Value (Part 1): Life

This is a subject that I’ve really wanted to write about for a very long time. So I’m glad its finally getting done. I’ve decided to break this down into a three part series. Initially I just began writing; however, I quickly discovered the depth and breadth of this topic, and realized my goal to leave no philosophical stone unturned was a little lofty. The aim here is to move from general abstractions towards particular statements, in readable, deductive fashion. The first part of the series aptly entitled ‘life’, will focus on the broad value of life as a whole; I’ll draw my argument around both the available physical, and metaphysical evidence. In the second part, ‘People’,  I’ll attempt to ‘strain’ humanity from the rest of ‘life’. My ‘strainer’ is forged in the fires of ontology, taxonomy, evolution and metaphysics. Then finally the third part, ‘Disability’. Here my goal is to defend the idea that abstract principles don’t belong to the religious and the generally illogical. But rather, provide something even the strongest and most fiercely pragmatic can adhere to – again, there I go with the lofty goals


As I see things, there are a few major areas of concern related to ‘being’ that I have to involve myself in if I’m to really support my position in the future ‘disabled’ entry. My goal here is to work from the more general and abstract, to the particular, creating a framework from which to build as I work upwards in my hierarchy of specificity. So the areas of importance are as follows: Quiddity, or the ‘sine qua non’ of a being (the essential properties that a particular being shares with others of its kind) , and a being’s qualitativeness (how a being exists, esp. in relation to other beings; its ‘howness’) and quantitativeness (how much it is & where it is).

Parmenides was one of the first ‘ontological’ philosophers. Ontology is the study of the nature of existence, and of being. Parmenides was one of the first thinkers to propose a theory for the fundamental nature of existence. He believed that something could not come from nothing, and subsequently that something could not become nothing; that all things that exist are eternal. For instance, the world, and ‘all that is in it’ was created; it did not just simply ‘come’ into existence — or evolve, as we would say (however colloquially). He believed that all of creation, then, is eternal, but not infinite (he proposed the universe to be a perfect sphere; yet we know that the shape of our universe is such that it will not destroy itself, but rather go on infinitely expanding forever). He also believed that most of what we hold as true, is actually false. He posited that the world was eternal and unchanging, but he assents we do perceive change. To explain this he suggested that our perception of this phenomena, change, is illusory. It was his attempt at a ‘theory of everything’.

Plato later explained this discrepancy between what should exist, and what does, by positing eternal forms. He suggested all nouns have eternal forms. Our horses, for example, may appear to change and ‘evolve’ over time, but they only do so because they are subject to our perception, and are merely copies of eternal forms; this is where a horse derives its horseness, or the sine qua non of being a horse: from the eternal forms.

Descartes’ famous aphorism ‘cogito ergo sum’ or, ‘I think therefore I am’, describes another area of ‘knowing’: the self. He believed that the self was nearly self-evident (kind of circular reasoning; rhetoric!); the existence, not idea, of some being asking about itself almost certainly implied that such a being truly exists. Descartes, much like Parmenides, believed that our perceptions, or our senses, were unreliable. In his famous ‘wax argument’, Descartes holds a piece of wax up in-front of him, he takes all that it ‘is’ and so perceives its ‘waxness’. Then he proceeds to hold that piece of wax up to a flame. The wax obviously melts, and so changes its shape and texture entirely; however, he still found himself understanding the wax in terms of its ‘waxness’; he believed that even after the wax had melted from the heat of the flame, that it was still the same piece of wax. And so he throws away the senses, believing them to be unreliable. In order to understand the true nature of wax, he must put away his senses, and instead use his ‘mind’. And thus births the science of deduction. Because of this, Descartes understood that there was then a divide in consciousness. That although you can know with epistemological certainty that your self exists, you cannot know that another self, or the ‘cartesian other’ exists.

