fact and value, truth and knowledge

I would like to comment on an excerpt of a comment by Mike

“We might distinguish questions of fact (e.g. “which way will John vote at the next election?”) from questions of value (e.g. “is Blair’s outlook better than Brown’s?) by noting that the answers to factual questions may be true or false, but that the answers to value questions must always depend on and presuppose a point of view or value. Answers to factual questions do not presuppose a point of view or value – they presuppose the categories of true and false and must be framed in those terms (either we are correct in predicting that John will vote for X or, if he votes for Y we will have been shown to be incorrect).”

I think it will be important to define the word “knwledge” right now. I use “knowldge” to mean “justified true belief”. If we happen to guess right, we do not know. I will place great stress on the word “justified” in that definition.

OK back to the quote “answers to value questions must always depend on and presuppose a point of view or value” is implied by”answers to value questions must always depend on and presuppose a value”. In this post I will assume for the sake of argument that the stronger claim is true so answers to value questions must always depend on and presuppose a value. How does this make them different from claims of fact ?

Statements about what is right or wrong either correspond to a value or they don’t .

In apparent contrast “answers to factual questions may be true or false”. The school of thought which seems to me to make the strongest claims for “answers to factual questions” (and the one which I find convincing) asserts that true statements are statements which correspond to reality. Reality in tern is something outside of us and separate from our beliefs about reality. It might include atoms and the void and it might include other minds and ideas in other minds and, for all we know, it might include other things as well.

I would say it might, for example, include the moral law. In fact, I believe that reality consists of atoms, minds, natural laws, the void, the moral law and, perhaps, other things of which I have not conceived. I do not claim that I can prove that I am right, but I don’t think that it can be proved that I am wrong.

One distinction between fact and value is that claims of fact are true or false depending on their relationship to something outside of ourselves (the real world) while claims of value could not depend on something outside of us because there obviously could not be a moral law becaause …. because I said so.

I believe I am being entirely fair to this argument (made by the straw man sitting to my left). One can sincerely and confidently believe that all that exists are atoms and the void or minds and ideas, but one can not claim that based on that sincere and confident belief to have disproven my view that, in addition, there is a moral law which is quite seperate from our beliefs about what is right and wrong.

To clarify, I believe that the moral law was exactly the same as is it currently is before the origen of life and will be the same after we are all extinct and is the same in the center of the sun as it is in my brain.

So I think my beliefs about right and wrong might correspond to an objective reality outside of me or, much more likely, might fail to correspond to this objective reality.

So far I have stated my opinions and claimed that they can not be proven false. This is totally different from imagining that they might be proven true, let alone that I might have proven such a thing.

However, there is something wrong with common views of “factual questions”.
I think that any reasonable person will agree that there are factual questions which we can not possible answer. This is in contrast with

“Answers to factual questions do not presuppose a point of view or value – they presuppose the categories of true and false and must be framed in those terms (either we are correct in predicting that John will vote for X or, if he votes for Y we will have been shown to be incorrect).”

Here there appears to be an identification between “factual questions” and questions to which we will certainly know the answer. Consider the following claims

1 Throughout the year 1 AD Augustus Caesar weighed over 1 kg
2 Throughout the year 1 AD Augustus Caesar weighed over 60 kg
3 Throughout the year 1 AD Augustus Caesar weighed over 70 kg
4 Throughout the year 1 AD Augustus Caesar weighed over 700 kg

they are clearly the same sort of question. However, I think that we will never know if statements 2 and 3 are correct. I don’t think that the distinction between
1 Kg and 60 kgs can be the basis for a fundamental philosophical principle.

This point is much more certain if one accepts the idea that there are such things as mathematical truth and mathematical knowledge, at least if one agrees that a mathematical claim is known to be true within an axiom system if it is the statement of a theorem which has been proven using those axioms.

In this case, one has two choices. One can conclude that logic as used by all (almost all?) mathematicians is a big mistake or one can conclude that there are unknowable truths. Don’t take my word on it. This is known within standard mathematics. It is called Goedel’s theorem.

