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The Other Myth of Neutrality

Anyone who reads W4 knows that I instinctively chamber a round when I hear, read, or smell anything like postmodernism. For that very reason I've always been a rampaging opponent of claims like, "Neutrality is impossible" or "Neutrality is a myth," particularly when applied to epistemological issues. "Neutrality in science is impossible," for example, is wimpish relativistic rhetoric, a counsel of despair, and would, if taken seriously, destroy science. When scientists do not even try to be objective, we get nothing but propaganda. And that's not good.

I've come to think, though, that some people (the ones who really aren't postmodernists) make such statements or agree with such statements because they are thinking about the education of the young. The reasoning goes something like this: "If you're teaching children about all kinds of subjects, including history and science, you're going to make evaluations that are going to be influenced by moral considerations and sometimes metaphysical and religious considerations. It would be artificial to refuse to answer Johnny's question about whether someone in history was good or bad because you wanted to be 'neutral'. Educating children involves imparting a unified view of the world, including matters of evaluation and commitment. Therefore it is ridiculous to think that you can just neutrally teach some subject."

If that's what people mean or what people are thinking, locutions like, "History is not neutral" or "Science is not neutral" are pretty confusing ways of expressing that thought.

So I propose that we ditch, reject, and fight the idea that neutrality in knowing facts is impossible. Neutrality in knowing facts is not only possible but desirable--a goal to be aimed for, not an impossibility to be despaired of. Instead, I suggest that we talk about the other "myth of neutrality," which is a myth of neutrality regarding the education of the young.

When it comes to education, it really is not only undesirable but also extremely difficult in several important subjects to teach those subjects without introducing controversial or moral considerations.

Certainly, it's entirely possible for a Christian child to have a non-Christian math teacher and for this not to involve any controversial subjects. (At least it should be. Let's please get rid of politicized break-out boxes about the "achievements" of this or that victim group.) I suppose that even there the examples chosen for story problems might present opportunities for some issues. More to the point, it's perfectly legitimate for a parent to want a child to be able to go off-topic occasionally, even far off-topic, and for his teacher to be able to respond in a way that reinforces the truth. This is all the more important for younger children. Spontaneity in discussion is legitimate and enjoyable as long as it doesn't mean that the subject at hand simply gets left by the wayside indefinitely.

And then there's the other unfortunate fact: Even in objective areas, our silly educational establishment has decided that certain ways of teaching are old-fashioned and conservative, so that it is considered controversial to teach phonics or the times tables. Hence even though I do not agree that there should be anything controversial, much less that there is anything political, about these things, the educrats will tell you that there is, which means that parents may want their children to have what is called a "conservative" or "traditional" education even in cut-and-dried areas, just to make sure they get educated at all.

Once we get past the three R's, there are plenty of subjects--history is an excellent example--where it is both possible to know truth about facts and also entirely impossible to teach the subject well without having an opinion about both the selection and evaluation of those facts, which opinion will doubtless be controverted by plenty of other people.

It's completely understandable and legitimate, indeed, important, for Christian parents and conservative parents to want their children's teachers and textbooks to teach these subjects from a perspective that they consider reasonable. Again, this is most important in the younger and more formative years.

These meandering thoughts lead me to think of the other, other myth of neutrality--namely the myth that it is possible to run a country without having any substantive opinions about what is good. Now, that's too big of a topic even to say much about at the end of a post, but I will note the similarity to education:

As a rule of thumb, the less purely technical and circumscribed an area of endeavor, the more that area involves people's lives considered more broadly, the more difficult it is to do it well while being neutral on moral matters. What is likely to happen instead is that one puts in place a faux neutrality which is actually entirely substantive. So, for example, if we teach children about the mechanics of various sexual acts, we are not merely teaching them facts. We are also teaching them that the acts being described are morally permissible, that this information is appropriate for them to have at their age, and that it is appropriate for them to consider applying this information to their lives in the near future. To pretend otherwise is to lie, and to lie in the name of retaining power. In law, if we pretend that making assisted suicide legal is merely neutrally allowing people "a choice" and has no substantive implications, we are lying.

I would guess that frustration with lies of that sort leaves ordinary people open to sweeping, and unfortunate, denunciations of the possibility of objective knowledge.

