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CONTEXT

To change behaviour it helps to understand all behaviour as best we can. Several articles examine the reasons for us behaving as we do – the various forces and principles that determine our actions. The article on biological values describes the way that, unsurprisingly, our conscious and deliberate human behaviour is grounded in our unconscious and mindless biological history. The article on moral psychology extends this theme by looking at unconscious human motivation, the psychological origins of our human moral intuitions. The article on morality is an introduction to ethics as the study of the principles and rules that govern right action with a brief overview of the world’s major moral theories. Two articles, purpose & value and science and morality explore the relationship between the world of science and the world of values. All these articles are then drawn on to investigate the role of practical or applied environmental ethics  in our collective human management of sustainability and the world environment.

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It is better to live than not live

Aristotle’s biological imperative

Biological necessity trumps logical necessity

(see Life as agency)

Proximate human minded values evolved out of, and are grounded in (share characteristics with), universal, objective, and ultimate mindless biological goals. Human agency is ultimately minded biological agency. Human values reduce to biological facts

Anon

Life is better than death
Health is better than sickness
Abundance is better than want
Freedom is better than coercion
Happiness is better than suffering
Knowledge is better than ignorance[6]

Steven Pinker (an expression of minded human values that are grounded in the mindless goals of biological agency)

You can’t get ethics out of nature

Yuval Harari – a delightful (and unwitting) double-entendre in the debate ‘Nature vs. Humanity’ with Slavoj Žižek [5]

 

Values reduce to facts about human well-being

Sam Harris ‘The Moral Landscape’ – another expression of minded human values grounded in the mindless goals of biological agency

Biological values

In the typical case we think of values as human mental attitudes, feelings, or beliefs that arise internally and motivate our individual behaviour. In contrast, ethics or morality (defined formally as normativity, the study of right action and its rules or principles) tends to be a more communal phenomenon – the collectively reasoned prescriptions, principles of conduct, or codes of behaviour that often arise externally from religious doctrine, parental control, an education system, the law etc. These ideas are linked in complex ways and so the words ‘values’, ‘ethics’, ‘morality’, and ‘normativity’ are often used interchangeably.

Organisms express their temporary universal, objective, and ultimate agency as a ‘behavioural orientation’ that is directed towards survival, reproduction, and flourishing. These are the preconditions for all life and it is because of this flexible behaviour that we treat organisms as autonomous agents. It is this biological agency that most obviously distinguishes the living from the inanimate and the dead.

Values, in a general sense, are what guide or motivate behaviour. And since the objective and universal goals of the biological axiom (survival, reproduction, flourishing) are what ultimately motivate the behaviour of all organisms, these biological goals are also, in this sense and, perhaps paradoxically, objective biological values.

A mindless and objective behavioural orientation is like a human perspective or point of view and that is why, for simplicity, it is referred to here as biological normativity. We can reasonably assume that it is out of these mindless biological values that the human subjective minded values (described at the head of this article) eventually evolved, and it is this evolutionary continuity that accounts for their similarity. Significantly, the shared likeness of minded and mindless values is not the figurative ‘as if’ similarity of metaphor; it is grounded in real evolutionary history that is the result of descent with modification from common ancestors.

Life-defining biological agency is more scientifically meaningful when the reality of biological values is acknowledged, even though we mostly deny them in the language we use.

This article argues that an understanding of the evolutionary origins of our human values connects human minded values to the mindless values of the broader community of life and, when understood in this way, talk of biological values and biological normativity makes scientific sense.

Human normativity is a highly evolved form of biological normativity that uses minded (subjective) reason to fine tune objective (innate) biological impulses and intuitions.

Rocks, organisms, humans

How do we distinguish life from the non-life of the inanimate physical world, and how do we mark the difference between humans and other organisms?

Life is not passive as a rock is passive. What makes the matter of living organisms a special kind of matter – very different from the inanimate matter of a rock – is its capacity to respond to circumstances in an autonomous, unified, and flexible way.

In other words, organisms are (real) agents that behave in an objectively goal-directed and purposeful way. We study this behaviour and the reasons (purposes, goals, values) that motivate it in a scientific way. The behavioural flexibility that we associate with this biological agency is grounded in the temporary, universal, objective, and ultimate, biological goals of survival, reproduction, and flourishing (the biological axiom).

The biological axiom does not separate humans from the rest of nature, it states what is common to both. The proximate and uniquely minded goals of human agency evolved out of, and share, the goals of biological agency that are common to all organisms.

Mindedness is not a precondition for agency in living organisms: mindedness is simply one expression of biological agency.

Agency

The reasons for a scientific acceptance of biological agency – the reasons why we should regard organisms as being real agents and not just agent-like – are spelled out in the article on life as agency. In that article it is argued that life is more scientifically coherent and meaningful when we consider it as matter in process, when we explain it, not so much in terms of its material composition but, rather, in terms of its ultimate agency – not what it is, but what it does – its behavioural disposition to survive, reproduce, and flourish (the biological axiom).

Without this agential account of biological activity – what organisms, including their structures, processes, and behaviours are ‘for’ – biological explanation is both incoherent and empty. Incoherent because it would become a list of dissociated facts, and empty because it would lose meaning. 

Biological values

The goals[3] of the biological axiom constitute the preconditions for all life and, since the goals of the biological axiom are like human aspirational values (because they were the evolutionary precursors to human values) it is appropriate that they be called biological values. This likeness is not a metaphorical likeness – it is not ‘as if’ non-human organisms had values, the likeness is real because human values evolved out of biological values – there is an evolutionary connection. It is a likeness that is acknowledged in the anthropomorphism of human-talk and its reference to ‘choices’, ‘preferences’, ‘interests’, ‘purposes’, ‘reasons’, ‘strategies’ and so on.

An immediate objection to this account is that ‘value’ is a strictly minded concept. It does not make sense to ascribe values to mindless organisms. ‘Mindless values’ is an oxymoron because it attempts to extend the conventional meaning of ‘value’ beyond its traditional realm – which is human minds.

This article investigates this objection.

Principle – biological values and human values are not mutually exclusive. Biological values are an objective behavioural orientation, they are not a moral injunction. Human values are biological values that have taken on an evolved and minded form that includes reason. 

Evolution of values

All products of evolution express both similarity and difference: the difference that uniquely defines the evolutionary product under investigation, and the shared similarities that indicates its evolutionary relationships. Values are evolutionary products that can be viewed from this evolutionary biology perspective.

Thus, biological values and human values are not mutually exclusive: uniquely human minded (subjective) values are an evolutionary development of (operate on, are superimposed on, share characteristics with) mindless (objective) biological values. Certainly, all values can only be represented in human minds, but this does not mean that all values only exist in human minds: that all values are created by human minds.

My desire for world peace, love of red wine, and belief that it is wrong to steal, are personal and private inner subjective mental states. And yet, even though I try to win people over to my way of thinking, I am judged more by what I do, than what I say. There is a tacit understanding that ‘actions speak louder than words’.

Whatever our inner representations might be, we communicate our values most effectively through our behaviour. The idea of biological values draws attention to behavioural orientations that are shared by all organisms, and the remarkable way that the biological values of non-human organisms are not spoken or thought; but they were manifest in animal and plant behaviour many million years before humans evolved.

The goals (purposes, reasons, behavioural orientations) of the biological axiom constitute the mindless and objective behavioural preconditions for all life. This does not deny that humans are self-reflective, self-aware, and reasoning organisms that use words and minded representations in ways that other organisms do not, and cannot. However, these mental phenomena are, as it were, superimposed on (are an evolutionary development of) the grounding and universal behaviour of all organisms, both minded and mindless.

An evolutionary continuity exists between the minded and mindless. Human minded values, as manifest in human behaviour, evolved out of the mindless behaviour of our non-human ancestors. Certainly, the behaviour of humans demonstrates the unique properties of highly evolved conscious and reasoning brains, but it also demonstrates the goals or values that existed mindlessly in our distant ancestors.  Biological values and human values (the mindless and the minded) may imply a logical or linguistic disconnection – but biologically there is physical continuity.

Nature does not value with its mind, it values with its behaviour. We, as reason-representers, can acknowledge that all life – mostly mindlessly, wordlessly, and without the conscious deliberation we associate with human reason – demonstrates a meaningful propensity to survive, reproduce, and flourish as a biological value. When we use the language of intentional psychology in relation to mindless organisms this is not because we think that all organisms experience cognitive states, but because we empathize with their universal biological values.

Since biological goals (and biological values) are expressed through the behaviour of evolved bodies, it is hardly surprising that, in a counter-intuitive way, they too reflect evolutionary history.

Human bodies do not bring with them only their physical evolutionary history, they bring mental history too. Human values are an evolutionary development of mindless biological values – their uniquely human minded and reasoning form.

While our language treats minded and mindless behaviour as disconnected, evolution tells us a different story.

The assumptions associated with the linguistic distinction between the minded and mindless pre-date the theory of evolution – to a time when God created each species as separate and distinct. There was no biological connection beween ‘ensouled’ organisms like humans, and the mindless organisms that were created by God to serve human ends. The division between the minded and mindless was absolute. Evolution now tells us a different story.

Though word meanings cannot be changed at will, in science it is possible to refine categories and concepts to better represent the world; and that is what is proposed here for the notion of value. It is an intuitive usage that is already quite popular.

(However, in humans, this agency is expressed in both mindless and minded forms, the minded form with the character of grounding ‘perspectives’ or ‘points of view’ whose minded aspect is referred to as ‘value’. Since the biological axiom applies to both minded and mindless organisms it must be interpreted as being simultaneously a statement of objective behaviour, and mental intention; it is a statement of both fact and value. It is an objective description of the behaviour of all organisms that, in its evolved human minded form takes on a prescriptive role.)

Biological values & human values

Though the difference between being minded and mindless seems absolute, the difference between biological values and human values (biological normativity and human normativity) is more complicated.

The concepts of biological values and human values are not mutually exclusive. This is because, viewed from an evolutionary perspective, values, like physical structures, simultaneously manifest both similarity and difference. Though biological and human values have obvious differences, they also share features in common.

It is difficult coming to terms with this idea of partial likeness – the idea that something can simultaneously express both similarity and difference. But thinking in evolutionary terms means constantly working with this idea. Consider how organs so uniquely different as the wings of bats and the fins of whales share an underlying similarity (the pentadactyl limb) that establishes their common evolutionary ancestry. Human values also carry their evolutionary baggage.

Goal-directedness as a propensity or disposition, even in mindless organisms, is like an unconscious behavioural flexibility that ‘strives’ towards the goals of the biological axiom. We find that in nature this agency more closely resembles our own as organisms approach us in evolutionary relationship. Its extreme expression is found in the uniquely conscious human values that we describe using the language of human intentional psychology.

In the pre-Darwinian world of species that were immutable and discrete, the minded values of humans were unique and special.  In a world of evolutionary descent with modification from a common ancestor, human values, while having unique characteristics, also share some characteristics with evolutionary relatives.

Human values are derived (evolved out of) biological values and, in this sense, biological values are the ultimate and (mostly) mindless values that underpin or ground proximate human values. That is, mindless and objective biological values preceded minded and human values in evolutionary time and, because they are ultimate biological values, they are, in this sense, prior to human values in biological significance. Expressed another way: subjective human values reduce to objective biological facts.

