Value: The Pursuit of happiness; the happiness of pursuit

Did you have a great holiday, or just a good one? Were you hoping to get a bit more done, and at the same time to take it easier?

Vacations can be disorienting. This year I noticed a few reasons why: They’re rare. They’re a treat and a reward. We’re anxious not to squander them so we pay them abnormal attention. They’re a larger amount of discretionary time than we’re used to managing. It’s easy to misperceive how much time it is. For some of us, the to-do list doesn’t shrink, it doubles. We plan to get around to everything we value, to work more AND play more. In the shapeless expanse of discretionary time, we aim to complete a lot of odd jobs we’ve been putting off, and we aim to pass the idle hour doing nothing in particular. Passing the idle hour, it turns out, takes time. For those of us who gauge happiness by a sense of being on track in our pursuits, free time can be free fall. Free from our productivity indicators, how do we know how we’re doing? Free time is time to take stock, which can lead one to explore the long view. The long view is the bastion of both dreams and nightmares, hopes and aversions.

With any piece I write, I run the risk of revealing my peculiarities dressed up as Everyman traits. Who knows, maybe you find vacations easy. If instead like me you have one of our culturally encouraged coffee-stoked lifestyles, maybe you find vacations slightly disorienting too.

If that’s the case then let me see if I can give voice to the disorientation’s undercurrents--deep undercurrents, because this week, I had time to think. . . .

In one of this week’s idle hours, I revisited a very old philosophical question with a colleague. The question was whether nature values anything. Does nature prefer some outcomes to others?

He and I are part of a team that researches how purposive behavior arises in nature. In other words, since purposeful (useful for some purpose) traits are what evolution produces, we try to understand how evolution gets going in the first place.

Evolution isn’t happening everywhere in the universe. It’s the kind of thing that would happen in rare pockets under certain conditions. We’re working on how evolution and purpose would ever get started anywhere. What are the particular conditions and precisely what happens to get it going?

Purpose and value are related. They’re both about apparent preference. We do some things and not others “on purpose,” because we value the outcomes we predict will come from the things we do. And though humans are very different from other organisms, all organisms embody values through their apparent preferences.

Obviously, it’s within nature’s repertoire to produce organisms that embody values. The question is whether nature itself values anything. Allowing us isn’t the necessarily the same as valuing us. Avalanches are within a mountain’s repertoire of behaviors, but that doesn’t mean mountains value avalanches. Attempting to make children behave is well within a parent’s repertoire of behaviors, and it does mean that parents have values.

We recognize value through habits or tendencies. If you keep finding the toilet seat down when you left it up (or vice versa), you might well interpret the habitual seat-changing as evidence of someone valuing the toilet seat in another position.

Likewise, if you’re sleeping with someone and the blankets keep migrating to your bedmate’s side of the bed, you would interpret this tendency as evidence that your bedmate values warmth and expresses that valuing through the habit of taking the blankets away from you. But if you’re sleeping alone and the blankets migrate to the floor, even if they have as reliable a habit of migration as they would when tugged by a warmth-valuing bedmate, you wouldn’t say that gravity values the blankets the way a bedmate does. Gravity isn’t expressing a preference. Your bedmate takes the blanket for warmth. Gravity doesn’t take the bedclothes “for” anything. With gravity, “for” doesn’t enter the picture. Gravity isn’t “for” anything.

For the longest time people did think gravity was for something. Rocks fell to the ground to fulfill God’s wish that they might return to their proper distance from perfection. God, it was reasoned, values rocks less than people and people less than angels. That’s why rocks are in the ground and people are on the ground and angels are above the ground, closer to God. Their habits of habitation express God’s values, particularly the way God values things being in their proper places.

By today’s standard that explanation for rocks falling is laughable. And yet we still read some of nature’s habits as revealing Mother Nature’s mind, values, preferences, and intentions.

All values are revealed through habits, but not all habits reveal values. So let’s explore nature’s habits and see what they might or might not reveal about what nature might value.

The second law of thermodynamics is a basic habit of nature: Concentrations tend to diffuse. Segregations tend to equalize. Segregate hot water from cold within a tank and the temperature soon equalizes. Sort things by shape, temperature, electromagnetic charge, or potential energy and with time the things will tend to get mixed up again. Being mixed up is nature’s resting state.

