Only Natural

Nature, science, language, values, feral beliefs...

Entries for July 2023

Where do our values come from?
Where Do Values Come From?

July 31, 2023

Knowledge and Values  

When I am trying to think about the relationship between knowledge and values, I have to contend with the confusing muddle caused by the spread of extreme relativism. By this I mean the beliefs that all opinions are equally valid, that physical reality is dependent on the viewpoint(s) of the observer, and so on. Extreme positions like those can make short work of any serious attempts to understand the links between knowledge and values.

Extreme relativism in philosophy didn't start with postmodernist academic thought, but seems to have progressed from there to extreme interpretations of the implications of "situated knowledge", with hangover effects now infesting "identity politics". It does seem reasonable to acknowledge the sources and circumstances of how we know what we know, but it is extreme to claim that physical reality itself varies with any particular individual's "situation". This leads to endless confusion, and only partly because people erroneously use the word "reality" when they are referring to social constructs. It is not uncommon for a particular social context to contradict knowledge that is based on physical reality.

Back when mandatory automobile seat belt regulations were being introduced, young, fit males sometimes objected, claiming that they didn't need seat belts because they had good reflexes and could brace themselves before any collision. They were ignorant of the reality of the mass and acceleration involved in collisions, but their social relationships helped to maintain their erroneous "knowledge". They were convinced they were right, but they were wrong about the real-world consequences. We also speak of other "social realities", and even personal "psychological realities" that people can find themselves in. Knowledge and values are affected by all of this.

The existence of gravity and other aspects of physical reality are not relative to the situated state of any human observer. That our understanding of their qualities is "constructed" through social agreement among informed observers does not affect their existence. On the other hand, misinformed or duplicitous actors construct unsubstantiated claims which can masquerade as "knowledge" only because they are not tested against physical reality. Obviously I'm not just talking about gravity here. Values derived from informed knowledge of physical reality can become distorted or subverted by claims based on such  misleading social constructs.

                does really matter?
Some Points of View - Temporary Enclosures
July 24, 2023

The Tragedy of Ecosystem Services (Values, continued)  

The Tragedy of the Commons is primarily a tragedy of human values, rather than a tragedy of over-exploitation. Before the Tragedy of the Commons, there was the tragedy of common values. When humans came up with the idea that nature existed for human use, that was indeed tragic. But as long as global populations remained very low, it wasn't obvious how dangerous that idea would eventually be. As populations increase, and individual desires run counter to collective needs, individualistic values connected to the intense pursuit of "resource" extraction lead to cumulative global degradation.

While we are taught to think nature consists of "resources" which can be processed into fun, possessions, and "wealth", we are not taught about the limits of the resilience of natural systems. After all, that would limit the amount of fun, possessions, and "wealth". The earth has always seemed so big, and people don't actually see billions of other humans right in their vicinity. The overpopulation and over-exploitation have seemed so theoretical, while the promised proceeds of the "goods and services" have seemed more immediately gratifying.

As adults, we may or may not de-emphasise some values if they conflict with our calculations of imagined personal benefit. Immediate, perceived "concrete" benefits generally take precedence over those that seem more abstract. It is also true that some people drink and drive, and run marathon races across Death Valley in the extreme heat of summer: an individual's values don't always determine their behaviour. Values may be more significant at the scale where a society - composed of people who mostly live in cities - learns to interact with what remains of surrounding nature.

We've also been taught to think "individualism" vs "collectivism" (or whatever the equivalent popular terms happen to be) is a binary choice. Not enough effort has been put into examining the details and gradations of the various definitions of the concepts, which are far from simple. It is certainly possible for an individual human to act uniquely while responsibly respecting the needs of the collective. What is clearly *not* really possible is for people to do "anything they want" in a population of billions of other people. To base a personal philosophy on such a fantasy is both futile and dangerous. It is a tragedy that hyper-simplistic views of reality that were generated in earlier times, with much lower populations, are now being misapplied in the present, and figure ominously in plans for the future.

                really matters
A Visual Hierarchy of Values
July 17, 2023

Education, Indoctrination, and Nature (Values, continued)  

When we were little, if we tried out some power words, some adults used to admonish us: "Watch your language!" They were worried about "dirty" "gosh" and "darn". Terrible stuff. Somehow, they never warned us about metaphors. As adults, if we seriously watch our language, we are watching our thinking. (Is there an objection that you can't watch what you're thinking and talk at the same time? Well, is our speech supposed to be thoughtless? We can do, and often do, both.)

