Monday, August 14, 2006

Inorganic patterns of value (#2)

I would think it is largely uncontroversial to use values to describe and understand cultural phenomena but Pirsig's Metaphysics of Quality attempts to argue that all phenomena can and should be described and understood in terms of values, including physical phenomena. In the last post I summarised what I consider to be Pirsig's arguments for using the term "inorganic patterns of value" over the more traditional "substance" as:

- the existence of substance is not empirically supported
- a scientific choice between the two theoretical terms is underdetermined by the data
- a philosophic choice favours the use of "value"
- in wider terms the use of "value" provides a more parsimonious and inclusive paradigm of systematic inquiry

Here are some objections which spring to mind:

- One could object to the use of empiricism by pointing out that, since the "linguistic turn" in philosophy, the primacy of experience on which empiricism is based is untenable.

- One could extend the argument of underdetermination from science to philosophy and ask how "value" could be philosophically preferrable.

- One could object to talking of particles expressing preferences as gratuitously bestowing intentionality upon such phenomena.

- One could argue that paradigmatic parsimony is but the positive face of reductionism.

- One could simply say - why bother?

I have some initial thoughts on these objections.

Although I'm not wholly convinced by the "linguistic turn," I wouldn't argue against it, preferring, instead, to claim that the validity of the replacement of the term "substance" with "value" is not really dependent on the empiricist principle invoked by Pirsig. Particularly as the same principle would apply to the term "inorganic patterns of value." So I consider this objection as superfluous as the argument to which it objects.

As to the philosophical underdetermination of theory, for Kuhnian reasons I would be tempted to agree that data alone cannot be depended upon to choose between two philosophies and to instead draw on an evolutionary epistemology which "favours" theories and contexts through a cultural version of natural selection. I could argue that the essentialist and deterministic context in which "substance" has survived has largely "died out" with respect to subatomic physics and "value" is a variation which may or may not prosper as a new context.

The objection about misplaced intentionality could be treated in a couple of ways. First, one could follow the likes of Nietzsche and Davidson and argue that the hard distinction between literal and metaphorical is untenable such that whether electrons literally or only metaphorically express preferences is moot. Second, one could point out that science is littered with similarly anthropomorphic terms and phrases such as in chemical "attraction" whereby atoms have an "affinity" with other atoms or perhaps the increasingly popular references to "self-organisation" in atomical and molecular systems. In fact I recently read something by string theorist Brian Greene saying that cosmic strings "prefer" to resonate at certain frequencies.

The objection that an attempt to explain everything in terms of value is an attempt to reduce everything to value stands up with reference only to the theory as presented so far. However, Pirsig goes on to categorise value such that everything is not reduced to one type of value, thereby, I think, avoiding the negative aspects of ontological and explanatory reductionism.

The objection that this redescription is simply unnecessary is one that may be addressed as this blog progresses. It is also partially addressed by the claim that, insofar as it is desirable, a more inclusive paradigm is created by the redescription. Finally, it is perhaps addressed by thinking of all of the things that, at first glance, evoked the response of, "Why bother?" which turned out to be worth a lot of bother. In fact, this doing-of-new-things-anyway* is built right into the principle of evolution.

So, a rather brief treatment of a topic which could certainly expand, probably until it branched out into all of the usual arguments of epistemology and metaphysics. My basic answer to all of the other arguments would probably be the evolutionary argument used above - consider the redescription of the physical world in terms of values to be a variation in a pattern of knowledge which is subject to the same opportunities and pressures of selection as any other. Obviously objections, arguments and counter-arguments are among those pressures but I don't intend to be wholly absorbed into each one of them here.

*The MOQ attributes this to Dynamic Quality


alice said...

Can you please explain the term underdetermination?

Paul Turner said...

Underdetermination is the situation where the criteria used to determine the better of two incompatible theories for a given purpose proves insufficient to do so.

In the case of science this often means that experimental data explained and/or predicted by a given theory can be explained and/or predicted equally well by a different, incompatible theory.

This can often be construed as the test of whether something is scientific or philosophic. However, this distinction is blurred if you accept the argument that all data are, in fact, theory-laden anyway.

alice said...

Is there a similiarity between theory laden and paradigm?

Paul Turner said...

Absolutely. Kuhn uses both concepts extensively in his "The Structure of Scientific Revolutions", the first of two books on which I based my undergraduate philosophy dissertation incidentally. The other was "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance".