What are values? Are they just paint or wallpaper on the walls of our cell which we put there in order to brighten our prospects in this hermetically sealed box in which we leave lead our lives? Are they merely just less accurate ways of describing what we like and what we don’t like? We have terms for them, good, beautiful, and true, but really it’s just a matter of our opinion about what works well for us. That’s very far from being the case. In valuing, and coming to appreciate the value of things, we are encountering intrinsic aspects of reality. Values are primary. Values are not derivable from anything else and are not things within consciousness. They’re aspects of reality. In other words they’re not nouns but adjectives or adverbs that are revealed through the process; through that encounter.

A problem that we face is that we think there is only matter and that the world is a bunch of things. It’s leading people intelligently to examine and wanting inappropriate reductionism in our attitude to ourselves and the world. A too narrow materialism and an obsession with mechanism.

Max Scheler, Derek Parfit, and others point out that values are non-reducible entities. Value, writes Thomas Nagel, is not just an accidental side effect of life rather there is life because life is a necessary condition of value. Valuing depends on a relationship. Only in its being appreciated is value fulfilled as value. Neither we, nor other living creatures, originate values. They are evocations and we fulfill those evocations in responding to them. We are attracted to what is true, beautiful, and morally good at a deeper level than mere cognition can provide. Similarly to the way in which we see color, we see it immediately; we don’t see it as the outcome of a computation or a rationalization. It is a primary aspect of our experience.

Well, what is life for? One answer could be that life brings the capacity to recognize and respond to value. It vastly enhances both the degree and the speed of responsiveness to and within the world. Inanimate elements do respond to the world in certain very simple and primitive way ways but they do so rather slowly. Processes may take billions of years. In a living organism they may take less than a second. The degree of responsiveness—we can’t estimate what that is—but it’s very much less than the degree of responsiveness with any living being. Life could be seen as the very process of the cosmic consciousness or the conscious cosmos continually both discovering and furthering in its unfolding, its beauty its truth and its goodness. Consciousness permeates the universe.

Both contemplating and not separately, but in the same indivisible act, bringing them further into being; a process in other words. Values evoke a response in us and call us to some end. They’re what give meaning to life; such things as beauty, goodness, truth, and purpose. Science can tell us what their brain correlates may be, but cannot help us understand their nature. Although, science can help us misunderstand them. This is for three main reasons. Science may disregard them on principle as is the case with purpose. No assumption of purpose is made in the life sciences. That’s a perfectly valid assumption to make if you wish, but you won’t be surprised then if you find nothing purposeful after carrying out your investigations on that basis and on those terms. Secondly, you can attempt to account for them in terms of something else. Science can say, for example, that beauty is simply a tool of mate selection or science can say that goodness enables priests to have power over the people or something of the kind. Thirdly, and above all most importantly, but probably less obviously, science gets them wrong by treating them as things rather than encounters relationships in process.

Remember that science’s disposition not to value is already value laden. The belief that an inhumanly detached way of looking at our experience of the world is more valuable than one in which we encounter it and register its value expresses values of its own. One of those values, of course, is truth. Truth is not a thing, whether conceived of us out there or in here, but an encounter between whatever is our inner take on our consciousness and the rest of the consciousness that it encounters in what we call experience.


Why does science revere truth? Science will not admit anything that is not empirically verifiable, but the value of truth, like all value, is incapable of empirical proof. So where does this intuition—because that’s what it is—come from? It can’t be for its utility. Useful assumptions are not always truthful. Such as, it is quite useful sometimes to consider for certain practical purposes an organism is like a machine, but for roughly eight important reasons an organism is never like a machine. Equally true assumptions are not always a practical use. You can’t make this equation. The point here is that in a meaningless universe, without ultimate values, shouldn’t we just maximize happiness? Why does a person who sees the universe as a pointless heap of material fragments? If you deceive yourself by, for example, believing in a guard which might bring comfort in adversity and encourage you towards leading what we call a godly life. Where does this idea of a transcendent truth that surpasses all other considerations, including those with the greater happiness of others, come from? It might make sense to you if you don’t believe that the world is chaotic, orderless, and meaningless, but if you do what is the virtue of truth? Truth is an act, it’s not a thing. It’s an act of trust in or faithfulness towards whatever is. Truth characterizes the proper relationship between consciousness and the world. Truth is therefore not a function of some other value. Nonetheless, it does imply that being faithful, though not blindly so, has value in and of itself and that the something else to which we’re faithful has an intrinsic value of its own. Perhaps goodness or beauty or the faith would be blind.

