Commentary & sustainability analysis
Seven crucial developments in the history of ideas have arisen after the middle of the 19th century:
1. A reconstruction of the physical and conceptual distinction between matter, living matter, and conscious living matter
2. The 1859 publication of On the Origin . . . in which Charles Darwin gave a compelling scientific explanation of the entire community of life as evolving from a common ancestor by a gradation or continuum of life-forms arising by the algorithm of natural selection as evolutionary branches representing adaptation to particular environments and humans one of many such branches. This contrasted with the former assumption of discrete organisms, each created by God, and humanity as the culmination of all life
3. A post-WWI Chronometric Revolution has given us a more secure foothold in historical time: astronomically allowing us to date the age of the universe, geologically to date rocks and fossils, archaeologically to date artefacts, and biologically to date the divergence of lineages in biological evolution.
4. The mid-20th century characterization of the entire universe as evolving in time. Hubble’s 1929 red shift observations when combined with the 1964 elucidation of background radiation supported the Big Bang theory of the origin of the universe. This placed physical events in time (in contrasts to the prior Steady State Theory) and a process of cosmic evolution about 13.7 billion years old. This was a unification of all matter into a historical continuity from a point source according to physical constants.
5. An increasing awareness of the complex relationship that pertains between language, metaphysics, and the world
6. The realization that conscious human intention often used to define the meaning of the word ‘purpose’, is itself a product of the gradation of purpose that arises out of natural selection and which is therefore part of all nature and its design.
7. Recognition of human influence on the biogeochemical cycles of planet Earth by the designation of a new epoch, the Anthropocene
8. The development of computers and their integration into a World Wide Web through smartphones, the internet, and artificial intelligence
Axiological systems (those concerned with value and aesthetics) are thought to come to us from four main sources: God (this is known as ‘divine command theory)’, from the world in general (moral realism), from our biological nature (normative biology), or in interaction with fellow humans as social traditions and customs.
This article has argued for an evolutionary approach to the concept of value. That, like purpose, value gradually emerged from the world it did not arrive suddenly with the conscious human intellect. In its crudest form it is present in the constraining laws of physical science that limit possible outcomes, but present much more strongly in the beneficial functional adaptations produced by mindless natural selection, which is selection ‘for’ in a process of feedback that tends to increase the probability of survival and reproduction (viz. ‘self-correction’).
There is an underlying assumption to all life – that it is better to live than not live, that the mindless (except for humans and possibly some sentient animals) goal of all life is to survive and reproduce. This is a basic, necessary, and essentially universal characteristic of all living organisms that can be treated as a biological axiom, a foundational proposition on which further structures can be built. All living creatures have ‘interests’ but it is only humans that can represent these interests. Among those further structures are the study of systems of value, of those structures, functions, and processes that facilitate survival and reproduction and which, from the mindless perspective of an organism (but obvious to humans as value-representers) are ‘for better or worse’ and therefore to be valued or avoided. It has been established as a biological axiom that all life is grounded in survival and reproduction, humans included. The ‘values’ that support survival and reproduction across the community of life derive from the interaction between their particular biological nature and their conditions of existence (environment). These conditions of existence will be very different for a worm, a fish, a bird, and a human but, for each, some conditions will be beneficial and others less so. Organisms are not consciously aware of this but humans as reason-representers can judge what might be of greater or lesser value for their survival and reproduction. A worm would value (thrive) in a richly organic and well aerated soil, a fish would value an ecosystem with few predators and a plentiful food supply, and so on.
Human intention is, as it were, just a subset of the wide range of processes that exhibit telos as purpose, design, and value in nature: it arose out of nature. But it is a very special kind of valuing because it is conscious and part of the toolbox of language, reasoning, foresight and hindsight that we associate with human consciousness. In humans, though survival and reproduction are still axiomatic, they remain unconscious, their conscious manifestations being supported by pleasurable mental states the most general being desired happiness, wellbeing, and flourishing that tends to be strongest when circumstances are most conducive to survival and reproduction.
Returning to the question in the opening paragraph – ‘Where do our values come from?‘ we have arrived at a counterintuitive answer. Values arise primarily out of the facts of our biological existence. Values evolved out of the universe to reach their most complex and sophisticated form as they are modified by our conscious sensation, and honed by the reason of human brains. As rational animals we are able to use reasoning skills, also for better or worse, in serving both ourselves and the community of life from which our values were derived.
Our intuitive restriction of value to organisms with ‘interests’ (defined by pleasure and pain) is morally short-sighted though practical.
If values exist ‘in the world’ as well as in human minds, then what would a system of ‘universal’ values be like, given the human mind as part of nature without the privileged status it has today? How could this possibly be, and if it is so then how did they arise? Did values evolve along with living organisms?
In a strong sense a rock, a chair, a tree, and a human are objects that just ‘are’, they are complete and sufficient in themselves. But we cannot contain our human curiosity, our desire to know more. We need explanations. Aristotle expressed this point well in Book 1 of his metaphysics by saying ’All men (humans) by nature desire to know’.
We might define a value judgement simply and straightforwardly as a conscious preferences for one thing over another.
But is this a unique and isolated phenomenon strictly confined to us consciously aware human beings or did it, like other mental phenomena, evolve out of earlier and simpler modes of decision-making?
One way of thinking about this is to recognize that valuing one thing over another is a form of filtering out, restricting, constraining, or narrowing down possible choices or outcomes. In its simplest form this occurs in the inanimate world as a consequence of familiar physical constants: given situation A, the range of possible outcomes is limited by the physical possibilities because ‘not just anything can happen’.
This constraining of outcomes takes on a wholly new character when the algorithm of natural selection comes into effect with semi-autonomous replicating units of matter (organisms). Natural selection is selection for as a pre-conscious process whereby living organisms stand to benefit from functional adaptations as they are subjected to the ordering process of ‘self-correction’ that is natural selection. Though this is a pre-conscious process the products of natural selection have all the hallmarks of conscious purpose, conscious design, and conscious valuing. When an amoeba moves away from a threatening chemical it is demonstrating pre-conscious value and purpose.
We assume that there is a world of difference between this crude pre-conscious valuing and the clarity of human deliberation, the reasoning process that occurs when we make conscious choices. But even humans, we now know, are influenced by many pre-conscious factors. A new discipline, moral psychology, includes among its areas of interest the many ways in which our intuitions and desires influence our behaviour. ‘Humans are rational animals’ is a true statement – but it is not the whole truth – more an aspiration than a reality. We combine the rational and irrational, both conscious deliberation and unconscious inclination.
The point is that values did not arrive in the world suddenly and completely with the reasoning human intellect, they evolved along with matter in the historical process of increasing material complexity.
The early modern period rightly attacked anthropomorphism but over-reacted by denying the pre-conscious design, purpose, reason, and value that is present in a rudimentary form in nature itself.
As living organisms we value survival and reproduction – it is in our nature: to be otherwise is to deny ourselves. The philosophically precious may quibble about ‘oughts’ derived from our biological and psychological nature but that is the way we are, with rationality the check on out intuitions.
Purpose and value are intimately linked: it is simply not possible to be ‘for’ something without the ‘for’ becoming a value. Just as it is possible to have ‘competence without comprehension’ it is also possible to have ‘values without evaluation’.
Moral deserving is apportioned according to ‘interests’. Organisms that have no or minimum consciousness or capacity for pleasure and pain, like trees or bacteria, cannot be part of this system of morality.