Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Evolutionary quality

Some more thoughts about "values" as providing a descriptive basis of a workable paradigm. In retrospective terms, we could say that evolution is the creation of valuable information through selective replication and innovation. That is, information - and its phenotypic extension - that survives environmental pressures becomes valuable by virtue of its being successfully propagated.

On this subject I found this short article at http://pespmc1.vub.ac.be/EVOLVAL.html which pursues this same naturalisation of values:

While primary values cannot be derived from nature, they must be consistent with evolution and natural selection, the primary mechanism that has generated all of nature. This mechanism has an implicit value, as selection entails a preference for certain states of affairs over others. Natural selection can be seen to strive to maximize survival or fitness. Thus we take survival, in the most general sense, as the primary value. If we also take into account reproduction, the more general evolutionary value is fitness: maximizing the probability that our genes (or memes) will still be around in future generations. Because of the "Red Queen Principle" the seemingly conservative value of survival necessarily entails continuing progress, development, or growth: if you do not innovate by constantly trying out new variations, you will sooner or later lose the competition with those that do innovate. Thus we can from there derive the ultimate good as the continuation of the process of evolution itself, in the negative sense of avoiding evolutionary "dead ends" and general extinction, in the positive sense of constantly increasing our fitness, and thus our intelligence, degree of organization and general mastery over the universe.


Pirsig's MOQ takes the same two basic aspects of value, or quality, described here - survival and progression - and builds everything else from them. They are described as static quality and dynamic quality respectively. "Dynamic" is usually capitalised to signify its priority, both epistemological and ontological, but I don't want to get into that here other than to say that if natural selection is the mechanism that creates everything through replication and innovation, then some kind of innovation has to have come first. Anyway, Pirsig puts the "priority" of innovation like this:

The decisions that directed the progress of evolution are, in fact, Dynamic Quality itself.....Naturally there is no mechanism toward which life is heading. Mechanisms are the enemy of life. The more static and unyielding the mechanisms are, the more life works to evade them or overcome them.

(Pirsig, Lila, Ch11)


(Note: So Dynamic Quality has to cover all aspects of variation such as replication errors and mutations and the "spur of the moment" selection of parental genes that are spliced to create the DNA of their offspring as well.)

As is an ever more popular thesis, Pirsig then applies evolutionary principles to everything, using his own static-Dynamic vocabulary to give us a rich description of the process:

The division of all biological evolutionary patterns into a Dynamic function and a static function continues on up through higher levels of evolution. The formation of semipermeable cell walls to let food in and keep poisons out is a static latch. So are bones, shells, hide, fur, burrows, clothes, houses, villages, castles, rituals, symbols, laws and libraries. All of these prevent evolutionary degeneration. On the other hand, the shift in cell reproduction from mitosis to meiosis to permit sexual choice and allow huge DNA diversification is a Dynamic advance. So is the collective organization of cells into metazoan societies called plants and animals. So are sexual choice, symbiosis, death and regeneration, communality, communication, speculative thought, curiosity and art. Most of these, when viewed in a substance-centered evolutionary way, are thought of as mere incidental properties of the molecular machine. But in a value-centered explanation of evolution they are close to the Dynamic process itself, pulling the pattern of life forward to greater levels of versatility and freedom.

Sometimes a Dynamic increment goes forward but can find no latching mechanism and so fails and slips back to a previous latched position. Whole species and cultures get lost this way. Sometimes a static pattern becomes so powerful it prohibits any Dynamic moves forward. In both cases the evolutionary process is halted for a while. But when it's not halted the result has been an increase in power to control hostile forces or an increase in versatility or both. The increase in versatility is directed toward Dynamic Quality. The increase in power to control hostile forces is directed toward static quality. Without Dynamic Quality the organism cannot grow. Without static quality the organism cannot last. Both are needed.

(ibid. Ch11)

The questions I have at the moment are:

Is anything added to the theory of evolution by all this talk of values?
Does our understanding of values benefit from their linking to evolution?
Are values implicit in evolutionary theory?

With respect to the last question, if value are implicit in evolutionary theory and evolutionary theory can be applied to everything then values can be applied to everything.

49 comments:

Matt Kundert said...

"With respect to the last question, if value are implicit in evolutionary theory and evolutionary theory can be applied to everything then values can be applied to everything."

The main reason I slow down on Pirsig (i.e., in "promoting" some new paradigm called "the Metaphysics of Quality") after getting so revved up about a number of things in his writings is because I don't know what "values can be applied to everything" could mean.

