Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Motivation, or what does "the cat is on the mat" have to do with our values?

As I mentioned in my post "A Modal World," my entire narrative project is dependent on the claim that all beliefs and statements (even descriptive statements) are supported/undergirded by our values. The stories we tell will assume that we have a fundamental choice to make as we live - ghostly meaning or the void. In order to set up this contrast, however, I need to establish that there are no other alternatives. Our values are unstable, foundationless, ghostly. My claim up to this point had been that everything we construct, utter, write is built upon the foundation of our values. Those values are ghosts. And so, everything that enters and leaves our minds is supported by our ghosts, our foundationless foundation. Imagine a building, complete with foundation, with no ground below it, floating in the sky. In that place, we are strangers at home. Or, imagine we are lost in the desert, surrounded by a blinding dust storm with nothing to guide us beyond our limited vision before us and our footsteps quickly vanishing into the sand behind us. The dunes are shifting beneath our feet.

Still, particularly in our culture, one might object that ethics is dependent on metaphysics, not the other way around. Or perhaps our values are completely distinct from our beliefs "about" the world. After all, it seems deeply counterintuitive that a typical descriptive statement such as "the cat is on the mat" has anything to do with values, emotions or ethics. If descriptive statements have nothing to do with our unstable values, perhaps we can escape our subjectivity and succeed in describing objectively the "world out there." If this happened to be true, we would have stable ground to stand upon. We would have exorcised our dilemma. No void or ghosts.

I have told a few stories up to this point why I believe that descriptive statements are dependent on our values. However, more than anything, I merely made the gesture. It was critical to establish what the question was before we attempted to answer it.

Every belief arises from a cause. I don't believe that claim to be controversial. If I believe that "the cat is on the mat" I have some reason (however poor) for believing it. There are two kinds of causes one might consider here. The first is how we typically think of causes in modern day, scientific language - Aristotle's efficient cause. What brought something about? If someone gives money to the poor, for example, and another person asked for the efficient cause of the act, a proper response might be "I pulled money out of my pocket, and transferred the possession of that money to an individual who was poor." An efficient cause for the belief that "the cat is on the mat" might be "my visual experience displayed a cat on a mat actually in the world." For efficient causes, think "how did something happen?"

However, an account of belief is not nearly so simple. After all, the question of why remains - "why did I come to believe that the cat is on the mat?" What was my motivation to accept such a belief? Why did I wish to give money to the poor? After all, belief indicates a level of commitment while the word "statement" does not. What was the motivation to commit oneself to a belief? It appears as though there are two possible answers to this question.

The first possible answer is to consider other kinds of causes - Aristotle's formal and final causes (the difference between the two does not matter for the moment). One's particular values motivated the acceptance of the belief. Consider an obvious case - say that someone believes abortion is wrong. Say that someone also encounters a study that claims "abortion causes breast cancer." That person's ethical value (abortion is wrong) will almost certainly provide the motivation to accept the claim "abortion causes breast cancer" as a belief. This will be the case unless other values interfere. After all, our values are not in individual vacuums - our decisions are always the result of an interplay between all of our relevant values. Perhaps that said person also deeply values a friend who provides reasons for not believing that "abortion causes breast cancer" is true. In such a case, that person will exist within a moment of value conflict. Which value is more important to the individual (and more directly connected to the belief)? The resolution to our value conflicts (when we act/come to believe something) is rarely simple. Regardless, values clearly provide motivation (since we act toward our values all the time), so it would seem plausible that our beliefs are motivated (and therefore supported) by our values.

The second possible answer is that the efficient cause is the answer to the why question, i.e. we come to believe it because that is how the world is. Certainly, many individuals seem fairly driven to be able to describe the world as it is. A challenge to the claimed objectivity behind some beliefs is bound to find resistance. However, consider the claim for a moment. Let us ask a metaquestion. Why do individuals believe that "we come to believe beliefs because that is how the world is?" The same two answers present themselves - individuals either gain their motivation for the belief because of formal/final causes or because of efficient causes. Notice, however, that the second possibility immediately eliminates itself - the statement "we come to believe the belief that we believe beliefs because that is how the world is because that is how the world is" is complete gibberish. However, a formal/final explanation seems more plausible. Strictly speaking, we will find no psychological motivation in efficient causes unless we first value efficient causes. If we come to value the traditional methods of "discovering" how the "world is," we will respect those methods, we will accept the belief that those methods are reliable at discovering how the "world is." If we don't accept that value, then we will not accept the belief. But notice that we are no longer talking about how the world is, about efficient causes as the source for our beliefs. As long as our values provide our motivation, our beliefs (descriptive or otherwise) will always be built upon specters. Our envisioned potential will always shape what we believe. As Heidegger might say, there is no belief about the world that escapes our intentionality. We come to believe because we value what we believe (or what lies behind our beliefs).

One might still object - this might appear sound in theory, but also appears deeply counterintuitive in practice. After all, what does "the cat is on the mat" have to do with our values? After all, our typically critical values (life, love, equality, freedom, etc.) appear to have nothing to do with such a belief. So why have so many people in our world come to believe such "trivial" beliefs?

We have not hidden from our ghosts. There are many things that we traditionally value that were not listed above because they are typically taken for granted, particularly in our modern era. Just as our values do not come in a vacuum, so too, our beliefs are not isolated from each other. Imagine what would be entailed in rejecting the belief "the cat is on the mat" "because my sense data gave me that experience." We would no longer be able to trust our sense experience. And yet, in our scientific world, nothing is more important, more valued than our sense experience. Our sense of order, of structure to our world, of our ability to predict the results of our actions would come crumbling down around us. There are haunting ghosts hidden within our descriptive statements. Our horizons depend upon the ability to state that "I believe the cat is on the mat because my sense data gave me that experience." And yet, those very horizons are supported by ghosts, by our unstable values.

We believe because we ought to. And yet, even in our search to escape our dilemma, we have discovered it again. We have walked in a circle in our desert dust storm. As we live our lives we are presented with one question, one choice - should we, or should we not? Should we live a life of specters or should we vanish into the void? Metaphysics, physics, science will not save us. All we have is our values, our potential, our ghosts. Perhaps that is not enough to continue walking, weary in our journey of shifting sands. Or, perhaps, that is enough, just enough, to take one more step.

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