We engage in sex for both the proximate minded goal of pleasure, and the ultimate mindless biological goal of reproduction. Evolution has, as it were, superimposed pleasure on its original mindless biological goal . . . an add-on ‘reward’ for minded organisms (evolution expresses mindless ‘cunning’). Indeed, all human values are proximate biological values – including the moral values that we say transcend our biology.

We humans regard the statement ‘It is better to live than not live‘ as a subjective value judgement but, paradoxically, its meaning is manifest mindlessly and objectively in the behaviour of non-human living organisms . . . but not in the ‘behaviour’ of rocks. It is also a tacit understanding of our own human existence and the medicine that supports it, even though, on rare occasion, it goes underessentially awry.

Principle – Biological values are the ultimate ends or goals towards which all organisms (including their structures, processes, and behaviour) are directed (biological axiom). Human values are a highly evolved and uniquely human (minded) manifestation of biological values

Influence of language

Our language makes a simple distinction between the minded and mindless. We also make a parallel distinction between organisms with brains (or central nervous systems) and those without such structures.  It would seem self-evident that if values are a product of minds and brains then they have no connection to brainless and mindless organisms.

But not all concepts are exclusive classical concepts expressing ideas that are necessary and sufficient. In fact, most concepts express family resemblance or gradation.  The notion of value is one of these.

Values are the product of the evolutionary process. And, like physical structures, the values of each species are expressed in its own unique way while, at the same time, there are shared characteristics that indicate evolutionary relationship.

Biological normativity

Biological normativity is the temporary, objective, universal, and ultimate behavioural orientation of all living organisms towards survival, reproduction, and flourishing (the biological axiom). This behavioural orientation is like (because evolutionarily related to, a precursor of) a human perspective or point of view. It is this agency that most obviously distinguishes the living from the inanimate and the dead. For an organism to exist without biological normativity is to deny its existence: biological values are an essential part of what it means to be a living organism.

Biological normativity and human normativity are not mutually exclusive. Biological normativity is manifest as a behavioural orientation, so the distinction between prescriptive and descriptive language does not arise here.  But the faculty of reason that we proudly and rightly regard as a uniquely distinguishing feature of human agency is still grounded in biological agency and biological normativity.

Though reason attempts to transcend, overcome, or be detached from biological normativity, it can only ever be partially successful. Reason itself is, of evolutionary necessity, still ultimately grounded in the biological values that give it purchase. The moral decisions that we think overcome biological normativity simply fall back on second order biological normativity. I do not kill – not for the proximate reason that I realize how reason overcomes my biological urges – but because, by not killing, my ultimate prospects for survival, reproduction and flourishing are increased.  At its best,  reason can overcome giant hurdles but, without its foundation in biological normativity, reason is an incoherent concept.

The implications of this realization run deep. Since reason can never fully extricate itself from biological normativity, we must face the fact that moral discourse reduces to biological facts. We humans cannot transcend our biology – which is hardly a surprise. Our discourse cannot, as is currently maintained in mainstream philosophy and science, be divided simply into two magisteria – that of fact, and that of value.

Principle – without its foundation in biological normativity, reason is an incoherent concept

Principle – moral choices and injunctions reduce to biological facts

From this perspective the biological axiom, is a foundational statement of biological agency that is simultaneously a declaration of fact and of value, of action and intention. It describes not only what all organisms do, but also the ends or goals to which they are drawn – the reasons for their activity – what motivates their behaviour. It describes the universal and ultimate[2] biological values that motivate all living organisms . . . even the human reasoning faculty that critically examines these motivations.

Biological agency is grounded objectively in these biological values. Though human reason can, as it were, override our biological intuitions (codes of behaviour are often created specifically to regulate our innate desires) it is not separate from these desires, inclinations, and intuitions. Reason is not apart from biological agency, but a sophisticated regulatory tool acting on it. Viewing morality through the detached lens of reason, from The Point of View of the Universe (see Lazari-Radek & Singer), is a noble aspiration, but we are, of necessity, living organisms, not pure reason; and reason, sadly, only goes so far.

Life has a perspective on the universe. In a world of perspectiveless facts there can be no logical grounds for value. Life, unlike the constants of physics, or the detachment of mathematics, assumes a ‘point of view’. To deny these values is to deny life itself. Denying the biological necessity of the biological axiom is logically possible, but it is biologically incoherent in the same way that our human desire for health and happiness is not logically necessary, but self-evident.

On the one hand biological values are objective statements about the way organisms are but, since they also express a behavioural orientation akin to a ‘perspective’ or ‘point of view’, they are also a form of biological normativity.  We might believe that the uniquely human evolved capacity for conscious deliberation can override natural inclinations and intuitions within both individuals and communities by establishing moral systems and codes of behaviour. Indeed, moral codes often address the communally destructive aspects of evolutionarily derived individual autonomy (selfishness) . . . but only by deferring to second-order biological normativity.

The acceptance of the reality of biological values provides us with a more compelling scientific account of nature since the assimilation of human values to biological values acknowledges the uniquely mindful properties of human values while at the same time recognizing that they evolved out of, and share major characteristics with, their mindless evolutionary antecedents.

Objective values?

Aristotle noted that changes in nature were usually ‘for the better’. By this he meant that organisms behaved as though they were ‘aware’ of their circumstances, responding to environments and situations with adjustments to their structures, processes, and behaviours in ways that furthered their existence. He had observed that organisms display both the short- and long-term agential behavioural flexibility that today we call (functional) adaptation. Put simply, circumstances can ‘help’ or ‘hinder’ organisms in their objective behavioural orientation towards survival, reproduction, and flourishing. Evolutionary biologists describe this as ‘fitness maximization’ – a kind of ultimate biological goal like the biological axiom.

We humans can investigate the efficacy of functional adaptations. So, for example, we might judge that a plant is looking ‘healthy’, or that it ‘needs’ watering. We might consider that our hearts are ‘very strong’ or ‘dangerously weak’. We all, biologists included, constantly assume that environments may ‘help’ or ‘hinder’ both our own existence and that of other organisms.

There is an assumption, deeply entrenched in Western philosophy, and inherited by today’s scientists and philosophers (see Harari statement at the head of this article), that there are two domains of discourse (sometimes called magisteria).

First, there is the descriptive language of facts that are open to empirical investigation – the language of science. Second, there is the prescriptive language of values as subjective opinion – this being the language of values and ethics and, to a lesser extent, the humanities.  The gravity of this distinction was enshrined in a famous statement by Scottish philosopher David Hume, who declared, ‘you cannot derive an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’‘ or, in other words, expressed bluntly, science (facts) tells us nothing about morality (values).

But distinguishing between what is objective and what is subjective can be tricky because of ambiguous word meanings.[6] ‘Wants’, ‘needs’, ‘preferences’, ‘consciousness’ etc. are (ontologically) subjective in the sense that they are mental states. But mental states can be subjected to empirical analysis. Consciousness is a subjective experience, but it is the topic of keen scientific research. ‘I like blue cheese’ is (ontologically) a subjective statement in the sense that it expresses a mental state, but it is also an objective (epistemic) fact, so it can be correctly claimed as a subjective fact.

Private inner subjective states are accessed scientifically, as in everyday life, through the analysis of behaviour and one of its extensions, the use of sound (in humans the use of speech).

All the sentiments expressed in scare quotes in the two opening paragraphs of this section along with the entire lexicon of human intentional psychology may be regarded as ontologically subjective.[6]

From this perspective, when we use minded language to describe the behaviour of mindless organisms (the mouse ‘deceives’ the eagle), we are simply reading minded human values into mindless organisms and that is obviously a scientific mistake. We are gifting mindless organisms with human intentions.

But, just because minded (ontologically subjective) language is inappropriate does not mean that the circumstances being described are also subjective.

A mouse evading an eagle is an objective example of a predator being diverted from its prey, such that the prey survives. If we say that the mouse ‘deceived’ the eagle that does not mean that our perception of the situation was subjective (ignoring for the moment the fact that all perception may be regarded as subjective), only that we used inappropriate language.

Our actual intention is to convey the mouse’s objective behaviour, not to imply that it has cognitive faculties like those of a human. We are conveying an objective situation using subjective language (as cognitive metaphor). But it is the language that is the cognitive metaphor, not the situation. Sensing our subjective use of intentional language as problematic, we mistakenly interpret the situation itself as subjective (metaphorical, unreal) by linking the metaphor to the situation.

Does this imply that an objective situation can be made subjective simply by the use of subjective language. At present this is the confusing way we interpret such cases. On the one hand mindless organisms display an objective behavioural orientation that can be both objectively impeded or expedited (are these minded words?), or subjectively ‘helped’ or ‘hindered’.

The objective-subjective clash of ideas – the cognitive dissonance we feel when confronted by a situation that seems to simultaneously express both fact and value – arises because, to humans, a behavioural orientation is, to all intents and purposes, a perspective or point of view: and that is something that is (epistemically) subjective.

But aren’t these just semantic games? How is it possible for facts and values to exist simultaneously?

Here we must return to the ideas inherent in evolutionary theory.

Values arose out of an evolutionary process and the products of evolution (e.g. structures, processes, behaviours) simultaneously demonstrate both similar and different characteristics: differences in the characteristics that uniquely define the object under investigation, and similarities in the characteristics that demonstrate common ancestry. Both sets of characteristics must be known for the object to be placed within an evolutionary context.

The cognitive dissonance arises from the fact that, from an evolutionary perspective, mindless biological values and minded human values are not mutually exclusive. Just as the pentadactyl limb can be manifested in objects as uniquely different as the fins of whales and the wings of bats, so the universal and objective behavioural orientations expressed by all living organisms are expressed in the uniquely human forms of speech and behaviour.

Our anthropocentrism refuses to acknowledge universal behavioural characteristics and, instead, places great emphasis on what is uniquely human – our conscious reasoning. What adds difficulty though is that these universal biological values are present to varying degrees depending on circumstance.

When we say, for example, that an organism is ‘trying’ to get away from us, we are applying human minded (subjective) language and sentiments to an (objective) behavioural orientation: we are imputing both fact and value.  The fact that the organism does not have a human mind does not negate its behaviour. A specialist terminology for non-human agency might seem helpful here, but human agency confusingly expresses both minded and mindless agency.

The goal of a spider web is to catch flies but, of course, that goal can only be represented in human minds. That goal can be (objectively/empirically) investigated in terms of the behavioural relationship between the spider, the web, flies and other factors. It is not demonstrated by incorrectly attributing (subjective) cognitive faculties to the spider.

Once the reality (objectivity) of goal-directedness in all life is accepted as a scientific fact, then we see that organisms constantly confront situations that can help or hinder the attainment of these goals – that conditions may be objectively ‘better’ or ‘worse’ as the distinction between fact and value is dissolved.

Thus ‘casualties’ and ‘beneficiaries’ in nature do not depend on human subjective values but objective facts that relate to the behavioural orientation, the agency, that is expressed in the biological axiom.

We have the universal, objective, and ultimate behavioural facts of the biological axiom to which, as a result of evolution, has been added a uniquely human subjective interpretation that includes conscious deliberation and the language of intentional psychology.

