Science and prudence (II)

Imagine Newton walking across the Cambridge lawn and seeing that apple fall again. This time, however, he thinks “Wow, I’m really hungry and that apple just fell because it was ripe. Lucky me!” This is certainly a way of relating to the apple, but it could not have given rise to physics. The “Newton’s apple moment” was an insight about how the apple was undifferentiated from stars, planets, and everything in the universe. The insight is that everything has heaviness —> gravitas —-> gravity.  This is why unification is built into science from the first moment of its awakening – the first moment is a unification. Any differentiation – like a difference between gravity and electricity – resists a scientific relation to objects, and science will push towards eliminating it with a spontaneous and ineliminable force.

But science is not the only relation that a mind can have to objects. At other times it is crucial to preserve an entity in its concrete particularity and in its differentiation from other things. While I think morally, I cannot relate to my action as though it were undifferentiated from others. Whatever else might be true about the action, it is crucial that it is mine and not yours. True, I might think that the same thing that is bad for me to do is bad for you to do, and in this sense there is an undifferentiated description of an action, which might deserve to be called “a law” in a way similar to how physical rules are called “laws”. But even moral laws by their nature can never be perfect descriptions of a moral action.  First, morality can never completely abstract from the individual that acts as an individual. Second, moral laws can be completely met in a variety of different circumstances and ways: a complete account of the momentum and position in any Newtonian state will specify exactly how the state will progress over time, but a complete account of courage cannot tell us precisely what action will always count as courageous in any set of moral circumstances. A sign of this is that knowledge of physical laws does not require us to deliberate about what should happen in any particular state, but even a complete knowledge of moral laws requires us to deliberate about what should happen in various moral circumstances. Again, formulating physical laws and applying them in concrete circumstances are not usually two distinct activities requiring different skills, i.e. the same guy who formulates the law of gravity can point to all the instances of it, and verify them by mere sensation. But to formulate a moral law is a very different skill than being able to apply it in the concrete, which is (one reason) why we divide legislators from judges.

The way of relating to objects by morality is clearly messier and more complex than the scientific way of relating to them. Science does not need to divide into legislators and judges, it does not have to mire itself down in peculiar and therefore unrepeatable circumstances (we can’t run a human act over again to get a better moral look at it.) it does not have to focus on the individuals it is dealing with, etc. Because of this, there will be a spontaneous desire to reduce moral actions to science – to come up with laws that can describe moral actions concretely and in all circumstances. The success of science will always give rise to experts in education, moral issues, political discourse, psychology, etc. all of whom will try to overcome peculiarity, individuality, and unrepeatablity with some universal system. To say the least, any success of these systems will require more than the system itself, and they all contain the seeds of their own destruction. The system must gradually become more and more byzantine in its attempt to scale universality down to the particular, but this only leads to greater moral bewilderment and confusion, thus making the whole process intrinsically self-defeating: if the law stays general, it is not applied to the particular; and if it tries to get to the particular, it becomes so byzantine and overwrought that no one can apply it to the particular.


1 Comment

  1. Mike Flynn said,

    September 5, 2013 at 11:52 am

    You win the Harris Prize.

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