Sep 27, 2016


It took me a long time to realize that a lot of things that I took to be deeply rooted fundamental principles were preferences. Not ordinary preferences. Higher level ones. But preferences, still.

Some of my lower-level preferences have clearly been the result of circumstances. I was a Dodgers fan because I grew up in Brooklyn and my Uncle Sammy took me to Ebbets field to see them. I stayed a Dodgers fan until Dem Bums betrayed us. I'm a Pats fan because I've lived most of my life in New England. Plus those of my kids that follow football are Pats fans. And so are some friends.

Some of those circumstantial preferences have acquired principled justifications. I admire Belichick's coaching style, and his modest approach to the game. So of course I'm a Pats fan. But that's all after the fact. I was a Pats fan even when Bill Parcells, the anti-Belichick was coach. Because I lived near Boston.

Other preferences that seem more values driven are also the result of circumstances. My parents never told us how they voted or what to believe. They considered the secret ballot to be one of the great virtues of being an American. But they did teach us to respect everyone, regardless of race or religion; that people should succeed based on merit. Each year at Passover we remembered that "we were slaves in Egypt" so I found it easy to identify with the civil rights movement and align with the Democratic party.

If I'd grown up somewhere else, say in the West, I can imagine being a Republican. If I grew up in the South I can imagine being a Republican, until the southern Republicans took over as the racist party from the Southern Democrats. Then I hope I would have changed affiliation. But maybe I wouldn't have.

Go Pats!

So today, Politically, I am a tribal Blue-stater the same way I'm a tribal Pats fan. I think that some conservatives make good arguments for some things, just as I think that the Dallas Cowboys or the Denver Broncos are good teams. But put them up against my Pats, I know who I'm rooting for.

And I believe it's preferences, all the way down. I am against slavery. Or at least against people owning other people as slaves. Not so sure about animals, and machines. But people: that's clear. Bad.

But once again, that's a preference, and not an absolute.

What? You mean that someone who believes in slavery is "simply expressing a preference" and not "taking a position that is morally repugnant?" No.  I believe that they are expressing a preference. And I also think that their position is morally repugnant -- to me. But that's because of other preferences that I have.

I choose.

I am not "driven, by reason, to an inevitable conclusion" but rather "I choose." Otherwise I'm a slave to reason.  And I am not.

I choose.

My choices are not arbitrary. They are based on principles. But I've chosen my principles. And as a matter of principle I choose not to be a slave to anything. Including reason. Including my principles.

Why? Because no system is perfect, and that means that you can only find circumstances where any given set principles leads to answers that are repugnant. Imagine that you believe, on principle, that one should make the decision that results in the greatest well-being for the greatest number. Supposing you could save the lives of ten babies by killing one. Your principles say: kill the one. Supposing you could save the lives of ten babies by torturing one. Your principles say: torture the one.

Supposing your principles say: thou shalt not commit murder, and you're in a situation where you know with absolute certainty that you can save the lives of millions by killing the adult Adolph Hitler. Your principles say: let Hitler live and let the millions die.

Supposing you have a chance to save some number of people by killing baby Adolph. Good luck using your principles on that one.

I prefer t think that principles are useful, but only for guidance. I prefer not to be a slave to them. Principles are useful because they cover a lot of ground. If I choose to follow a set of principles it's a shorthand for: I'm for everything that is rationally implied by those principles and against everything that inconsistent with them.

But there are edge cases, and in in the end, my choice of what principles prefer to use, and when I prefer to not use them is still my preference.

But what if everyone thought that?

Well, I think that's exactly what people do. There's abundant evidence (according to my preferred way of evaluating evidence) that shows that..

Which bring us to science, my preferred way of evaluating evidence and discovering meaning? Is science a preference, too?


I prefer science to other competing methods. Other people prefer astrology, Ouija boards, shamanism, the Koran or the Bible. I prefer science. I prefer science because science appears to get reliable answers more often.

But that's because I prefer reliable and predictable results to inconsistent ones.

But not always. Sometimes I prefer to believe in magic. Not when there are serious consequences, but when I choose to be playful and imaginative. So I prefer science, but I'm not a slave to that preference.

I believe that the available, reliable evidence supports science. But that's because of my preferences about what constitutes reliable evidence. You might believe that the evidence supports your system rather than science, but only if you ignore the evidence and simply assert your conclusion; or if you prefer to use criteria that show that your system is reliable.

These are all competing preferences.

Am I a postmodernist? Do I think that anyone's opinions are as good as anyone's else's?

A absolutely not!

I believe in the scientific method and the use of mathematics for acquiring objective data, determining its accuracy, and for testing hypotheses. I believe in deductive reasoning for moving from abstract to theories and raw data to particular predictions. I believe that none of this is absolute, that all is open to error, and that one should endeavor to minimize error by use of good methodology.

But I do believe that some statements are measurably more true than others.

I acknowledge that there are problems in the practical applications of these ideals, but I do not believe in abandoning them because they are imperfect.

At the same time, I acknowledge that these are just my preferences.

Nothing sacred about them.

But nothing unimportant, either.