Geocentric cosmology by Orance Fine (1494-1555)

Geocentric cosmology by Orance Fine (1494-1555)

Once upon a time it was believed that the world was eternal and unchanging. The inconvenient truth of life and death of Earth was accommodated by a distinction between the sublunary and the superlunary: in Ptolemaic astronomy, the “sublunary” was everything in the cosmos below the sphere of the moon, and this was subject to time and change and suffering; the superlunary was everything in the cosmos beyond the sphere of the moon, which was eternal, perfect, unchanging, and permanent. Thus it was a major problem when Galileo turned his telescope on the moon and saw craters, and when he looked at the sun he saw spots. This wasn’t supposed to happen.

As a result of Galileo and the scientific revolution, we are still re-thinking the world, and each time we think that we have the world caught in a net of concepts, it escapes once again. Up until 1999 it was widely believed that the universe was expanding at a decreasing rate, and the only question was whether there was enough mass for this expansion to eventually grind to a halt, and then perhaps the universe would contract again, or if the universe would just keep coasting along in its expansion. Now it seems that the expansion of the universe is speeding up, and it is widely thought that, in a very early stage of the universe’s existence, it underwent an extremely rapid phase of expansion (called inflation).

When the scientific revolution at long last came to biology, Darwin and evolution and natural selection exploded in the scientific imagination, and suddenly a human history that had seemed neat and compact and easily circumscribed became very old, large, and messy. We recognize today that all life on the planet evolved, and that in the short interval of human life, the human mind has evolved, language has evolved, social institutions have evolved, civilization has evolved, and technology has evolved perhaps more rapidly than anything else.

The evolution of human social institutions has meant the evolution of human meanings, values, and purposes: precisely those aspects of human life that were once invested with permanency and unchangeableness in an earlier paradigm of human knowledge. Human knowledge evolves also. Science as the systematic pursuit of knowledge (since the scientific revolution, and especially since the advent of industrial-technological civilization, which is driven forward by science) has pushed the evolution of human knowledge beyond all precedent and expectation. As I recently noted in The Moral Truth of Science, science is a method and not a body and knowledge, and even the method itself changes as it is refined over time and adapted to different fields of study.

Slowly, painfully slowly, we are becoming accustomed to an evolving world in which all things are subject to change. The process does not necessarily get easier, though one might easily suppose we get numbed by change. In fact, when all our previous assumptions are forced to huddle down in a single relict of archaic thought, it can be extraordinarily difficult to get past this last stubborn knot of human thought that has attached itself passionately to the past.

I think that it will be like this with our moral ideas, which are likely to be sheltered for some time to come, and in so far as they are sheltered, they will conceal more prejudices that we would like to admit. Even those among us who are considered progressive, if not radical, can take a position that essentially protects our moral prejudices of the past. John Stuart Mill was among the most reasonable of men, and it is difficult to disagree with his claims. While in his day utilitarianism was considered radical by some, now Mill is understood to be an early proponent of the political liberalism that is taken for granted today. But the quasi-logical form that Mill gave to his ultimate moral assumptions is entirely consistent with the fideism of radical Ockhamists or Kierkegaard.

Here is a classic passage from a classic work by Mill:

Questions of ultimate ends are not amenable to direct proof. Whatever can be proved to be good, must be so by being shown to be a means to something admitted to be good without proof. The medical art is proved to be good by its conducing to health; but how is it possible to prove that health is good? The art of music is good, for the reason, among others, that it produces pleasure; but what proof is it possible to give that pleasure is good? If, then, it is asserted that there is a comprehensive formula, including all things which are in themselves good, and that whatever else is good, is not so as an end, but as a mean, the formula may be accepted or rejected, but is not a subject of what is commonly understood by proof. We are not, however, to infer that its acceptance or rejection must depend on blind impulse, or arbitrary choice. There is a larger meaning of the word proof, in which this question is as amenable to it as any other of the disputed questions of philosophy. The subject is within the cognisance of the rational faculty; and neither does that faculty deal with it solely in the way of intuition. Considerations may be presented capable of determining the intellect either to give or withhold its assent to the doctrine; and this is equivalent to proof.

John Stuart Mill, Utilitarianism, Chapter 1

Formulating his moral thought in the context of proof, Mill appeals to the logical tradition of western philosophy, going back to Aristotle. We can already find this dilemma of logical thought explicitly formulated in classical antiquity. Commenting on a passage from Aristotle’s Physics (193a3) that reads: “…to try to prove the obvious from the unobvious is the mark of a man incapable of distinguishing what is self-evident and what is not,” Simplicius wrote:

“…the words ‘the mark of a man incapable of distinguishing between what is self-evident and what is not’ typify the who who is anxious to prove by means of other things that nature, which is self-evident, is not self-evident. And it is even worse if they are to be proved by means of what is less knowable, which is what must happen in the case of things that are all too obvious. The man who wants to employ proof for everything eventually destroys proof. For if the evident must be the starting point of proof, the man who thinks that the evident needs proof no longer agrees that anything is evident, not does he leave any basis of proof, and so he leaves no proof either.”