Comments (33)

But it is true that history is never neutral, can never be neutral, and should never be neutral. History does not contain the word 'story' by accident, and there is always a story that is told. We may talk of bare historical facts...'the colonies collectively seceded from the British Empire on July 4, 1776'...but even there by word choice a story is hinted at that a different word choice would obscure. There are several different stories that may be told about America, but none of them are neutral. This doesn't mean that all of them are accurate either.

When people say 'science isn't neutral' they are 9 times out of 10 talking about evolution and/or origin of the universe. It is precisely because those fields concern themselves with a story about humanity that they cannot be neutral either. A humanity that evolved by blind chance cannot be the same as one that was created by a special act. As long as the subject involves a judgment of who we are and where we came from, there is no neutrality. Again this doesn't mean that there is no chance of inaccuracy.

Mathematics tells no such stories, which is why teaching evolution in schools is controversial and teaching calculus isn't. I agree entirely on education though. Sex education not only is not neutral, but it was purposely devised to have much the effect that it ends up having. At this point, a serious Christian will not put their children in public school, period.

Mathematics tells no such stories, which is why teaching evolution in schools is controversial and teaching calculus isn't.

Ha! If only. Sorry to say, the teaching of mathematics has been co-opted by skeptical secular humanism's penchant for denying that anything can be known. Way back when I was a kid (you know, when St. Thomas was teaching at U of Paris), geometry was taught with axioms, by which was meant self-evident first principles of the science, truths that are grasped both in terms of validity and in terms of certainty not by deduction but by simply understanding the subject and predicate's meanings. Truth was the object of the study, and it rested on knowing with real knowledge the self-evident principles, such as "the whole is greater than the proper part".

But for the last 100 years or so, this has not been the case. Now, mathematicians (along with modernists of all stripes) reject the possibility of there being axioms in the old sense, a proposition whose truth and certainty is grasped without any mediation of other propositions. Instead, they teach geometry using postulates: propositions that, if you grant them temporarily for the sake of the investigation, interesting results may come forth. Truth as such is not the object of the investigation.

But it is true that history is never neutral, can never be neutral, and should never be neutral. History does not contain the word 'story' by accident, and there is always a story that is told. We may talk of bare historical facts...'the colonies collectively seceded from the British Empire on July 4, 1776'...but even there by word choice a story is hinted at that a different word choice would obscure.

See, Matt W., that's the kind of sweeping generalization that I think we should avoid. You and I agree about many things, I would guess, but I want to recommend that conservatives study more to be "splitters" than "lumpers." The problem with such statements is that they imply to students that objective knowledge is not possible. Such statements encourage in young people a lazy relativism with highly unfortunate anti-evidential overtones. For example, one could readily take a statement like "History is never neutral" to mean that whether or not Caesar crossed the Rubicon or Napoleon was exiled to Elba is a matter of what "color of glasses" one is wearing.

At the risk of opening a can of worms, I want to point out that when the Apostles' Creed says that Jesus of Nazareth "suffered under Pontius Pilate" it is making a statement of objective historical fact, and a very important one. If we say that history is never neutral, we can unfortunately give the impression to Christian young people that whether or not Jesus even existed, much less suffered under Pontius Pilate, is something that we can know only through the eyes of faith or some such rather than being historical facts in the perfectly ordinary sense.

We really would do better to point out ways in which some given statement might bias the hearer--thereby showing that, in fact, we can recognize such things and help to correct for them--when this is the case and also not to pooh-pooh or pretend out of existence statements which are, in fact, quite bare.

In the case of the secession of the American colonies from the British Empire, I think it would be stretching it a bit to find any very interesting bias even in the word choice, but if you wished to imply that, for example, "British Empire" is somehow a negative term with which respectable historians might reasonably disagree (arguing instead that Britain was not really an empire at this time), and if you think such nit-picking (and potentially rabbit-trail-following) worth your time and theirs, then go ahead and do so and discuss this at least with your older and more sophisticated students. On the other hand, you might reasonably conclude that all sides at the time would have agreed with the terms "collective secession," "colonies," and "British Empire" and simply move on with the lesson. But don't just say that neutrality in history is impossible. It's much, much too strong and, as I say in the main post, potentially confusing in important ways.

Hello Lydia,

As you say, it is impossible to be "neutral" on major moral matters when organizing and ruling a polity. This is, of course, one of our big arguments against liberalism: its neutrality is a sham. Perhaps it would be better to make a distinction between being neutral on one hand and being objective and true on the other. Beliefs may be objectively correct but not "neutral"; in fact, the truth is never neutral.

