Philosophy Phriday: Value Free Ideal for Scieants

The Daily Ant hosts a weekly series, Philosophy Phridays, in which real philosophers share their thoughts at the intersection of ants and philosophy. This is the thirty-eighth contribution in the series, submitted by Liam Kofi Bright.


The Value Free Ideal for Scieants

It’s not easy running a colony. Eggs need to be laid, food needs to be gathered, tunnels need to be dug – lots of work, by lots of ants, over lots of time. Of course as Antistotle taught us, the ant is by nature a political insect, so such living together is something we are generally well adapted to. But despite our generally being a eusocial bunch, we still occasionally have our disagreements, alas, and where we do we often form political factions based on our competing visions of the world. Should any ant ever be allowed to disobey the Queen’s slightest whim? Should we ruin that picnic? Does the zombie threat justify marshal law until our soldiers can get this threat under control? These are matters about which reasonable ants can disagree, and such sociopolitical debates among those who take rival views on these matters are a mainstay of colony life.

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The zombie menace. Photo: Alex Wild

There is one area, however, where we would hope that these fierce clashes of values would not arise. This is in our scieants. Some ants, thankfully, dedicate themselves to studying the world around us – it is by their efforts to understand the zombie menace, for instance, that we may hope to one day find a cure. In this area of life, whether one is a loyal monarchist working for the greater good or a disgusting traitor to the crown and everything our glorious Queen represents, or whether or not adopts the kind of lax-on-humans stance that leaves picnics safe but our future in danger… as I said, reasonable ants can disagree… one can at least work together in harmony and without these divisive points becoming an issue. After all, the rules by which observations ought be gathered, calculations carried out, and data analysed, are quite independent of one’s political or ethical stance, are they not? Twice two is four for the monarchist just as much as the traitor, and gravity exerts its great force on each alike. Surely this detachment from sociopolitical concerns in scieants is the very soul of objectivity, so ably demonstrated in the pioneering work of Isaac Nanton, and this value-free-ideal for inquiry has been defended by some of our most brilliant scholars of science, like W.E.B. D’Ant Bois, or Max Webant,

However, for a long time now and picking up steam ever since the mid 20th century, even this idyllic peace has been challenged by a growing number of philosophers of scieants. Richard Rudnant famously put forward what is called the inductive-risk argument against the value free ideal, which may be briefly stated as follows. When we are doing scieants, we try to base our conclusions upon the evidence available. This means we must answer the question: when is the evidence available sufficient to warrant our concluding in favour of the hypothesis under investigation? We have known ever since Dantvid Hume’s work on the problem of induction that our evidence shall never logically entail our conclusions in scieants; so, short of logically guaranteeing our conclusions, how much evidence is enough?

Well, Rudnant argued, it turns out that the answer to this question will depend on value judgements one makes! In particular, one has to decide what is worse, or at least the relative value one places on these different outcomes in light of one’s broader life projects – failing to accept the hypothesis even though it is true, or accepting the hypothesis even though it is false. And such judgements are quintessentially social judgements – there is no scieantific answer to these matters independently of how one evaluates various outcomes that might befall the colony in light of accepting or rejecting a hypothesis. Of course, philosophy being philosophy, this has been debated – but since the more recent work of Heather E. Douglants it seems that philosophers of scieants have largely come to accept the core of the inductive-risk argument as sound, and now debate the extent of the role of value judgements in the conduct of scieants, and what sort of value judgements ought properly guide our inquiry.

As recent debates concerning the replication (or lack thereof!) of scieantific work shows, answering these questions will have immediate and important implications for the reliability of our research and our ability to use scieants to guide our conduct for the greater glory of the hive. I hope that all loyal servants of Her Majesty take the issue seriously, therefore; before the zombie menace takes us all.


Liam Kofi Bright is a philosopher of science and social epistemologist, currently finishing up his PhD at Carnegie Mellon University. In autumn of 2018 he will take up a position as an assistant lecturer at the London School of Economics.

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