On Spandrels, and Intrinsic Value

just finished writing a post and now I’m writing another one, what madness is this? I’m writing this as kind of a very-very-extended footnote to that post, since I couldn’t figure out how to write actual footnotes in the WordPress editor.

Specifically, I want to explain briefly the way I used the word spandrel in that post, since it is not a common usage, and may in fact be a usage I simply made up. I like it.

Originally, a spandrel was an architectural term for the space between an arch and its enclosing frame. In more recent times it has been borrowed by biologists to mean a biological characteristic which evolved as the byproduct of some other adaptive characteristic, and so may not necessarily be adaptive itself.

In my previous post I borrowed it yet again, by referring to the idea of intrinsic value as “a spandrel of human cognitive architecture”. The spirit of the definition should hopefully now be obvious and follows the biological one fairly closely except in that I am referring to thoughts and cognitive architectures instead of genetics and evolution. You may even take my usage to be memetic spandrels (as opposed to the genetic spandrels of the biological definition) though that honestly feels a bit stretched.

The most confusing part of this whole thing is that there are fairly obvious ways in which intrinsic values can be adaptive in an evolutionary psychology sense. Let’s try this again.

Go read How An Algorithm Feels From Inside. That central node in the second neural network diagram, the “dangling unit”, is a spandrel of human cognitive architecture. Just as it feels like there’s a leftover question even when you know a falling tree made acoustic vibrations but not auditory experience, it feels like there’s a leftover thing-in-need-of-value even when all your instrumental values have been accounted for.


Charles Taylor, Iris Murdoch, and Me

For Christmas this year I received a collection of essays by Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor (specifically the Harvard University Press edition of Dilemmas and Connections, 2011). Thus far I have only managed to read the first essay, Iris Murdoch and Moral Philosophy, though I’ve now been through it a handful of times. Taylor’s writing can be dense. Still, the essay raises an interesting problem.

Much of the essay deals with the possibility of axiomatic value (in the moral sense) beyond simple human life, in a form that may not be explicitly religious but is at least deeply spiritual. It is a meandering, fascinating path being explored that clearly is intended to end in religion in some later essay (Taylor is a practicing Roman-Catholic) but none-the-less drew me along a lot farther than I was expecting. I have to acknowledge the pull of some kind of value beyond the secular-humanist: the feeling that may lead a man to religion, or rebellion. It seems undeniable that within many (most? all?) people is this half-felt, unexpressed need for some sort of higher cause.

My instinctive philosophical response, as might be expected by those who’ve read my previous posts, is (over-simplified) an extension of Hume’s Guillotine. A feeling is not a true gap in our metaphysics, and in this case is like any other claim (or question) of intrinsic value: the byproduct of a spandrel of human cognitive architecture rather than anything real in the world.

Here is where my hypothetical interlocutor pounces (this was originally a conversation I had with myself; I’m not crazy, I swear). The guillotine cuts away all intrinsic values, and yet my life is lived by a certain set of these values, the ones more-or-less described by the term secular-humanist. Given my commitment to the truth, there is a conflict, a cognitive dissonance, at play here:

Is it inconsistent to live by a set of values while denying instrinsic value so brutally at a philosophical level?

If it is inconsistent, then by what means shall I make decisions? The resulting life guided by no intrinsic values at all seems incoherent and unlivable. Even the thesis of this direction is incomprehensible, for am I not intrinsically valuing truth and logical consistency in order to reject my secular-humanist values as inconsistent in the first place? I can make no further progress in this branch.

If it is not inconsistent, then by what right do I reject religion? It has no more grounding in empirical truth than my secular-humanist values. Even Occam’s Razor glances off, since I have already admitted to the pull of some kind of transcendental belief. And if I am to add a ninth axiom to the set of eight with which I opened this blog, then on what basis do I choose between secular-humanism, Christianity, Buddhism, or some other far weirder set of ethical values?

I have no answers yet.