To say that neutrality is impossible is not to say that knowledge is impossible. Or, to put it a little differently, simply because subjects perceive, it doesn't mean that everything is hopelessly subjective. It's true both that neutrality is impossible and that knowledge is not.

By "knowledge," I mean justified belief. By saying knowledge is possible, I mean that while the data we perceive, massage, and evaluate are not pristine because of the way we deal with them, it does not necessarily follow that the data are effectively compromised or that we can do nothing intellectually justifiable with them.

Lydia, you do have a knack for opening cans! Historians may hold that Jesus or Pontius Pilate aren't the figures we have the best historical evidence for, that there’s better historical evidence about, say, Cleopatra. Even if it’s ‘objective historical fact’ that Jesus suffered under Pontius Pilate, it doesn't follow that Jesus was the only person to have suffered or who suffered most under Pontius Pilate. In the circumstances, your focus is ipso facto suggestive of 'spectacles'.

Regarding neutrality, are you claiming that there are authorities on certain matters and that those who disagree with them are wearing the wrong kind of glasses? That claim would be consistent with the view that we all wear glasses, which may be variously tinted. The problem then would be to show that some tints are better than others.

Ooops! I guess Europeans are still 'Overseas'!

it doesn't follow that Jesus was the only person to have suffered or who suffered most under Pontius Pilate

Um, right. That doesn't follow. Who ever said it did?

To Bonald, and Michael B. See, here's a question: What's the point of attributing non-neutrality to either my belief or my assertion of the proposition,

"Napoleon was imprisoned on Elba"?

I could understand if I called him "the great Napoleon" or "the wicked Napoleon." In that case, I could see using your distinction between neutrality and truth. That is to say, it might well be _true_ that Napoleon was wicked, but we wouldn't usually describe it as neutral to refer to him as "the wicked Napoleon." But if I leave all that out, why say that it is non-neutral simply to assert that he was imprisoned on Elba?

I could understand if I called him "the great Napoleon" or "the wicked Napoleon." In that case, I could see using your distinction between neutrality and truth.

The problem there is that you are setting up a hierarchy which puts neutrality at the top, as the supreme kind of truth. That is to say, it suborns moral truth to other truths.

Let me put it this way: if it is just as objectively true that Napoleon was wicked as that he was imprisoned at Elba, a genuinely neutral judge (observer) can be as justified in believing Napoleon's wickedness as his imprisonment.

A neutrality of the sort proposed here is a modernist knife in the back of moral truth.

And I may be wrong, but it seems to me that a postmodern is someone who has realized that the kind of neutrality he wants - where moral truths are not 'neutral', and therefore are not authoritative - is not possible. In the face of that realization, he has a choice: give up on his idea that moral truths (particularly moral truths about things like sex and war) have no force, or run screaming into the arms of a radical subjectivism.

The postmodern chooses the latter; because if he were to choose the former, then he could no longer be like God.

The Christian story is a perfect example of how history is never neutral. One may tell the story as though it were true, or tell it as though it were false, but it is not possible to tell it as though it didn't matter at all whether it were true or false, or to tell it as though it didn't matter whether it were a good or bad thing that it happened. If the story is true then it is therefore good, and if it is false then it is one of the worst lies ever told. But it is one or the other.

I understand the worries that students will be afflicted with the postmodern goo that tells them there is no truth and the stories we tell are all just rationalizations of existing power structures (or whatever it is they say; I never paid too much attention). So they should always be told that just because there are many different possible ways to tell a story, it doesn't follow that they are all accurate or that none of them are or that accuracy is impossible.

Zippy! Wonderful to see you. (And if someone else is having the gall to impersonate Zippy, well...that would be outrageous.)

I entirely agree with this:

Let me put it this way: if it is just as objectively true that Napoleon was wicked as that he was imprisoned at Elba, a genuinely neutral judge (observer) can be as justified in believing Napoleon's wickedness as his imprisonment.

In fact, when I said that I could agree with using Bonald's and Michael B's distinction between neutrality and truth re. "Napoleon was wicked," I had a bit of a reservation for exactly that reason and hoped that I would not be misunderstood.

