Monday, January 21, 2008

Value from the Point of View of the Universe

Black Sun Journal has posted an article that points readers to a Wired article on Why Science Sucks.

According to the article:

the real reason science sucks is that it makes us look bad. It makes us bit players in the Big Story of the universe, and it exposes some key limitations of the human brain.

I have a question . . . bit players from what point of view?.

I have defended the proposition that all value consists of relationships between states of affairs and desires. The value of a role depends on its relationship to certain desires. Yes, it is true that, since the universe has no desires, there is no possibility of a relationship between a life and the desires of the universe.

But . . . so what?

The tree in my yard does not have any desires. Nobody’s life has any value in terms of having a relationship between their life and the desires of the tree in my yard. Yet, I sincerely doubt that there are people staying awake because of that fact. Nor is it the case that science’s inability to find value in a person’s life from the point of view of the tree in my yard is a reason to think that “science sucks.”

The problem is that people care whether or not their life has value from the point of view of the universe. They have acquired a desire that their lives have value from the point of view of the universe.

Where did this come from?

It is difficult to argue that it has some type of genetic or evolutionary purpose. Procreation and other forms of genetic replication are hardly served by the development of such a desire – as opposed to a desires for sex, high-calorie food, aversion to pain, and the like.

Chances are this desire that a life have value from the point of view of the universe is something that is learned – something that we teach our children. However, if this is the case, then we have to ask why we are teaching our children to desire something that they can never have. Then, why are we blaming science for showing that we can never have such a thing, rather than blaming our culture for teaching us to desire something that we can never have.

There are other perspectives from which we can measure a life.

For example, it is clearly the case that my wife’s life does not have any value from the point of view of the universe. The universe, with its absence of desires, would yawn apathetically if my wife should leave the play that is my life.

However, from my point of view, her life is of crucial importance in this play. Her role is not as important as that of the main actor. If that lead actor (me) leaves the play, then the play shuts down and they quit selling tickets. And even though it is the case that the play that is my life will continue to run even if my wife were to leave the stage, the play will be significantly diminished. She is not, in any sense of the imagination, a ‘bit player’.

Ah, but the value of her life from my perspective does not matter, the critic may claim. The value of a life from the universe’s perspective is what has real value. And if there is no value of a life from the universe’s perspective, then somehow this is ‘a sad state of affairs.’

Let’s say that things from the universe’s point of view is what really matters. To know the true value of something, we need to know its value from the point of view of the universe. However, the universe does not care about anything (or anybody). This means that nothing (and nobody) has value.

However, the universe also does not care about whether or not things matter to the universe. If we are looking to the universe to determine the true value of things, then ‘looking to the universe to determine the true value of things’ is one of the things that the universe does not care about. So, it is at best a contradiction to put so much emphasis on what the universe thinks about the value of things, but to put no emphasis at all in the fact that the universe does not care one iota about what the universe thinks.

If we look at things from the same point of view that we use to determine, “The value of things from the point of the universe matters,” we will discover a long list of other things that matter as well. Aversion to pain, loving relationships with a significant other, learning, helping others, and the like, all matter – and they matter in the same way that ‘things from the point of view of the universe’ matters.


Tom Freeman said...

Very nice post. I presume you're a Thomas Nagel fan on this? His essay 'The Absurd' is a treat.

There is this tension that many people feel, in which value 'ought' to be objective but it's hard to conceive of how value could proceed other than from desires. This often draws people towards theism as a 'solution'. But that, as I find myself regularly incapable of getting them to see, is just another locus of subjective value.

olvlzl said...

What's wrong with being a bit player? Long as you're in the union, it might lead to something.

I've got an ethical question for you, Alonzo, but don't want to leave traces. Would you be willing to e-mail me?

Alonzo Fyfe said...


Up on the right there is a link to a contact form. If you want a response via email, just send the request through that and I'll get back to you through email.

Absent such a request, I assume that I may post an answer to any question in the blog as a 'request from the studio audience' - with sufficient changes to protect anonymity. So, request a private response if that is what you want.