The second law of thermodynamics is a habit as reliable as blankets falling to the floor. In fact, falling blankets and the second law are related. The big bang is the original source of all inequalities or segregations--what physicists call “broken symmetry.” The segregations include all the unequal distribution of gravitational attractions that the second law of thermodynamics eventually evens out.

If it hadn’t been for broken symmetry, the big bang would have established a completely even distribution of energy. Everything would just sit where it landed, perfectly suspended with no potential to settle out differently. There would be no motion, no differences to make a difference.

We’re living off the energy redistribution that happens as a result of the big bang’s uneven distribution of physical forces--gravity, electromagnetic, strong and weak--and the second law’s habit of evening such unevenness out. All motion--blankets falling to the floor, water falling in rivers, the interaction of heavenly bodies--is derived from the combined effect of broken symmetry segregating things and the second law of thermodynamics desegregating them.

If segregating things is like leaving the toilet seat up, desegregating them is like Mother Nature’s equivalent to putting the seat back down. Maybe Mother Nature values things being mixed up.

Another way we detect value is by whether there’s an individual to do the valuing. Is Mother Nature an individual imposing desegregation on segregated things?

The second law isn’t imposed from the outside. Rather it emerges from the interaction of populations of things. For example, water temperatures equalize over time due to the interactions of lots of individual molecules, not because the extended hand of Mother Nature moves in from the outside to shuffle the molecules together.

And yet, sometimes real value doesn’t look like it’s imposed from the outside when really it is. The computers that beat chess masters don’t appear to have a Wizard of Oz operating them. Rather, their behavior seems to be intrinsic to their mechanisms, the effect of the interaction of millions of switches. But in fact the computer isn’t the source of the victory; the computer’s programmers are. They valued building computers that have the programmers’ values programmed into them.

So maybe God programmed matter to embody its strong tendency toward desegregation. Maybe nature does value the results of the second law.

For the longest time people said that nature “abhors” a vacuum, as though nature valued full space more than empty space. People assumed that it would be impossible to create a vacuum, because God valued omnipresence and therefore there couldn’t be empty space. Eventually, to the consternation of the church, vacuums were indeed proved possible. They just don’t occur naturally--again, because of the second law of thermodynamics. Creating a vacuum inside the atmosphere entails segregating high concentrations of gas from low concentrations. If the boundary between the concentrations is the least bit porous, they’ll tend to equalize.

If the universe valued desegregation, it would be more than a reliable habit, it would be a habit FOR something. What could the desegregation be for? One thing about the second law is that it results in flows, as segregated things move toward desegregation. The big bang caused the segregation of things, and the universe is now in the process of reshuffling, moving the segregated things toward equilibrium on currents of entropic desegregation.

Maybe nature values the movement it gets from the second law, as though the big bang was a deliberate discharge of the starter gun, the winding up of a machine that would do all sorts of things nature would value as the machine ran down. What happens when the universe--a system made of parts that interact in reliable ways--is kick-started with a great burst of segregation that gradually runs down in myriad currents of entropic desegregation?

For one thing, another tendency has a chance to manifest itself. The habit of localized “self-organization,” which only emerges where segregations are busy equalizing. This sounds fancy but is in fact familiar. When water drains out of a tub, whirlpools form. Whirlpools are an example of self-organization. The water molecules could move in any particular orientation and speed as they rush out, but instead they do this very ordered conga line spiraling down. If you heat a shallow layer of oil in a flat-bottom pan, the second law of thermodynamics makes the heat radiate through the pan, creating a temperature current. The heat moving through the pan yields a self-organizing pattern called Benard cells: close-packed six-sided structures that dissipate the heat as efficiently as possible.

Like a partner who keeps stealing your blankets, or like the second law of thermodynamics that keeps desegregating your segregations, the universe’s self-organizing tendencies are also stubborn. Disrupt a whirlpool and it returns. Stir the oil and Benard cells reform. Self-organizational habits are persistent.

Self-organization occurs as a net product of the interactions of large numbers of elements. No one needs to organize a whirlpool’s conga line of water molecules. It’s just that in turbulent water most water molecules bump into each other from random directions at random speeds, cancelling out each other’s kinetic energy, leaving only those bumpings that happen to form a self-reinforcing circle in which each molecule’s movement reinforces the motion of the next. The whirlpool becomes the path of least resistance for a bunch of water molecules crowding to get through a passageway.