In saying that their terminology might apply to "Napoleon was wicked" but not to "Napoleon was imprisoned on Elba," I was merely saying that this would conform to a common concept of neutrality and use of the term "neutral"--namely, as something like not having a strong view on an evaluative matter that would probably be contested by other people, or something to that effect. But the Ideal Neutral Observer--God, for example--knows the truth about Napoleon's wickedness just as much as about his imprisonment.

It seems to me that statements like, "Neutral historical knowledge is impossible" sound like denials that there are extremely (or even fairly) bare propositions that do not involve, e.g., taking a position on thorny or controverted historical issues. It also seems to raise confusion about whether there are historical statements that do not involve taking a position on a question that is _at issue_ in some given context--in other words, whether it is possible to say something historical without question-begging. Such claims about neutrality seem to me to blur distinctions and to that extent to darken counsel.

But my attempt to make those distinctions not mean that the barer a statement is the better, or the higher, or anything of the sort.

The Christian story is a perfect example of how history is never neutral.

And again we see that the baggage which comes along with "neutral" is "has no moral or theological implications".

The idea of neutrality is the idea that moral and theological knowledge is specially problemmatic and therefore has diminished or no authority versus putative "non-moral" or "non-theological" truth. Neutrality is a special kind of non-value-laden truth, which - as distinct from value-laden truth - does carry authority.

But all truth is value-laden, without exception. We can attempt to ignore that for certain tactical purposes, and ignoring it for tactical purposes can help us to focus on some particular task. But that kind of self-consciously reductive exercise can easily turn into a world view; I call that world view "modernism". A postmodernist is a modernist who has realized that tactical reductionism doesn't make for a sufficient world view, but who still wants to have sex with his girlfriend.

"Neutrality" is a myth when it is taken to mean the banishment of certain kinds of truths to the "no authority" penalty box, where we don't have to pay any attention to them. When it is not taken to mean that, it is simply synonymous with truth; so why bother with it as a distinct term?

Matt, don't you think that possibly your use of the term "story" could create confusion between fiction and non-fiction? I don't say this in sarcasm. I genuinely think that such language _does_ have a real potential to create that confusion, and I'm presenting that concern for your consideration.

As far as the _importance_ of the history of Christianity, of course it is important, and of course it would be a mere pretense to act like it isn't important. Nonetheless, to say (or to seem to say) that, because of the importance and significance of the story, the history of Christianity cannot be neutral in an epistemological sense seems to me to imply some sort of (ineliminable) major epistemological uncertainty about it leading to the need for a leap of faith regarding the historical facts themselves.

My point being that the importance, the significance, of an historical fact does not in itself make it less epistemologically knowable. That such-and-such many Jews were killed by the Nazis is a tremendously significant fact, but its significance does not in itself make it more difficult to know whether or not it happened.

Here I would connect this with my old post on whether or not facts about Jesus are "self-committing."

http://www.whatswrongwiththeworld.net/2008/07/is_jesus_rose_from_the_dead_a.html

Hah, no, its me Lydia -- 404 error Spring has failed to load. ;)

Maxims-

Convictions are greater foes to truth than lies. The first thing required of genius is the love of truth; for what men really want is not knowledge but certainty. The desire to use knowledge is not the same as the desire to know. Here and there, some men possess a burning and inexhaustible passion for the truth which is self-supported and a constant source of joy, without ever reaching any final satisfaction. This is the burning, proud, and disinterested passion for what is true which leads man to the abstract springs of truth from where they draw their basic knowledge. Respect for the truth comes close to being the basis for all morality.

Us, too, Zippy. :-) It's a dark and gloomy-lookin' day.

I'm not sure if Zippy is agreeing with me or not.

No, I don't think the term story should cause any problems, though there may well be a generally held linguistic prejudice there ("just a story..."). Obviously fiction is all about telling stories, but nonfiction is as well. Simply rattling off a bunch of facts with no narrative tying them into some greater whole would be incoherent and boring. History is really just the stories a people tells about itself. Even the newspaper contains stories.

I agree entirely with your third paragraph though. The Christian story has cosmic significance, but this does not make it unknowable by any means. So I'd put my position roughly as: there is a truth, it is knowable, and it is neither possible nor desirable to be wholly disinterested about what it is and what it means.

