Did Ed Snowden do the right thing?

Levi Pearson levipearson at gmail.com
Tue Jun 11 03:23:01 MDT 2013

On Mon, Jun 10, 2013 at 4:24 PM, Jessie A. Morris
<jessie at jessieamorris.com> wrote:
> On Monday, June 10, 2013 15:20:13 Nathan England wrote:
>> Interesting. I agree with what Charles said, my only concern is the
>> scientist who crafts the experiment to prove his hypothesis in a particular
>> situation.
>> Example:
>> I believe that if I close my eyes and I cannot see something, then it
>> doesn't exist. I can see and hear my children playing in the background.
>> When I close my eyes I cannot see them, but I can still hear them, so they
>> exist still in theory. But if I go to a quite dark room where I can no
>> longer hear my children, when I shut my eyes, do they still exist?
>> Obviously, this is a stupid example, but the point is I can craft an
>> experiment to prove my children do not exist.
> More important is not that you can create an experiment to prove your
> hypothesis, but that you can create an experiment that disproves that
> hypothesis. By disproving it in a verifiable way once, all of your "proving
> evidence" has been disproved.

This is one of the few sort-of coherent threads in this whole mess,
but still sadly misconceived.  Science gathers evidence both for and
against hypotheses.  Scientists are generally bright people, and tend
to understand the limits of their experiments and the possible sources
of error.  Even if the ones doing the experiment don't, there are
generally plenty of others willing to criticize their work, especially
if it looks like it might upset the status quo.

This is another thing that's often confused about the motivation of
scientists.  They would mostly really *like* for the status quo to get
upset, because that tends to open up exciting new fields of research,
and they get to be in on the "ground floor" so to speak.  It's just
that they realize the status quo in most areas has a lot of evidence
backing it up and little unexplained evidence against it, so it takes
some solid work to convince them that things really aren't that way.

Much of this discussion falls under the general idea of
epistemology--the study of what it means to know things. It may sound
like a dubiously abstract thing to study, but it's really at the heart
of the debate that's going on.  Of course, there are a couple of
participants that are very clear on where they believe knowlege comes
from (though they seem to have forgotten some of the more unpleasant
parts of their source book), but in general it's a more difficult
subject than it may first seem, and also a very important one to
anyone who wants to found their personal ethics in logic and reason.
Logic only gives useful results when your foundational axioms are
sound, and even then you must still move things from the realm of pure
ideas and logic into the real world, which is a tricky thing.

That is not the only way to think about ethics, though.  Hume, in
particular, approached his study of human moral judgement in an
observational capacity and developed a theory of 'moral sentiment'
that actually has foundations in how people actually make their
judgements rather than how he thought they ought to.  From an
epistemological standpoint, he was very skeptical; he argued against
the logical validity of the 'principle of regularity' that would allow
us to logically conclude that nature is static and will behave
tomorrow exactly as it does today.  He doesn't argue that we shouldn't
believe such a thing and act in accordance; just that the belief
itself is due to our regular experience and not logic itself.  In
fact, he argues that reason alone has no power to motivate us for good
or ill; that comes from our emotions and passions, and logic and
reason are by necessity secondary to the force of our emotional
sentiments.  On the other hand, he spent a lot of time on the
"is--ought" problem, in which he observed that although we may gather
all manner of observations on what "is", there is no way to logically
derive what we "ought" to do from them, and therefore compel others
based on that reasoning.  Likewise, although we may develop
well-founded ideas about the way the world works from science, it will
never definitvely prove anything in the logical/mathematical sense.

I think that Hume's elaboration of the is--ought problem is something
that anyone interested in both science and ethics ought to study,
because it places some pretty clear limits on the influences that
those fields of study can have on one another.  No matter what we
discern about the structure of the universe, from quantum interactions
to the movements of galaxies, it will not give sure direction on how
we ought to behave.  For that, we must look inward and around us; to
ourselves, our families, our communities, and the people of the world.

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