Thursday, August 10, 2006

Inorganic patterns of value

In Lila: An Inquiry into Morals Pirsig claims that:

[The] problem of trying to describe value in terms of substance has been the problem of a smaller container trying to contain a larger one. Value is not a subspecies of substance. Substance is a subspecies of value. When you reverse the containment process and define substance in terms of value the mystery disappears: substance is a "stable pattern of inorganic values." The problem then disappears. The world of objects and the world of values is unified.

(Pirsig, Lila, Ch.8)
Pirsig goes about this "reversal" by attacking the concept of substance using a principle of empiricism - that all knowledge must come from experience - and also a kind of underdetermination argument.

“Substance” is a derived concept, not anything that is directly experienced. No one has ever seen substance and no one ever will. All people ever see is data. It is assumed that what makes the data hang together in consistent patterns is that they inhere in this “substance.”


But if there is no substance, it must be asked, then why isn't everything chaotic? Why do our experiences act as if they inhere in something? If you pick up a glass of water why don't the properties of that glass go flying off in different directions? What is it that keeps these properties uniform if it is not something called substance? That is the question that created the concept of substance in the first place.

The answer provided by the Metaphysics of Quality strike out the word “substance” wherever it appears and substitute the expression “stable inorganic patterns of value.” Again the difference is linguistic. It doesn't make a whit of difference in the laboratory which term is used. No dials change their readings. The observed laboratory data are exactly the same.

(ibid, Ch.8)

The empiricist argument points out that we have no knowledge of "substance", nor a basis to say that it even exists, because it is directly unobservable. The underdetermination argument points out that there is no scientific basis to prefer the use of "substance" over "inorganic patterns of value." It is a philosophic question. The question remains then, Is there a philosophic reason to prefer one over the other?

Pirsig thinks so. He claims that the data of quantum physics have undermined the descriptive adequacy of the philosophic concept of substance to the "nature" of the subatomic level:

The data of quantum physics indicate that what are called “subatomic particles” cannot possibly fill the definition of a substance. The properties exist, then disappear, then exist, and then disappear again in little bundles called “quanta.” These bundles are not continuous in time, yet an essential, defined characteristic of “substance” is that it is continuous in time. Since the quantum bundles are not substance and since it is a usual scientific assumption that these sub-atomic particles compose everything there is, then it follows that there is no substance anywhere in the world nor has there ever been.

(ibid, Ch.8)

He states that, in terms of the behaviour of subatomic particles, "patterns of preferences" - patterns of values - is the more philosophically appropriate term:

[I]n modern quantum physics....particles "prefer" to do what they do. An individual particle is not absolutely committed to one predictable behaviour. What appears to be an absolute cause is just a very consistent pattern of preferences.

(ibid, Ch.8)

He thinks that there is a further reason to prefer the term "values" over "substance":

The greatest benefit of this substitution of "value" for..."substance" is that it allows an integration of physical sciences with other areas of experience that have been traditionally considered outside the scope of scientific thought. [...] The "value" which directed subatomic particles is not identical with the "value" a human being gives to a painting. But...the two are cousins, and...the exact relationship between them can be defined with great precision. Once this definition is complete a huge integration of the humanities and sciences appears[.]

(ibid, Ch.8)

The "benefit" of integration seems to be based around the virtue of paradigmatic parsimony and a broadening of the scope of science.

So, in summary, I think Pirsig replaces "substance" with "value" as a term for describing inorganic phenomena on the basis that:

- the existence of substance is not empirically supported (presumably we are to assume that this applies to inorganic values too)
- 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

I want to consider some possible objections to these arguments next.


Matt K said...

Objection to Pirsig's line of argument:

If you distinguish between science and philosophy, how can science decide what your philosophic answer should be? Isn't the description of quantum mechanics just as underdetermined as magnet filings? Isn't all data theory-laden?

And if we go with the underdetermination argument, it seems to imply significant power to the possibility of redescription. And granting that power, how do we make use of the notion of "adequacy"?

Paul Turner said...

I'm glad you've commented. I could do with some input on this. First of all, do you think my summary of Pirsig's arguments is correct?

Matt K said...

Yeah, pretty much. I think its a pretty good reconstruction of his argument. I don't have time to look at Pirsig, but it sounds right (I'm currently moving). When I get more time, I'll try and add some cents to the string of posts you have on this subject. The main thing I see would my Rortyan objection to Pirsig's use of "direct observation". That's typically a sticky wicket. And to my mind, you have to choose between Pirsig's principle of empiricism (which, for him, hinges on this idea of directness) and what you call Pirsig's underdetermination argument. Quine put underdetermination on the map, I think, to specifically undermine postivism's heritage from the empiricists (I'm thinking of "Two Dogmas of Empiricism").

Matt K said...
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