Posted by: dacalu | 3 March 2012


Over the last few days, I’ve spoken about my desire to add a second model to the way we look at the universe.  The first model, in this case, is the scientific model; informed by the mechanic philosophy, it frames the world as a group of atoms moved by universal forces.  That model, while having immense predictive power, falls down in two important areas.  It fails to explain where the initial force/energy/mass came from.  That is to say, the universe runs on potential and kinetic energy.  The model is silent on where that energy came from – necessarily.  A motivator will not fit within the framework, because a motivator is neither a particle nor a universal force.  The model also fails to explain individual motivations, making humans (and all other organisms) into machines driven by outside forces.

I now want to introduce a third gap in the model: value.

A material universe can produce desires – I want X, where “I” is simply an organism adapted to pursue X.  It cannot, however, produce preferences – I prefer X to Y.  Preferences entail agency because they speak of a “contrapositive.”  I could have had Y, but I have X.  The “could of” in that statement speaks to two possible outcomes, only one of which was actualized.  [Again, for the record, this could all be illusion, but it shuts down reasoning.  I will claim that any “reasoning” without considering alternative hypotheses is not worthy of the name.]

Preferences, then support the idea of some sort of agency, but there is no need to have value. And, if we are willing to say that nothing exists beyond machines that behave, we’ll be fine with the atomic model of the universe.  Alas, very few of us seem happy with only behaviors – or even with only individual preference systems.  We seem to think there should be common values and we want a way to talk about them.  Many readers will now jump to religion, sexuality, or at least economics.  Let us not go there yet.  Let’s stick with communication.  Suppose you state a proposition with which someone disagrees.  “I saw a truck.”  “No, you didn’t.”  Would you consider that acceptable?  Would your response be, “Interesting.  You don’t think I saw a truck.”?  I suspect not.  Most of us have a sense of what one might call folk philosophy.  We think some propositions cannot reasonably be questioned.  More precisely, we value certain ways of thinking over others.

Consider the identity relation: A is equivalent to A.  Symbolic logic experts do not consider this trivial, but a necessary axiom for most reasoning systems.  I assume, perhaps incorrectly, that all of my readers would prefer reasoning that presumes identity over one that does not.  It seems to be a universal preference.

Any time you try to communicate, you begin with the assumption that common ground exists.  True, it may be genetically, socially, or behaviorally determined common ground, but you (the agent) value it’s existence.  You choose to communicate.  You’re doing so right now.  We project our personal value for the rules of communication onto others.  That does not mean universal rules exist.  It does mean the phenomena are so common, we will want words to talk about them.  Remember, I’m trying to set up a practical philosophy here, not a deductive ontology.  In order to say “there are no universal values,” I need common agreement on a language with which to express the concept.

We want to be able to say more than this:

She chose in a way that I did not.

We want to say:

She chose in a way that was wrong.

The Buddhist response to this – which I ontologically agree with, by the way – would be that the first is more correct.  Pragmatically, I am stuck with the paradox.  If the first statement is better, what does better mean other than a universal preference?  If it means accurate, why should an accurate statement be preferred over an inaccurate one.  I believe the Buddhist response to be “yes,” usually followed by a smile, because, in my experience Buddhist philosophy is there to trick you into realizing how insufficient propositional logic really is.  I confess, this is my personal take on Buddhism, and I am not an expert.

Back to value.  Within the realm of propositional logic – and taking it no more seriously than we must, but trying to do it well for what it’s worth – we’re stuck with a question of value.  One can claim it is entirely subjective (which tactic, by the way reinforces the notion of agent; no agent, no subject), but even then we will want ways of labeling and comparing separate preference systems.  Value does not fit within the scientific model.  It seems desirable to explain, therefore I will attempt to fit it in with the agent model of the universe.


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