Should We Make Every Choice Scientifically?

Psychology, the science of mental events, has grappled from the start with a critical question of moral neutrality. The science of psychology with its ideal of the impassive observer began as a branch of philosophy in the latter decades of the 19th century. In the United States William James, philosopher and close friend of Charles Peirce, was recognized as an originator of psychology. But philosophy including that of James and Peirce raises questions of value-choices.

Are human thought and behavior best defined from a position of scientific neutrality? It should come as no surprise that psychology took just such a value-neutral turn in 20th century modernity.

This is how Evelyne Shuster, philosopher and hospital ethicist, described it:

Psychology, once a branch of philosophy, has long sought to be distinct from philosophy and become an independent scientific discipline in its own right.

Tension developed between psychologists who thought that philosophy was necessary to attach human values to their work, and those who wanted nothing to do with philosophy. This tension was felt early on, at the very first meeting of psychologists who, in 1892, founded the APA [American Psychological Association]. The proposed solution was either to create a separate “section” in the association to accommodate the “philosophically inclined psychologists” or to eject them from the association altogether. (The conflict was practically, but not philosophically, resolved when philosophers created their own association). By the beginning of the 20th century psychology began operating as an independent scientific discipline, adopting various models for understanding the brain-mind function, and devising various experimental approaches to test, explore, analyze, and measure mental processes that might inform human behaviors.

Independence from philosophy, although beneficial to modern psychologists, also has a cost. Humans are unlike any other animals. Their singularity resides in the indivisible union of the body and the mind, or the “thinking soul.” Animal models, may be useful for testing various biological and physiological hypotheses, but are almost useless to give values to facts. For this, philosophy is necessary. To paraphrase Immanuel Kant, facts without meanings are empty, and meanings without values are blind.[1]

Shuster made her comments in response to a recent crisis for the APA. The organization had commissioned a former federal prosecutor, David Hoffman, to report on the role of psychologists in U.S. Department of Defense interrogation programs.  As quoted by Shuster, the report revealed that “deceptively crafted and permissive ethics policies facilitated the active involvement of psychologists in abusive and torturous interrogations of prisoners at Guantanamo and other secret CIA ‘black sites.’” While the philosophical basis of the values inherent in the report may be debatable, the outcome is a fact. At its 2015 meeting the APA voted to ban psychologists from participating in national security interrogation.

The chief lesson to be gained from this bit of history is that psychology may not be divorced from values, and thus it may not be divorced from philosophy. The APA formalized this lesson in its decision to restrict its members’ activity.

Shuster’s remarks notwithstanding, the issue does not rest in singularity of the human mind as distinct from minds of other animals, a debatable proposition. Nor does it rest in “the indivisible union of the body and the mind” which Gilbert Ryle espoused so successfully.

Instead it derives from the inescapable notion that science always associates with values. Any human activity, including science, proceeds by choosing. Values accompany choosing. Values emerge as choices form habits. The only way to deny this notion is to deny that we make choices, or to say that every choice, like every other event, has its chain of causation in the physical world subject to reproducible, intersubjective discovery. That amounts to denial of will.

Yet the denial of will makes no sense in any language of humanity. It makes no sense as soon as “ought” or “should” or “goal” or “prize” or any similar word is spoken. Who wants to opine that Nobel Prizes are value-neutral? Do the winners deserve no more place in history than the doormen of hotels in Stockholm? Perhaps in heaven, but not on earth.

Science does not negate decision-making, but it does tend to move the locus of decision-making away from the human individual and into the area of consensus of rational unbiased observers suitably trained and motivated for the scientific enterprise. To employ some terms described earlier, science expands the dome in which choosing happens, and positivism claims to bring every real choice into the dome of science itself.

Try to imagine a country where scientific consensus is the final arbiter, and other kinds of choosing take on secondary roles. What kind of place would it be?

Think of the laboratories in such a place humming with discovery. Consider the councils that meet in modern, environmentally beautiful settings, conducive to the formation of consensus. Agreement among trained observers is valued above all else, but only to the extent that the empirical evidence allows, with a sense of satisfaction at the ever decreasing margins of uncertainty.

Social interaction in such a place would develop toward the most harmonious meshing of individual needs and resources, a harmony made easier by the advancing use of technology to probe human behavior at both individual and societal levels. (The header image for this blog depicts a room in which social activity in various regions might be monitored and analyzed.)

To be sure, the social contract could allow for randomly derived, usually genetic, differences in individual preferences. Psychological research could devise a number of readily administered scales to help individuals maximize their pleasure and to help them discern their other personal choices. For those who happen to dislike formal psychological testing, alternative arrangements, perhaps role playing in fantasy experiences, would be available. Then optimized analyses of personal responses to each fantasy situation could be provided to each participant, in order to help them make long-lasting choices for their lives.