As you see, rather than closing down on a single foundational element in a causal chain, we find this process of inquiry leading in the opposite direction to a web of interconnectedness that we cannot by any means get behind or beneath, in which values cohere and sustain one another.

It is not that we love things because we have learned to value them but that we can value them correctly only if we love them. This point was made by many including Saint Augustine, Pascal, Nietzsche, Max Schiele, Erich Fromm, and Simone Weil. There isn’t a single step you take and then another, but you must enter into an open relationship in which the capacity for love is present.


What about goodness? Goodness, interestingly in the modern west, at least in the world of philosophy faculties, has been reduced to a utilitarian calculus. To call something good is to say that it brings happiness to the larger number of people. (As an aside, one interesting in neuropsychiatry fact is that people with frontal brain damage people with right hemisphere damage and people of low emotional and social intelligence and psychopaths all tend to make moral decisions on the basis of utilitarian calculus. Moral and immoral thinking are associated with activity in the right hemisphere and left hemisphere respectively.) There is a difference between eudemonic pleasure and hedonic pleasure. Hedonic pleasure is simply doing more and more of things that give one pleasure at the time in a rather direct way. Goals like making money, winning a game, eating a nice meal, or whatever it might be. This involves something called the hedonic treadmill that the more fulfillment you get on it the more you need and in the end you’re never satisfied whatever you do get. Contrast this with eudemonic pleasure which is the sort of pleasure that one has from leading what would is called a virtuous life in which one’s own goals and the goals of others are harmonized and one gets pleasure from leading a good life. These two things are interesting because the pursuit of hedonic pleasure leads to ill health mentally and physically; eudemonic pleasure leads to good health mentally and also physically. When we act intuitively you may be surprised to learn we are most often gracious and generous. And there are many reasons why humans choose courses of action that are not immediately advantageous to them such as for example having children.


What about beauty? Beauty is often thought of as a sort of a necessary cog in the machinery of evolution. It serves as a means of ensuring sexual attraction and therefore the continuation of the evolutionary process; problem solved. Except this doesn’t solve the problem. In particular it begs a very first question, where does beauty come from? Natural selection and sexual selection cannot be the answers. They’re the answers to a quite different question. Namely, given beauty, how might it be used to advantage? Beauty seems to be something much grander than anything to do with sexual selection. Beauty in landscapes is often found in desert waste, in dense forests, not just in fertile landscapes and that’s just the tiniest beginning. There’s a beauty of a single minor third, never mind of a Schubert piano sonata, or of an elegant chess move, or of a Zen garden, or the snow on a mountaintop, or Euler’s equation e to the i pi equals negative one. Beauty is there but we don’t know where it comes from. It doesn’t derive from other things. It is a primary element of the structure of the cosmos and it’s not a luxury or a superfluity that only comes to people who’ve already satisfied their basic needs. Neil McGregor posits that as soon as we start making things we start making beautiful things. Even one and a half million years ago we wanted things to be beautiful. We want them to be complicated and we want them to be fit for purpose. In fact, it’s particularly perverse to attempt to subordinate beauty to utility. One of the distinguishing features of beauty, as Kant and others point out, they are disinterested, meaning that we take pleasure in something because we judge it beautiful, rather than judging it beautiful because we find it pleasurable. Beautiful objects appear to be ‘purposive without purpose’ (sometimes translated as ‘final without end’). An object’s purpose is the concept according to which it was made (the concept of a vegetable soup in the mind of the cook, for example); an object is purposive if it appears to have such a purpose; if, in other words, it appears to have been made or designed. But it is part of the experience of beautiful objects, Kant argues, that they should affect us as if they had a purpose, although no particular purpose can be found.

There are common elements between different cultures. Certainly some things are found beautiful in one culture that are not in another. However, there’s a remarkable shared sense of what is beautiful. People in quite different cultures find the objects of another distinct culture beautiful and vice versa. Indeed infants prefer faces judged beautiful by people within the culture. They find them beautiful and are more attracted to them before they’ve learned to speak. Beauty has a number of qualities. Beauty involves harmony and judicious violations of harmony. The relations between things that are simultaneously similar and different; ambiguity, unexpectedness, implicitness, embodiedness, irreplaceability, uniqueness, and give pleasure without concepts.