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Valuing Consciousness

"The dissolution of commercial animal farming as we know it obviously requires more than our individual commitment to vegetarianism. To refuse on principle to buy products of the meat industry is to do what is right, but it is not to do enough. To recognise the rights of animals is to recognise the related duty to defend them against those who violate their rights, and to discharge this duty requires more than our individual abstention. It requires acting to bring about those changes that are necessary if the rights of these animals are not to be violated. Fundamentally, then, it requires a revolution in our culture's thought about, and its accepted treatment of, farm animals... But prejudices die hard, all the more so when they are insulated by widespread secular customs and religious beliefs, sustained by large and powerful economic interests, and protected by the common law. To overcome the collective entropy of those forces against change will not be easy. The animal rights movement is not for the faint heart"
Richard Ryder

Hard-nosed scientists and traditional analytic philosophers are likely to feel that much of this review essay is idle opinion. OK, this guy gets worked up about getting rid of cruelty and suffering; but so what? Moral seriousness here is implicitly taken by philosophical sophisticates to be intellectually frivolous. The language of morals is basically verbiage because value-judgements aren't reckoned to have truth-conditions. They amount instead to an obliquely autobiographical commentary on the state of mind of their author. By common scientific consent, they don't consistently pick out objective features in the mind-independent universe. In issuing value-judgements, all we are doing - assuming adherence to a pre-QM classical realist fantasy of perception - is unwittingly projecting our feelings onto the world "out there" as [supposedly] disclosed by the senses. We think we're "reading off". In fact, we're "reading in". Admittedly, we don't have any wholly satisfactory theory of truth - any more than meta-ethicists have any wholly satisfactory theory of the meaning of value-judgements. Yet only some sort of correspondence theory of truth is going to be viable; and unlike statements of fact, what value-judgements express clearly doesn't correspond to anything which could potentially make them true or false. They are therefore, it's alleged, just (in)convenient fictions: DNA-driven adaptations, explicable perhaps in terms of human evolutionary psychology, but still inventions of the human mind. In this context, the very title Taking Animals Seriously gives the game away. Why not take animals lightly? Surely, there's simply no fact of the matter either way?

        In defiance of the ill-named naturalistic fallacy, I'm going to argue there is a fact of the matter. A post-Darwinian world where suffering has been replaced by states which seem self-intimatingly valuable really is more valuable, no less than it will be more blissful. Furthermore, all-pervasive well-being is not just more valuable than the endemic miseries of the status quo. It's better than DeGrazia's well-intentioned but ultimately cosmetic reformism, which still leaves the bloody and pain-infested Darwinian legacy biologically entrenched both in and around us.

         How come? Doesn't this sort of claim mix up prediction with prescription? Surely value isn't like, say, pain? Value-judgements at least purport to have propositional content; and thus are potentially true or false. Whether they're merely privately entertained or verbally expressed, they serve as vehicles for expressing something over-and-above the ill-defined phenomenological properties of particular spatio-temporally located episodes occurring in the mind/brains of people who physically make them. Pain doesn't have this sort of content. It's just painful. It's not "about" anything. Pain is self-intimating. Value isn't. In the case of pain, for sure, the "seeming" and the reality genuinely are indistinguishable. At least in its rawest and purest form, the experience of pain isn't shot through with theoretical assumptions about its nature above-and-beyond its self-disclosing nastiness; or often even with [fallible] attributions of its cause. You can't be mistaken about being in agony. So at the risk of succumbing to a naive semantic empiricism, we can be depressingly confident that no revolutionary scientific discovery could ever reveal that pain didn't exist; the distinction between Appearance and Reality vanishes when the reality at issue is appearance itself. Yet to claim the same about value, and to claim that value is self-authenticating simply because [currently] peak experiences appear self-intimatingly valuable, is mere tricksy verbal manoeuvre. Mapping out the world's ontology needs hard experimental work; not an exercise in inward-looking contemplation.

         So what's going on? Values may seem to be about something external to experience if one retains a classical realist theory of perception. The rival picture of billions and billions of autobiographical virtual worlds, each chattering with mentalese masquerading within as public speech, is scarcely conventional wisdom. And yet if values "really" existed outside the distinctive quality they lend to certain forms of experience - dressed up in virtual world furniture or otherwise - they would be weird and cognitively inaccessible objects, wholly out of place in a naturalistic world-picture. So there's simply no need to posit such ontological extravagances at all. But if they can't intelligibly be treated as platonic objects, they are even less plausible as candidates for natural properties of the [inferred] mind-independent world. There simply isn't room for goodness and badness in the scientific world-picture as revealed by physics. So why not banish values altogether? Surely the "naturalistic fallacy" was debunked a long time ago?

        Yet the naturalistic fallacy is only a fallacy if value is propositionalised and treated as something external to experience itself; and since causally inert, non-spatio-temporal abstract propositions are scientifically unnaturalisable, this exile is probably ill-advised. [How a natural world can simulate a world where truth-evaluable "propositional content" exists is another story. Ours does, quite uncannily; natural selection is quite superb at simulating the miraculous, though it's unaccountably silent concerning the date on which the first semantic miracle allegedly occurred]. Many modes of experience that are apprehended as valuable - typically bound up today with encephalised feelings involving neural representations of genetically advantageous qualities - aren't normally conceptualised by their subjects as particular modes of experience. Their valuable aspect is known under other descriptions entirely. Value appears instead to inhere in the properties of the particular (and typically, reproduction-enhancing) objects, properties, people or behaviour that excite such judgements. Yet to identify value as dwelling beyond our psychoneural virtual worlds - as a spooky, ill-located sort of ontological furniture - is not simply incoherent. It is to presuppose one has non-inferential access to the mind-transcendent universe that we simply do not, and could not, possess.