We say that values do not reside in the world, they only exist in human minds. But we are only aware of values through behaviour (which includes speaking and reading). All organisms (including humans) express a shared behavioural orientation. It is time that this behavioural oriention to be given scientific recognition.

It is argued here that science would be better served if the notion of ‘values’ were extended beyond minded creatures to all creatures: that values are best represented scientifically as present in nature by degree, not present in humans and absent in all other life. Word meanings cannot be changed at will, but science can refine categories and concepts to better represent the world. That is what is being proposed here.

The biological axiom is thus a foundational statement of biological agency that is simultaneously a declaration of fact and of value, of action and intention. It is not only a statement about the way organisms are and what they do, it is also a statement of crude valuation because it describes the ends or goals to which they are drawn as the motivation for their behaviour. This is a behavioural orientation (referred to here as biological normativity) that is the evolutionarily precursor to a human ‘perspective’ or ‘point of view’. It describes the universal, objective, and ultimate fact-values that ground the behaviour of living organisms . . . even the human reasoning faculty that self-consciously and critically examines these motivations.

Put simply: in most instances values are linked to behaviour that can be scientifically investigated and thus reveal valuable insights about our inner workings. Indeed, it has now become the scientific study called moral psychology.

But matters become more complicated when we make statements like ‘dogs are better than cats’, and ‘it is wrong to have sex before marriage’.

(In this way, and only in humans, the subjective and objective (facts and values) are inextricably interwoven: the ‘ought’ of minded normativity is only meaningful in respect to the ‘is’ of mindless biological normativity (see later).)

Minded & mindless

We dismiss the idea of non-human organisms having values because we accept the conventional assumption that values are the product of human brains.

Taken at face value this distinction is unproblematic. The idea of an oak tree having values is absurd because an oak tree has neither a mind nor a brain. To use the language of mental states in relation to organisms with no cognitive faculties is an obvious error.

So, when we find ourselves using the language of human mental states in relation to organisms that do not have mental faculties, we treat such usage as anthropomorphism (human-talk) with no basis in reality. We assume that in such cases we are mistakenly gifting organisms with cognitive faculties and, since they do not have such faculties, it is logical to treat this language as cognitive metaphor.  So, when we say, ‘that plant wants some water‘ we are describing the plant in metaphorical and teleological ways as though it has human intentions, when clearly this is just a figure of speech.

But, on closer inspection, examples like this are not so clear-cut as they might appear because, though the language is inappropriate (cognitive metaphor), the situation it is endeavouring to inadequately describe is not metaphorical, it is real in relation to the biological axiom.

Philosophical complications associated with the distinction between the minded and the mindless have dogged biological science from its Aristotelian inception, and they haven’t gone away. Most significant are controversies about the use of mind-related words like ‘purpose’, ‘design’, ‘knowledge’, ‘memory’, ‘learning’, ‘reason‘, and ‘value’. The quick and obvious conclusion . . . that we simply persist in reading our own mental states into nature, needs review.

Over time philosophers have warmed to the (often unacknowledged but evolutionary-based) idea that the likeness between human cognitive states and the behaviour of organisms runs deeper than a casual literary resemblance. Perhasps there can be ‘reasons without a reasoner‘ (Dan Dennett), ‘purposes without conscious intention‘ exhibited by organisms that are ‘for without foresight‘ (see article on biotelological realism), and there can even be ‘knowledge without a knower‘ (David Deutsch). There is intricate design in living organisms that is neither a product of a conscious designer or the metaphorical insertion of human intention . . . because, in nature, there is ‘competence without comprehension‘ (Dan Dennett).

Why do philosophers return to a seemingly indefensible position – this attribution of mind-like properties to nature?

These issues boil down to the denial of biological agency as outlined in the article on biological agency and discussed in more detail in the article being like-minded.

Principle – Values are present in nature by degree in accordance with their evolutionary origin. All living beings have the propensity to survive, reproduce, and flourish – the goals of mindless agency transmitting information that has been modified by feedback from the environment from one generation to the next. While the values of humans, as expressed in their behaviour, are not solely a consequence of minded deliberation and conscious awareness, but also mindless physiological response and minded, but unconscious (instinctive, intuitive), reaction.

Technical vocabulary

Mindedness is a trait that helps define what it is to be a member of the species Homo sapiens. But every species has uniquely defining traits and these traits frequently influence the particular way in which their biological agency is expressed.

If we treat the vocabulary of human intentional psychology (the language of ‘wants’, ‘needs’, ‘strategies’, ‘knows’ etc.) as human-specific (which we mostly do) then in a scientifically ideal world we should treat all species equally, by providing each species with its own agential language.  We do not do so partly because of the sheer technical difficulty of such an enterprise, but partly because we (rightly?) assume that human minded activity is much more important (has greater global consequences) than the activity of mindless organisms.

In the absence of a scientific vocabulary describing species-specific modes of expressing agency, we resort to the minded vocabulary of our own species.

Values & morals

A useful distinction may be drawn between values and morals.

If we regard values as what motivates behaviour, then the conditions of the biological axiom state the universal, objective, and ultimate values of all organisms. These biological values are not recommendations for behaviour, or judgements about behaviour, they are objective statements about the way organisms are. Some human values can certainly be included here. When I say ‘I want a glass of water because I am thirsty’ or ‘I have a toothache and I need to see the dentist’ or ‘I hate onions’, then these are objective facts about circumstances that guide my behaviour expressed in the language of intentional psychology.

But when I say ‘You should eat less sugar’ I am making what we call a normative, ethical, or moral judgement. Whether this statement is subjective or objective has been a topic in the study of ethics for many years.

There is a problem here. The behaviour of mindless organisms is determined by objective values but the behaviour of humans, as minded evolutionary developments of mindless organisms (mindless biological agency to which minded human agency has been added) is, in this sense, a combination of objective and subjective values.

Ethics, as the determination of what is right or wrong, is largely determined outside ourselves: it is mostly transmitted to us from our church, parents, schools, the law and so on. Values arise mostly internally but they may be either personal and subjective, or universal and objective.

The biological values described on this web site are universal and objective while morals (codes of conduct) may vary from place to place.

Many human values are expressed in a mindless, unconscious, impulsive, intuitive, or instinctive behaviour. These include our reflex responses of attraction, disgust, etc. that are discussed in the article on moral psychology.

But of special interest there are the collectively agreed principles or codes of behaviour that are greatly facilitated by institutions communicating through language. These are human ethical systems.

There appears to be a biological and conceptual continuum between our intuitive behavioural responses and behaviour that is guided by conscious deliberation – between values and morals.

We tend to describe formal individual and collective prescriptive externally derived behaviour as ‘morality’, which generally takes the form of rules or codes of behaviour that state what is ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ (e.g. it is wrong to steal).

Values are more personal and abstract internal drivers of behaviour that are not so rule-bound and open to judgement about right or wrong (I am afraid of heights, I like white wine, and I mix with people who are honest).

Individual values and morals often coexist in a state of tension with morality controlling our impulses. Our ‘will’ provides the impetus for our behaviour (our wants, needs, and attitudes are the motivators for reason) but reason can be used to override values. Moral codes (consider the ten commandments) are usually a way of regulating our unreasoned biological values – our greed, lust, envy, hatred and so on – that may ultimately not serve our long-term interests. These are passions inherited from our evolutionary ancestry that served us in times past but which our reason now recognizes as being in conflict with a human-apt operation of the biological axiom.

The biological axiom is a statement of value because it describes the universal and ultimate goals of all organisms, including humans. It says the way organisms are, not what they should be. It does not make recommendations, or moral assertions and is therefore not a form of ethical naturalism in its usual sense.

As reasoning animals we may choose not to conform to biological intuitions, inclinations, temptations etc. But this does not mean that biological values exist passively or are morally inert: they express powerful and universal biological agency.

It is tempting to think of morality as a human exercise of ‘pure reason’ that transcends (is uninfluenced by) either God or nature. (Singer, p. 3) But reason itself arose in an adaptive biological context, providing us with the luxury of assessing alternative paths of behaviour – but these are all, ultimately, subordinate to our biological values.

 

Principle – Human values are grounded in universal biological values that may be regulated using the uniquely human form of conscious deliberation we call reason.

Clearly many of the values that we inherit from nature (e.g. our potential for extreme violence, a desire for sugar and salt, sexual lust, envy etc. etc.) are not necessarily ‘good’ but this does not mean that decisions about right and wrong have nothing to do with our biology, that reason somehow transcends nature. Our inclination to make ethical judgements that run counter to our biology is itself a manifestation of our biology, as is reason itself.

We now know that our notion of ‘the good’ is ultimately derived from the biological axiom. The belief that ethics somehow transcends our biology harks back to the time when codes of behaviour were delivered to humanity by Gods. Today we know that if we wish to account for our behaviour we have no alternative but to look to our genetically inherited makeup and our cultural norms – our biological agency as modified by our biologically given reason.

In the absence of supernatural influence, we must ask Yuval Harari (see above) ‘If ethics does not emerge from nature, then where else could it come from?

Part of this assumption (there are no values in nature) lies in the traditional philosophical domination of science by physics and mathematics. It is certainly extremely difficult to get values out of physics, but relatively easy to get values out of biology – as demonstrated in this article.

Mind & value

The article on biological agency resisted the excision of (minded) human intention from mindless (non-human) intention on five grounds which are equally valid when applied to one of its embedded notions, that of value. Just as nature exhibits rudimentary (but real) purpose, so it expresses rudimentary (but real) value.

All life is predicated on the necessity of the ultimate values inherent in its agency. To deny these values is to deny life itself. Denying the biological necessity of the biological axiom is logically possible, but it is biologically incoherent in the same way that our human desire for health and happiness is not logically necessary, but self-evident. Reference to plant ‘needs’, for example, while using the (non-literal) language of human psychology are, in fact, an empathetic acknowledgement of the biological values inherent in all life, not just those in human minds.

Proximate values, those incidental to ultimate values, may be resisted (as is the case with human morality), and even ultimate values may be negated, but only in extremity: both animal[1] and human suicide is rare though not unknown.

It makes scientific sense to regard human values as a uniquely minded evolutionary branch, outcome, or development of biological values: to treat human values as grounded in biological values.

Principle – we make value judgements (using non-literally-intended but minded language) in relation to non-human organisms, biological structures, processes, and behaviours, not by reference to human intention but to the biological values expressed in the biological axiom

We are victims of a traditional inversion of reason . . . because animals and plants do not have minds, then they do not have values. But minded and mindless values are biologically interrelated since the former evolved out of the latter. Scientifically they are not so cleanly separate and distinct as our language would have us believe.

It is important to recognize that, biologically, human values are a highly evolved and unique form (sub-set) of the more general biological values from which they are derived. We might treat human values as categorically distinct, but biologically they are just one evolutionary form of valuing as an evolutionary branch that has diverged from the main trunk of biological values.

Facts & values

The statement by Yuval Harari at the head of this page expresses simultaneously the competing ideas presented in this article.

On the one hand ‘you can’t get ethics out of nature‘ in the sense that science cannot provide us with moral judgements (there are no mind-independent values: values are subjective).