I would say that claims of fact are true or false as they correspond or not to reality. It is possible that true claims can be known to be true *within* a method of science which produces as conclusions “this claim is true” “this clim is fase” and “it is not know if this claim is true or false.” I would note that no such method of science happens to exist at the moment, since currently available methods of science produce “this hypothesis is consistent with the available data and is the simplest hypothesis with the fewest arbitrary fiddles whcih is currentoy available.”

I would like to stress that I believe that this assertion applies to cliaims like “the Sun rises in the East” “the sun rose in the East at least once in the past 4 hours” and “John … he votes for Y”

Some of these claims are generally accepted as just plain facts, but the passage from our sensory experience to the conviction that the Sun and John exist and are not just dreams of ours requires first something along the lines of method of science and second the conviction that we can understand things best with by distinguishing between sensations which we forget and which don’t connect with each other (dreams) and ones which we remember which actually fit together somehow (waking sensations).

My point, if any, is that while truth may be objective and universal, knowlege, by definition, must consist of true beliefs which are justified by a method and, hence, must be knowledge within a system of justification.

So I think claims of fact can be just plain true, but they can be known only given a point of view or methodological approach.

Similarly I the claims of right and wrong can be just plain true but they can only be known given a point of view or system of values.

So what exactly is so different ?

16 thoughts on “fact and value, truth and knowledge

  1. Yeah alright, knowledge as true belief justified by a method. It doesn’t cost me anything to concede this. The point I should have made about a catagorical distinction between facts and values is less about knowledge or truth and more that they cannot be derived from each other. Values may be derived from other values, and facts may be derived from facts, but facts cannot be derived from values per se (which is different from facts about values) and values cannot be derived from facts. Values are human dependent whereas facts are independent.

  2. “So what exactly is so different ?”

    Nothing, sort of. I would add an additional element though: practice.

    A scientific claim to truth generally has some sort of claim to engender a practice. Newton’s laws engender rather specific practices for, say, artillerymen or bridge-builders. If bridges that are built with the application of Newton’s laws in mind don’t fall down, or shells fired off by artillerymen trained in Newton’s laws of motion actually hit their targets – well, we can hardly be surprised when those ideas persist in contrast to practices that lead to bridges falling down and artilery shells missing their targets. Should some alternative to Newton’s laws come along (say, relativity) that engender practices that work better for some purpose (say, building CD ROM drives), well, then we generally see changes in scientific ideas.

    Much the same can be said of moral claims. When those who break taboos find themselves shunned, imprisoned or otherwise disconvenienced, we can hardly be shocked when those taboos persist. Contrarily, when a taboo is broken and the person who breaks it clearly profits, the taboo generally starts to die off.

    I try to advance a notion of relativism built on just such a basis. If the ancients believed in the four elements theory (or five if you’re from east Asia), it behooves us to ask what practices this engendered and what problems it solved for them. If a foreign culture holds certain values, we ought to ask how the practices those values engender resolve problems for them.

    There is no incompatibility between that perspective and saying that we might reject someone’s solutions on the grounds that they don’t solve our problems; or thinking that if those foreigners adopted some other values they might solve some of the problems that they are struggling with.

    Furthermore, such a perspective is symmetric. It is every bit as valid for New Guinean headhunters to view us in such a light as it is for us to view them.

    What it does do away with is the notion of a universal truth underlying either set of values or claims. In each case, something persists because it seems, in some sense, to work. In neither case does it reject the prospect that something that works now, or worked in the past, might stop working because of changing circumstances. Rather than a hierarchy of truth that gets used to justify some sort of political dominance, it suggests that if we judge some set of values to be better than another it must always be with respect to a set of real conditions.

    I think there’s nothing terribly wrong with claiming that many kinds of traditional values in the world are working poorly when the societies that hold them come into contact with hegemonic western technological societies. I also think there’s nothing wrong with thinking that simply imposing other values on the people who hold those values may not actually solve their problems.