But what is happiness, and what is to be desired in human life? In this ideal nation every year, social scientists, psychologists, and government officials will convene in the presence of expert facilitators with the goal of refining the complex definition of human happiness. All decisions will flow from that definition, which will be corrigibly, yet ever more soundly based upon the observable data of human nature.

Beyond this, imagine a world society in which scientific knowledge is employed as the only criteria for resolving disputes. Could there be any manifestation of will in such a society? Yes, there could be something called will, a convenient word for the expressed preferences of individuals who wish to use an archaic word, and even among small groups of people who share such an odd trait. But any supposed manifestation of will would hardly bear the same implications as effects that are testable and reproducible among interchangeable observers.


Value UN Security Council dreamstime_s_76291629 2
The U.N. Security Council seeks an answer on peace in Kosovo in 2016.  Can we imagine a similar body, joined by psychologists and social scientists, debating worldwide happiness in 2216?

Democracy would be allowed or even encouraged if investigation shows it to increase the sum of happiness. However, democracy must never be allowed to overthrow the rule that disagreements and questions of overall policy should be resolved scientifically. Therefore, democracy can be promoted only for second-order questions of policy and governance. The will of the people cannot rule upon the top-level questions that only science can answer.

Is this utopia or totalitarian horror? Unfortunately, that is a value question which cannot be answered by science. But the very formation of such a society would express the value ascribed to science prima facie. This leads to a contradiction in terms. Science expresses choices and values, but ascribes to itself no right to make value choices. We are thrown back to Epimenides who spoke of his people and himself, “Cretans, always liars.” Can we not learn from Epimenides as the Athenians did? And St. Paul affirmed the Cretan prophet.

The attempt to make scientific analysis underlie all decisions of governance and resolutions of disagreement can never displace the role of will. Such an attempt only moves and expands the dome of will, so that it mirrors the dome of science itself – the Great Council of those who agree to agree. Science used in this manner becomes a power system, just as government, the economy, theology, etc. can form power systems.

Today we are nowhere near the scenario described above, in which science, particularly social science and psychology, drives top-level governing decisions. We do find ourselves at a point where governmental officials receive, employ, and cite scientific validation in the course of decision-making and in selling decisions to the public. I believe this is a healthy trend. We need better knowledge which science provides. But discussion of the philosophic limits of science and the need to recognize other modes of choosing is alarmingly absent from the public square and from childhood education.

Overconfidence about science has another implication, which I believe already affects our lives in the United States and Europe, possibly elsewhere as well. The philosophic dismissal of effects of will at any level below that of science, as advocated by modernist and positivist philosophy, tends to undercut intermediate levels of family and community as domes of decision-making.

Today positivism supports considerable scientific interest at the level of the human brain. The brain and the genes that mold it are so complex that individual decision-making will likely remain challenging to science for the foreseeable future.

Shall we find in individual decision-making an absolute refuge from scientific overview? If the attempted definition of human will in these blogs is correct, guided by what I understand from Augustine, Schopenhauer, Peirce, Tolstoy, Camus, and Tournier, then the operation of individual human will is and always shall be logically indeterminate, opaque to reproducible inquiry. This principle also applies to contributions of individual will to collective will.

Moreover, the privileged access that a person has to her own thoughts can be the final stockade within which humans – one by one – take their stand. This privileged access is the most undeniable manifestation of dasein in the world. The Danish existentialist theologian Søren Kierkegaard aptly centered his philosophy on the Individual.

In the age of modernity the domes of family, faith groups, communities, and even nations have received far weaker recognition for dasein than the individual skull. A philosophic insistence on science for validation of societal decisions tends to leave the individual relatively untouched. Lack of consideration for the intermediate domes abandons the field to rule by a combination of science and practical individualism. Under individualism ethics has a transactional rather than a distributional basis, as discussed previously. In the next blog we’ll examine whether there is a continuing role for the intermediate domes, which I shall call the middle domes. There are also implications for psychiatry, which we shall consider in a subsequent blog.


Next post:  The Middle Domes

Prior post:  Gilbert Ryle, Reconnecting Body and Mind

Searching for GSOT outline:  Home

Header image:  © Jacek Jędrzejowski | ID 62842093 – modern-futuristic-command-center. UN Security Council image: © Ognjen Stevanovic | ID 76291629.

[1] Shuster, E. After Banning Torture, Psychology Association at a Crossroads. Bioethics Forum, a service of The Hastings Center, 9/28/2015. URL <
Post.aspx?id=7603&blogid=140#ixzz3vMbhYvEh >, accessed 12/22/2015.


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