On the other hand ‘you can’t get ethics out of nature‘ in the sense that ethics must emerge out of nature . . . if not from God, then where else could values come from? Human agency and human values are a highly evolved (minded) form of objective biological agency, biological values, and biological normativity: in this sense, values are objective.

The universal biological axiom is, simultaneously, a statement of both fact and value. It describes what organisms do (fact) while also describing their goals as a behavioural orientation, interpreted as a biological ‘value’, or mindless ‘point of view’. The quotes here indicate the lack of vocabulary and struggle to convey the close connection between a mindless behavioural orientation and its evolutionary development, minded values.

The claim that all life is an expression or manifestation of value (that the meaning of ‘value’ is more scientifically coherent when applied to all living organisms, not just humans) has far-reaching intellectual implications whose significance can be easily overlooked.

There is a long tradition in philosophy, most clearly articulated by Scottish Enlightenment philosopher David Hume (1711-1776), who observed that a deductive argument must have values in the premises if it is to have values in the conclusion . . . that no normative conclusion can be validly derived from factual premises. In other words, we cannot move deductively from the way the world is to the way it ought to be. Hume’s claim gave rise to a famous dictum in philosophy known as ‘Hume’s guillotine’, which expresses this more succinctly as a logically necessary condition: ‘You cannot derive an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’. That is, a moral judgment, a prescription, or value cannot be derived from something factual, a description: you cannot make judgements about what should be based on what is.

The significance of Hume’s claim, if compelling, is that it creates a clear demarcation between fact and value and, by extrapolation, between science and ethics. It is also influential in creating a boundary not only between the sciences and humanities but, indeed, between humans and nature. It is a precept that has a firm grip on the Western intellectual tradition, which is inclined to dogmatically treat claims as being either facts as empirically verifiable – true or false – and values as more a matter of sentiment – of feeling and attitude.

Immanuel Kant (1724– 1804) seemingly agreed with Hume by saying in his Critique of Judgment (First Introduction, X240) that ‘. . . to think of a product of nature that there is something which it ought to be . . . presupposes a principle which could not be drawn from experience (which teaches only what things are).

Much later, Cambridge philosopher G.E. Moore (1873-1958) in a slightly different context claimed that any connection between a normative property (like goodness) and a natural property (like pleasure) is open to doubt (his ‘naturalistic fallacy’). Or re-expressed as the ‘open question argument’, that no moral property can be identical to a natural property. 

Together these eminent philosophers represent a popular intellectual tradition in science and philosophy today – a tradition that places a gulf between facts and values- a carry-over of the former philosophical school of British Empiricism.

In the 21st century, as evolutionary theory becomes more engaged with the psychological sciences, it is now evident that human values, however refined by reason, are nevertheless grounded in the universal biological values that are expressed most succinctly in the biological axiom. As Hume also perceptively observed, ‘Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them‘  (Treatise on Human Nature 2.3.3 p. 415), this being an acknowledgement of the grounding of human value in the instinctive demands of the biological axiom, no matter how these are constrained by reason.

Both Kant and Hume preceded Darwin by about a century. Their thinking preceded Darwin’s theory of natural selection by about 100 years when it was assumed that species were discrete and immutable, not a consequence of descent with modification from a common ancestor.

With the decline of religion, we now realize that it is to biology that we must look for the foundations of morality, and that our reasoning faculty is just one, albeit extremely important, component of the biological toolbox that we use to evaluate and prescribe. Just like purpose and design in nature, values ‘bubble up from the bottom, rather than trickle down from the top’ (sensu Dennett when referring to design in nature).

Normativity is about evaluations of right and wrong, good and bad, better or worse. How does the discussion so far square with the view that we cannot infer the way things ought to be (a subjective value) from things and processes that are this or that way (objective scientific facts)? How can a moral judgment, a prescription, be derived from something descriptive?

Valuation begins with a propensity for one thing to happen rather than another. The feeble filtering valuation of physical constants that applies to inanimate nature (that reduces possible outcomes), takes a giant stride with the emergence of agential matter that can reproduce itself. ‘Valuation’ as the propensity to survive, reproduce, and flourish becomes a precondition for life, with human conscious valuation one of its many evolutionary developments. The functionality of the mind is simply an extension of the functionality of nature, albeit a highly sophisticated and complex one.

Like the purpose so evident in biological agents, value proceeds from within living organisms as an imminent faculty: life and value are intimately and inexorably intertwined.

The common-sense support we intuitively feel for Aristotle’s biological imperative and Steven Pinker’s moral injunctions at the head of this article can be understood, not in terms of the arbitrary subjectivity of our human values, but as the biological necessity that we conform to objective (and initially mindless) biological values of the biological axiom, even when modified by reason. Indeed, we cannot get ethics out of biology . . . because it is biology that gives us our ethics.

Human agency, its purpose, and its values, are best understood scientifically as a highly evolved, specialized, and minded form of objective biological agency.

Principle – human values are the uniquely minded expression of biological values that evolved in Homo sapiens 

Principle – the moral goals that are justified by moral reasoning are grounded in proximate human values (needs, wants, desires) that are, in turn, grounded in ultimate biological values (survival, reproduction, flourishing). Reason can substantially, but not totally, over-rule biological values. 

Moral realists[7] like De Lazari-Radek & Singer (following Sidgwick) justify reason as the source of objective morality by claiming that reason can provide us with self-evident rules that ‘lead us cogently to trustworthy conclusions‘ that are ‘mutually consistent‘ and that we can ‘. . . clearly and distinctly apprehend to be true‘ so that there can be ‘ . . . no conflict between two intuitions‘.[4]

Like any claim to resolve ethical dispute this is tantalizingly attractive. But just as such realist philosophers might disclaim Natural Law proponents by pointing out that facts cannot imply values; so it might equally be pointed out that reason can never divest itself entirely of value. There is no such thing as morality viewed from the point of view of the universe. Moralities bear the imprint of life because they arise out of life and are the creations of life.

We rightly strive for the success of reason, but we must be humble in the knowledge that its apparent triumphs are, of biological necessity, grounded in (albeit second-order) biological intuitions. Without the influence of biological value, however small, reason is an empty and incoherent concept.

Similarly, Pinker’s 2021 definition of reason as ‘the ability to use knowledge to attain goals‘ in his book, Rationality, brings reason in direct contact with questions concerning life’s proximate and ultimate goals.  ‘When you combine self-interest and sociality with impartiality – the interchangeability of perspectives – you get the core of morality‘ (The Golden Rule, p. 68). This is, of course, a morality based on proximate reasons. Reason need not defer to our passions, but it must always give them its attention.

We can see how the human proximate and subjective valuing (desire for) self-preservation, sexual companionship, and happiness (all as moderated by reason) evolved out of the temporary, universal, ultimate, and objective behavioural orientation of mindless organisms to survive, reproduce, and flourish. This behavioural similarity (so often described in terms of a linguistic gulf between the minded and the mindless) is presented here, not as a metaphorical ‘as if’ similarity, but as a real evolutionarily derived likeness. Over the course of evolutionary history, in one evolutionary lineage, mindless biological values became the minded and unconscious instincts and drives associated with degrees of consciousness depending on the complexity of central nervous systems. Until, in humans, biological values became conscious (and therefore subjective) inclinations and intuitions. As with biological agency itself, universal biological values and human values are not mutually exclusive characteristics in the way that organisms with minds are distinct from those without minds. Rather, human values are just one evolutionary expression (albeit complex and minded) of biological values, they share grounding characteristics with biological values. Biological values are prior to human values in both evolutionary time and biological significance. Biologically, minded human values are not discrete and mindedly independent entities that transcend biological values, they are proximate values that are grounded in ultimate and mindless biological values.

Biological values are not recommendations for behaviour, or moral judgements about behaviour, they are objective statements about the way organisms are. But the evolution of human minded agency brought with it an additional mental tool, the capacity for conscious deliberation (reason). Reason is not separate from biological values, it does not transcend them, rather it is superimposed on these values supplementing the way they are manifest in our human behaviour. When we talk about human values we tend to conflate innate behavioural responses (desire for sugar, our sexual attraction) and ethical judgements (that we should not kill, steal, or commit adultery). The application of reason is both motivated by, and applied to, the operation of biological values.

We can surmise that reason evolved as a means of regulating selfish, ineffcieint, and crude instinctually controlled behaviour. Though reason is a unique mental property that does make humans special, it is a mental tool that does not make sense without the grounding biological values that prompted its evolution. In this sense, human ethical exceptionalism is an exaggeration, misnomer, or form of speciesism because, like all aspects of behaviour, its very existence is grounded biological values.

We are inclined to juxtapose, on the one hand, the behavioural predisposition, instinct, inclination, intuition, or attitude with, on the other hand, the normative designation of actions as good or bad, desirable or undesirable. This is not an either/or distinction since there is a mutual interdependence.

Thus, though the biological axiom states the universal, objective, and ultimate goals that motivate all living organisms . . . in human agency these are both facts and values (i.e. the notion of a human value is itself a ‘thick’ concept). When scrutinized by human reason (a human minded evolutionary development of biological value) the results of deliberations can become moral recommendations.

The shared similarities of minded and mindless ‘behavioural orientation’ are not the figurative ‘as if’ similarities of metaphor: they are grounded in real evolutionary history that is the result of descent with modification from common ancestry, and this real connection warrants scientific recognition.

The acceptance of the reality of biological normativity provides us with a more compelling scientific account of nature and human agency since the assimilation of human values (as biological values sometimes expressed as codes of behaviour that are products of reason) to biological values acknowledges the uniquely mindful properties of human values while at the same time recognizing that they evolved out of, and share major characteristics with, their mindless evolutionary antecedents.

The agential conditions for life – being universal, ultimate, and objective – have remained the same throughout history. What evolution has done is ‘explore’ variations on this basic theme. Among the physical forms we find are creatures as diverse as amoeba, crabs, fish, and trees. What has changed dramatically has been the degree of autonomy as, in highly evolved organisms, humans, in particular, the self/other difference has become modified into a system of increasing cooperation rather than aggressive autonomy.

These mostly arise externally from, say, parents, the education system, and the law. The biological goals[3] expressed in the biological axiom resemble aspirational values and are manifest in the behaviour of all organisms, including humans. The biological goals[3] expressed in the biological axiom resemble aspirational values and are manifest in the behaviour of all organisms, including humans.

The behaviours of minded and mindless organisms share objective value-like features – the result of common ancestry – while our language treats the minded and mindless as separate and distinct. But the linguistic distinction is not clear-cut in the world.
On the one hand biological values are objective statements about the way organisms are but, since they also express a behavioural orientation akin to a ‘perspective’ or ‘point of view’, they are also a form of biological normativity. However, the uniquely human evolved capacity for conscious deliberation can override natural inclinations and intuitions within both individuals and communities. These are referred to as moral systems or codes of behaviour. Codes of behaviour like this are an communally agreed (external) behavioural constraint on individual autonomy and much of their content addresses the communally destructive aspects of evolutionarily-derived individual autonomy.
Much of our cultural evolution has entailed communal efforts (codes of behaviour of various kinds) that overcome our mindless evolutionary predisposition towards individual autonomy.
From our mindless evolutionary ancestry we have inherited a predisposition towards individual autonomy . . . and a selfish concern for our individual and basic biological needs. The human evolutionary development of reason showed that this is sometimes undesirable and inefficient, so much of our cultural evolution has entailed communal efforts (codes of behaviour of various kinds) to overcome self-centredness, and the downside of biological appetites and intuitions.