         But then what is the ontological status of value? What is it really?

         Well, what is the ontological status of phenomenal blueness? It's a mode of experience. Awake or dreaming, it's mind-dependent, albeit often selected from the mind/brain's finite menu of states by patterns of peripheral stimuli. It can't be defined in terms of anything else external to itself. Formally, its occurrence in one's mental world may indeed be field-theoretically encoded by the equations of QM; and natural selection has ensured that awake mind/brains normally undergo it when optic nerves are triggered by electromagnetic radiation differentially reflected from macro-patterns in the local environment. Yet this doesn't make blueness any less unique and irreducible, or "really" something else. If we ever understand why the quantum mechanical formalism codifies the structures and interrelationships of different kinds of consciousness to yield the exact textures it does - or indeed any texture at all - we'll be able to manipulate and create blueness [or manufacture and maximise valuable experiences] in a more effective and more quantitative sense than we can today. Yet this won't denature its phenomenology; or it would be something else, a property of a different kind in a different kind of world.

         The story of value is more complicated on account of of its accumulated ideological baggage; but phenomenologically at least, maximally valuable and maximally happy worlds would seem to be coextensive. A world without misery is a world without moral dilemmas. A maximally happy post-Darwinian cosmos is unsurpassable in both its quantity and quality of apprehended value. It's impossible to feel blissfully fulfilled and find blissful fulfilment valueless. Conversely, a world or Everett hell-branch which was literally full of suicidal despair and pain would not just seem utterly valueless. It would quite literally lack any positive value at all. If the predictions of HI are borne out, on the other hand, the world of our descendants will be biologically supercharged with value to a degree exceeding our present notational resources. Images of hyper-intelligent but jaded alien civilisations of sophisticates, bored beyond measure with their meaningless lives, are misconceived. They owe too great a debt to watching repeat-episodes of Star Trek; and not enough to contemporary biomedical research.

        The likelihood of an ultimate total reconciliation of the phenomenology of well-being and value is not obvious. Traditional and unbiologically-inspired utilitarianism poses various ethical dilemmas, or at least uncomfortable consequences. Superficially, one can imagine possible worlds which were bliss-ridden in a "baser" and more debauched fashion than merely moderately happy but "edifying" worlds. But the comparison is deceptive. "Empty" or "base" happiness [the sort of happiness most commonly associated with taking dirty street-drugs or the furtively pursued pleasures of the flesh], insofar as it is indeed apprehended as "empty" or "base", is sullied happiness and ill-deserving of the name. Such happiness certainly won't be maximal; so the dilemma of possible tradeoffs doesn't arise.

        There's still an obvious problem here. The sort of naturalistic analysis advanced here conceptually entails that values are real but mind-dependent. Alarm-bells start ringing here. "Mind-dependent" makes them sound ontologically second-rate. The tension between the two categories arises, however, only if one thinks of the mind as somehow outside the world "looking in". If mind/subjectivity weren't a natural feature of the cosmos, then the mind-dependence of value might indeed impugn its status. Yet mind is as much a part of the natural world as are atoms and molecules. The "subjectivity" of value no more threatens its reality than the "subjectivity" of pain makes surgical anaesthetics redundant. For sure, it's all in the mind. But minds are all in the world. What's morally pernicious is third-person metaphysic of contemporary science. Such a metaphysic muddles the two senses of "objective" and thereby sows confusion. The behaviour of the stuff of the world is indeed amenable to description by a mathematical formalism. This formalism encodes how, and to what degree, it matters to a creature that (s)he's undergoing extreme pain. It is objectively true that the world contains such phenomena that matter desperately. The suffering of someone I have never met and don't know of doesn't matter to me - and preventing it can't be desperately important to me - but this doesn't mean it is actually any less desperately important. All first-person facts are created equal. Simply because it doesn't matter to [misleadingly called] other 'observers' (who are, on a perceptual irrealist perspective, actually nothing of the kind) then it's easy to suppose that it's more "objective" to discount the plight of others. Yet moral apathy in the guise of observer-independence reflects a morally harmful fallacy of equivocation, not a scientific fact.

         Isn't this value-naturalist position self-subverting? The critic who finds the status quo, or DeGrazia's tidied-up state-of-Nature, preferable to ubiquitous happiness may charge that the immense value self-ascribed by our ecstatic descendants to their lives and consciousness is delusive. Phenomenologically, of course, their biological wonderworld is more valuable, simply in virtue of the sheer number, intensity and variety of experiences apprehended as worthwhile. Yet the ubiquity of their value-steeped phenomenology no more means earthly paradise is really more valuable than the medieval penchant for finding witches means that the medieval world was really more witch-ridden. So, surely, I am disagreeing with the critic's position. Yet if value is, as claimed here, a distinctive texture of experience rather than something expressed by propositional content, then I can't self-consistently say that the critic is wrong. For this would be to propositionalise value rather than treat it as a distinctive quality of consciousness. Propositionalising value is the very practice being argued against. And yet if one can't contest judgements of value, then what's the point of this review?; straight studies in the neuroethology of mind might as well be left to the academic journals. Surely this rejoinder counts as a reductio of the whole neo-naturalist argument against the value-sceptic?

         But this is all far too quick. What's happening here is that the appalled critic is himself occupying a valueless, malaise-infected state of consciousness. Within that malaise-infected state, (s)he is no more capable of semantically capturing the nature of mature post-Darwinian life than my current state of mind can capture the excruciating agonies of an Ottoman torture-chamber. The critic's frame of mind testifies to the value-starved and mean-spirited nature typical of psychopathologies bred by the present DNA-regime; not the illusory imperfection of our outrageously wonderful future.