But for the last 100 years or so, this has not been the case. Now, mathematicians (along with modernists of all stripes) reject the possibility of there being axioms in the old sense, a proposition whose truth and certainty is grasped without any mediation of other propositions. Instead, they teach geometry using postulates: propositions that, if you grant them temporarily for the sake of the investigation, interesting results may come forth. Truth as such is not the object of the investigation

I am puzzled by this comment. On the one hand, I sympathize with the goal of denouncing modernists of all stripes, on the other, I think that saying that mathematicians "reject the possibility of there being axioms in the old sense, a proposition whose truth and certainty is grasped without any mediation of other propositions", while not exactly wrong, misses the point altogether. I concede that you would have a hard time getting a hold of a mathematician describing what he does as the pursuit of Truth. But this does not mean that mathematicians in general decry the possibility of objective knowledge. Or to put it differently, while such a negation may be on many a mathematician's mind the negation has little to no relevance to mathematics qua mathematics.

Let me offer an alternative narrative about what mathematicians do. To pursue the example offered by the OP, I could build it around geometry, but I prefer another instance which I think, illustrates better what I want to say. The example is related to the nature of proof in mathematics. What counts as a valid proof? Even here there are disagreements and some self-evident principles are by no means evident. For example, a constructivist will deny the validity of the principle of excluded middle, PEM for short. For my purposes, the following equivalent form of the PEM is the more important one:

~~P => P (A)

Why does a constructivist cry foul if you employ PEM? One reason is because it opens the door to non-constructive existencial proofs. Suppose you are trying to prove the existence of some object, call it x, satisfying some condition P(x), say a solution to some equation. In symbols:

Ex:P(x)

A classical mathematician could try and argue by contradiction. He could try to prove that non-existence of such x would entail a contradiction. In symbols,

~Ex:P(x) => F

and then use PEM in the form (A) to deduce Ex:P(x). Note the conjuror's trick: he has shown the existence of the purported x, but has given no inkling of how to actually construct it, and in fact, there may even be *no* method for constructing it. Like a magician, he is pulling rabbits out of hats.

At this point, one could rehearse a deadly battle between classical mathematicians and constructivists, entrenched and gunning down each other. Or. Or we could take a more catholic view and realize that the constructivist has hit upon something substantial, a nuance let us say, between those proofs that use PEM and those that do not. What does this more catholic view buy us? Well, for one, we have gained a finer-grained distinction; in particular, proofs themselves become objects worthy of mathematical study. This new vantage point also allows us to see classical and constructive mathematics not as polar opposites but more as different points in a continuum. I do not want to bore you with technical details, but even a staunch classical mathematician who thinks that under the intuitive conception of the hierarchy of sets, the axiom of choice is obviously true (such as myself), may find very useful shackling himself to constructivist principles and not use PEM or any non-constructive methods. This dialectic is a recurrent phenomenon in the modern history of mathematics, say from the beginning of 19C onwards with the efforts to provide a rigorous foundation for calculus. Again and again, things that were presumed to be irreconcilable, were found to be connected if seen from a new vantage point. To reach this new vantage point one has had to throw away some supposedly self-evident principle, but the pay-off is that not only the boundaries of the mathematical universe have expanded, but new tools were found with which to attack old problems.

I especially like the "mathematical universe" metaphor. It always seemed to me that one of the major motivations of a physicist was the very human need to impose a rational order on an alien, seemingly chaotic universe. Out of the infinite sea of possibility and potentiality, a mathematician seeks understanding, a human, even humane, rational order. Sure, we could program a computer to churn out theorems. But so what? Even if it were a practical method of discovering mathematical truths, the understanding, the human understanding, would still be missing.

Does this narrative make me a detestable modernist? I shrug my shoulders in indifference. Mathematicians do not have the custom of pondering over the philosophical basis of their discipline -- after all, they are mathematicians, not philosophers. Is this a healthy state of affairs? Probably not. The ground they tread may be shaky, and many of them may even distrust that there is a ground, but they keep on treading. Oddly enough, I find this attitude very uplifting. And yet, to get back to my story, a classical mathematician and a constructivist can still communicate with each other. Or, to stress the point even more forcefully, a mathematician like Edward Nelson may deny the principle of induction as tainted by the poison of impredicativity, and labor in the hopes of finding a contradiction in first order Peano arithmetic, but I can still understand his book "Predicative arithmetic" (or could, if I would just set myself doggedly at it). This methinks, belies any resemblance of mathematics with post-modernist attempts to upturn the value hierarchy.

