it.
I would argue he’s wrong. I would argue that yes—we do have a path to Ought. The path is simple:
We have a Human Goal, which is to increase happiness in society, and
We have science to provide the Is that tells us how to adjust our approach.
Using these two, we can absolutely determine a good path forward.
Also known as, what we “Ought” to do.
The solution to the Ship of Theseus problem is to add an observer as context.
The solution to the Is-Ought problem is to add a Human Purpose as context.
That context is what collapses intangible ideas like “the same” or “should” into something useful for the people that matter. Namely, humanity.
There are many paths to increasing happiness in this model, and we can decide which we want to use based on lots of criteria. This is why Sam called it a “Landscape” in his book. As he said, there are many peaks and valleys. His key point is that you can use science to map out that landscape.