Philosophies of Significance
October 9, 2013 § 46 Comments
[Photo: Casey Cripe]
Alva Noë recently posted a short commentary on the entanglement of science and values. I think readers will be interested in it. At first blush Noë’s point is fairly straight forward: Science and values are always entangled because the very characteristics science depends on — reason, consistency, coherence, plausibility, and replicability — are themselves values. Without some kind of agreement that these are the values that best serve the creation of scientific facts there would be no foundation upon which the sciences could maintain consistency. Science depends on a set of extra-scientific decisions, and we need to pursue and cultivate these decisions in order for the possibility of science to emerge in the first place. Simple enough.However, while the appeal to the intrinsically value-laden nature of scientific practice is often used to demote science as the sole arbiter of truth (i.e., ‘see, science is just another value’), Noë’s approach is much more helpful. Instead of trying to lower the status of science by appeal to its value-laden dimensions, Noë’s stake is to raise the status of values themselves. Noë wants us to take seriously that values have real causal efficacy; in other words, Noë asks us to acknowledge what we might call the “objectively” real status of values. This leads to some interesting questions. Noë writes:
But if values are real, what are they? And what about the fact that, when it comes to values, it doesn’t seem possible to settle disputes. We live in a pluralistic world, after all. Once you take values seriously, you’ve got to figure out how they fit into the world, how they fit into our world, and this isn’t easy. In fact, I suspect, it is one of the fundamental problems of our time.
By asking the question “what are values?” — not “what are they like?” or “what do they do?” — Noë is asking us to consider the ontology of values. Not only that, but he is suggesting that understanding what values are and how they fit into the world is crucial to our day and age. Here Noë is joined by a number of philosophers who share his problem, but approach it from a different angle. We find this in Isabelle Stengers description of cosmopolitics where the cosmos is itself an articulated series of entangled and contested “universes of value” (a term she borrows from Felix Guattari). We also see this in Bruno Latour’s emphatic shift from “matters of fact” to “matters of concern,” and Donna Haraway’s work on companion species. We can trace all three of these initiatives back to Alfred North Whitehead’s critique of the bifurcation of nature.
What Stengers, Latour, Haraway, and Whitehead have in common is a basic understanding that in order to account for the reality of values, we need an alternative metaphysics not based in the subjective-objective dichotomy, nor one that collapses the Real into either category. Latour’s newest work in An Inquiry into Modes of Existence (“AIME”) is itself an investigation into the ontology of values, as is Haraway’s more recent take on multispecies cosmopolitics. With Noë, cosmopolitics and AIME both seek to elevate the status of values rather than use them to attack the nature of the sciences. However, for the latter group the ontological status of values is much broader than what Noë hints at — though does not foreclose — in his commentary.
Where does this broader account of values take us?
Following the speculative method of cosmopolitics, I would wager that values are not just crucial to the development of science, but are in fact fundamental to the evolutionary process of every living species (and, in turn, to the very constitution of Earth). In other words, my position is that values drive ecology all the way down. By this I do not mean that evolution aims towards a particular, unified value (though there is a sense in which some kind of teleodynamism must be accounted for). Rather, what I am suggesting is that all creatures behave according to a unique and diverse set of structures of valuation that enact certain kinds of terrains allowing them to act. (With Tim Morton we might even say that this is an aesthetic process). From this view, ecology just is an evolving exchange of values — a concatenated set of ecologies of mind. The emergence of the Anthropocene is a frightening testament to how human values currently dominate and drive the evolutionary process. It’s a complete breakdown of the subject-object dichotomy.
The stake for me here is that we need to cultivate philosophies of significance in the context of a metaphysics that does not reduce the nature of valuation to mere mirage. Epiphenomenalism and eliminativism are out. Reality is back in.