Of course, my protest should be qualified by the warning (as if any warning is needed...) that I am no philosopher, that my English is broken, that there may be as many as two or three rafters in my eye, that my competence is restricted to an infinitesimal patch of mathematics, and that as a member of the sect, I have vested interest in the subject and feel like I have to jump into the fray to defend the honor of My Lady. So please, please, forgive me my rusty armor, my dented sword, my uncertain blows.

Regards,
G. Rodrigues

@Zippy: "The idea of neutrality is the idea that moral and theological knowledge is specially problematic and therefore has diminished or no authority versus putative 'non-moral' or 'non-theological' truth. Neutrality is a special kind of non-value-laden truth, which - as distinct from value-laden truth - does carry authority.

"But all truth is value-laden, without exception..."

Oh, dear.

Zippy, it seems that the desire to rescue certain "moral and theological" views from invidious comparisons is tempting you into wholesale relativism.

Surely there's a sense in which the truth of, say, *modus ponens*, or the quadratic equation, is *not* "value-laden," in quite the same way, or to quite the same degree, as the doctrine of the trinity, or the immaculate conception, or the virgin birth?

G. Rodrigues, I'm going to admit up-front that not only am I not a mathematician, I would never play one even on Halloween. I'm dependent for pretty much all my mathematical knowledge on my resident expert--aka my brilliant husband. From the _little_ that I know about what you are describing, I'm far more sympathetic to the classical mathematicians than to the constructivists. I suppose one could say that if you insist on tying up one of your legs, you will then be forced to find new modes of transportation. This may have some unexpected good results if you turn out to be a very clever and creative person, but it will still be a quite unnecessary and, to my mind, strange and arbitrary self-limitation. In the same way, while we may end up discovering interesting things if we quite artificially restrict ourselves to constructivist requirements, that doesn't mean, really, much of anything about proofs by contradiction or the principle of the excluded middle. It just means that human beings are good at getting around their own strange and arbitrary limitations.

All that being said, I don't think that high-level debates between constructivist and non-constructivist mathematicians are necessarily signs of relativism in mathematics, nor do I think they're responsible for the dreadful decline of math education in America. We should pin that blame on the math educators, who are _not_ mathematicians but rather, for the most part, fad-chasing fools. If something is working well, give the educators a few years and they'll find a way to break it. Probably a lot of what's driving the bus is anti-meritocratic ideas of "group work" and a hatred of anything like traditional learning methods such as memorization. Probably also a silly and shallow hatred of fixed points and right and wrong answers. All a lot more mundane than debates over the PEM.

Just a couple of comments.

From the _little_ that I know about what you are describing, I'm far more sympathetic to the classical mathematicians than to the constructivists. I suppose one could say that if you insist on tying up one of your legs, you will then be forced to find new modes of transportation. This may have some unexpected good results if you turn out to be a very clever and creative person, but it will still be a quite unnecessary and, to my mind, strange and arbitrary self-limitation. In the same way, while we may end up discovering interesting things if we quite artificially restrict ourselves to constructivist requirements, that doesn't mean, really, much of anything about proofs by contradiction or the principle of the excluded middle. It just means that human beings are good at getting around their own strange and arbitrary limitations.

While it may seem strange, it is a very common strategy in some fields like topos theory, and *definitely* far from arbitrary. But putting aside all the other considerations (the catholic view and all that), even if we agree, as I do, that PEM is a valid reasoning principle or some non-constructive axioms are sound, it is a fact that constructive proofs avoiding them are in general preferable as, by their very nature, they tend to convey more information.

All that being said, I don't think that high-level debates between constructivist and non-constructivist mathematicians are necessarily signs of relativism in mathematics, nor do I think they're responsible for the dreadful decline of math education in America. We should pin that blame on the math educators, who are _not_ mathematicians but rather, for the most part, fad-chasing fools. If something is working well, give the educators a few years and they'll find a way to break it. Probably a lot of what's driving the bus is anti-meritocratic ideas of "group work" and a hatred of anything like traditional learning methods such as memorization. Probably also a silly and shallow hatred of fixed points and right and wrong answers. All a lot more mundane than debates over the PEM.

