Thursday, November 11, 2010

Unpacking the question

Rule #1: NEVER blithely answer a question. Before you answer any question, ALWAYS determine what the question actually means. This rule is especially true in philosophy* and politics, but as Miller shows us, it's important in science as well. It is more important to ask good questions than to come up with answers; indeed I claim that you cannot get a good answer to a bad question; I claim also that when you've asked a good question, the answer — or at least how to find the answer — will be clear.

*It's arguable that philosophy consists almost exclusively of determining what questions mean and is almost entirely unconcerned with actually answering them.

We had a discussion the other day in Political Science class that illustrates this principle perfectly. The instructor essentially asked: who is greedier, the person who has a lot, or the person who doesn't have a lot, but undeservedly wants more? The discussion quickly moved to the question: what determines a person's social and material outcome, the choices he makes or the environment he grew up in? Both questions, however, are vague, and depend enormously on different kinds of underlying premises; they depend as well on the kind of social and political questions that the answer would itself underlie as a premise.

The discussion of the second question more-or-less took on a "nature/nurture" character. What determines a person's choices: his "innate" decision-making cognitive apparatus or the environmental influences on that apparatus? As Miller notes, however, the ordinary discourse about this question is scientifically incoherent; it's not the sort of question that can be answered scientifically, even in theory. When you have multiple-factor causation, and especially when the different factors don't just influence the outcome but influence each other, assigning degrees of causality to the different factors is not logically possible. Outcomes are, rather, the result of emergent properties of the multiple-factor system, and a superficial reduction loses the interaction between the factors. There are a lot of interesting scientific questions we can ask of multiple-factor causation; Miller offers the example, "How much of the variation in a given human trait is due to genetic variation between individuals of a population?" We could translate this question into the context: How much of the variation in social outcome is due to variation in the individuals' choices? But this, of course, is not the sort of question that we can reasonably expect an answer from a bunch of freshmen in an Intro to Poli Sci class.

We want to use the answers to questions about the underlying causality of social outcome to answer questions about social and political policy: how can we most effectively change social outcomes? What properties of social outcomes do we want to change? If we do change one property of social outcomes, what other properties can we predict will also change, and how do we feel about those changes? How can we detect and respond to indirect changes that we can't predict? And even: should we change social outcomes at all? The last question brings us around to the first question posed in class, which can be recast as: is it morally right to for an individual to receive a social outcome he does not deserve?

We're a little closer, I think, to seeing the important underlying questions we really want to answer. I'll try to ask them explicitly in another post, and maybe try to even answer some of them.

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