Given this crude overview of ontology, what is our basic touchstone for understanding existence and life? Well, we’ve covered the major historical landmarks in the philosophical understanding, lets bridge over and see what science has to say — because for some odd reason science has cleaved itself off the mass of philosophy. We know with moderate certainty that everything is changing. Even the most conservative orthodox Christians who side with Platonic philosophy assent that microevolution creates change within a species. Okay, now given the evidence on hand, we can also say with relative epistemological certainty that macroevolution is also true. Out of the three philosophers we’ve looked at, I would say the only one who would agree that macroevolution is true is descartes, and only then under certain conditions. Our understanding right now, of evolution and change, remember, is scientific (the science of deduction). Science gathers and analyzes data. Science and the Humanities have been at odds for decades (I’m not going to get into that, because I would not the arguments justice, and it has no specific bearing on our goals). Science is often criticized for being too ‘cold’, and ‘calculated’. Are these not adjectives which could also be used to describe Descartes? We also know with relative certainty that our universe is flat. A flat universe has zero total energy and can theoretically ‘come from nothing’. Lawrence Krauss gave a talk with evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins entitled: something from nothing. Here they describe how modern theoretical physics suggest that something literally can come from nothing ( Psychology teaches us that we are largely determined to act in certain ways by both our surrounding environment (nurture), and our genetic makeup (nature). This contrasts nicely with the idea of free will, in which we are the masters of our fate — or rather our ‘selves’ (I’ll touch more on this later when I write ‘People’). So, what is left? All that exists has come into being via evolution; all of life has evolved via non-specific random mutations and natural selection. Our world, and so us, exists in a universe in which we are quickly understanding — contrary to the above ontological philosophers and modern thinking — that something actually can come from nothing, and actually we probably did come from nothing, and that free-will is largely a lie.

I ask again, what is left? What is the quiddity of being? Well, how did Parmenides and Plato speak with such certainty? They were simply walking blindly in the dark grasping at existence, were they? No, they evaluated things in terms of how those things came into being. Parmenides believed all things have always existed. Descartes believed things were created by the Christian God. I am sure about evolution by natural selection; so lets start there.  The sine-qua non of being is simply that it exists; in order to ‘be’ — that is, to be alive — a thing has to meet certain fundamental biological markers. It must be reproductive (either sexually or asexually), it must have metabolic processes (create and use energy), it must have some sort of genotype to transmit information (signal transduction: action potentials, protein kinase etc…), and it must be capable of producing progeny. So far we’ve covered the qualitativeness and partly explained the Quiddity. Now, quantitativeness is tricky, as it ties in with Quiddity. How much of some thing is required to qualify ‘being’? Take a cell, for instance. A cell is certainly alive. It is able to reproduce, it has metabolic pathways, and it contains genetic information. But, would that cell exist without a host? That is, would a mammal epidermal cell exist in some primordial soup (if presented today)? I’m inclined to say no. Why?  Well because the genetic material contained in that cell’s nucleus has plans for an entire human being, not just for the existence of some squamos epithelial cell. If I found a single strut laying atop a large blue sheet, and upon closer inspection I found an exact tracing of the strut, with measurements and instructions, would it be safe for me to conclude that the strut was the goal there? Especially if the rest of the sheet contained more measurements, struts and other materials, and instructions? So then a cell containing a genetic code capable of creating a person, outside the person, is not in an of itself a being, or alive. But rather it’s part of a larger organism specified by the entire genome (not just the cellular genome). I will contend that the requirements listed above need to be part of some genome. Even more important is our definition of a genome: the entire genetic makeup and hereditary information of a particular organism.

Although I haven’t (yet) included Heidegger, Nietzsche, Russel or Derrida in this ontological proposition, I think its safe to say that the argument I have put forth is relatively novel and relatively sound. For my purposes, ‘being’ is limited to those things we can call alive. I have not really concerned myself too greatly, other than for the purposes of introduction, with all the rest of matter in our universe (such a blog would most certainly be flat in geometry…). I have concluded that in order to classify something distinctly as ‘being’, and as ‘alive’, it must reproduce, have a genetic make-up specific (at the time of analysis) to that ‘being’, it must have current metabolic processes, and it must have a complete structure as dictated by its genome. Since I also find evolution by natural selection to be true, I’m safe from the ‘evolved genomic structure’ criticism — whereby my point that a being’s genomic code must be specific to class (the whole primordial soup epithelial cell thought) may fall under fire if changes in the genetic code can create a new species within a generation. Although to the layman or possibly those newly interested in evolution, that may seem like a solid counter argument, it is not. The idea that one day a monkey became a man is absolutely absurd. And believe me when I tell you I’ve met people who truly believe, beyond contest, that that is how evolution works (I will go into great detail on this subject when I write ‘People’).  As well, the ‘being’ is not a being of form, but rather has two essential properties (if we are to offer some basic abstractions): it has to have the genome specific to that individual, and be alive. The one cannot function unless the other is present. And since the human genome is always undergoing change (although drastic change takes Millennia), an ‘unchangeable’ form is not probable at all, and a poor substitute for actual science and critical thinking. I study being where being exists: in the real world.


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