Whence Cometh Value?

Samuel Skinner has been trying to articulate and defend a non-theistic version of ethics in the comment thread of ‘The Inherent Value of Human Life’. Since I don’t think that debate is proving fruitful, I’m going to undercut it with a new argument which follows on from that original article.

Samuel has conceded that the universe, in toto, is amoral: that is, that is has no moral properties at all. In his own words:

I am admitting the universe is amoral […] The universe is entirely amoral. After all, none of its component parts are moral and they do not have any emergent properties that make the universe any different. To claim it is anything but amoral is similar to claiming that for any other inaminate object.

Value conference

It seems to me that this theory of ethics relies on the fairly generic idea of value conference. This is the notion that things only obtain value when we confer it on them. Value can take many forms—we could be talking about moral value (rightness), or teleological value (purpose), or epistemic value (meaning), or whatever. But the general idea is the same. The universe itself does not have value. Its constituent parts do not have value. They’re all just various amalgamations of matter and energy—and value isn’t a property of matter or energy. Therefore, if anything in the universe is to have value, that value must be conferred, rather than existing inherently in it.

Obviously, under a non-theistic view, value conference is done by sentient beings. Particularly of interest to us is the value conference performed by human beings. Under a non-theistic view, value conference does not involve (or need not involve) a deity of any kind—human value conference is sufficient. Put another way, value conference can be subjective, such that values are conferred by individuals; there is no need for an objective value-conferrer like God.

Now, if it can be shown that subjective value conference fails as a thesis, then the entire basis for non-theistic ethics (and epistemology and teleology) falls apart. If subjective value conference is intrinsically incoherent or irrational or impossible in some way, then it is clear that there are no grounds for whatever values non-theists believe exist—including moral values.

The form of the argument

What I’m going to show is that non-theists have no grounds for values. The kinds of grounds I have in mind are ontological, and not epistemological. In other words, I’m talking about whether or not, and how, values actually exist in the way that non-theists assert. I’m not talking about whether or not, and how, we can know about them. If you want to comment in this thread, make sure that you mark this distinction.

What I’m going to show is that subjective value conference is basically self-refuting. In this post, I will be focusing mostly on moral values, since that’s what’s at issue in the current debate with Samuel. I am somewhat indebted to Bill Vallicella, whose argument from meaning I am emulating.

The argument outlined

Under the non-theist’s view, some action has some moral value only if that value is conferred on it by some person. Now, the action, by the non-theist’s own admission, is intrinsically valueless. In terms of analysis as a physical system in the universe, it has no value, because value is not a property of physical systems. So the action only gains value upon the act of conference.

The problem for the non-theist is that, under his own view, the act of value conference itself is as intrinsically valueless as the action which it’s supposed to confer value upon. In that case, the question reasonably arises, how can a valueless act of conference nonetheless confer value?

The obvious answer which presents itself is that perhaps the act of conference has value conferred upon it in turn by some other act of conference. But this only pushes the problem back a step, leading to an infinite regress. That second act of conference would also be intrinsically valueless, requiring another act of conference—and so on ad infinitum.

The alternative, that value-conference is itself a valueless process, does not constitute any kind of explanation at all. It’s self-evidently absurd, and may even lead to conclusions which the non-theist would himself deny. An explanation of the origin of values ought to at least explain what it is about the process of value conference that actually confers value. If the action of value conference is, in the final analysis, a physical system, then value is not an intrinsic part of that process. What, then, about the process confers value? Whence cometh value?

Furthermore, if the act of conferring value is a process which does not itself involve value, then what distinguishes a valueless process which confers value from a valueless process which does not? It seems very unclear why such a process is even needed for there to be value, if there is to be value. It’s as if value “just exists” in the universe—but that is the very conclusion which the non-theist denies.

