Archives for category: Talk (Scientific)

How to choose the right axioms for the foundations of ethics?

As promised in the previous post, here is the review of the final lecture given by Dagfinn Føllesdal on the 7th of December 2012 in the course of the Carl Friedrich von Weizsaecker-Vorlesungen at the University of Hamburg.

In the previous talk, Føllesdal emphasised that ethics are not only based on axioms which cannot be justified further. Instead, these axioms should be regarded as hypotheses.

Hence, how to choose good hypotheses? Føllesdal’s point is (the quotations in this post are rephrased):

One should look at what is called axioms as hypotheses that have to be revised in view of data, in the case of ethics the emotions that arise in us through empathy.

Føllesdal recalls Hume:

We learn to compensate for physical quantities (e.g. size of an object and it’s distance from the observer). However, we do not learn to compensate for ethical quantities such as empathy and feelings in relation with emotional closeness.

So, how can we proceed in this desperate situation?

Føllesdal suggest (according to Husserl) that we actively go out and search material (extra observation) in order to get an intersubjective point of view. Of course, we start with our subjective point of view, than we arrive at intersubjectivity and thus approach objectivity.

And the key for this is, guess what? —> “Bildung“!

Wow! Føllesdal closes his loop:

  • In his first talk in the course of the Carl Friedrich von Weizsaecker-Vorlesungen at the University of Hamburg, Føllesdal started with the importance of Bildung for the formation of empathy and personal bullshit-metres!
  • In a follow-up talk, he illustrated the fundamental similarity of any type of science:  hypotheses are built and supported by argumentation.
  • Føllesdal showed in the next talk the challenge for ethical theories: how to choose hypotheses on which an argumentation for ethical theories can be based upon?
  • Finally, Føllesdal closed the loop by concluding that intersubjectivity and hence empathy and Bildung are the key.

From my perspective, not only his consistent line of thinking and structure of the whole lecture series was very enjoyable and esthetic.
On top, I passionately think that his message is simply beautiful:

“Bildung” is the key for empathy and bullshit-detection
– which are our basis for ethics!

What is the consequence for my personal life?

Actively go out and search extra observations!

In summary, from my part, I want to thank Dagfinn Føllesdal for opening my eyes on several issues. His visit to Hamburg was very inspiring for me, concerning the content (the academic as well as the pragmatic) as well as the format (take time to make your line of argumentation 100% clear) and the conclusions for my life.

Thank you!

All of those who will soon have the chance to hear a talk by Føllesdal: Enjoy it!

How similar are maths and ethics?

I will briefly recall another stimulating lecture given by Dagfinn Føllesdal: Ethical Aspects of Risk. This lecture held place on the 7th of December 2012 in the course of the Carl Friedrich von Weizsaecker-Vorlesungen at the University of Hamburg.

Føllesdal introduced us into a consequentialist model (which I will not describe here, but let me know if you are interested – then I will -) and he invited us to several thought experiments, for example:

Consider you were a regional politician who had to decide on the construction of a traffic light at a busy road. You would read a statistic of victims (lives) per year at that road (some number) for risk assessment. You would get the information of the costs of the construction of the traffic light. You would try to make a reasonable decision.

It would be very easy to calculate how much value you, as a rational politician, assign to a life.

Now, consider your mother had died at that very road. How much would you value her life?

It is no news that the readings of statistics depends on the sample: If you personally know a victim your judgement changes.

Summarized in Føllesdal’s words, this means that:

Feelings can be very different in situations which are ethically equivalent.

Or, in the idea of David Hume (1711-1776):

The strength of our feelings os no reliable measure of the rightness or wrongness of our acts.

Well, this sounds like a desperate situation. How the heck can we decide about the ethical justification of our actions? Is there no reliable backbone?

Here comes the answer:

Ethics and mathematics are very similar since both can be based on axioms which – at some point – cannot be justified further.

This statement is based on Spinoza – Et voilà, this is also the answer to the introducing question. Quel horreur!

However, Føllesdal goes beyond:

One should look at what is called axioms as hypotheses that have to be revised in view of data, in the case of ethics the emotions that arise in us through empathy.

In conclusion, we need to decide which axioms or hypotheses to choose. Føllesdal stopped his talk without giving any hint how to do this. How unsatisfying! However, there was still his final talk to come… and when I considered the talks which Føllesdal had already given in that week, an idea popped up in my mind…

…I will give the survey of the final lecture in the next post.

