Sentiments: What are the standards for choosing one theory over another?

by Peter

The first question to be addressed in this series on the extent that questions of correctness and incorrectness apply in the realm of the sentiments was expressed in the introductory post like this:

1. What are the standards by which one properly chooses between two or more plausible theories? What tools should be used, what questions should be asked, what things ought to be examined in order to make a valid judgment?

This is an admittedly cerebral subject for a series on the sentiments. I choose to include it not because it is particularly suited to this conversation, but because it is a general prerequisite for any philosophical conversation. If it is well written, I should be able to refer to it in future posts about widely varying topics. However, since it is showing up here first, all of the examples and demonstrations will be crafted to complement and lead into the more specific discussion on the sentiments.

In the introduction I said, referring to this topic, “This is one of the most difficult, most important questions that could possibly be asked. For reason of that latter descriptor, I will address it. For reason of the former, I have little hope of answering it here and now.” Nothing has changed; I do not expect to solve the world’s philosophical problems in a half-baked blog post. If any of the posts in this series will need reformation through the critique of its readers, I expect it will be this one. Proceed with me, therefore, lightly.

We have been presented with two options, which for the sake of abstraction I will call option A and option B, respectively. A and B are mutually incompatible. If one is right, the other is wrong. However, at first glance, A and B seem equally plausible. Which are we to pick? How are we to decide which to pick?

Apart from the most basic rational and scientific tests (Does this contradict established and indisputable facts or truths? Is this conceivable? etc.), several questions may be asked in the pursuit of proper discernment. I have come up with a total of eight, though I am quite willing to admit others. They here follow with explanations and demonstrations:

Is the theory intuitively right or wrong? While I do not believe that intuitions are anywhere near being definitive, I do think that they have value, and may be used in conjunction with other reasons for accepting or rejecting a theory. In cases where other questions fail to produce a rationale for choosing one theory, this may serve as a temporary determinant. That is, in such cases, it may be a valid reason for belief until another reason disproves it.

I have called intuition, that is (in a very simplistic sense), a sense or feeling that something is right or wrong, a reasonable determinant for the acceptance or rejection of a theory. It is therefore incumbent upon me to demonstrate how feelings are rationally connected to the process of discernment.

I have what I have sometimes called a holistic view of the universe. According to this understanding, a true theory will also be one that engages the sentiments, is coupled by virtues, and may be acted upon. That is, all the aspects of life and living are so bound up together that if one ever finds himself in a place such that the mind, the sentiments, the moral sense, or the active life are of such a quality to inhibit any of the other modes of living, he may be sure that there is some error in that mode.

If a theory, therefore, does not engage the sentiments, or a moral system the mind, or if one’s feelings lead one to passivity, then that theory, that moral system, and those feelings need reformation. Theories ought to be a cause for feeling, moral, and active living (in the healthy individual). If they are not, then either the theory is wrong or the person is unhealthy. In either case, a new examination of the situation is called for.

Thus, if the intuition is in line with a theory, there is reason to think that theory more valid than a theory that does not capture the intuition.

How beautiful or godlike is the theory? It is sometimes easy to jumble this question in with the previous one, to assume that it is included within “intuition.” I distinguish the two in this way: the first is a check to see if the theory is aligned with the feelings, this is a check to see if the theory is aligned with virtue. Its applicability is, I believe, of about the same quality as the previous question’s and the conclusion that a negative answer is not a definitive refutation of the theory (either the theory is wrong or the person is unhealthy) still applies.

Is the theory practically applicable? Again, based on a holistic theory of the universe, a true theory will also be one that engages the sentiments, is coupled by virtues, and may be acted upon. This question refers specifically to that latter complement. If the theory it true, it is able to be acted upon. A bad theory would be one that is inapplicable such as “it is impossible for men to breathe.” It does not matter how perfect the arguments leading to this conclusion are. Men cannot live in such a way that denies their breathing or their breathing capabilities, so any theory that suggests as much is untenable.

Is the theory universally applicable? Immanuel Kant proposed a theory of morality that went something like this: if any action could not be applied universally without the dissolution of human society, that action was immoral. Thus, murder, according to Kant, is rationally immoral because if everyone murdered, humanity would be no more. It is the same with lying, stealing, etc.

Similarly, if it is inconceivable that any theory could be held by everyone, then that theory is untenable. For example, though it is conceivable for everyone in the world except for Bob to think that he does not think, it is impossible for Bob to think that he does not think. Therefore, the theory that Bob does not think may be rejected. It is not often that this test will be applicable to a theory up for debate.

There is another aspect to this question, however, and one that is more unpredictable in its answer. Is it possible that everyone could act as if the theory were true? And if it is possible that everyone could, would it result in the betterment or to the detriment of humanity and society?

The basic idea here is that if it is a universally true theory, it ought to be universally applicable. This in conjunction with the previous assertion that thought and action must be conceivably complementary forms the grounds for these questions. In answering this question, the asker is also discovering whether the theory is complemented and characterized by virtue (see Kant’s arguments).

[I group the next two questions together. The first has to do with causes and the second with effects. The assumption, admittedly, is that cause and effect (1) apply to all subjects and (2) are explorable categories, both of which are contentious assertions. I hold them both, however, and will therefore allow them in my list.]

If this was true, what would be necessary to cause it to be so? If no potential direct cause can be discovered for a theory to operate in the way that it does, then that theory is suspect. If wholesome and holistic causes can be found, then it is likely good.

If this was true, what effects or implications would it lead to? An infertile theory, that is, one that does not open up more questions to be resolved by more theories, is likely a bad one. Ironically, if you’ve come to “the answer” or “the end,” you almost certainly haven’t. In the same way, if the theory does not prompt new or (even better) fuller ways of living, it is almost certainly a poor theory. A fertile theory, on the other hand, is very likely true.

Do the causes and effects/implications of the theory intuitively seem to fit with the real world? After the previous posts, this question should be self-explanatory. It is more or less a combination of all the previous questions but one. It is only mentioned distinctly in order to reinforce the fact that causes and effects, if they are found not to align holistically with all of living, condemn a theory (or the person) just as much as if the theory itself was out of alignment. Not only intuition, but beauty/godliness, practical application, etc. should be applied to the causes and effects of any theory in the same way as they were applied directly to the theory above.

Who has ascribed to and promoted the theories? Are they trustworthy? This is perhaps one of the most important and simplest questions of all. Since all knowledge is founded on trust to some degree, be it trust of loved ones or of sensory faculties, the trustworthiness of the source of some knowledge is sometimes the most relevant factor in any rational decision.

The next post will take up the job of applying all these questions to the two theories here restated: (a) there is a proper and an improper sentiment for all things and (b) there is a proper and an improper sentiment for only some things.

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