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Why Science And Values Can't Be Untangled

Facts and values are entangled in science. It's not because scientists are biased, not because they are partial or influenced by other kinds of interests, but because of a commitment to reason, consistency, coherence, plausibility and replicability. These are value commitments.

One way to bring this out: we don't do more science to prove we should be reasonable. Doing science presupposes being reasonable. Being reasonable isn't one of the facts. It's a value.

Now, you might take this entanglement of fact and value — this is philosopher Hilary Putnam's phrase — to demote science from its exalted standing. You might conclude: ah, you see, science is subjective too. It's just another practice!

And then you start to boggle. How could a mere practice be so effective? To give an old-fashioned example: we have have sent a man to the moon!

But maybe the point isn't to bring science down a notch; maybe the point, really, is to elevate values and their place in our lives up a few rungs.

Maybe our mistake all along has been the idea that values are merely subjective, just matters of opinion or interpretation, or taste, or inclination, that our values are merely relative.

Is there anything relative, or made up, or culture bound, about the value of love, or that of life itself?

And what of the value of reasonableness or fairness?

Aren't these real values? Isn't discerning them an achievement? Don't we learn something about the world when we come to appreciate, for example, that health is good?

But if values are real, what are they? And what about the fact that, when it comes to values, it doesn't seem possible to settle disputes. We live in a pluralistic world, after all.

Once you take values seriously, you've got to figure out how they fit into the world, how they fit into our world, and this isn't easy.

In fact, I suspect, it is one of the fundamental problems of our time.

You can keep up with more of what Alva Noë is thinking on Facebook and on Twitter: @alvanoe

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Alva Noë is a contributor to the NPR blog 13.7: Cosmos and Culture. He is writer and a philosopher who works on the nature of mind and human experience.