  3. Scott,

    there seems to be a problem with the kind of relativism you are espousing. Defining something as a problem involves taking certain value stances towards it. Inequality is a problem because we think that people ought to be treated equally, for example. Social conditions clearly do play a significant role in determining what features of the world are problematic for a given individual or group, but that can’t be the end of it. Why is the colour of my trousers not a problem? Because it is (generally – there may be some odd cases where it is) ethically irrelevant. The fact that we take some features of the world to be problematic and not others is bound up in what I take to be the fact that some features of the world have ethical significance and others don’t. I think what’s doing the work to give your position its relativism is again what I take to be the fact that universal values instantiate themselves in the particular practices of different groups differently. That’s not relativism though: relativism is, I think, the claim that the only universal moral or ethical truth is that there are no universal moral or ethical truths, only the particular moral and ethical practices, which give rise to valid truth claims, of particular groups.

  4. Mike we are getting close to agreement. I agree with everything you say up to the last sentence.

    I strongly think that that sentence does not logically follow from the rest of your comment. I notice that you didn’t claim it follows logically (no “therefore”, “quindi”, “ergo”, thus, hence, and so or anything).

    I happen to think that right and wrong refer to something outside of us which we can not observe (I call it the moral law). I concede this belief of mine is not based at all on any evidence or logic and, thus, is not the result of any kind of rational inquiry. I don’t know the origen of this connection. I just know that I didn’t get it from my mother or my father, because they agree with you.

    This comment is getting too long [will David snip?].

    I don’t think our disagreement is important and, yet, I don’t think it is quite a distinction without a difference.

    Last night I mentioned to my wife that a commenter had invoked the fact value distinction and warned her that I would not be rational for a while. She laughed at some length. Today she is trying to force herself to work. I tried to help her, saying that I would be back in 10 minutes and, if she hadn’t made any progress would discuss the fact value distinction.

    Just checked. It worked. For the first time ever my little obsession with objective moral truth has proven to be useful.

  5. Hm. Four votes in Europe, and Fistful doesn’t cover one? So I’ll do it, off-topic.

    – Spain: EU Constitution referendum, 76.7% S?, 42.3% participating

    – Portugal: general elections, Socialists 45.0%/120 seats, ‘Social Democrats’ [Barroso’s conservatives, incumbent government not even saved by withdrawal from Iraq] 28.7%/72 seats, Greens+communists 7.6%/14 seats, far-right 7.3%/12 seats, Leftist Block 6.4%/8 seats; participation 67% (record high)

    – Turkish Cyprus: pro-EU, pro-reforms governing Republican-Turkish Party 44%, anti-EU nationalist party 32%, another pro-EU party led by the President’s renegade son 14%; participation 74%

    – Schleswig-Holstein province, Germany: Christian Democrats 40.2%/30 seats, Social Democrats 38.7%/29 seats, liberals 6.6%/4 seats, Greens 6.2%/4 seats, Danish/Friesian minority party 3.6%/2 seats; participation: 66.6% (all-time low); Social Democrat-Green coalition will stay with outside support from the minority party.

  6. Defining something as a problem involves taking certain value stances towards it. Inequality is a problem because we think that people ought to be treated equally, for example. Social conditions clearly do play a significant role in determining what features of the world are problematic for a given individual or group, but that can’t be the end of it.

    Maybe there should be a functional definition of problem. A problem is a condition or belief which may cause societies sharing it to fail to deal with stress contributing to a break down of that society.

    In that sense inequality is a problem because it may lead to riots or forces a society to invest resources into a secret police which will be missing elsewhere.

  7. Robert – glad to hear the fact/value distinction has helped your wife to make progress on her work! Erm… I think we disagree about the existence of ‘The Moral Law’ though it seems we both agree it is unknowable. For me, it is enough to assert that although there may be a relativity of values rather than a universal set of values (your ‘Moral Law’), they must nevertheless be ‘aimed accurately’ toward reality if belief in them is to be sincere. If this sounds obscure, let me put it like this…

