1/08/2008

The Ethics of the Interesting

There's a claim I've found myself making often recently, but have not sufficiently examined nor attempted to justify. It is this: "The 'interesting' is the most important normative category." To most, this will seem to be an utterly bizarre statement, whereas others might wonder about the role "importance" plays in a statement like this.

(To be consistent, ought I not to say that the "interesting" is the most interesting normative category? Of course I don't say this because it is circular and sounds silly. Another way of saying what I mean to say might be that I rank the interesting as first and foremost among value categories.)

What I mean by this claim is not apparent in any "literal" interpretation of the sentence. Part of the problem is that "interesting" is perhaps the most boring word in the English language. The way it is said conveys far more information than the use of the term itself. I mean, what do you say when someone makes totally outrageous claims that make them seem like a nut, or when you're forced to endure a painfully boring account of the mundane details of their utterly trivial existence? "That's interesting." Yet, it may just be the vagueness of the term itself that for me is a source of its value.

So far I have probably made little sense, so I will try to explain in the only way I know how. A question that underlies my statement here is this: "What are the preconditions for value of any kind?" Let's assume for a moment, as some physicists suppose, that there are many, perhaps infinitely many, different universes existing in parallel. Some of these may be close to our own, but I imagine the vast majority of them take simple forms such as fire (high energy, highly unstable, devoid of anything resembling stars, planets, atoms, and other such things) or ice (virtually static, no energy, highly entropic).

In these universes, I contend, there is nothing of value. There's no sense in saying things should be one way rather than another because there's nobody to make such claims. Perhaps we can make claims about them from the outside, but within them the normative simply does not apply.

What makes our universe capable of supporting us, of supporting life, stars, molecules and atoms, quarks and neutrinos, etc., is that it is neither purely Heraclitean nor simply Parmenidean. To continue the Presocratic allusion, our universe is Empedoclean, locked in a battle between forces, with relatively stable and regular but also mutable components. To use a mathematical analogy, it is like a fractal, an intricately complex thing that is generated by something relatively simple (say the basic laws and constants of our particular universe, or the intricate arrangement in space/time of otherwise indistinguishable particles).

And, were it not so, it would be valueless. (Yes, I am presupposing that to be of value, something must be of value to someone, but even many unimaginative absolutists suppose that God is the someone who ultimately sets values.) Quite simply, most universes are probably utterly boring and utterly valueless. Or, they're not even boring (except maybe to us), because they lack anything like a point of view within them. They might as well not exist.

But our case is different. There is value, or at least apparent value (to me, there is no difference between these two). There are components of the universe like you and I for which some things are better than others. We have interests. And here, I would include things like animals that feel pleasure and pain, although there may be other possibilities we have never encountered (perhaps future computers will have interests?).

(Incidentally, I am primarily indebted to William James, Ludwig Wittgenstein, and Richard Dawkins for formulating the problem in this light.)

In short: There is no good or bad, no beautiful or ugly, no pleasant or painful, no true or false (!), unless there is first something interesting. (This is why the idea of a God that is absolutely simple yet also a person is utter nonsense.)

Now, this view has consequences. On the one hand, it rejects the central premise of utilitarianism (that pleasure and the lack of pain are the sole source of values). If this were the case, then logically we should go about turning the universe into something like a continuous, gigantic orgasm. However, such a universe (in which there was only pleasure, if such a thing is even possible) would be a boring universe--there would be no way to discern between the actual and the ideal, because really, there would be no difference. More than the annoying truism that "there is no pleasure without pain", this is a statement about the necessity of points of view that are only parts of the whole for the generation of value.

Now, the real question behind the first question about the source of value is the simple one of why is (my) life worth living? Other than the instinct to survive, or the force of habit, or the irrational fear of nonexistence, what is it that makes my life worthwhile? I think this is a question that can only be answered from an individual point of view.

Unfortunately, I do not have an answer to this question. I do not know what kind of world I would like to see emerge nor even what kind of person I should be. I'm no existentialist (although this particular post may be misleading on that front), but this just seems to be one of those things that is purely arbitrary.

As it stands, since I am wary of making unreasonable commitments (even though an ultimate commitment, as Kierkegaard shows, could never be reasonable [since reasonableness presupposes something else, a reason, that is appealed to as justification, which would make it not an ultimate commitment]), I feel as though I am just "slid[ing] along the surface of things" (to quote Bret Easton Ellis).

In practice, of course, I constantly make arbitrary value judgments based on my affective habits. I'm not convinced that one needs to have anything like an ultimate ground for value, or one final, overarching commitment. Yet, I find myself still desirous of something like that.

So, for the time being, I go with the interesting, because I believe that is important for the reasons(?) I've tried to put forth here. But that's not enough because there are many varieties of interesting things, some of which produce a lot of suffering for those involved. As I have set things up, I don't see that there is a resolution to this dilemma, and it still leaves me with the very real question of what to make of myself and of the world around me.

Perhaps you don't find all this interesting, but I do.

2 comments:

Lyra's Dice said...

This requires clarification as to the nature of interest, I think. Depending on your physics, interest could be interesting, but it could also be entirely boring, couldn't it? For example, according to Kantian physics, anything that can be an object of desire is (by virtue of being phenomenal) determinate and (logically) attainable. That is, in Kant's 1st Critique, the interesting is essentially boring, if, by interest, you mean something akin to eros, in the Platonic sense. In any case, to attain one's ultimate interest results in the termination of all motion, death. And so the relationship between the interested and the interesting, or more simply put, the relationship between potentiality and actuality (which is what any worthwhile physics describes, HA!), would be crucial in discovering the substance of the claim. So says my Aristotelian and altogether bratty self.

Also, why limit the "real question" to the one of "why is my life worth living"? That already assumes so much! Even the question "Is my life worth living?", most likely, is all too easily answered (with a big fat NO). Luckily, the question "Is my life worth terminating?" is just as easily answered. Those questions get me, at least, all of nowhere. I find the Socratic formulation altogether more helpful.

I think if you begin with the right physics, you can legitimately assert: "There is no such thing as a question worth asking." And then at least we can all relax, more Heraclitean than Heracleitus ever was.

You want it both ways, but it can only be one. Dude, that's like the essence of modernity!

specter_of_spinoza said...

Excellent commentary, Ms. Dice. I think I use the term "interesting" because I wish to capture two meanings: complexity and desire. Now the former is obviously a prerequisite of the latter (although, to be sure, both are very vague). This may be obvious, and you're right that my efforts so far in explaining myself (including to myself) are inadequate.

Perhaps we might consider as an aid what Spinoza means by conatus or "striving", which applies to more than just animals and plants, but to everything. You might say this is his recasting of dunamis, if you want to stick with the potentiality/actuality language. I think of it as like the physical concept of "inertia" (which includes both rest and motion), but it might be something more primordial, like "force".

That is scarcely satisfying, but is all I will say about that.

As to the question about life, I think your formulation of the opposite question deepens the problem considerably. Suppose you are right that life is neither worth living nor worth ending. This would totally suck. This is probably the human condition.

But to be less facile, you're right to point to Socrates. Although I am skeptical that an examined life is always (or even often) a good one, a better question that he suggests might be something like this: "What kind of life is worthwhile?" And here we understand "worthwhile" in a non-cosmic, ordinary (and vague) sense.

Or, to put it another way, "What should I do as I while away the hours waiting for death?"