There is a multitude of factors influencing each organism and those factors influencing the behaviour of a herring will be very different from those factors influencing an oak tree but, as we have seen, these are proximate or short-term goals (as short-term achievable ends), in contrast with the more generalized and long-term ultimate values of the biological axiom.

We have attached special significance to one particular structure, the central nervous system, which we believe evolved out of the need to cope with the complexity of constantly changing environments encountered as a result of mobility. In humans the CNS has evolved into a self-conscious organ . . . matter that is aware of itself. Mindless nature

A useful distinction can be made between: goals (as specific and achievable objectives of individual organisms e.g. ); values (as more abstract, aspirational objectives, preferences, attitudes, or feelings); and moral or ethical judgments (as minded judgments of right and wrong – sometimes made universal by reason and incorporated into codes of behaviour, and countering egoism).

The three universal, ultimate, and objective values of the biological axiom are the drivers (determine the behavioural orientation) of all organisms. The multitude of proximate goals pursued by all organisms are strongly related to, among other things, physical structure, time, place, and circumstance.

For example, the overall behaviour of a crab expresses the universal and ultimate biological values of the biological axiom through a multitude of proximate goals that relate to its physical form – its pincers, swimmer claws, its place under a rock in the sea, the nearby presence of food and mates, and so on. Values may be expressed as both individual preferences or integrated collective behaviour (e.g. an ant colony), but not as shared as symbolic representations.
Human moral (ethical) judgments are universalized in resistance to egoism and collectively formulated into codes of behaviour expressed in spoken or written language. Proximate goals may vary from person to person, and from time to time, which can lead to conflicts when there are competing proximate ends. Biological values are not like this. Though proximate goals can override biological values (we can foil our biological need to reproduce by using contraception) but reason is always a means to an end and since the ultimate ends of organisms are biological ends, reason is always, ultimately, a response to these ends, even when it ignores or overrides them. While objective biological values are the ultimate ends or goals towards which all organisms (including humans) are directed, human values are highly evolved and uniquely human (minded and therefore more subjective) values that are, as it were, superimposed by evolution on objective biological values.

It might be claimed that human values, when subjected to the furnace of detached reason, have given rise to formal behavioural codes or ethical systems that have divested themselves of both God and nature – that ethics emerges out of pure reason (which demands that we universalize moral language, and allows us to acknowledge truths that do not have survival vaue), not supernatural command or empirical fact.

But the human reason used in moral judgment is a thick concept (it is both descriptive and evaluative). If reason is the ‘ability to use knowledge to attain goals'[41] then the universality implied by its ‘ought’ statements is not derived from dispassionate logic, or mathematics – the point of view of the universe – but from the universal values of the biological axiom. The biological axiom is itself a thick expression; it is both a factual description of the way organisms are, and an evaluation expressed as a factual behavioural orientation. Reason based on the point of view of the universe is a denial of life.

Living organisms are assemblages of matter displaying the agential behaviour that distinguishes the living from the inanimate and dead. This agency is directed towards (has the goals of) survival, reproduction and flourishing, and it gives mindless matter a behavioural orientation that we humans would call a ‘perspective’ or ‘point of view’. Out of the autonomous agency of organisms emerged a distinction between that autonomous agency and its environment, between what we humans would call the ‘self’ and the ‘other’. Indeed, it is out of this mindlesss behaviour that our own minded human behaviour evolved.

We want to know how evolution has changed the character of this behavioural orientation.
A useful distinction can be made between: goals (as specific and achievable objectives of individual organisms); values (as more abstract, aspirational objectives, preferences, attitudes, or feelings); and moral or ethical judgments (as minded judgments of right and wrong – sometimes made universal by reason and incorporated into codes of behaviour, and countering egoism).

The three universal, ultimate, and objective values of the biological axiom are the drivers (determine the behavioural orientation) of all organisms. The multitude of proximate goals pursued by all organisms are strongly related to, among other things, physical structure, time, place, and circumstance.

For example, the overall behaviour of a crab expresses the universal and ultimate biological values of the biological axiom through a multitude of proximate goals that relate to its physical form – its pincers, swimmer claws, its place under a rock in the sea, the nearby presence of food and mates, and so on. Values may be expressed as both individual preferences or integrated collective behaviour (e.g. an ant colony), but not as shared as symbolic representations.
Human moral (ethical) judgments are universalized in resistance to egoism and collectively formulated into codes of behaviour expressed in spoken or written language. Proximate goals may vary from person to person, and from time to time, which can lead to conflicts when there are competing proximate ends. Biological values are not like this. Though proximate goals can override biological values (we can foil our biological need to reproduce by using contraception) but reason is always a means to an end and since the ultimate ends of organisms are biological ends, reason is always, ultimately, a response to these ends, even when it ignores or overrides them. While objective biological values are the ultimate ends or goals towards which all organisms (including humans) are directed, human values are highly evolved and uniquely human (minded and therefore more subjective) values that are, as it were, superimposed by evolution on objective biological values.
It might be claimed that human values, when subjected to the furnace of detached reason, have given rise to formal behavioural codes or ethical systems that have divested themselves of both God and nature – that ethics emerges out of pure reason (which demands that we universalize moral language, and allows us to acknowledge truths that do not have survival vaue), not supernatural command or empirical fact.

But the human reason used in moral judgment is a thick concept (it is both descriptive and evaluative). If reason is the ‘ability to use knowledge to attain goals'[41] then the universality implied by its ‘ought’ statements is not derived from dispassionate logic, or mathematics – the point of view of the universe – but from the universal values of the biological axiom. The biological axiom is itself a thick expression; it is both a factual description of the way organisms are, and an evaluation expressed as a factual behavioural orientation. Reason based on the point of view of the universe is a denial of life.

The agential conditions for life – being universal, ultimate, and objective – have remained the same throughout history. What evolution has done is ‘explore’ variations on this basic theme. Among the physical forms we find are creatures as diverse as amoeba, crabs, fish, and trees. What has changed dramatically has been the degree of autonomy as, in highly evolved organisms, humans, in particular, the self/other difference has become modified into a system of increasing cooperation rather than aggressive autonomy.
These mostly arise externally from, say, parents, the education system, and the law. The biological goals[3] expressed in the biological axiom resemble aspirational values and are manifest in the behaviour of all organisms, including humans. The biological goals[3] expressed in the biological axiom resemble aspirational values and are manifest in the behaviour of all organisms, including humans.
The behaviours of minded and mindless organisms share objective value-like features – the result of common ancestry – while our language treats the minded and mindless as separate and distinct. But the linguistic distinction is not clear-cut in the world.
On the one hand biological values are objective statements about the way organisms are but, since they also express a behavioural orientation akin to a ‘perspective’ or ‘point of view’, they are also a form of biological normativity. However, the uniquely human evolved capacity for conscious deliberation can override natural inclinations and intuitions within both individuals and communities. These are referred to as moral systems or codes of behaviour. Codes of behaviour like this are an communally agreed (external) behavioural constraint on individual autonomy and much of their content addresses the communally destructive aspects of evolutionarily-derived individual autonomy.
Much of our cultural evolution has entailed communal efforts (codes of behaviour of various kinds) that overcome our mindless evolutionary predisposition towards individual autonomy.
From our mindless evolutionary ancestry we have inherited a predisposition towards individual autonomy . . . and a selfish concern for our individual and basic biological needs. The human evolutionary development of reason showed that this is sometimes undesirable and inefficient, so much of our cultural evolution has entailed communal efforts (codes of behaviour of various kinds) to overcome self-centredness, and the downside of biological appetites and intuitions.

Though we usually think of values as minded concepts, it is helpful to think of values as those factors that guide or motivate the behaviour of agents. There is a multitude of factors influencing each organism and those factors influencing the behaviour of a herring will be very different from those factors influencing an oak tree but, as we have seen, these are proximate or short-term goals (as short-term achievable ends), in contrast with the more generalized and long-term ultimate values of the biological axiom.

We have attached special significance to one particular structure, the central nervous system, which we believe evolved out of the need to cope with the complexity of constantly changing environments encountered as a result of mobility. In humans the CNS has evolved into a self-conscious organ . . . matter that is aware of itself. Mindless nature
A useful distinction can be made between: goals (as specific and achievable objectives of individual organisms e.g. ); values (as more abstract, aspirational objectives, preferences, attitudes, or feelings); and moral or ethical judgments (as minded judgments of right and wrong – sometimes made universal by reason and incorporated into codes of behaviour, and countering egoism).
because Autonomous matter with a behavioural orientation having the objective goals of of The words ‘ethics’, ‘morals’, and ‘values’ are often used in a loose and interchangeable way. However,
The three universal, ultimate, and objective values of the biological axiom are the drivers (determine the behavioural orientation) of all organisms. The multitude of proximate goals pursued by all organisms are strongly related to, among other things, physical structure, time, place, and circumstance.
For example, the overall behaviour of a crab expresses the universal and ultimate biological values of the biological axiom through a multitude of proximate goals that relate to its physical form – its pincers, swimmer claws, its place under a rock in the sea, the nearby presence of food and mates, and so on. Values may be expressed as both individual preferences or integrated collective behaviour (e.g. an ant colony), but not as shared as symbolic representations.
Human moral (ethical) judgments are universalized in resistance to egoism and collectively formulated into codes of behaviour expressed in spoken or written language. Proximate goals may vary from person to person, and from time to time, which can lead to conflicts when there are competing proximate ends. Biological values are not like this. Though proximate goals can override biological values (we can foil our biological need to reproduce by using contraception) but reason is always a means to an end and since the ultimate ends of organisms are biological ends, reason is always, ultimately, a response to these ends, even when it ignores or overrides them. While objective biological values are the ultimate ends or goals towards which all organisms (including humans) are directed, human values are highly evolved and uniquely human (minded and therefore more subjective) values that are, as it were, superimposed by evolution on objective biological values.
It might be claimed that human values, when subjected to the furnace of detached reason, have given rise to formal behavioural codes or ethical systems that have divested themselves of both God and nature – that ethics emerges out of pure reason (which demands that we universalize moral language, and allows us to acknowledge truths that do not have survival vaue), not supernatural command or empirical fact.
But the human reason used in moral judgment is a thick concept (it is both descriptive and evaluative). If reason is the ‘ability to use knowledge to attain goals'[41] then the universality implied by its ‘ought’ statements is not derived from dispassionate logic, or mathematics – the point of view of the universe – but from the universal values of the biological axiom. The biological axiom is itself a thick expression; it is both a factual description of the way organisms are, and an evaluation expressed as a factual behavioural orientation. Reason based on the point of view of the universe is a denial of life.
Living organisms are assemblages of matter displaying the agential behaviour that distinguishes the living from the inanimate and dead. This agency is directed towards (has the goals of) survival, reproduction and flourishing, and it gives mindless matter a behavioural orientation that we humans would call a ‘perspective’ or ‘point of view’. Out of the autonomous agency of organisms emerged a distinction between that autonomous agency and its environment, between what we humans would call the ‘self’ and the ‘other’. Indeed, it is out of this mindlesss behaviour that our own minded human behaviour evolved.
We want to know how evolution has changed the character of this behavioural orientation.
A useful distinction can be made between: goals (as specific and achievable objectives of individual organisms); values (as more abstract, aspirational objectives, preferences, attitudes, or feelings); and moral or ethical judgments (as minded judgments of right and wrong – sometimes made universal by reason and incorporated into codes of behaviour, and countering egoism).
because Autonomous matter with a behavioural orientation having the objective goals of of The words ‘ethics’, ‘morals’, and ‘values’ are often used in a loose and interchangeable way. However,
The three universal, ultimate, and objective values of the biological axiom are the drivers (determine the behavioural orientation) of all organisms. The multitude of proximate goals pursued by all organisms are strongly related to, among other things, physical structure, time, place, and circumstance.
For example, the overall behaviour of a crab expresses the universal and ultimate biological values of the biological axiom through a multitude of proximate goals that relate to its physical form – its pincers, swimmer claws, its place under a rock in the sea, the nearby presence of food and mates, and so on. Values may be expressed as both individual preferences or integrated collective behaviour (e.g. an ant colony), but not as shared as symbolic representations.
Human moral (ethical) judgments are universalized in resistance to egoism and collectively formulated into codes of behaviour expressed in spoken or written language. Proximate goals may vary from person to person, and from time to time, which can lead to conflicts when there are competing proximate ends. Biological values are not like this. Though proximate goals can override biological values (we can foil our biological need to reproduce by using contraception) but reason is always a means to an end and since the ultimate ends of organisms are biological ends, reason is always, ultimately, a response to these ends, even when it ignores or overrides them. While objective biological values are the ultimate ends or goals towards which all organisms (including humans) are directed, human values are highly evolved and uniquely human (minded and therefore more subjective) values that are, as it were, superimposed by evolution on objective biological values.
It might be claimed that human values, when subjected to the furnace of detached reason, have given rise to formal behavioural codes or ethical systems that have divested themselves of both God and nature – that ethics emerges out of pure reason (which demands that we universalize moral language, and allows us to acknowledge truths that do not have survival vaue), not supernatural command or empirical fact.
But the human reason used in moral judgment is a thick concept (it is both descriptive and evaluative). If reason is the ‘ability to use knowledge to attain goals'[41] then the universality implied by its ‘ought’ statements is not derived from dispassionate logic, or mathematics – the point of view of the universe – but from the universal values of the biological axiom. The biological axiom is itself a thick expression; it is both a factual description of the way organisms are, and an evaluation expressed as a factual behavioural orientation. Reason based on the point of view of the universe is a denial of life.