    Suppose I act in certain difficult ways in the name of a value I claim to ‘believe in’ and yet my inner critic points out that actually, my motivation for performing these actions can also be accounted for by mere self-interest. This kind of cynical argument may tend to undermine any belief in a value. And there are endless cynical explanations out there that can be used against anything. So how then is ‘belief’ in a value possible? Rather than it being something abstract, it must surely be structured in such a way as to connect with and help me make sense out of my other experiences and values. It must become a kind of ‘organising principle’ for my inner world so to speak. Against this, cynical accounts of my motives can be brushed aside as merely incidental. It is in this sense of an ‘organising principle’ for one’s inner psychological make-up that I mean values must be ‘aimed toward the truth’; the strength of my belief in them will surely be related to how well they enable me to understand my experience of the world and in this respect they pertain to factual information and must be responsive to factual information. It is in this last connection that values may change over time – the psychological structure that they are built on and help to sustain is contingent upon reality, and that includes the specific circumstances in which an individual’s experience is framed and what quality and extent of information is available to her at the time. Does this picture seem satisfactory?


  8. Having read the other comments now, I’d like to second rob’s criticism of Scott’s values = ‘useful’ argument (no irony intended!). The selection of ‘problems’ itself presupposes values which is why I said that values can only be derived from other values and not from facts. My last post tried to illustrate a little what I feel about values – they must be ‘aimed toward the truth’ if the belief we hold in them is to have any strength. To ‘aim’ one’s values toward truth then may require a bit of think work to make them account for the reality we experience. Yeah, ethics can be pretty tough!

  9. Dbts lk ths r a prfct xmpl f wh rp kpt dbtng whl tw hndrd thsnd Ygslvns dd n th mddl f rp a mr tn yrs g.

  10. RSN, from my viewpoint, the reason is purely practical: no European State can trust the UK unless the USA stand with them. In the best case, if one state had decided to intervene, the economical costs would have been overwhelming. Just look at Iraq, and what its costs are doing to the USA.


  11. RSN: get lost. The reason why those Yugoslavians died is because other Yugoslavians chose to kill them, not because a couple of guys elsewhere in Europe had a little debate while waiting on other things.

  12. Mike thanks for the interesting comment. I am not totally sure I understand it. I think you are saying that whether or not there is a moral law (objective fact of the matter about right and wrong) it is certainly unknowable.
    [self snip I went on to write what I always write and moved it way down to the bottom so it is easy to skip]

    However I agree that our moral beliefs can be ‘aimed toward the truth’. I call this processing of reasoning “trying to learn what we believe about right and wrong”. It could be callsed aiming towards sincerity or honesty (understood as honesty with ourselves) or aiming towards coherance.

    I personally think that our moral beliefs *should* be ‘aimed toward the truth.’ That they can be ‘aimed toward the truth’is your statement in psychology (and it corresponds to my experience). That they should be is a moral belief that we share (from which I draw ontological implications that you consider false, meaningless or irrelevant and which I consider true, unimportant and not quite a distinction without a difference).

    However, I feel the need for a pragmatic argument for being true to ourselves, knowing ourselves, being coherent, being sincere, fighting out cynical self deceiving internal hypocricy etc etc etc. This is because, in the folly of my youth, I thought I was a utilitarian. Thus it is important to me to believe that people whose moral beliefs are ‘aimed toward the truth’ are more helpful to others and pleasant to be around than people whose moral beliefs aren’t. Sad to say, I must recognise that the world would be a very slightly better place if I didn’t feel such a strong temptation to bore everyone around me (and now far away) with meta-ethics (see below)

    [snipped bit below]

    I agree that if a moral law exists (I say yes you say no) we can’t know what it commands, learn what it commands, learn anything at all about it (including whether it exixts). We can guess and I can’t help guessing both that it exixts and that it says, for example, “thou shalt not turture everyone from now until eternity,” but I recognise that both beliefs are unjustified by cany evidence or logic whatsoever.

  13. So what do you think of President Bush’s speech in Brussels? IIRC he talked about individual freedom as a universal right – not an American or even Western ideal. That’s a universal morality, but perhaps you wouldn’t agree with the policy derivations?

  14. You got it. I believe that individual freedom is and always hass been a universal right which the West discovered but did not create.

    President Bush has proven beyond all doubt that he is an enemy of the idea of individual freedom by claiming the authority to lock anyone he chooses up indefinately.

    I agree with his claim that the enemies of freedom must be fought even if their misguided contryment support them. I conclude that he must be fought even now that he has been legitimately elected.

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