Emergence

The typical response to this sort of argument is that value is an emergent property, just like love or art or intelligence or whatever. Non-theists often, rather ironically, try to put pressure on this argument by saying that it would reduce to non-existence all these things which we consider so important. Therefore, it must be the case that these things really do exist, but as emergent properties—of intelligence, for example; which is itself an emergent property of physical systems. But that’s the very point of the argument: to show that, under a non-theistic view, these things really don’t exist. Trying to put pressure on the argument by emphasizing its conclusion is therefore a tad naive. All the non-theist is doing is pointing out the very conclusion being argued, but disagreeing because it’s plainly absurd. But of course it’s absurd—the argument is of the form reductio ad absurdum; a “bringing back to absurdity”—a form of argument constituting a disproof of some proposition (in this case non-theism) by showing that it leads to absurd or untenable conclusions.

Appealing to emergence, as if this refutes the argument, is just like appealing to magic. It is not merely an admission that the non-theistic view of reality has no explanation for the existence of value (in marked contradistinction to the theistic view), but also an admission that non-theists would rather appeal to magic than to the clear and rational theistic explanation. As Paul Manata puts it,

Fillet of a fenny snake,
In the cauldron boil & bake;
Eye of newt and toe of frog,
Wool of bat and tongue of dog,
Adder’s fork and blind-worm’s sting
Lizard’s leg & howlet’s wing,
For a charm of powerful trouble,
Like a hell broth boil and bubble.

Macbeth Act IV, Scene 1

The crone throws the wing of a bat and the eye of a newt into the cauldron, mixes it up, and voilà, you have the emergence of some mystical and immaterial “protection” or “love” or “safe trip” or “powerful trouble” spell or charm.

Likewise, take the physicalist. That crone, Mammy Nature, mixes a few billions neurons, synapses, and some firing c-fibers, into that cauldron called your noggin, and voilà, you have the emergence of some mystical and immaterial mind with beliefs and intentionality and thoughts.

When appeals to the “mustbebraindidit” argument are made, I’m going to point out that this has a name: The bat wing and eye of newt fallacy.

Conclusion

Although my argument can no doubt be fleshed out and refined some, it is sufficient for now to undercut the value theories of Samuel Skinner, and any non-theist, by showing that they are, under his own view, non-existent or meaningless or impossible. If his own belief system provides no mechanism by which values can actually exist—that is, no ontological grounds for values—then it is pointless for him to try to defend his particular value system. Any such defense contradicts itself. He is, like all non-theists, tacitly borrowing theistic presuppositions even in presenting his non-theistic notions of how ethics work.

As for the Christian, he affirms that value actually does exist as a basic property of reality, grounded in the immutable and ontologically necessary God of Christianity.

11 replies
  1. Rob
    Rob says:

    Dominic, I think this paragraph could be written more clearly:

    “What I’m going to show is that non-theists have no grounds for values. The kinds of grounds I have in mind are ontological, and not epistemological. In other words, I’m talking about whether or not, and how, values actually exist in the way that non-theists assert. I’m not talking about whether or not, and how, we can know about them. If you want to comment in this thread, make sure that you mark this distinction.”

    In addition, you write:

    “Put another way, value conference can be subjective…”

    Can be?

  2. Rob
    Rob says:

    Am I missing something, or is this article overly fuzzy? Why so many words to establish so simple a resolve? I would frame it as follows — am I missing something or are there holes in my argument? Here goes…

    The non-theist presumably believes the world is entirely matter, energy, space and time. That’s it. Nothing more, nothing less.

    Thus “value cometh” from these entities. Nowhere else, for there is nowhere else.

    But atoms and molecules operating in space and time cannot birth values can they? (If you disagree, if you believe they can, then tell me how?)

    Thus all values, for the non-theist, are created as if by magic, or as Darwinist Ruse says, “ethics are illusory”.

    Of course, the same goes for meaning. It too is illusory. Pleasure is just electrodynamics and chemistry within a complex arrangement of atoms called the brain.

