Monday, August 13, 2012

I Am What I Value

The heady mix of having the contents of too many soul-searching books swirling and saute-ing around the mind all simultaneously, coupled with attempting to listen to some classical music over the din of an annoyingly cheerful Tamil Movie (this one apparently) played on TV with full blast, didn't seem to make the 8 hour bus ride a particularly promising or note-worthy one.

Somewhere along the journey what with the ceaseless mental white noise, some interesting ideas began to germinate.

It's particularly interesting that we find our past selves to be so different from the present; I find writing to be a good way to leave an imprint of myself for my future self to laugh at, or learn from. And yet, looking back at previous writings it seems hardly believable that the past and present selves are anything but completely different people. Sort of shatters the intuitive idea of myself as a constant monolithic entity - there seems to be no time-invariant description of me. Examining the past seems to be a giant exercise of "what was I thinking back then", and with all the good intention in the world, trudge along into the future, only for the entire exercise to repeat itself.

What changed? How are we always able to look back at ourselves and yet feel so different now? The past does not seem to pose the question "what was I thinking", but more likely "how was I thinking what I was thinking"? What is unrecognizable or incomprehensible does not seem to be the actual mental state/outlook, but how such a state came to be me.

It seemed to me as though the fact that you happen to be thinking in a particularly unique way at a given moment of time, seemed to be reducible to a set of underlying 'values'. The core of our entire thought process seems to depend on almost arbitrary axioms that we subscribe to - these values. On peering under these values, we either find some other values propping them up or just nothing below - we just happen to hold the value - they are just there, floating around.

Self-preservation and self-interest are some of the innermost values that make our minds, and we mostly don't even realize that they're just there, floating around, taking them for granted. Neither does it even usually strike us what it would be like to not have these values.

What would you tell a person who just wishes to end his life, to not do so? The only way would have to appeal to some other value - concern/love for others or what they might think, desire for happiness, courage, self-image and so on. But what if you shared no values with another person?

The bulk of human interaction is predicated on having these shared values. We view life through a value lens - and this lens seems to depend on nothing - it just is, seemingly arbitrary. What we accomplish in communicating with others works within the leeway of these shared values. People with the same values tend to end up with the same mindset - naturally similar. People with similar (or similar core) values make natural friends, able to share experiences with each other almost effortlessly, since they share largely the same value-lens. Any information evokes the same mental images or sensations when viewed through their respective value-lenses, and so what is enjoyable to one is most likely enjoyable to the other.

However, we are so comfortable being in whatever value-system at the current moment that any other value-system (or even the same values with different priorities) seems inconceivable - a "how can you think that" feeling. It's probably this that makes our past selves so unrecognizable - our values (or their relative priorities) have changed.

Realizing that the value-system you happen to be subscribing to at the moment is not automatically shared with every other person in the world can help in understanding why people think the way they do. It can sort of allow you to zero in the causes of why conversation can be most frustrating. It's important to realize that information is viewed within the context of the value lens, and that your perspective is genuinely different from another person's, where the value systems differ.

Which is why I think morality ultimately depends, somewhere down the road of the fringes, on the naturalistic fallacy. The ethics of animal slaughter/meat-eating is one example. The vegan's argument - finally comes down to some variation of a value which the other side does not seem to have, or care about. How do you convince someone who doesn't value minimization of animal suffering to actually do so?

Is Ayn Rand right? Should we care only for ourselves, or should we care for others as well? Trying to seek an objectively right answer from any of these sides seems impossible - it all comes down to whether or not you happen to subscribe to the value of compassion, or if you do, where it lies in the priority list. To change this from either side would require to appeal to some other shared value and try to induce a consensus.

This is also relevant to theological debates. It would be helpful to understand the value-system of the opponent and design your arguments accordingly. This is something I think is often overlooked, when people think that trumpeting the wonders of science will just make religion go away, or that parading logical arguments to religious people will make them helplessly cast away their unfounded beliefs. Unfortunately this is almost never so, since most atheists seem to be unable to comprehend other value-systems - they keep formulating their arguments with the assumption that the opponent has the same shared values, such as a desire for knowledge, or the assumption of logic - atheists mostly argue with an imaginary version of themselves. Recognizing this early on can help in averting potentially pointless, confrontational or upsetting debates.

Anyway, this is not to imply that values are set in stone, and that people can never change their views. Hopefully, when someone refuses to change their views, this will help you to look under the mat and examine the values they subscribe to which dictate their behaviour, and decide how to make headway by working with the values you do happen to share.

But what's most intriguing is finding out that the innermost values are just axioms - nothing below them. You just happen to hold them because the neurons in your brain are arranged in a certain way. As sure as I am different from my past selves because we assumed different axioms, so will my future self be different from my present self, but hopefully the neurons in my brain decide to leave the larger axioms intact, but mull around with other less significant values like my disgust of espresso shots, my revulsion of Arrested Development et cetera.



Aravindh Cee said...

I can't understand how anybody could hate Arrested Development. Then again it might be the different values

ecthelion said...

It's one of those things..