The situation is pretty much the same over here where I live (Lisbon, Portugal). Likewise, for the diagnosis: educators, their fads, their ignorance of mathematics, their repulsive jargon, etc. And while this debate may be more mundane than a debate over PEM it is also infinitely more important, as it connects in a very real and vital way to our lives, not only individually, but as a society. In America there are still spiritual reserves that may halt the march towards the abyss, but there is nothing comparable here in Portugal or in Europe as a whole. Christianity, and religion in general, is slowly but relentlessly being banished from the public square. A few years ago, when we had a referendum over the legalization of abortion (which the pro-choice side won as expected), if you used any argument that even smacked of Christianity (e.g. the sanctity of human life) you would be automatically disqualified as trying to impose your moral values on others. Priceless, just priceless. Materialism, liberalism in all its variants, atheism, etc. are either the dominant ethos or on the rise, especially in the elites that have the power to shape culture. The prospects are grim indeed and Murphy's law -- that the light at the end of the tunnel is of the train coming towards you -- rules supreme. Believe you me when I say that one has to pray very hard not to feel despondent or fall into despair.

Regards,
G. Rodrigues

Surely there's a sense in which the truth of, say, *modus ponens*, or the quadratic equation, is *not* "value-laden," in quite the same way, or to quite the same degree, as the doctrine of the trinity, or the immaculate conception, or the virgin birth?

I noticed that you didn't actually disagree with me.

Sure, truth comes in all sorts of flavors and implications: all the sorts and flavors in (and out of) the world. Nevertheless, because everything in (and out of) the world is value-laden, all truth is value laden.

It is also true that lots of folks will have a harder time understanding some truths than others, etc. For example, your average Joe will have a much easier time understanding the fact that casual sex is wrong than he will understanding quantum mechanics.

As far as I can tell, that is all quite coherent with my understanding of modernism (which I described above as turning a heuristic 'neutrality' into a world view) and postmodernism (which clings to that worldview but despairs of its compartmentalization of truths, thus ending up at relativism).

Where you are getting "wholesale relativism" out of my own POV is a bit of a mystery; probably a lack of clarity in my posts, I suppose. Because I'm as anti-relativist, when it comes to truth, as they come.

Sure, truth comes in all sorts of flavors and implications: all the sorts and flavors in (and out of) the world. Nevertheless, because everything in (and out of) the world is value-laden, all truth is value laden.

But your contention is that moral truths have equal or greater values to empirical and mathematical truths. At least, that is the way I'm interpreting your remarks so far.

I think I often have trouble giving any very helpful meaning to the ascription of value-laden-ness to particular truths.

I suppose I can _in some sense_ see calling a statement modus ponens "value-laden" because I could see saying that modus ponens is beautiful. So, not "value-laden" in the sense of relative or perspectival but rather in the sense of corresponding to a wonderful or important bit of reality. Still, given the widespread use of "value-laden" to mean "perspectival" or "not objectively knowable," I would be hesitant to use the term there. It's just that I can figure out what someone like Zippy might mean by using the term there.

But I would have some trouble applying it to the statement, "Napoleon was imprisoned on Elba." Would we have to think of an _evaluation_ of his imprisonment in order to give meaning to calling that statement "value-laden"? But someone who made the statement might have no evaluative opinion on the matter.

Even harder would be trivial truths, such as "The exact length of my shoelace in microns is x." I can't think of _any_ sense in which that is a value-laden statement, because even the truth which it describes is so trivial.

But your contention is that moral truths have equal or greater values to empirical and mathematical truths. At least, that is the way I'm interpreting your remarks so far.

Not quite.

Lets set aside the value-ladenness of all truth, since, while definitely the case, it really isn't a necessary premise here.

The modernist project proposes to divide knowledge into two sorts of truth. Moral and theological truths (and doubtless others: the demarcation is, itself, a point of contention and the subject of much of what passes for "art") are considered non-neutral, and thus not authoritative. Scientific and mathematical truths are considered neutral, and thus authoritative. This, again, is more than merely a provisional heuristic for the sake of (say) investigating the implications of Peano arithmetic. It is a world view; or a strong enough unchecked tendency that it might as well be a world view, denials to the contrary. That is, whatever denials individuals may mount with respect to their personal philosophies, modernism has the effect of a widely held world view; so such denials miss the point.

