Human consciousness: The normative question and the creation of value

When consciousness flickers into being, into self-awareness, it faces some basic philosophical questions. The existential question: What am I? The topographical question: Where am I? And the normative question: What should I do?—which essentially amounts to asking: What is worth doing?

And thus is born the idea of value: Asking the normative question presupposes the possibility of value because it assumes some answer, some purposive skill, is more or less worthwhile than another, or (in relativistic pluralist egalitarian fashion) that all answers are of equal worth.

Among all possible purposes, we then either choose to cultivate non-arbitrary purposive skills (biologically necessary functions), or, if we encounter an ease in fulfilling the biologically necessary, we conceive of arbitrary purposes with which to occupy our time. Whatever one’s choice in a given moment, we ascribe to that purposive skill its value through our behavior: our prioritization of its cultivation. We choose what purposes are worth the dedication of our finite existence, and in doing so, denote their value. Admittedly, this presumes that value is somewhat a function of mortality–that without finiteness, without a sense of urgency, the creation of value to make life feel meaningful is less of a pressing concern.

The value of non-arbitrary purposive skills are seated in nature—in the natural evolutionary process by which we and all life are subsumed—but we alone are the inventors of arbitrary purpose and arbitrary value. Beyond what is necessary for survival, it is left to us to determine which skills are worth cultivating. Neither God nor intrinsicity gives us this purpose—it is a matter of our creation, of our dedication.

For a purposive skill and its value to be “arbitrary” is not an evaluative claim, however, but observational. Arbitrariness is not good or bad, it simply is or is not. The cultivation of arbitrarily purposive skill is no less worthwhile or valuable than that of non-arbitrarily purposive skill. Indeed, we derive much of our sense of meaning in life from arbitrary purpose. But we must recognize ourselves as the creators of arbitrary purpose—of arbitrary value. We cannot forget that we are the arbiters; we are the source. Nor can we forget that we must fulfill non-arbitrary biological necessities (nutrition, rest, shelter…) before we can even begin to focus on arbitrary ones—a privilege not shared by all. The former comes prior to the latter as a matter of necessity—something of a biological order of operations: only once our bellies are full and our minds safely rested do we concern ourselves with the arbitrary.

In this sense, having the time and energy to focus on the arbitrary is an exquisite privilege: a joy of being human, of being conscious. It is through creating value that life feels meaningful—or at least that we overcome the sense of futility about living. Human beings are ultimately animals, but the cultivation of arbitrary skill is one of our distinguishing characteristics. It makes being human feel special—even if we are insignificant by any cosmic scheme.

The cultivation of arbitrary skill is a celebration of life! Arbitrariness is cause for ebullience. The arbitrary purposes we create make life exciting—they give people an interesting uniqueness amongst one another. Dance, art, sport, scholarly intrigues, cultural exploration—the arbitrary richness of human existence: these make living human life feel over and above the predominately non-arbitrary cycles we observe in other animals.

But the non-arbitrary is worth celebrating as well. Food, water, shelter from the frequent harshness of nature—these are fundamental to comfortable living, and thus (perhaps even more so than the arbitrary) worthy of our deep, humble appreciation. To be reminded of this is especially important in places where such amenities have become taken for granted.

The existence of consciousness is itself a sort of contingently orchestrated celebration of and by the universe. That matter-energy has slowly and stochastically evolved toward subjective self-awareness is the universe’s manner of perceiving itself, of celebrating its own existence—for despite our temporary sense of individuality, we are no more or less part of the universe as a single whole. Conscious creatures constitute the universe capacity to recognize itself. To perpetuate this awareness, we fulfill our non-arbitrary purposes—we survive as long as we can. To enrich this awareness, we indulge the arbitrary: we cultivate artistic, athletic, scholarly, specialist, and cosmopolitan skills.

This is not a hierarchy of values—the arbitrary and the non-arbitrary—but my observation of how human beings tend to answer the normative question: how we make life feel meaningful; how we make life seem worth living. Thus we give thanks. Thus we celebrate. To the sun god!

Non-arbitrary v. arbitrary – axiologically speaking

I was asked for an explanation of what I mean by “arbitrary,” so I’ll make the distinction again below. I’ve also touched on this distinction in The problems of society, The roots of oppression, and Is electricity a non-arbitrary need?

