A response to Mark Hubey’s post “There are no values in Nature. Nothing is intrinsically good or bad, nor does Nature or anything in Nature exist for the sake of some purpose. Whatever is, just is. “
Agree that value (valence) is something that we have as a property, not something intrinsic to existence in a sense, and it does seem to derive from existence in the sense of the differential survival of things.
Agree that all levels of complexity require boundaries to enable their existence (without boundaries everything mixes to something amorphous). We are very complex entities, embodying at least 15 levels of cooperative complex adaptive systems (some physical, some more abstract).
Looking at the likely evolution of concepts like good and bad, they seem to be the simplest possible abstract embodiments of value.
As such, they can be very useful constructs in evaluating actions in contexts that have very tight time constraints, and allow little time for computation before demanding action. That same idea of simplicity has a certain utility in creating social cohesion at a more abstract level (recurs as deeply as one has time for).
Thus being able to identify an action in a particular situation as being in a class that has better than random survival value, has survival value in itself, and can be strongly selected for at various levels over deep time.
Thus it is that “prophets” don’t need to know why they have something workable, it only needs to actually work in reality, and those that actually do work will tend to survive over time, while those that don’t will tend to fade away. Thus it is that religions and cultures can emerge from deep time with sorted operational “values” that tend to work in practice, even if the matrix of stories within which those practices are embedded are entirely mythical, and even if taken as a group all people claiming to be prophets were essentially random in their story generation – those without survival value would get “lost”. At the practical level, evolution doesn’t care about stories, it only works with the actions those stories create in reality. And of course there is another level of evolution, the mimetic, which is a whole new level of evolutionary complexity (again potentially indefinitely recursive).
Thus all the many levels of valence within us can be seen as the differential survival of variants in contexts over deep time.
And the specifics of the contexts are really important.
Everything alive today, from archaea to bacteria to protists to plants to animals to us seem very probably to have all been evolving for the same length of time, but in different sets of contexts for each particular set of lineages.
It really is worth spending quite a bit of time contemplating that the simplest of bacteria is every bit as evolved as us, just for a different set of contexts over time.
Our ability to indefinitely extend and abstract the notion of valence seems to be unique.
It seems to be a result of a highly recursive set of cooperative complex adaptive systems, capable of modeling the model of reality that their subconscious produces.
In this context, good and bad are simple and sometimes useful approximations to the survival probabilities for ourselves and our groups (both sets, personal and group survival, will have distinct sets of influences on probabilities of survival, and we can belong to multiple sets of groups simultaneously, so the probabilities can sum across quite broad landscapes of sets, and over quite deep time looking back).
Unfortunately, there is nothing in our past that directly prepares us for the exponentially changing rate of change of our present, and the exponential increase in complexity that comes with that.
There are some general themes that can be useful by analogy, but the idea that ideas like “good” and “bad” have any sort of existence other than “contextually useful approximation to survival utility for some set of entities” over our history seems unlikely.
If we are to survive into the long term future, then we all need to be aware of the many sets of heuristic approximations embodied in ourselves and our many levels of culture that might have worked in our past but are no where near as reliable or workable in our rapidly changing present and future.
If you have no option but to make a choice very rapidly based on very poor information, then good and bad can be useful heuristics.
But if you have the time to make much more deeply nuanced investigations into the long term probabilities involved, then it pays to use a much more explicitly complex multi-dimensional valance and survival probability “landscape”.
The more deeply one is prepared to examine this existence we experience, the more complex it looks, and the relationship one has to the simplifications in common use changes. That process seems to be recursive. One can repeat it multiple times (potentially infinite times).
Mark made the claim above that:
“Ethics is constructed by humans and …
(1) there are rules
(2) there is right vs wrong
(3) there is good vs bad”
The reality seems to be vastly more complex than is implied in a straight forward reading of that statement.
If one takes a systems and computational view of the evolution of awareness, language and society, then it seems clear that all knowledge is “a posteriori”, being the result of the sorting by differential survival of essentially random variants in populations over time.
The really interesting question is exactly what is sorting at what frequencies over what sort of time.
One needs to understand the effects of cooperative vs competitive contexts on the ability of a population to support diversity (the phenotypic expression of “freedom”).
It seems clear to me that much of ethics and morality has been created and sorted by factors much older that human awareness and language.
The only environments that have a reasonable probability of cooperative systems emerging are ones where the threat to individuals within a population comes largely from factors outside that population, and there are strategies that can be adopted that are effective at mitigating those risks to some significant degree.
There seem to be many levels of factors operating on the evolution of our brains and their abilities and the sorts of cultures that have emerged as a result.
We all require a culture to kick start our awareness,
Cultures give us language, and the combination of language and experience instantiate the ability for recursive abstraction that develops more readily in some minds than others.
Complex adaptive systems are (by definition) complex. They cannot be predicted with certainty, and their development is always iterative.
So we must each have our cultural phase, and there seems to be no logical limit to the levels we can individually explore beyond culture.
Whether we are able to communicate the results of those explorations to any other entities is always an open question, and the more deeply one explores a topic the lower the probability that one will be able to transmit the results of those explorations in any finite time available.
Throughout history very few people have had the resources or freedom to essentially spend decades exploring abstract relationships without the requirement to report anything back to anyone.
For most of history, most people had to put most of their time and energy into the daily grind of meeting survival needs; so they needed simple heuristics to allow them to make survival oriented decisions with reasonable probabilities in short times – thus ideas like “rules”, “right and wrong”, “good and bad” survive.
They are the simplest possible distinctions in their respective infinite domain spaces – dividing infinities of probabilities into binaries. Often useful, sometimes existentially dangerous when faced with novelty beyond the experience of the evolutionary sorting embodied in the particularities of those concepts.
We are vastly more complex than most cultural constructs imply.
We are a vast collection of communities of cooperative cells.
Each cell is a vast collection of communities of cooperating molecules.
Our brains are vast collections of levels of cooperating communities of neurons.
The complexity present takes a lot of experience to get any serious familiarity with.
Sure, we are in part socially constructed.
We are in part cosmological constructs.
We are in part genetic constructs.
We are in part mimetic constructs.
We are in part random noise.
We are in part individual choice, and individual creativity.
We are all those things.
At every level our freedom is fundamentally predicated on cooperation, and at every level it has real limits that have existential level risk if exceeded.
That seems to be our reality!