I think you've been traveling Pirsig's path quite well, and that imperative, "we should apply values to everything and that should help", is certainly gleaned from Pirsig. However, I don't get excited by some of these things because I can't quite see how it helps. Mind you, by that I mean, for instance, your coined term "preferata". Appropriate? Sure. A natural extension of Pirsig? Absolutely. I just don't see it catching on, though, because I can't see what would change if we used it. (What I don't mean is your work on Eastern philosophy which is interesting and expands my knowledge base.)

So on the one hand, I can understand what saying "evolution can be applied to everything" could mean because I take it to mean that we still need to think through Darwin, just as Kant thought through Newton. Part of this thinking through is what leads to Dewey, who is essentially saying the same thing as Pirsig. But on the other hand, I'm not sure what applying values to everything could mean because values are at the bottom of it all--you don't apply them to things, they're already there.

So, I would say thinking through Darwin, applying evolutionary theory to stuff, leads to Dewey, Pirsig, and making value the basis of everything. After we make that gestalt switch, however, I'm not sure what left there is to be done. This puzzlement I have is essentially summed up by Pirsig's revision of James. I think James/Dewey/Rorty are the thinking through of Darwin. Pirsig, however, seems to want to importantly revise James' pragmatism (and therefore, Rorty). I just don't see what that important revision is, except away from Darwin.

There certainly must be a sense in which we need to keep exploring the area to make sure we have fully made the switch, but I'm still not sure that preferata is one of those things. Sorry ;-)

Paul Turner said...

The "preferata" thing was tongue-in-cheek. I was just reading about some of the terms invented by quantum physicists and about Dawkins' distinction between "good" and "bad" poetic science and wondered where the line was drawn.

With respect to "applying values to everything" being a superfluous move, I'm just thinking out loud here about Pirsig's work and how it relates to both contemporary and ancient thinking. If I've "promoted" anything here it is just a move away from fruitless ontological speculation and essentialist thinking. Thinking of everything as values is just one way of making that move.

Psybertron said...

Hi Paul,

Wow, your blogging has taken off in new directions recently. It must be over a month since I stopped by.

The link to the article in this post seems dead ? At VUB, is the author Francis Heylighen ? I've referenced him many times ... his work intersects with Pirsig at several points (he was also one of the organisers of the Einstein Meets Magritte conference). Where did you pick up the link ?

My take on "everything is values" is "everything is interactions" ... things relative to each other. I must catch up on your stuff.

Travis said...

I have mixed reactions to Zen & The Art etc and the MoQ (and to metaphics generally - it seems very ironic to have Dewey and Rorty mentioned on these pages) but I do think that a "values are everywhere" view gets some support from recent work in complexity theory as weel as from the computational models of the mind that dominate cognitive neuroscience now, both of which present threads of pan-proto-psaychic or at least pan-semiotic views of reality. Complexity theorists working within the mainstream of evolutionary theory are now talking about things like molecular biology, or any other living system, in terms of semantics, semiotics, meaning. I think if one plugs this develomental systems appraoch into what Douglas Hofstadter called the development of semanticity from syntax, you get a naturalized approach to meaning that accomodates the Metaphysics of Quality as, at worst, a somewhat poeticized expression of profound truths about existence.

Where I get more skeptical, quickly, is the idea that there's any ethics to be derived from this, much less any real political implications. I tend to agree with Rorty that metaphysics has always been irrelevant to how we live. This sounds crazy to, say, someone used to thinking that their religious beliefs structure their moral action, but I'm more and more inclined to see this as just cart before the horse.

Going back to the above topic: On the issue of applying evolution to everything, there is another straightfoward meaning here that I have no problem with at all: we can think of things not as things but as moments in a developmental system, as (to borrow from Quine) rabbit stages rather than rabbits. The developmental systems view is not "away" from Darwin though it is a more encompassing view of evolutionary theory, with a different emphasis of focus than say, Dawkins.

Psybertron said...

Hey Travis, I like the view from Darwin towards Quine and Hofstader (and Dennett ?) rather than Dawkins

Paul Turner said...

Travis, sorry for the delay in responding. I've been focused on other things lately. A couple of responses:

Re: The irony of mixing Rorty with metaphysics. Yeah, I can see why you would feel that way. The honest answer is, I connect to both Pirsig and Rorty strongly, even though there is much about which they are at odds. Another answer is that I'm not absolutely committed to any one philosophy and can live with a little theoretical incompatibility.

Re: The idea that all things are moments in a developmental system. This is something I was getting interested in before I was diverted. I'd like to pick that theme up again soon.

Thanks for your comments.

Psybertron said...

Hi Paul,

The article link was broken last time I dropped by. I see it is Heylighen at VUB. I see it includes the link to his "Happiness" article, which does include the (satori) ZMM / Pirsig reference if I recall correctly.

What a tangled web.

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