I understand the term indoctrination to mean the external forcing of someone to think a certain way, where the force could vary from strong to gentle, and subtle to blatant. (Intentionally providing "disinformation" might be an example of moderate force in indoctrination.) Some of what is commonly called "education" would also fit this description, but there is much more to education than that. Anything that is learned without focused external pressure and includes free choices among alternative resources and references might qualify as true education. It has to evade prior counter-training. Training and indoctrination are widespread, but ultimately, people educate themselves. Or they don't.

What are the connections between knowledge and values? If people don't know a creature exists, they certainly won't value it. If they don't know what an ecosystem is, they probably won't value one. If they don't know how complex nature is, they won't be able to appreciate that complexity. Of course, if people do know something about such things, they may still not see any value in them. In that case, they may have learned conflicting value systems that take precedence. They may have been trained to value oversimplification. The extent and quality of their knowledge does not allow them to think beyond their training. The fact that people frequently claim to "know" things that they have no real evidence for, adds to the confusion and obfuscation.

At first, values are mostly influenced by family and peers - there are no genes for values, we learn them. Unfortunately, people are currently trained to believe that learning new things is hard, unnecessary work. We are also surrounded by a multitude of distractions that effectively decrease the time and energy available for learning new things. If we can learn more about nature, our values may change, and as they change, we can watch ourselves thinking. (Self education might be the only truly revolutionary act we can accomplish.)

Tidy Nature
A Comfortably Unnatural View of Nature
July 10, 2023

  Why Do We Fear Nature?

One of the major determinants in our world has become human education, and its evil parody: indoctrination. If there weren't so many humans, human ignorance wouldn't matter as much to the natural world (and to other humans, of course).

What we find impressive, and what leads to the formation of our values, depends on what we learn over time. Children find the tricks of magicians impressive because they haven't yet learned how the tricks are done. Many adults don't find aspects of nature impressive because they haven't yet learned that they exist. If what we learn is narrow or limited, our values might be simple and unchanging. George Monbiot has some revealing things to say about education and flexible thinking in this piece in The Guardian. After considering some broader educational context, he says, "Schoolchildren should be taught to understand how thinking works..." The same could be said for most adults.

If we think a little bit about how thinking works, it clearly involves language, regardless of whatever nuanced definition of "thinking" we might choose. It seems hard to think about very much without language. At some trivial level, the more language you have, the more you can think about - and the more you have to think *with*. I'll leave aside for the moment the question of what "language" really "is", but obviously I'm not just referring here to spoken language.

If the language we have learned to think with is full of cliches, euphemism, misleading metaphors, attractive falsehoods, and so on - an impoverished language - we will experience poor reasoning, reduced perspective, and possibly be susceptible to uncontrollable emotions. Thinking about thinking could help counteract any such shortcomings. We can always learn more about why we have learned what we have learned, and how it has shaped our minds. Could it be possible to learn too much? If so, that wouldn't make the list of the top 527 problems humans currently face.

                before you leap
How not to think about nature
July 3, 2023

  How to Not Think About Nature

A good cliche can make a person feel reassured. Cliched thought provides the illusion of understanding when ignorance confronts uncertainty. The abundance of cliches in our thoughts about nature seems to provide this mental "ecosystem service". (Might as well mash a few metaphors together.)

One common truism often applied to nature is that "only the strong survive" - or sometimes the related tautology touting "the survival of the fittest". We might spare a thought here for the fate of the large predatory dinosaurs. These bromides actually just amount to saying that only the survivors survive, which should not be too surprising. And as Stephen J. Gould pointed out, it doesn't matter how well evolved the fish is if the pond dries up. Or an asteroid strikes. Of course, if you count evolutionary "success" with numbers, the dinosaurs did "dominate" for many millions of years. They never got to experience the joys of using a cell phone though.

How would encountering the old saying: "we don't know the value of water until the well dries up" affect our ability to reason? A saying like this merely helps justify the reassuring refuge of cynicism. Sayings like this constrain our ability create new values.

We could certainly think more about values. More of nature left in a natural state leaves less room for humans, which seems to make obvious sense if we value a livable environment. Certainly it goes against the grain of contemporary socio-economic obsession. And it goes against the grain of historical thinking. The quote from William Blake: "Where man is not nature is barren" is only from a few hundred years ago, but still sums things up. That cliche is currently expressed in other words and actions.

If we occasionally admonish ourselves for not seeing the forest for the trees, we rarely think about not seeing the trees and forests for the dollars. At least, not until we actually can no longer see them. And again, no plantation can adequately replace a forest any more than a cliche can adequately replace critical thinking.