Here’s another quick explanation:

When we confront and answer the normative question (what should we do?) we make a value judgment about what’s worth doing. To put it another way, we judge what end is good enough to be worth our time. Some of those judgments are arbitrary, some of them are non-arbitrary. Non-arbitrary value judgments are rooted in human ontology, which, to me, means that if the good you decide to pursue is necessary to survive or to fulfill a biological precondition, then the value of that good is non-arbitrary. An “arbitrary” value judgment, on the other hand, is made when the value of a good you decide to pursue is nonessential to survival or fulfilling biological precondition. “Arbitrary” is a sort of catch-all for values that don’t pertain to necessity — an “everything other than, until proven otherwise” set. For example, the judgment that decorating is good and the subsequent decision to decorate in a particular way are arbitrary. You would be perfectly fine if you did otherwise, so decorating is arbitrarily valuable. If you could prove that decorating in a particular way is ontologically necessary, then perhaps it could be considered non-arbitrary, but I think decorating is a good example because it’s so heavily based on personal preference. On the other hand, the judgment that eating is good and the subsequent decision to eat are non-arbitrary. Eventually you’ll die if you decide otherwise, so eating is non-arbitrarily valuable. I would also argue that the life-enabling environmental conditions of the Earth are non-arbitrarily valuable.


Is electricity a non-arbitrary need?

I’ve previously discussed the arbitrary v. non-arbitrary distinction in the problems of society, as well as more recently in the roots of oppression. This distinction creates two categories, that is, “arbitrary” and “non-arbitary,”  in which we can group and understand the value judgments we make when puzzling over the normative question — when deciding what is worth doing.

Human beings, like other animals, have certain basic biological needs that must be fulfilled for survival: we forage for food and drink, seek out shelter from the elements, search for mates, and sleep. Because these needs are rooted in biology rather than preference, the value judgments one makes when deciding to fulfill them are non-arbitrary — basic biological necessity is a mark of the non-arbitrary.

However, distinct from other animals, humans have become extremely proficient in accomplishing our non-arbitrary ends, and so many of us are left with large gaps of free time each day. Most importantly, we seek to fill this free time with purposive activity so that we feel our lives are spent doing something meaningful. But what purposes are meaningful, the answer to the normative question what should be done? depends both on who you’re talking to and what his or her cultural, social, and historical context provides. As such, the answer to what should be done beyond fulfilling non-arbitrary needs will be based on one’s own personal sentiments about what’s valuable in life – that is, based arbitrarily on one’s own judgments about what is worth doing. Of course, such judgments are partly shaped by cultural, social, and historical context, but these factors are contingent, in that they could have been anything, and so answering the normative question by appealing to the culture, society, or history you were originally thrown into remains arbitrary – indeed, upon seeing that there’s more than one’s native culture, society, or history (history as hermeneutical) out in the world, the culture, society, or history that one decides to look to in answering the normative question will, again, be a matter of one’s arbitrary preferences and judgments about what is valuable in life.

So, in short, our non-arbitrary needs are food, drink, shelter, sleep, and sex (because while individuals can survive without sex, human beings as a species could not). Every purpose beyond fulfilling these biological preconditions should be seen as arbitrary by default unless it becomes clear that some new element has become necessary for survival. If, for instance, you were born on an island where the only source of food is located high atop a rock wall, then the ability to climb would, in these circumstances, become non-arbitrary, as being able to climb well would be necessary for survival. So you can see how activities and judgments that would otherwise be arbitrary can work their way into being non-arbitrary depending on the conditions one faces. With this in mind, I turn to electricity.

Is electricity a non-arbitrary need? Is creating electricity a non-arbitrary purpose? Life has become, and is becoming, increasingly energy intensive, particularly in the realm of electricity consumption. But has the need for electricity become non-arbitrary? Obviously there are people living today who get along without access to electricity, and in theory one could survive in developed society without being “on the grid.” But to the extent that agriculture, medicine, sanitation, and home heating rely on electricity, and because an insignificant number of Western households are self-sufficient in those regards, I’m confident that without electricity, billions would starve to death, die of otherwise preventable or treatable disease, and freeze to death in their homes. Because electricity has become so essential to survival and the fulfillment of basic biological necessities, the need for electricity can no longer be understood as an arbitrary one. Like the need to climb rocks well on the hypothetical island considered earlier, electricity has worked its way into being non-arbitrary. How one thinks we should produce electricity (ie – with renewables and/or non-renewables) is a function of other values and judgments about the human place in nature, but whether it’s through solar power or natural gas, our ways of living, our very lives themselves, non-arbitrarily require electricity.

So, with some confidence, I think we can expand the list of non-arbitrary human needs to include food, drink, shelter, sleep, sex, and electricity. And we must be open-minded to adaptations of this sort, for there was a time in evolutionary history when the bacterial human ancestor was autotrophic, reproduced asexually, and knew nothing of shelter or sleep. As we evolved into modern humans, so too evolved our non-arbitrary needs. We certainly cannot imagine ourselves as the end of evolution, and so as life itself changes, we must be willing to change our minds about what counts as non-arbitrary. Electricity, it seems to me, has made the cut.

JM Kincaid