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A Theory of Moral Objectivity (Section 6c - Verification and falsification)
By Robert M. Ellis, originally written as a Ph.D. thesis 'A Buddhist theory of moral objectivity' in 2001. This html version copyright 2008.
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On the basis of the account of the incrementalisation of dualisms in the preceding section, I shall now return to a question which was put off in section a of this chapter – namely that of exactly how and to what extent non-dualism and the
To begin this account, some attempt needs to be made to reconsider the meaning of the terms “verification” and “falsification” in the light of the foregoing arguments. For both terms appear, at least in their less sophisticated formulations, to be based upon metaphysical discontinuities, particularly on metaphysical realism. To verify a proposition is to show its relationship with representational reality, whilst to falsify it is to show its lack of relationship with representational reality. In either of these cases, a proposition is either verified or falsified or it is not, according to whether it has fulfilled fixed criteria which impose a discontinuity on experience. This, of course, also allows the equally metaphysical relativist response of claiming that no verification or falsification is possible.
This crude conception of verification or falsification has already been surpassed in the work of some modern philosophers of science such as Lakatos and Kuhn, but in the absence of a clear rationale for a non-metaphysical strategy based on pragmatism rather than representationalism their work often appears to be groping in the darkness. Such a non-metaphysical strategy seems to be clearly derivable from my arguments in the last two sections: verification and falsification must be understood incrementally. As with the non-dualist solutions to other dualisms, verification and falsification need to be understood as judgements between particular cases ranged on a spectrum. In this case the spectrum ranges between what we judge to be relatively weak or unclear and relatively strong or clear experiential support. It still makes sense to talk of verification of falsification in this case, because a decisive judgement has been made about the status of a theory, but this judgement is made relative to other theories which might rival it in interpreting the same evidence. We judge one theory to be better verified or better falsified than another.
But there is no such thing as raw experiential support for a judgement: each perception is interpreted to fit a defeasibility context which exists prior to it, and may also be influenced by expectation of the correctness of the theory (as well as other conditionings). The judgement which is applied to interpret one experience as supporting a given theory more readily than another, then, is not only a judgement of correlation between theory and experience, but a calibration of experience itself. Even the most objective observer cannot avoid interpreting experience in relation to a particular defeasibility context: which may leave a range of possible correlations with belief, but nevertheless limits these interpretations. The most objective of observers, then, does not merely interpret correlations within a particular defeasibility context (such as that of science), but is also aware of the limitations of that defeasibility context, and the ways in which experiences can be understood in different defeasibility contexts. For example, a relatively objective botanist examining a plant may only be thinking in terms of the categories of botany, but he may consider a range of theories which may provide a causal explanation for a particular botanical variation, not merely seizing upon the plants which support his favoured theory but also considering counter-evidence. An even more objective botanist, however, might also understand the significance of plants in aesthetic and/or moral terms, and be able to cast light on a botanical problem by stepping out of the whole field of botany.
Judgements of the verification or falsification of a theory, then, are incremental on the scale of integration of the person judging, both within a given defeasibility context and beyond it. This does not mean that whatever non-psychological contributory causes to the judgement there may be are irrelevant, but only that their impact must be mediated by a judgement and that there is no indication of the objectivity of such contributory causes without complete dependency on such a judgement. As argued in 6.b.v, the more integrated a person, the more they can be relied upon to take account of the full range of conditions (within their non-psychological limitations) in a judgement. This does not only apply to judgements of verification or falsification which we assess derivatively at second-hand in another individual (where we also need to consider the non-psychological conditions under which the person made the judgement), but to the primary case where we make such judgements. Whilst I may reach a provisional conclusion as to the value of my conceptualisation of an experience and of the correlation between theory and experience without reference to any estimation of my own integration, the degree of justification I should ascribe to these provisional conclusions in non-dualist terms depends on the degree of integration I possessed in reaching them.
Clearly this requires a judgement of my own integration, the accuracy of which will be limited by that very integration. Not only the accuracy of my judgements, but the accuracy of my reflexive judgements concerning the accuracy of my judgements, depends on integration in a way which again demonstrates the inseparability of moral and epistemological judgements. The epistemological circularity to be found here is unavoidable, since the only conceivable alternative to it is a linearity which begins with a positive foundation, and this foundation can easily be shown by Sceptical argument to depend upon the judgement of the individual. The virtue in this circularity, when it aids the process of discovery, can again only be described in terms of the gathering process of integration, with its accompanying awareness, flexibility of theorisation, and refinement of judgement. It is not that these features of integration are acquired prior to the process of discovery and then enable it: they develop in the context of a process of discovery, whether of “inwardly” or “outwardly” represented objects.
The judgement made in a process of verification or falsification is made more complex by the fact that it never takes place in complete isolation: metaphysical assumptions as to what constitutes a complete verification or falsification, as I shall argue in the next section, are interdependent with social conventions. These social conventions form a set of background conditions in the context of which verifications and falsifications are judged to have occurred, and as a result of them these cultural conditions may change slightly. Sometimes key observations which are judged to confirm or deny the truth of theories have a quite dramatic effect which makes a large contribution to changing the whole paradigm on which science operates: Galileo’s observation of the four main moons of Jupiter is one well-known example, which, although not absolutely decisive, made a large contribution towards defeating the Aristotelian paradigm of astronomy. What led Galileo into his creativity in using the telescope for this purpose? In many respects the conditions were non-psychological: he was in the right place at the right time with the right capacities. But his response to those conditions, in creating the means to that particular verification and linking it to the Copernican astronomical theory, was a matter of his degree of integration. Merely creating or adopting a theory may not require much integration at all, and may be done on the basis of dogmatism or scepticism: but creating acceptable “proof” or “disproof” which modifies conventional acceptance of theories in a particular context requires that a subtlety of engagement with understanding of conditions be pushed a little further.