These observations give me a basic though imperfect check list for determining whether some phenomenon is evidence that something or someone values it: Is the phenomenon a persistent habit that resists disruption? If so, it might be evidence that it is valued (the toilet seat insistently moved by someone who values it in the other position), though not necessarily. (Blankets insistently falling to the floor even though gravity doesn’t value them being there.) Is the habit imposed from the outside? If so, it might be evidence that it is valued by whatever imposed it (the blanket doesn’t value being stolen; an outside agent--your bedmate, who values it--acts upon the blanket to steal it), though even habits that don’t seem imposed from the outside sometimes are. (Computer mechanisms seem to intrinsically value winning chess matches even though it’s really their programmers who value winning.) Does the potential valuer have a motive? In other words, what would the valuer value it “for”? (Nature might value the second law of thermodynamics for the self-organization that results.) And yet just because we can imagine a motive, that doesn’t necessarily mean it is operative. (We can imagine mountains valuing avalanches even though they probably don’t.) And just because we can’t imagine a motive, that doesn’t necessarily mean there isn’t one. (We can’t think why God would value letting millions die of hunger, and yet perhaps God is just working in mysterious ways.)

Applying these very imperfect criteria, does nature value self-organization? Self-organization is a persistent habit, which may or may not mean it’s valued. Self-organizing behavior does not seem imposed from the outside but rather intrinsic to the interaction of parts (for example, water molecules), which may or may not mean it’s programmed in by nature because nature values it. But “for” what would nature value self-organization?

In the past few decades scientists have come to realize that self-organization is one of those particular conditions in the rare pockets where evolution and life get started. It turns out that self-organization is a precursor and necessary condition for evolution and life. In the research I do with my colleagues we’re enumerating the steps whereby self-organization falls into the kind of higher-level self-organization we call evolution. From evolution we get life and all the values expressed through its adaptive functions, the kind of values that make single-celled organisms prefer nutrients to toxins, plants prefer sunlight to darkness, and we humans prefer pleasure to pain.

How evolution could emerge from self-organization is way more complex than fits into this piece. (The idle hour is this devil-author’s plaything--I’ve already gone on way too long.) If you want more about that research, I’d be happy to share elsewhere.

In these rare pockets where life gets going, its habits are also persistent. Break a bone and your body heals it. You are “robust to perturbation.” Like the toilet seat that insists on being down, like the second law that insists on evening things out, like the whirlpool that restores its form after you mess it up with your hand, life insists and persists.

Kahlil Gibran said, “Your children are not your children; they are the sons and daughters of life longing for itself.” “Life longing for itself” has always stuck with me, and lately I’ve noticed how he doesn’t say “nature longing for life.” I value my life--my life values my life. But it remains unclear whether nature values my life, or anything for that matter. I could come up with a plausible scenario in which nature had the capacity to value things and established the second law so it could set up self-organization so it could set up life so it could set up me. But I could just as easily come up with a scenario in which nature does nothing of the sort.

Here’s another angle at the question of whether nature values anything. If nature is everything, then there’s nothing outside it to thwart nature’s purposes. Nature is probably getting exactly what it wants. If you believe that nature has an omnipotent designer (God) t en he too should be getting exactly what he wants.

What nature or God are getting is this universe with its vast expanses of behavior governed solely by the valueless laws of physics, and its rare pockets of life emergent from the laws of physics.

Life clearly has values, insistent values that resist disturbance. So one thing among many that nature gets, maybe because it wants and maybe not, is me wanting--valuing--certain things.

Like most people, I get frustrated and disappointed when I don’t get what I value. I want my hopes met and my aversions unmet, and I grieve when I get the reverse. Being alive, I persist in trying some kind of reconfiguration that will get me what I value. And that’s something that through its tolerance of my existence the universe might be said, anthropomorphically, to endorse. The existence of my to-do list and the persistent value I put on clearing things off it, are apparently things the universe or God (its author) values since it’s one thing it has got. Though of course it has got the millions who are thwarted from clearing things off their to-do lists too, which apparently is also valued enough by the universe or God to be tolerated.

There are people who very much value the idea that the universe shares their values. Suspecting that it doesn’t feels a bit like a disorienting vacation. It’s more freedom than we’re used to. The freedom makes us more ambitious than we can afford to be, more fearful that we won’t get it all done, less clear on whether we’re making progress.

Here at the close of this holiday season, I’m both reluctant and glad to get back to my self-organized life, my value-laden pursuit of happiness and my life-given happiness of pursuit. May your year be full of purpose, finding what you value and valuing what you find, regardless of whether the universe shares your interests.

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