    Come hither non-theists — please inform my ignorance and show where I am wrong? Then come tell me why Hitler was wrong given an atheist worldview.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YDLoxbegKGo

  3. Bnonn
    Bnonn says:

    Hi Rob. I’m not sure how anything is fuzzy or unclear. I needed to establish the context of my argument, and make some preliminary comments so that it would be properly understood. In the past, I have attempted a more simplistic approach like the one you suggest, and have found that the words I saved initially were wasted tenfold later on because I left too many loopholes open. I’d also say this is not a particularly long article as such articles go—reference Bill’s argument from meaning which I credit inline, which doesn’t need to go on to preempt the claim of emergence. I could just have posted the section ‘The argument outlined’—but that wouldn’t really have been very explicable without the additional context.

    Further, you seem to think that my argument permits the atheist an out by saying that “ethics are illusory”. That isn’t the case—the argument destroys the atheist’s foundation of reality for value; the actual ontological grounds under his worldview. If it is sound, then non-theism is simply wrong. It works like this:

    1. If the argument is sound and non-theism is true, then value does not exist.
    2. Value does exist.
    3. Therefore, either the argument is unsound or non-theism is false.

    Now, (2) is self-evidently true. Regardless of one’s views about value, the fact that anyone has such views indicates that value is something which exists. It doesn’t matter whether you think it’s conferred or intrinsic—it’s still value. So either the argument is unsound, or non-theism is false. Obviously I think the argument is sound, and it is incumbent on the non-theist to either demonstrate that I’m wrong, or give up his absurd view of reality.

    Regards,
    Bnonn

  4. Rob
    Rob says:

    Hi Bnonn,

    I think you have misunderstood my comment. It is Michael Ruse who argues that ethics are illusory — not me. I just happen to believe that Ruse is being consistent with his atheistic worldview. Thus, if I were again an atheist (like Ruse), I too would reject premise (2).

    “2. Value does exist.”

    Indeed, if I am just a temporal confinement of matter and energy existing in space and time, how could I have ontological value — or cling to such a non-material entity? This is why some people commit suicide, because they have woken up to the reality of (2). Meanwhile many people live in denial of the dark and hopeless reality of atheism, often psychologically shutting it out in various ways.

    Thus while Biblically I would agree with (2), I think your argument is unsound as premise (2) is hardly a given. I think you can show that value ontologically exists, but this is of course tied up with the existence of God which is another discussion :-)

    Btw, Ruse argues that illusory ethics are actually beneficial to humanity as they fool us into believing something beneficial for our survival. Again I would agree with him. If only all atheists were as honest as Ruse!

  5. Bnonn
    Bnonn says:

    Rob, I disagree; premise (2) is necessarily true. As I said, the ontological nature of value isn’t relevant to the fact that it exists in some manner—even if only as an illusion, it is still something we can make sense of as a concept. I deny Ruse his out of saying that value is illusory by maintaining that value, as a concept, is so incoherent if naturalism is true that we couldn’t even come up with it, let alone talk about it in such a manner.

  6. Samuel Skinner
    Samuel Skinner says:

    “But atoms and molecules operating in space and time cannot birth values can they? (If you disagree, if you believe they can, then tell me how?)”

    Nope. Of course, that is because values are “intrinsically valuable or desirable” and ethics isn’t based on the intrinsic properties of things- mostly due to the fact that saying something is an intrinsic property doesn’t say anything. How do you know?

    “Thus all values, for the non-theist, are created as if by magic, or as Darwinist Ruse says, “ethics are illusory”.”

    “a set of moral principles : a theory or system of moral values ”

    Ethics doesn’t need things to have inherent value.

    “Of course, the same goes for meaning. It too is illusory. Pleasure is just electrodynamics and chemistry within a complex arrangement of atoms called the brain.”

    Correct- that is why drugs work.

    “Come hither non-theists — please inform my ignorance and show where I am wrong? Then come tell me why Hitler was wrong given an atheist worldview.”

    Which part?
    -The fascism?
    -The aggressive conquest?
    -The Holocaust?
    -The militism?
    -The eugenics?
    -The Nazism?
    -The rise to power?