The problem with modernism as a world view (or an unchecked tendency, if you prefer) is that it is flat out false; and that human beings living in reality have a difficult time avoiding its falsity, try as they might. I already mentioned that (for example) an everyday Joe can see the wrongness (truth-that-it-is-wrong) of murder or fornication far more easily than he can see the truth of quantum mechanics. Examples can be multiplied.

The postmodern, though, does not want to give up on modernity's relativisation of moral and theological truth: he won't give up on their categorization as non-neutral and therefore non-authoritative. If he did, he might have to consider the possibility that (say) the Trinity or the wrongness of fornication are every bit as authoritatively true as Heisenberg's uncertainty principle.

So he becomes a relativist about everything.

When someone asserts that there is a myth of neutrality, then, he may be asserting one of two quite radically different things[*]. He may well be asserting a postmodern view; in which case Lydia is quite right to chamber a round. I'm happy to pass the ammunition; in fact I think getting this right is an important loaded magazine itself. The other possibility though is that he is rejecting modernity's attempt to relegate moral and theological truths to some special category of stuff we don't have to pay attention to, at least unless it gets uppity, and only then to put it back in its place in the box of things we don't have to treat as true.

Gotta go. Its been nice visiting my W4 friends again. Blessed Palm Sunday to you all.

[*] I suppose a third possibility is the very limited scope of educating the young, as Lydia discusses in the post.

Zippy, thanks for the hit & run. I guess we who remain at W4 must take what we can get.

FWIW, I thought the point of this was a bit elusive:

"...an everyday Joe can see the wrongness (truth-that-it-is-wrong) of murder or fornication far more easily than he can see the truth of quantum mechanics..."

Possibly.

So?

I think Zippy's point there is this, Steve: On the view Zippy is laying out (and disagreeing with) one of the supposed differences between the authoritative science and math truths and the supposedly non-authoritative moral and religious truths is that the former are evident to all observers, hence, objective, while the latter are epistemologically elusive and hard to access, hence subjective and not something people can be expected to abide by.

Zippy is counter-exampling that claim by pointing out that actually there are moral propositions the truth of which is more readily accessible than that of some scientific propositions.

"To Bonald, and Michael B. See, here's a question: What's the point of attributing non-neutrality to either my belief or my assertion of the proposition,

"Napoleon was imprisoned on Elba"? "

Hello Lydia,

I can't speak for Michael B., but I can imagine scenarios where "Napoleon was imprisoned on Elba" is not a neutral statement. Namely, any alternate world where Napoleon's imprisonment location is a point of contention. Suppose several locations were claiming this honor, each sporting alleged relics and hoping to attract tourists. Now suppose that I'm an archaeologist in this alternate world, and I find some decisive evidence that singles out Elba. When I make my claim publicly, it will be both warranted and objectively true, but it will not be neutral. It will side with partisans of one position and against partisans of others.

To me, whether a claim is "neutral" has nothing to do with whether of not it makes a value/moral assertion. The fact that the French Revolution started in 1789 and the fact that it was a wicked, impious affair are both objectively true facts, just facts of different kinds. They are both "neutral" with regard to issues that don't concern them. E.g. the start-date of the revolution is neutral as to whether or not it was a good thing, but knowing the revolution was evil is neutral regarding questions like whether or not it was easily preventable.

I agree with you, Bonald. I meant in this world. That's one reason why I picked that example--of an historical fact that isn't contested. In fact, I was thinking of putting in a comment here about the very point that neutrality should often be thought of relative to a context or controversy. We can imagine a situation in which two historians agree that Napoleon was wicked but disagree over the exact date of one of his battles. In that context, a statement about the battle date would be non-neutral whereas the statement that he was wicked would be neutral.

Lydia - yeah, I figured Zippy was thinking something like that. But I don't want to come down on him like a ton of bricks unless & until he admits that some such silliness was, indeed, his point.

"...one of the supposed differences between the authoritative science and math truths and the supposedly non-authoritative moral and religious truths is that the former are evident to all observers, hence, objective, while the latter are epistemologically elusive and hard to access, hence subjective..."

Well, if there's anybody in the whole history of philosophy who has been simultaneously smart enough to *formulate* that position and dumb enough to *believe* it, then I'll eat my head. To equate that which is "objective" with that which is "evident to all observers" would be a painfully obvious non-starter.

If it's neutral to affirm a "factual" proposition P, is it necessarily neutral to negate P? Obviously not, right? But maybe that shows that the affirmation of P is less neutral than we thought.

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