What is the objective of “Bildung? (‘Bildung’ = education/ formation)

I would love to briefly recall the inspiring lecture given by Dagfinn Føllesdal on The Role of Science in ‘Bildung’. This talk held place on´the 3rd of December 2012 in the course of the Carl Friedrich von Weizsaecker-Vorlesungen at the University of Hamburg.

I am completely passionate about the learnings from this lecture. Here is my personal selection of two key-points:

 1. We need ‘Bildung’ for the creation and learning of empathy.

‘Bildung’ increases the capability to understand the point of view of other people: how they see the world, what they think, what they feel.’Bildung’ increases empathy and this should be the main objective of it.

Isn’t this beautiful? Honestly, I think that Føllesdal’s message in this talk is again powerful, striking, wise and esthetic. Here comes the second point:

2. To create ‘Bildung’, the encouragement of critical thinking and detection of bullshit is necessary.

The goal of universities should be at least to equip students with a bullshit-metre!

Føllesdal also had a concrete tip how to do this, how to foster critical thinking: Give your students or kids “seemingly plausible argumentation” which is NOT plausible and only seems to be plausible at first sight. Then give your students the task to find the bullshit!

I think that this is a great idea and a valuable hint for all teachers, parents and professors. We could definitely have more of this bullshit-detection in school and at the universities, don’t we?

In summary, from my part, I want to thank Dagfinn Føllesdal for opening my eyes on this issue. ‘Bildung’ is indeed not an egoistic and narcissistic endeavor. In conclusion, we need ‘Bildung’ for increasing our human, peaceful and happy togetherness in our society!

Thank you!

All of those who will have the chance to hear a talk by Føllesdal: Enjoy it!

What is the connection between reading the fifth act of Peer Gynt and doing Mathematics?

Here I want to briefly recall the entertaining and inspiring talk given by Dagfinn Føllesdal on Similarities and Differences in Methodology between the Natural Sciences, the Social Sciences and the Humanities. This talk held place on 5th of December 2012 at the University of Hamburg in the course of the Carl Friedrich von Weizsaecker-Vorlesungen.

Føllesdal distributed parts of the fifth act of Peer Gynt in the audience. The piece is written by his famous Norwegian compatriot Henrik Ibsen (1867). In the excerpt, Peer Gynt is on the sea on a little boat in a heavy storm. Suddenly, a strange person appears (“the passenger”) and involves Peer into a an Ibsen-typical and absurd conversation about drowning. Føllesdal faced us with the question: Who is this passenger?

Apparently, in linguistics and literary studies, there are a lot of interpretations which try to explain “the passenger”. Here are a five hypotheses:

  • Is he Peer’s fear?
  • The death?
  • Ibsen himself?
  • The devil?
  • The phantom of Lord Byron?

Or does the passenger comprise all of these types or some combination?

Well, I am quite sure that you already anticipate the concise key point of Føllesdal‘s lecture:

All scientists develop hypotheses and then try to support their hypotheses argumentatively. There is no basic methodological division.

Et voilà, this is the link between Maths and Peer Gynt. Føllesdal wants to stress the fact that there are less differences between the disciplines than it might appear. From my perspective, this is a very wise and forward-thinking message. It is also true, for example regarding the artificial divisions in many universities: Does it really make sense to clearly draw a line between philosophy and natural sciences and maths? (I passionately do not think so!)

There are further remarks by Føllesdal which I kept in mind, for example on Kant and hypotheses:

Kant believed that Newton’s laws were ‘a priori’. Then he blundered into the question how the human being can have a free will if everything happens according to fixed laws. Kant did not believe that Newton’s laws were hypotheses which need to be tested with observations.

On the distinction between quantitative data versus amorphous observation:

Numerical data is popular because most of the people read them quite similarly.

On the education of social scientists:

All social scientists should learn game theory and decision theory.

Concluding, from my part, I want to thank Dagfinn Føllesdal for his inspiring visit in Hamburg. His calm, clear, surprising and consistent series of lectures has taught me a lot, not only concerning the content but also the style of lecturing.

Thank you!

All of those who will have the chance to hear a talk by Føllesdal: Enjoy it!