Sometimes, reading philosophy is a lot like medieval torture. For some reason, talking about things like objectivity in ethics or the meaning of existence requires numerous dry definitions and explanations. This process causes the reader to be overwhelmed and confused. I’d rather not do that, here. Still, I’d like to approach the subject of values. I’ve spent the last few days trying to decide the best way to do that. So, instead of diving into semantics and logic, I figured I’d just start with a sunflower.
A sunflower seems simple enough, right? It’s pretty enough to show up on dresses and hats or potholders. The seeds are tasty, sold in bags in convenience stores around the world. Farmers rotate sunflowers into their crops to increase the yield of other plants. So, does the sunflower have value? How much? Who says? In some respects, it is a weed. It grows in the ditches behind strip malls, where development turned over soil from old fields. It sprouts in lawns underneath birdfeeders. (The one pictured above sprouted through some gravel in my yard from some spilled birdseed.) They’re hearty and healthy… no one is putting them on the endangered species list.
While we seem to have no trouble ascribing values to things, we typically can’t agree…. not even on something as simple as a sunflower. Perhaps this is because the sunflower is a complex being. The single blossom is actually a conglomeration of parts which work together: reproductive organs, transportation systems for food and nutrients, chemical processing facilities that convert sunlight into sugars, etc. To the sunflower, a working chloroplast has as much value as the car we drive to the grocery store in. Each of those parts is a sum of smaller patterns, of course. Consider a single chloroplast in a cell within the tissue of the plant. It too, consists of a working network of parts, from the membranes to chlorophylls to instructions in the form of genetic code. Only in the past century have we realized the depth of the patterns in these little production factories. Consider the intricate arrangement of proteins, so similar to our own, but so exquisitely different. Consider the complex arrangements of nucleotides, each consisting of individual amino acids, then chemical arrangements, down to the atomic and subatomic levels. So, where do we define values? Do the values in a nuclear reaction, through these scaling patterns, relate to value at our levels of perception?
String theorists talk about a universal law, one equation to encompass all these different values, at least at the physical level. I have to leave that up to them–my experience with equations extends to fractals and tipping the waitress, no further. I still wonder about the implications of a universal law. I think they’ll find it, sure enough, but it won’t give us an answer to the complex nature of something like a sunflower. To do that, we’ll still need organic chemists, geneticists, botanists, farmers, and dress makers, in addition to the physicists. Even then, we’ll have plenty of information about “how” the sunflower exists, but no solid answer about its value. Maybe it is because such answers aren’t meant to be solid. This may sound like a distorted version of the anthropic principle, but if there were simple, solid answers describing the value of something like a sunflower, there wouldn’t be things as complex as sunflowers around.
I’d rather not leave it at that, assuming that things are the way they are, because they have to be. Instead, I’ve tried to understand how a solid law concerning value could give rise to not-so-solid forms. String theorists are doing this at levels beyond most people’s comprehension, describing how fundamental particles (strings or membranes) behave. They turn to dimensions to do this. Next, I’ll explain why I looked in the same direction to find answers about value and existence, although with an entirely different approach. (I don’t disagree with any theories in physics, nor do I have the qualifications to do so. I have simply asked different questions.) There seems to be an intrinsic relationship between our 3-dimensional perspective of the world around us, and the multi-dimensional nature of the world itself. I’ll leave that for the next post, where I’ll merge the subjects of values and dimensions even further, and answer some of the questions I raised in this post.