    The first was wrong because fascism requires a heavy suppression of civil liberties, creating a state where individuals fear their government and its large security apparatus. It is a violation of the main point of government- serving the people.

    The Holocaust was wrong because it was based on ideas that were totally false and that, even if true, didn’t require such insane measures to stop.

    Miltism is bad because it leads to a large number of people losing their lives for little gain0 it forces everyone to ramp up the bloodshed as well.

    Eugenics is actually continued today (can’t marry relatives)- however, forced sterilization and the execution of the handicapped is wrong because it deprives people of a choice and devalues peoples lives.

    Nazism is anti-intellectual, which is bad.

    The rise to power insured that democracy couldn’t survive in Germany and the state would be paralyzed by infighting.

    All these actions increased pain, suffering, etc.

    ““2. Value does exist.””

    No they don’t.

    “Indeed, if I am just a temporal confinement of matter and energy existing in space and time, how could I have ontological value — or cling to such a non-material entity? This is why some people commit suicide, because they have woken up to the reality of (2). Meanwhile many people live in denial of the dark and hopeless reality of atheism, often psychologically shutting it out in various ways.”

    You don’t. Why does it matter if something has value? All that matters is that people value it.

    ‘Btw, Ruse argues that illusory ethics are actually beneficial to humanity as they fool us into believing something beneficial for our survival. Again I would agree with him. If only all atheists were as honest as Ruse!”

    He is wrong- moral instinct is a heuristic.

  7. Bnonn
    Bnonn says:

    Samuel, your self-contradictory posts are becoming tiresome.

    All these actions increased pain, suffering, etc.

    But why is this wrong under your own view?

    ““2. Value does exist.””

    No they don’t.

    You’ve just claimed that a whole list of things Hitler and the Nazis did were wrong. That is to say, you placed moral value on them. Yet you claim there is no such thing as value.

    You don’t. Why does it matter if something has value? All that matters is that people value it.

    This is absurd. To say that “all that matters” is to assign a value judgement—but on what basis? More importantly, you’re ignoring the flagrant incoherence of your worldview, which denies the existence of value, yet affirms that people value things. If value literally does not exist, then it isn’t possible for people to value anything, because that implies that value does exist. That doesn’t mean you’re automatically committed to realism about value; but if you’re going to take the nominalist route, you need to answer some fairly hard questions. Like, what does it mean to value something? Where does the notion of value come from at all since it has no ontological referent? How can we be so terribly deluded about what value is? Etc.

  8. Samuel Skinner
    Samuel Skinner says:

    But why is this wrong under your own view?

    Because people don’t want to suffer. Remember- basing morality on desire.

    You’ve just claimed that a whole list of things Hitler and the Nazis did were wrong. That is to say, you placed moral value on them. Yet you claim there is no such thing as value.

    7: something (as a principle or quality) intrinsically valuable or desirable

    http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/value

    This is the definition I am denying- that things have inherent desirability.
    Otherwise I’d have to consider the Nazis and the Allies equally bad when it came to bombing campaigns.

    This is absurd. To say that “all that matters” is to assign a value judgement—but on what basis? More importantly, you’re ignoring the flagrant incoherence of your worldview, which denies the existence of value, yet affirms that people value things. If value literally does not exist, then it isn’t possible for people to value anything, because that implies that value does exist. That doesn’t mean you’re automatically committed to realism about value; but if you’re going to take the nominalist route, you need to answer some fairly hard questions. Like, what does it mean to value something? Where does the notion of value come from at all since it has no ontological referent? How can we be so terribly deluded about what value is? Etc.

    I’m sorry for not being clear. I deny the idea given by that dictionary. All it gave where inherent values. Can you post the alternate definition you are using?

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. […] Samuel Skinner in ‘Atheists Should Not Criticize Hitler’, which prompted my reply post, ‘Whence Cometh Value?’, and most recently discussion has been ongoing between Mike, Keith, Rob and myself in the comment […]

  2. […] This article was originally posted on Thinking Matters Talk, and is in the public domain » […]

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