Commentary

In its most abstract, primordial, and universal form, value might be understood as a weak tendency for one thing to occur rather than another. This is the first hint of order in a system of randomicity and chaos. We glimpse this more strongly in the regularities (constants, principles, or laws) of the universe that give ordered matter a rudimentary direction – the earliest twinkling of a ‘point of view’.

This directionality inherent in the stuff of the universe became dramatically concentrated when life emerged. In this segment of universal matter directionality was focused on what we now understand as biological agency – the propensity to survive, reproduce, and flourish (biological axiom). These were the preconditions for all life, including that of humans.

Biological agency, under evolution, took a myriad of physical forms (species), each expressing agency in its own unique and mostly mindless, way.

Human agency, like that of other organisms, is constrained by its physical organization, but it is characterized by the unique development of minds and their motivating representations (attitudes, beliefs, intentions etc.). These representations may be unconscious and individual (intuitive or instinctive – see moral psychology), but they are also a consequence of both individual conscious deliberation (personal values) and  agreed social norms and codes of behaviour (ethics).

Human agency is thus defined by its conscious and unconscious values as mental representations that are superimposed on universal biological values, and made public through both language and behaviour.

Human values are generated both internally (from internal biological factors) and externally through institutionalized language and agreements (e.g. parents, schooling, religion, and the law).

The fact that we detect forms of value across such physical extremes, from the matter of the universe to human communities, is a reflection of the evolutionary continuity of the universe and its biological products.

The conceptual distinction between the minded and mindless seems abrupt and absolute while organisms exist within a physical and biological continuum resulting from cosmic evolution and, within the living world, descent with modification from a common ancestor.

We quickly accept the distinction between minded and mindless values while ignoring the factors that organisms with minds and those without minds have in common.

Only since Darwin have we realized that the uniquely mindful properties of humans have arisen out of characteristics that are shared with other organisms.

It is mindless concepts over which minded ones are layered. Human agency, purpose, values . . . learning, memory, reason, knowledge, purpose (etc.) are the uniquely minded evolutionary developments of characteristics that are present in rudimentary form more generally in nature. These characteristics of human agency, glimpsed more generally in nature, are not a metaphorical human creation but a result of real evolutionary connection. Science may come to recognize this, but present semantic convention does not.

Organisms are, of their very nature, manifestations of value. For an organism to exist without value is to deny its existence. Biological values are part of what it means to be a living creature. Biological values define agency and are the engine. As such they are a biological necessity.

Only humans are consciously aware of the biological values of non-human organisms, not the organisms themselves. But this does not mean that humans create these biological values or read their own values into nature. Biological values are demonstrated in the goals of organisms as expressed in their behaviour and are most succinctly summarized in the biological axiom which notes the universal propensity of living matter to survive, reproduce, and flourish. To this can be added the ultimate biological imperative alluded to by Aristotle that ‘it is better to live than not live’. The biological axiom and biological imperative are statements of the inherent disposition of all life – they are statements, not of logical necessity, but of biological necessity.

The sharp distinction between the minded and mindless in nature is not reflected in a similar sharp distinction between those organisms that express value and those organisms that do not. Instead, we see universally shared biological values that have evolved by modification from ancestral conditions to be expressed in the diversity of physical forms we see in the community of life. Notable among these values are their minded expression in the conscious human values associated with morality and the faculty of reason.

The biological axiom is a statement of both fact and value since it simultaneously describes what organisms do and what they are drawn towards, their behavioural orientation. Biological values are the ends or goals towards which all organisms (including their structures, processes, and behaviour) are ultimately directed, while human values are a human-specific (minded) evolutionary development of biological values to which has been added the faculty of reason as conscious deliberation. We make value judgements in relation to non-human organisms (using non-literally-intended but minded language) not by reference to human intention but to the biological values expressed in the biological axiom.

Human values arose out of universal biological values and this is why the idea of an oak tree, for example, having values, is not absurd. Both oak trees and humans share the (mindless) values expressed in the biological axiom. It is not as if oak trees have values, just that oaks do not share those uniquely human intentional (minded) ones.

In adopting this perspective on values, we come to realize that it is biological values that are ultimate values while human values are a proximate means to ultimate biological ends. Humans pursue the ultimate ends of the biological axiom through the proximate ends of happiness and wellbeing while human morality, while still grounded in biological agency, uses reason to regulate the natural instincts and intuitions inherited from are evolutionary past.

The prevailing view today is that moral discourse is, of necessity, restricted to those organisms capable of conscious and rational interests and choices, namely humans –  although some concession is sometimes given to sentient animals that can experience comfort and pain. Whether organisms other than humans can have ‘interests’ will be discussed elsewhere in the article on environmental ethics which explores the possibility of extending the ethical domain beyond its current anthropocentric domain to include the entire community of life.

There are many reasons why we ignore universal biological values: human arrogance, the inversion of reason, the metaphor fallacy and the fact (only appreciated since Darwin) that we ignore the physical (genetic) continuity and connection, the graded organic complexity, of the community of life. The sheer complexity of a value-graded world is enough to make us turn away.

We can, however, acknowledge the anthropocentrism of our human value system in several ways, most notably by recognizing that our much-vaunted reason is ultimately driven by our evolutionarily grounded passions or will – our universal biological values.

Biological normativity is the playing out of both unconscious (mindless) and conscious (mindful) goals in the face of circumstance. Though underlying biological values are universal, they will manifest differently according to the biological agent. The physical structures, processes, and behaviours adopted by a spider to obtain its food and produce offspring are very different from those of a sea urchin, eucalyptus tree, or human.

Humans, though they adhere to the biological axiom, are not consciously motivated by its (ultimate) precepts. We are not mentally preoccupied with perpetuating our genes or even with the immediate problem of survival (our lives do not seem under threat), instead we pursue the more immediate (proximate) goals of happiness, wellbeing, and flourishing.

Epilogue

- summary of claims that are argued in more detail in the articles what is life?, purpose, biological agency, human-talk, being like-minded, biological values, and morality -

It is argued on this web site that science is best served when human minded agency is treated as a highly evolved form of mindless biological agency. Also, that agency, purpose, and value are more scientifically coherent concepts when considered as part of the real fabric of life, not creations of the human mind.

The brief points below constitute a defense of agential realism, teleological realism, and biological normativity.  They outline: the key characteristics of life; how mindless purpose, agency, and normativity are possible; how to discriminate between the minded and mindless in both language and the world; the relationship between biological normativity and human ethics; why it is scientifically more appropriate to treat organisms as real agents rather than being agent-like; and why reference to 'adaptive significance', 'functional adaptation', and 'cognitive metaphor' are no longer necessary.

Biology
Biology is the study of life - as viewed from many perspectives and on many scales. The organism is the basic physical unit of life, and the species is the basic unit of biological classification.

Organism
Organisms are autonomous biological agents with a unity of purpose.

The goal-directed behaviour of organisms is an objective fact.[41]  Organisms behave in an integrated, unified, and purposeful way that tends to preserve and further their existence. This unity of purpose is the temporary agential propensity to survive, reproduce, and flourish (the biological axiom, see below).

It is this agency that distinguishes the matter of living organisms from the matter of the inanimate and dead.

The biological axiom
The biological axiom - that life is predicated on the temporary survival, reproduction, and flourishing of organisms as autonomous agents - is our most economical scientific statement of biological purpose. It provides the universal, objective, and ultimate goal-directed preconditions for life, referred to here as biological agency. These goals are: temporary because death is a precondition for life: all organisms die; universal because they are expressed by all living organisms; objective because they are a mind-independent empirical fact; and ultimate because they are a summation and unification of all proximate goals, including those of minded organisms. 

As a foundational statement of biological agency the biological axiom is simultaneously a statement of mindless agency, purpose, and normativity - of biological activity and its reason including its mindless behavioural orientation and minded intention.  That is, it is not only a statement about the way organisms are, and what they do, it is also a statement of rudimentary valuation, because it describes the ultimate mindless goals that motivate the behaviour of all living organisms, including their expression as minded and proximate human intentions. 

As a universal statement about living organisms, the biological axiom is also a statement of biological necessity.

Biological agency
Mindless living organisms have the capacity to (mindlessly) discriminate between the objects and processes of their inner and outer environments, adapting to these circumstances with a goal-directed unity of purpose. It is this goal-directed and autonomously unified behavioural flexibility - as biological agency - that most simply and obviously circumscribes biological science and its explanations of the natural world.

It is also the behavioural flexibility and agential autonomy that evolved into our human conscious discrimination between 'self' and 'other'.

Parts of organisms do not have goals in the same way that autonomous organisms have goals. It is helpful to distinguish between the purposes, interests, and goals of autonomous organisms and the functions of their parts (structures, processes, and behaviours) - these functions being a contribution towards the attainment of the organism's universal biological goals.

As open and dynamic agential systems, organisms regulate and integrate their flows of energy, materials, and information. In the short-term (one generation) this behaviour occurs over a lifecycle of fertilization, growth and development, maturation, reproduction, senescence, and death. Over the long term (multiple generations) organisms, as products of natural selection, display species-specific adaptive design and the potential to evolve new forms when heritable variation, transmitted to phenotypes via the chemical DNA, is subjected to environmental selection.

The emergent properties of biological agency arose in nature in a naturalistic and causally transparent way (inherited variation with feedback) that did not imply either backward causation or the intentions of either humans or gods. These agential, purposive, and normative properties of organisms preceded people in evolutionary time: they existed in nature mindlessly. That is, the notions of 'purpose', 'value', and 'agency' as described here, can refer to both minded and mind-independent conditions.

The reality of biological agency 
Because the purpose, agency, and values of biological agency can only be understood by (represented in) human minds, it is often assumed that they can only exist in human minds – that they are therefore a creation of human minds. From this error of reasoning it follows that only humans can be agents with goals, purposes, and values: that non-human organisms are, at best, only agent-like.

In fact, rather than biological goals being an invention of human minds, they are the biological substrate out of which the goals of human agency evolved.

Agency & purpose
Goal-directedness in nature is real, and without understanding what organisms (including their structures, processes, and behaviors) are ‘for’ (the purpose of organisms and the functions of their parts),  biological explanation becomes an incoherent listing of dissociated facts. The objective goals of biological agency (the biological axiom) state the purpose (necessary and sufficient conditions, or reasons for) life.

We ask about purposes and functions precisely because organisms are agents. We do not ask what the moon or rocks are 'for', because they do not behave in an agential way.

Mindless biological purposes preceded, and gave rise to, the minded purposes we associate with human agency. That is, minded human agency evolved out of mindless biological agency. People did not create purpose and agency, it was the purpose and agency inherent in nature that gave rise to people - their bodies, brains, and minds.

Biological agency & human agency
Universal biological agency and human agency are not mutually exclusive characteristics in the same way that we regard organisms with minds as distinct from those without minds. Rather, human agency is just one (human) evolutionary expression (albeit complex and minded) of biological agency. That is, uniquely human agency shares (includes) the general grounding characteristics of biological agency.

For example, we accept that sexuality exists (almost) universally across the community of life, even though it is expressed in a diversity of behaviours and physical forms. Simply because human sexuality is expressed in a uniquely human way does not mean that only human sexuality is real, and that the sexuality of other organisms is only sexual-like.

Proximate & ultimate goals
Human agency is a minded evolutionary development of mindless biological agency. Human minded goals are, in this sense, only proximate goals that serve the ultimate and mindless goals of biological agency.

So, for example, we humans eat for minded proximate ends (taste and smell stimulation and the satiation of hunger), that have the mindless ultimate biological end of survival. We have sex for minded proximate ends (orgasm, physical and emotional gratification), but also for the mindless ultimate biological end of reproduction. We develop moral and political systems seeking the minded proximate ends of happiness, wellbeing, and pleasure, while serving the ultimate and mindless biological end of flourishing.

Anthropocentrism
Consider the sentence -

'The design we see in nature is only apparent design'.

We say that design in nature is ‘apparent’ (not real) because it is not human design, it is not created by human minds. But nature and organisms are replete with real designed structures in patterns more complex, beautiful, and ordered than anything created by humans. Mindless nature ‘created’ the miraculous and intricately integrated human body, including the brain that provides us with conscious representations of nature’s real design.

The problem is that, for many people, ‘design’ (and other words like ‘purpose’, ‘reason’, ‘knowledge’ and ‘value’) are minded words like ‘prefer’ or ‘believe’ - words that are used uncomfortably outside the context of the human mind. Thus, the word ‘design’ is only used nervously in relation to organisms because it implies that either they have minds, or they were created by god. So, we overcome the real design with verbal obfuscation. We say that nature is 'design-like' or 'designoid'.

But the implication that without minds design is not possible is simply, and obviously, mistaken. Our anthropocentrism simply refuses to countenance the possibility of mindless design. But, following philosopher Dan Dennett's mode of expression . . .  'purpose’, ‘reason’, 'agency', ‘knowledge’, ‘value’, 'design' (and other concepts attributed to human intention that emerged out of the evolutionary process) 'bubbled up from the bottom, not trickled down from the top'.

Biological agency created human agency: human agency did not invent biological agency.

The language of biological agency
If biological agency is real, then how have science and philosophy persisted for so long with its denial?

Biological agency is frequently described using the language of human agency (the minded vocabulary of intentional psychology using words like 'desires', 'knows', 'wants', 'prefers' etc.). This is generally known as anthropomorphism, and it is discussed on this web site as human-talk. Since most organisms do not have minds, this language is diagnosed as being either cognitive metaphor (unreal) or, perhaps, a useful agent-like heuristic device (equally unreal). But a mistake is made when the unreality implied by the notion of a metaphor is presumed to infer the unreality of biological agency.

This presents a serious scientific dilemma. How are we to communicate the reality of biological agency (see 'technical language'  below)?

Biological normativity
The biological axiom is a statement of biological normativity as the temporary, objective, universal, and ultimate  behavioural orientation of all living organisms towards survival, reproduction, and flourishing (the biological axiom). This ultimate mindless behavioural orientation is expressed in humans as proximate minded intention.

This mindless behavioural orientation (referred to here as biological normativity) was the evolutionary precursor to human minded ‘perspectives’ or ‘points of view’, including the human reasoning faculty that self-consciously and critically examines these motivations.

This behavioural orientation is like (because evolutionarily related to) a human perspective or point of view. But the likeness is not the ‘as if’ similarity of metaphor but the reality of an evolutionary connection that warrants scientific recognition, since it is out of mindless biological values that human minded values evolved.

Biological normativity and human normativity are not mutually exclusive.

Aristotle's normative imperative
Biological agency expresses the 'values' (the quotes indicate an objective behavioural orientation) of survival, reproduction, and flourishing as a necessary condition for life. This is what it means to be a living organism - it is a biological necessity.

Aristotle maintained that the ultimate goals of biological agency drive us to the conclusion that – ‘It is better to exist than not exist‘, and ‘it is better to live than not live’ – referred to here as Aristotle’s biological normative imperative. Humans describe such statements as subjective value judgements that have no logical necessity. But as statements expressing the objective nature of all organisms, including humans, (but not in inanimate objects) they do express biological necessity.

Why do organisms have the propensity to survive, reproduce, and flourish? . . . ‘Because natural selection made them so‘ (Armand Leroi[40]). Critically, and in apparent contradiction, this is not what organisms need to do, or ought to do (human subjective minded values); it is the way that they are (objective biological 'values'). It is out of these mindless values that evolution forged minded values.

Aristotle's normative imperative - the propensity of life to temporarily resist death - is an objective fact: it is not the projection of human subjective values onto life. Humans may make the minded and contestable value judgement, that 'it is good to live', but mindless organisms do not make value judgments, their biological 'normativity' is expressed in the way that they are. But humans, since they express both mindless biological agency (objective behavioural orientation) and minded human agency (subjective value) thus express both fact and value simultaneously (cf. the philosophical distinction between fact and value).

Fact, value, & ethics
Our anthropocentric emphasis on the uniquely human trait of mindedness has contributed to an artificial intellectual gulf between humans and other organisms that has diminished the significance of our real biological connection. This can be attributed, in part, to the anthropocentric elevation of mindedness into a realm of values as a special mental and linguistic domain that stands in stark contrast to an unconnected realm of discourse that we call facts.

This putative difference between facts and values is widely respected within the scientific and philosophical communities. It not only sets humans apart from nature, it also separates ethics from science, and science from the humanities. But it has always been a topic of philosophical contention.

Given that the biological axiom is a statement about agents and goals, an ethical naturalist (someone who believes that ethical statements are substantiated by objective features of the world) might claim that a statement like ‘in order for agent X to achieve goal Y, X ought (would reasonably) do Z’ is a value judgement that can be empirically investigated. However, this prompts a follow-up question in relation to goals,  ‘Ought’ we to pursue these goals, are they ‘good’ goals'. For example, the fact that I crave sugar does not mean I ought to eat sugar, or that it is good to eat sugar.

The distinction between facts and values can be addressed from the perspective of evolutionary biology.

Let us assume, reasonably, that human minded agency and its subjective values evolved out of the objective goals of the biological axiom. One simple answer to a question about the way this occurred is to say that human values arrived with human brains, thus reinforcing the fact-value distinction.

A more thorough answer would point out that both our values and ethical decisions are derived in a complex way that has both minded and mindless ingredients. Both biological and human values are established primarily through behaviour with human mindless (unconscious) behaviour including physiological responses (sweating, digesting) as well as impulses, instincts, intuitions, and other unconscious drivers emanating from the evolutionarily earlier structures of the brain. These sources are, in effect, the objective remnants of our biological agency still exerting an objective (unconscious) influence on our values, including our ethical decisions. However, human conscious values communicated by language include both unconscious and conscious elements that are moderated by our reasoning which occurs in the most recently evolved part of our brain, the frontal cortex.

We respect reason, in part, because it can substantially, but not wholly, override the influences of our mindless and unconscious biological agency.

But when we understand our subjective values from this perspective we see that they are a mixture of our inherited ancient and objective biological values (the mindless and unconscious influences on our behaviour) and the application of reason to our knowledge of these and other factors. What we call our subjective values as established by reason, include an admixture of varying quantities of objective biological value depending on circumstance. Our biology has inseparably entangled both fact and value.

Such a proposal triggers a cognitive dissonance because we both confuse (fail to distinguish between) and conflate (treat as being identical) the universal, objective, and ultimate facts of biological agency, and the uniquely human values of human agency. We fail to realize that it is possible for values to simultaneously express both similarity and difference: the shared features of biological normativity and the unique features of human agency including the use of reason with other advanced cognitive faculties.

We all (but especially intellectuals and ethicists) like to think of morality as demonstrating the supremacy of reason (morality established by pure reason), but our inclination (necessarily locked into our reason) in both politics and ethics, is to fall back on the proximate human values of maximizing happiness, wellbeing, and pleasure as influenced by the ultimate biological value of flourishing.

Biological normativity is not prescriptive in the way that moral language is prescriptive. But the faculty of reason that we proudly and rightly regard as a uniquely distinguishing feature of human agency is still grounded in biological agency and biological normativity. Though reason attempts to transcend, overcome, or be detached from biological normativity, it can only ever be partially successful. Reason itself is, of evolutionary necessity, still ultimately grounded in the biological values that give it purchase. The moral decisions that we think overcome biological normativity simply fall back on second order biological normativity.

We can and do override our biological impulses with our ethical systems (Thou shalt not kill) but the reasons I observe this moral injunction still derived from my biological normativity.  Without its foundation in biological normativity, the use of reason in moral decision-making is an incoherent and empty concept.

Since reason can never fully extricate itself from biological normativity, we must face the fact that moral discourse reduces to biological facts, that human proximate and subjective valuing evolved out of ultimate and objective biological facts. The differentiation of facts and values, the descriptive and prescriptive is, at least, exaggerated. Organisms have biological values in human-like way because that is the way they (objectively) are, and that is what led to our own subjective values.

