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Beyond Relativism: Science and Human Values.

When I was in graduate school I heard the myth that once upon a time the professors decided that the graduate students should be given an example of clear philosophical writing. However, a difficulty arose because the professors could not agree on an example of a clear piece of philosophical writing. I would like to propose Roger Masters' Beyond Relativism as just such a piece. Whether one agrees with him or not, his theses and his arguments are clear. Both what he is arguing for and what he is arguing against are clearly stated. If I may be given a personal comment, reviewing the current philosophical literature, I would say this is a major achievement. One other important, general point about this book: it is about significant issues worth spending time considering. Agree or disagree with the author. The issue is worth fighting over.

Masters attacks the following theses: (1) Science is ahistorical. (2) Scientific knowledge (specifically that of social science) is value-free. (3) The proper model of science is linear regularities. (4) Behavior should be explained on a nature versus nurture dichotomy. (5) The proper goal of science is the conquest of nature.

The most important one of these positions is (2): scientific knowledge is value free. Commonly this position is known as the "naturalistic fallacy," which is defined as "the attempt to derive preferences or moral standards from the natural sciences" (p. 5). This fact-value dichotomy, Masters believes, rests on the supposed gulf between Is and Ought. Masters rejects the argument that a person cannot move from "is" (fact) to "ought" (value).

Along the way he attacks the Lockean model of the mind as a tabula rasa (which he says, "denies the existence of innate ideas and treats the brain as an undifferentiated black box"). This model, he says, is "empirically false" (p. 142; see also p. 7). The evidence he presents to support his position is that the brain contains individual neurons (also "neuronal ensembles") in the temporal lobes that are programmed (also "have an innate capacity") to fire on perceiving certain nonverbal expressions of emotion. Because these evolved structures of the brain process certain expressions in a particular way, "such notions as happiness or anger can properly be described as innate ideas" (p. 142).

The positions Masters argues for include the following: (1) "It is impossible to understand social life and politics without a knowledge of nature and of human nature" (p. 143). (2) A new paradigm based on contemporary physics (including quantum physics, relativity, and chaos theory), contemporary biology (including genetics, evolution, and behavioral ecology) and contemporary neuroscience (including the modular brain, emotion, and consciousness) should be adopted. (3) Values and goals can be derived from nature. This "new naturalism" shares this basic position with ancient naturalism but is supported (according to Masters) by contemporary science. (4) This new naturalism solves the problem of "a relativistic or nihilistic conception that humans are alone in an alien universe with no inherent principles of value or meaning" (p. 8). Such relativism, he believes, "is both intellectually incomplete and morally dangerous" (p. 8).

In contrast to the five positions Masters attacks (noted above) he presents five "naturalistic values": (1) "Respect the existence of social and moral norms of cultures unlike our own". (2) "Each of us is responsible for our moral choices". (3) Because the deeds of others were in part unintended, "toleration and forgiveness of the errors of others" is appropriate. (4) "Tolerate differences in ability while always demanding more of ourselves than others are justified in asking." (5) "Natural justice . . . is . . . the just or fair resolution according to nature" (pp. 154-5).

In his conclusion, Masters argues that the methods of modern science, an understanding of ancient science, and a faith in God can coexist. As an example of a person who was able to do this Masters cites Pascal.

Forrest Wood, Jr. University of Southern Mississippi.
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Author:Wood, Forrest, Jr.
Publication:The Review of Metaphysics
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 1, 1995
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