Simplicius: On Aristotle Physics 2, translated by Barrie Fleet, London and New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 1997, p. 25

The axiological equivalence of self-evidence is intrinsic value, that is to say, self-value. The tradition of intrinsic value in English moral thought arguably reaches its apogee in G. E. Moore’s Principia Ethica, in which intrinsic value is a theme that occurs throughout the work:

“We must know both what degree of intrinsic value different things have, and how these different things may be obtained. But the vast majority of questions which have actually been discussed in Ethics—all practical questions, indeed—involve this double knowledge; and they have been discussed without any clear separation of the two distinct questions involved. A great part of the vast disagreements prevalent in Ethics is to be attributed to this failure in analysis. By the use of conceptions which involve both that of intrinsic value and that of causal relation, as if they involved intrinsic value only, two different errors have been rendered almost universal. Either it is assumed that nothing has intrinsic value which is not possible, or else it is assumed that what is necessary must have intrinsic value. Hence the primary and peculiar business of Ethics, the determination of what things have intrinsic value and in what degrees, has received no adequate treatment at all.”

G. E. Moore, Principia Ethica, section 17

The English, for the most part, had little affinity for Bergson, but it was Bergson who opened up moral philosophy to its temporal reality embedded in changing human experience. In several posts — Epistemic Space: Mapping Time and Object Disoriented Axiology among them — I have discussed Bertrand Russell’s antipathy to Bergson, even though Russell himself was once of the most powerful and passionate advocates of science, and it has been science that has forced us to put aside our equilibrium assumptions and to engage with a dynamic world that forces change upon us even if we would deny it.

The world as we understand it today, from the smallest quantum fluctuations to the evolution of the universe entire, is a dynamic world in which change is the only constant. In such a world, which our traditional eschatologies have invested with eternal moral significance, we would be better served by also abandoning equilibrium assumptions in ethics. There are trivial ways in which this occurs, as when we recognize that different objects have different moral values at different times; there are also more radical ways to think of a morally dynamic world, such as a world in which moral principles themselves must change.

Qualitative risk categories, Figure 2 from 'Existential Risk Prevention as Global Priority' (2012) Nick Bostrom

Qualitative risk categories, Figure 2 from ‘Existential Risk Prevention as Global Priority’ (2012) Nick Bostrom

In Bostrom’s qualitative categories of risk, the risks of greatest scope are identified as trans-generational and pan-generational (with the possibility of a risks of cosmic scope also noted). Both the idea of the trans-generational and the pan-generational are essentially categories of intrinsic value over time. when existential risks of smaller scope are considered, they are limited to personal, local, or global circumstances. These smaller, local risks when understood in contradistinction to trans-generational and the pan-generational can also be seen as instances of intrinsic value over time, through shorter periods of time appropriate to personal time, social time, or global time.

While it is gratifying to see this recognition of intrinsic value over time, we can go farther by considering the natural history of value. The simple and fundamental lesson of the natural history of value is that value changes over time, and that particular objects may be the bearers of intrinsic value for a temporary period of time, taking on this value and then ultimately surrendering it. Moreover, intrinsic value itself changes over time, as do the forms in which it is manifested and embodied.

When Sartre gave his famous lecture “Existentialism is a Humanism,” he took the bull by the horns and faced straight on the claims that had been made that existentialism was a gloomy philosophy of despair, quietism, and pessimism. Of his critics Sartre said, “what is annoying them is not so much our pessimism, but, much more likely, our optimism. For at bottom, what is alarming in the doctrine that I am about to try to explain to you is — is it not? — that it confronts man with a possibility of choice.” For Sartre, existentialism is, at bottom, an optimistic philosophy because it affirms the reality of choice and human agency. And so, too, the recognition of the natural history of value — that value is not a fixed and unchanging feature of the world — is an optimistic doctrine preferable to any and all false hopes.

Questioning ancient moral prejudices, as Sartre often did, almost always results in claims on behalf of traditionalists that the sky is falling, and that by opening Pandora’s Box we have unleashed evils into the world that cannot be contained. But to observe that intrinsic value changes over time is no counsel of despair, as when Bertrand Russell (as I recently quoted in Developing an Existential Perspective) said that, “…only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair, can the soul’s habitation henceforth be safely built.” That intrinsic value is subject to change means that the intrinsic value of the world may increase or decrease, and if it may increase, we ourselves may be the agents of this change.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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Axiological Accident

8 January 2010


Defiance is what makes us individuals. Defiance of the norm, of the smothering, all-embracing universals of community, of quotidian life, makes us stand out as human beings worthy of that title. To become an individual, to become a human being, to live as an individual human being, is the goal that each should have before him at all times. To become what one is is to become an individual.

In my axiology, in so far as I have one, value is only to be found in the individual and the particular. Beauty is in Botticelli’s “Birth of Venus” and not in some amorphous idea of beauty; truth is in particular truths and not in the Platonic form of the true; virtue is in individual acts of virtue, in virtuous traits of character. And all of these, as well, are accidents (in the Aristotelian sense) — highly personal manifestations of the desire to make something of life, and to use the world to its best end. There is a deviancy in all greatness, and a homogeneity in all mediocrity that styles itself as the good.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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