The acceptance of the reality of biological values provides us with a more compelling scientific account of nature since the assimilation of human values to biological values acknowledges the uniquely mindful properties of human values while at the same time recognizing that they evolved out of, and share major characteristics with, their mindless evolutionary antecedents.

Technical language
We humans describe our own form of agency using the minded vocabulary of intentional psychology (needs, wants, desires, beliefs, preferences etc.) This is, in effect, a set of technical terms for the uniquely minded agency manifested by Homo sapiens.

Since the species Homo sapiens has its own agential vocabulary, a thoroughly objective science would develop parallel vocabularies for the unique modes of agency expressed by every other individual species – an impossible task. This is one major reason why we fall back on the use of human-talk as cognitive metaphor - simply because it is the agential language that is most familiar to us.

It is tempting to create a vocabulary of technical terms expressing, on the one hand, biological agency and, on the other, human agency, but this would be speciesism in the extreme.

But there is a further difficulty because, as already pointed out, biological agency and human agency are not mutually exclusive concepts. The proximate and uniquely minded goals of human agency evolved out of, and share characteristics with, the universal, objective, and ultimate mindless goals of biological agency.

Mindedness is not a precondition for agency in living organisms: mindedness is simply one expression of biological agency. We conflate the simple distinction between the minded and the mindless with the complex distinction between biological agency and human agency. It is not that biological agency is a subjective creation of the human mind (cognitive metaphor or heuristic), rather that the proximate and uniquely minded goals of human agency evolved out of, and share characteristics with, the universal, objective, and ultimate mindless goals of biological agency. More simply, the objective behavioural orientation of mindless organisms (mindless purpose) created minds: minds did not create purpose.

There is only one possible scientific solution - an acknowledgement that if current linguistic usage is to reflect nature, then minded concepts like 'agent',  'knowledge', 'reason', 'preference', and 'value', which are currently restricted to discourse about humans, are extended into the realm of mindless agency. This also means that what is currently regarded as metaphor is more aptly treated in literary terms (assuming literary analagies are appropriate here) as simile (see 'metaphor fallacy' below).

Anthropomorphism (human-talk)
We frequently apply to non-human organisms the language that is usually preserved for humans. This is known as anthropomorphism, but referred to here as human-talk.

We use human-talk for many reasons including: brevity, our human cognitive bias, as an educational heuristic, and as literary flourish.

When we apply the language of human intentional psychology to mindless organisms this is not, in most cases, because we think that they experience cognitive states, but because we empathize with their biological values we intuitively acknowledge our (evolutionary) biological connection.

Cognitive metaphor
The use of minded language in relation to mindless organisms is a particular kind of anthropomorphism that is called cognitive metaphor, because it gifts organisms with cognitive faculties that they do not possess.

We humans have emphasized our uniquely human kind of agency by developing a uniquely minded vocabulary (we speak of needs, wants, desires, beliefs, preferences etc.) that expresses conscious intentions, sometimes called the language of intentional psychology. A thoroughly objective science would develop parallel vocabularies to describe the unique agencies of every species – an impossible task.

However, in many cases of so-called cognitive metaphor, the language is clearly intended to convey the biological likeness associated with the grounding characteristics of biological agency, not inferring that the organism has cognitive faculties. In other words, anthropomorphic language interpreted, not literally, but in terms of its intended meaning, describes a relationship between humans and non-humans that is a real likeness based on descent with modification (biological simile grounded in evolution) not cognitive metaphor grounded in a literary device. It expresses a meeting of shared biological agency, not a meeting of minds.

We say that a plant needs water, not because we think that plants experience cognitive states (human agency), but because we intuitively appreciate the significance of survival for all life (biological agency). It is not as if a plant wants water, rather, in terms of the biological agency that plants share with humans they depend on water for their survival. The agency being communicated here is not as if or even like, but the same as our human biological dependency on water. In this sense a plant needs water for exactly the same reasons that humans need water.

We say the purpose of eyes is to see, not because eyes were an intentional creation of God, or that their purpose is a projection of our own intentions, but because, from the perspective of biological agency (the objective behavioural orientation of all organisms) we understand the agential significance of sight for all organisms that have eyes. It is not as if the purpose of eyes is to see but, conversely, given the nature of biological agency, eyes have obvious and objective agential significance.

We say a spider knows how to build its web, not because we believe that spiders are consciously aware of the principles of web construction, but because we are amazed at how, without our cognitive powers, spiders instinctively build something as intricate and purposeful as a web, using information that is passed mechanically, and with meticulous precision, from one generation to the next in their genes. Even though the capacity for web building is an adaptive trait encoded in genes, rather than a cognitive attribute, it is a manifestation of biological agency that is so sophisticated that we rightly associate it with our own agency. It is not as if a spider knows how to build a web, rather, that web building (biological agency) is extraordinarily like (and biologically related to) our human cognitive capacity to learn, remember, and apply accumulated knowledge (human agency).

The denial of biological agency, purpose, and values
Scour biological textbooks, or the web, and you will find little, if anything, about biological agency, biological values, or the purpose that pervades everything in nature.

This downplaying of biological agency probably dates from a time before evolutionary theory, when each species was considered a unique and special creation with ‘ensouled’ humans biologically distinct from all the other organisms that had been placed on earth for human benefit.

The denial of real biological agency, purpose, and value rests on several interrelated confusions concerning the distinction between, on the one hand, organisms with minds and those without minds and, on the other, biological agency and human agency.

First, an inversion of reasoning. We assume that since humans are aware of their own agency (their goals, purposes, intentions, values etc.) and we know that non-human organisms do not share this same awareness, then they either have no agency or are, at best, only agent-like. We currently hold the scientifically unjustified conviction that agency is necessarily mind dependent. We mistakenly believe that undifferentiated and mindless biological goals play no role in their evolved and differentiated minded forms.

We mistakenly assume that because biological goals can only be represented in human minds, they only exist in human minds and are therefore a creation of human minds. But the goals (purposes, values, reasons for the behaviour) of non-human organisms are not spoken or thought; they are demonstrated in their behaviour, and they existed (were real) in nature long before their minded evolutionary human development occurred.

Second, converse reasoning that denies the evolutionary development of minded human agency (purpose, values, etc.) out of real and mindless biological agency while conversely claiming that biological agency is a fictitious creation (cognitive or other metaphor) of human agency.

Biological agency is not a metaphorical creation of human minds: human agency is a real evolutionary development of biological agency.

Third, the metaphor fallacy. The treatment of anthropomorphic humanizing language (human-talk) as metaphor, and minded humanizing language as cognitive metaphor.[42] This fallacy interprets the relationship between biological and human agencies using the logic of a literary device, the metaphor, in which one of the relata is always figurative (unreal). This forces the real evolutionary likeness between biological agency and human agency to be treated as an 'as if' (unreal) likeness, rather than a similarity resulting from real evolutionary connection. Were a literary device the appropriate mechanism for making this comparison then, in strict literary terms, the likeness is not metaphor but simile.

Fourth, and related to the third, we make an agency error – whereby anthropomorphic language (the language treated as cognitive metaphor) is interpreted literally as claiming that mindless organisms have cognitive faculties. Under closer inspection it is evident that, in general, such language is not, in fact, referencing minded human agency (human cognitive faculties), but the mindless biological agency that is a consequence of shared evolutionary ancestry. This is the traditional and mistaken assumption that the agency we imply when using anthropomorphic language is the unique agency of humans when, in fact, its intended meaning relates to the universal biological agency that is present in all living organisms.

When we say that a plant ‘wants’ or ‘needs’ water we are not suggesting that plants experience intentional mental states, but that they share with us the universal biological agential disposition to survive, reproduce, and flourish. This is a form of biological empathy - but not a communion of minds, more a recognition of shared biological values.

Fifth, that science is forced to use the language of cognitive metaphor, not so much for literary flourish, our inherent human cognitive bias, or the convenience of brevity, but more because of the empathy we feel in the face of the biological agency and biological values expressed by other species in the community of life.

Sixth, our lack of understanding of the reasons why we resort to human-talk, that is, the reasons why we are strongly persuaded to use intentional language when describing agential but non-intentional organisms, especially because we have inadequate technical language to describe biological agency, meaning we resort to anthropomorphism.

Anthropomorphic analogical language is, in general, not trying to convey the as if language of cognitive metaphor, but the real likeness of biological simile (the result of evolutionary connection).

From an evolutionary perspective human agency evolved out of (is a subset of) biological agency and thus the proximate minded and therefore (often) subjective goals of human agency, are subordinate to the ultimate objective goals of biological agency.

In sum, we have yet to scientifically accept that biological agency is not a metaphorical creation of human agency: human agency is a real evolutionary development of biological agency.

Historically, this philosophical confusion has been perpetuated by a pre-Darwinian anthropocentrism that understood life as Special Creation, rather than evolution with modification from a common ancestor.

If we regard anthropomorphism as cognitive metaphor or heuristic, then we not only devalue, but deny, the real evolutionarily graded agential reality of the organisms, structures, processes, and behaviours that unite the community of life.

If biological agency, goals, purposes, and values are real then their investigation can be transferred out of the realm of philosophical speculation and into the domain of scientific explanation.

Forms of biological agency
For humans, autonomy entails a conscious distinction between ‘self’ and ‘other’. Our minds provide a sense of self as they segregate the world into objects of experience, focus on a limited range of these, group them according to similarities and differences, and prioritize them according to purpose, interest, or preparation for action. For simplicity we can refer to this complex agential process as mental adaptation, which is a form of human agency.

This minded human agency evolved out of the capacity of mindless organisms (as revealed by their behaviour) to discriminate between objects of their environment and to prioritize these in relation to themselves and their behaviour. That mindless adaptation is a demonstration of both autonomy and agency. And it is clearly out of this mindless process of adaptation that minded adaptation evolved.

Biological agency is manifest through agential behaviour as expressed by each biological body.  This behaviour is relatively uniform within a species due to their similarity of physical form. The agency of a plant is expressed in very different ways from from that of a fish.  However, since all organisms arose from a common ancestor the agential similarities between organisms is always a matter of degree.

When considering agency as it relates to minds, five kinds can be distinguished each building on the former:

mindless inorganic 'agency' - the ordering 'behaviour' of inanimate matter

mindless biological agency - agential (goal-directed) behaviour that is not mind-directed (also found in minded organisms e.g. unconscious sweating)

unconscious minded agency - the unconscious, intuitive or instinctive behaviour of minded creatures e.g. fear of snakes

conscious minded agency - as behaviour that is a consequence of conscious deliberation

collective or cultural agency - behaviour that is a product of collective learning usually communicated through symbolic language as socio-cultural norms

 

First published on the internet – 1 March 2019
. . . 27 July 2022 – updated and the title changed from ‘Biological normativity’ to ‘Biological values’
. . . 4 August 2022 – added criticism of reason as the source of objective morality (the point of view of the universe)
. . . 5 August 2022 – added Epilogue

 

The Community of Life
Showing biological divisions, geological ages and major evolutionary events
Courtesy Evogeneao https://www.evogeneao.com

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