In sum, then, a verification or falsification from a non-dualist standpoint is a decisive judgement in which evidence is used to justify one theory over others (or in the case of falsification, to rule out a theory, leaving another or others still in the running), which modifies the conventional acceptance of theories in a particular context. This type of definition leaves it entirely open what constitutes acceptable evidence, and indeed whether verification or falsification has priority, since these factors will vary between conventional contexts. Verifications or falsifications in this sense could take place in pre-scientific, artistic, or mythic frameworks (or in the context of spiritual practices such as meditation) as well as in scientific ones, the measure of objectivity lying not in the metaphysical status of the supposed reality proved or disproved, but in the objectivity of the person doing the proving or disproving relative to his context.
It is only on the basis of such an account of verification and falsification that I can go on to explain the grounds on which the Middle Way may be claimed to be verifiable or falsifiable, and the grounds of any heuristic distinction between the status of verification and falsification.
It will be clear from the last subsection that any verification of the Middle Way, like that of any other theory, must proceed incrementally on the basis of judgements made between more and less verified theories. The
As I have argued, in order to mark an advance in objectivity, such a verification must also mark a process of integration, in which a conventional context of belief is modified by the “proof” of a theory. What occurs in such a process of integration or modification is effectively an access of confidence, as the doubts which undermined the secure acceptance of a theory by the whole psyche are reduced. How much this confidence is a quality that needs to be gained only by the individual, and how much also by the surrounding group, depends entirely on the extent of that individual’s dependency on the group. As I shall argue more fully in the next section, the less her dependency on the group, the more the integration. What needs to be convinced by a given verification (by bringing belief into line with desire) consists in whatever we identify with, and the more of the psyche that is convinced, the stronger the verification and the stronger the resulting confidence. If only our current set of identifications is convinced (perhaps we imagine, or indeed experience, the people we currently identify with being convinced) but then our identifications shift rapidly (as they tend to when we are less integrated), we are plunged into doubt. Then we are confronted by experienced or imagined doubting voices and are forced into the dualism of either defying them or agreeing with them, into brittle assertion or confusion. If, on the other hand, most or even all of our identifications are convinced, we can assert that our experience has given access to the truth of that matter with both strength and flexibility. In order to do this, if we are less integrated, we may have to convince a great part of our surrounding group too: but this does not lessen the achievement of bringing about such an integration.
This means that whenever we bring about confidence in this way, through bringing about an acceptance of new truths on the basis of clearer evidence, we have in effect verified the Middle Way in that context. The
It needs to be stressed that this type of verification of the
There may appear to be a danger here that this verification in terms of form may encounter similar difficulties to those of Kant’s categorical imperative: perhaps the formalism could turn out to be empty. For how am I to know that it is the Middle Way I am verifying, if every instance of apparent advance is one in which the Middle Way is verified? The difficulties of the answer cannot be avoided by any recourse to linearity and its false certainty: I do not know that it is the
Although verification of the
Fortunately we are not left completely unable to address the rational concerns of such an entrenched dualist, since verification does not offer the only method of incrementally boosting confidence in the
A falsification of the
The central insight of Popper and Lakatos on falsification was that, despite the continuing lack of certainty surrounding claims of falsification (as with those of verification), falsification offers a degree of engagement with objectivity lacking in verification. Whilst an apparent verification may only be indicative of the applicability of the theory in very much more restricted conditions than the ones it specifies, a falsification specified in advance for the whole theory at least indicates a falsity in one of the contributory hypothetical premises which are being tested. Of course it may only indicate such a falsity in a very restricted range of conditions, but this is sufficient to falsify the range originally given for the theory, at least leading to its modification and testing in a new form. A central ground of judgement as to the worth of a theory for Popper and Lakatos is thus its falsifiability: if the conditions of falsification cannot be specified, it can be rejected as dogmatic a priori. All these arguments, because specified in terms of judgements rather than empirical verifications, are equally applicable to the pragmatist framework of truth I offer here.
Another way of formulating the dualist’s accusation of formalism in the verification of the
Two qualifications need to be offered before attempting to state what such a falsification for the
Secondly, falsification can only be offered here, like verification, in incremental terms. Falsifiability will thus only be possible in the terms of incrementality specified in 6.c.i. However, on the basis of my argument so far in this chapter, such incrementality is the only alternative to the illusions of metaphysical dualism.
How can we specify a falsification for the
This decision, however, does not necessarily amount to a falsification of the
It is this finiteness which makes it possible to claim that, within the limits of a defeasibility context, the
A great deal of stress needs to be laid on the importance of this falsifiability of the
 See 2.b.iii
 A further sophist-type objection that can be made to this is the chicken-and-egg argument which assumes that of two interdependent and simultaneously developing qualities one must have temporal priority: but if one has temporal priority, it will then be objected that it cannot develop alone. This argument relies on a dualism which takes development to be intrinsically discontinuous. The only solution to it can be found in the assumption of the mutual causality of systems (see 10.ii).
 This raises many questions about the relationship between the “proving” individual and his society, particularly of what it means to modify a conventional context. These issues will be dealt with in 6.c.ii and 6.d
 In practice, the only rival to the
 See 2.b.iii & 4.d.iii
 See 4.e.ii
 Referred to in 4.d.iii
 These two possibilities are not distinct, the “or” being conjunctive rather than disjunctive. This means that the
 See 4.h.i
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