Posted by: dacalu | 9 March 2012

Changing Your Values

Over the last few days, I’ve spoken briefly about utility functions, the theories we have for modelling what we prefer.  I divided our preferences into two categories, derivative preferences, which can be reduced to more basic preferences, and base preferences, which we hold solely for their own sake.  It’s relatively easy to change a derivative preference if it conflicts with a base preference.  You need only convince yourself that some of your choices don’t line up with your fundamental principles.  Often when we argue about morality, value, or simply preference, we seek to show someone else that our choice better lines up with their priorities.  Base preferences are harder to change.  What do you do if someone – even yourself – has base preferences which you don’t like?

Curiously, the most adamant reductionists (notably Jacques Monod and Richard Dawkins) claim that all of our base preferences are simply the result of evolutionary biology and brain chemistry.  They want you to recognize that and both of them want you to value science and materialism over religion and relationship with God.  This raises two fundamental problems.  First, there is a big difference between an explanation (why you prefer what you do) and justification (whether you should – and should continue to – prefer what you do).  The materialist response provides the former but no the latter. 

As second objection is even more important to me, however.  Both Monod and Dawkins want you to change your preferences.  They want you (for some unclear value of you) to choose their value system over one they suspect you already have.  They want you to change your preferences – which is why they write such interesting books.  This begs the question, what is the “you” that changes and prefers?  Why not simply stick with the preferences you currently have?  (The majority of the world still prefers religion to atheism.)  It’s possible their polemic has no goal, that it is simply a product of evolution, but both of them act as though they were profoundly interested in convincing others.  Both have expressed a strong personal preference in this matter.  If you have no agency in changing your preferences, there would be no point in them trying to convince you (that you have no agency).  If you do have agency, they’re simply wrong.  A bit of a conundrum.

I don’t think we have any option but to believe that we have the ability to change our preferences, that something other than the mechanistic pull of physical forces allows us to go with or go against our evolutionary programming.  No doubt there exist evolutionary constraints.  Remember, I believe in constrained will.  Still, I think everyone has some minimal level of agency.  I can’t ask you to change your preferences, unless I think you have some ability in that area.

No one writes books, trying desperately to convince people to repeal the law of gravity.  No one moves to Washington DC to lobby the grass on the National Mall.  We argue precisely because we believe preferences can be changed by the agents who hold them.

This was not simply a rant against the new atheists; I think there is a substantial point here.  You have the power to change your preferences.  I take it on faith.  If you prefer, I hold it as an axiom that even base preferences can be changed.  I think we are conditioned by evolution to eat as much fat and sugar as is available.  Nonetheless, I think evolution has gifted us with the ability to think critically about our instincts and act against them in some situations. (This is a component of “slow cognition.”)  Furthermore, I think that even this evolutionarily conditioned critical faculty can be over-ridden by our will, our ability to act as agents in the world.  I have noticed in myself the capability to shape my preferences and I project this capability onto others.

People can change.

You will find that your view of the world varies dramatically with your perspective on whether or not change is possible and if it is, how.

Religions specialize in this kind of activity.  They specialize in conversion, the fundamental and axiomatic shift from one set of preferences to another.  Peter Berger, a famous sociologist, would say that religions are in the business of constructing and maintaining worldview, the totality of our understanding about how we fit into the universe as we experience it.  This includes both physical theories and the pragmatically and psychologically essential set of theories about agency and preference.  The major religions have recognized (for all of recorded history) that verbal and written discourse has only minimal effect on worldview maintenance.  Much of the work is done through ritual and social activity.

For good and ill, religions usually aim to convert people – to change their most basic preferences.  For good and ill, they have developed sophisticated techniques for helping this to happen.  You might call it an epiphany, a Damascus Road event, or even brainwashing.  In each case something has shifted internally.  You have a new perspective on the world.  I don’t think we can avoid this happening to individuals and I don’t think we can avoid both selfish and selfless groups from helping these events occur.  What we can do, is be aware of the process, think critically about how it happens and develop tools to either facilitate it or hinder it – on a case by case basis.

The thing that scares me most about fundamentalists (be they Christian, Muslim, or anti-theist) is that they encourage people to be unaware of the possibility of conversion.  They want you to convert to their set of preferences and then surrender all mental tools that would help you evaluate it.  And then they want to shield you from any possibility for further conversion.  This is not compassionate.  It does not promote growth or relationship.

Since I want you (and me) to optimize relationships, I want to be sure you have as many tools as possible to look closely at why you prefer what you prefer, why you reason as you reason, and why you think what you think.



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