On Ignorance, Opinions, and Valuescience

I don’t remember exactly when it was that I realized how difficult it is to have a confident opinion on something. The main factor influencing that thought for me was the recognition that there are so many viewpoints, and so much information out there that influences those viewpoints, that it is virtually impossible to be cognizant of it all. How does one know that that piece of information that you don’t yet know isn’t the one that’s going to change your viewpoint on the matter, present a better alternative? The recognition of ignorance and complexity goes a long way in making opinions a more difficult item to have.

This is by no means a bad thing. A person that easily latches onto an opinion likely does so at the expense of lacking information that tests that opinion. In most debated issues in life there are merits, to some degree, to all sides of the argument. Empathy is a tool that we can use to vicariously challenge our opinions by using perspectives that we may imagine challengers to have.

Admittedly, at this point with both empathy and recognition of ignorance and complexity, a healthy opinion is not guaranteed. In fact, paralysis can quickly take root if the thoughtful person persists in melancholia. Rather, to achieve what I think is the most admirable disposition in this scenario one must take empathy and thoughtfulness and complement it with a resolute drive for insight.

But how does one go about executing that drive? The method that has proven itself to be capable of providing the most reliable insights is that of science. The scientific method is one based in observation and empiricism, and when wielded properly can give us information that we can rest assured in using to influence our thought and behavior patterns.

If we recognize that science is such a powerful aid to insight, why not use it to inform some of the most central strings of thought we have: our values?

The approaches individuals take towards matters of value vary widely. Some people may go through life without giving much conscious thought towards their values, and why they are the way they are. Along the same lines, many people form values through osmosis, more or less floating among waves of external influence, despite easily-deceiving evidence to the outside observer that they guide their own life in its entirety–evidence such as their convictional speech and ability to exercise choice. Confidence is not sufficient for a justified set of values. And unfortunately, neither is consciousness of one’s values sufficient for justified confidence, which brings us to this next point in the shortcomings of approaches to value.

Even for those who reject pure osmosis and aim to exert some meta-level control of values into their consciousness, a whole series of societal and limitation-based biases present themselves to influence the way we think about what we want and why we want it. These biases include attachment to preconceived ideas, the societal contexts of our upbringing that shaped these preconceived ideas in the first place, social pressure to conform, and self-deception based on limited knowledge and sensory capabilities.

To remedy these biases that are in many ways built into the fabric of our society, valuescience calls for a critical examination of these biases and an approach to shaping value in a way that is grounded in empirical, experiential means. Despite their strength in consequence and prevalence, biases are weak creatures that break down as soon as they are looked in the eye. Insights one achieves by practicing valuescience–by using the only proven method that more accurately predicts the future to know more about value, which entails prediction–helps by its very nature to break down these biases, leaving more room in the mind for pure logic in our reasoning. As David Schrom writes in the Valuescience booklet, the discipline of physics serves as a good model for valuescience practice because every conclusion made is accountable to its evidence, and authorities who claim to know things better than an individual can know through experience are dispensed with. Valuescience in this manner calls for an intellectually honest and humble approach to life’s questions. “You may disagree with what I have stated. Tell me why and with what evidence you base your disagreement, I will listen openly, and we may both be the better for it in the end.”

While after being explained, the concepts behind valuescience I would imagine seem straightforward and worthwhile to many. But on its surface without the contextualizing explanation, the term valuescience may seem far off to many. Science itself is something that many people generally feel far away or disengaged from. “I’m not a scientist. That’s a discipline that’s best left for the experts.” But in reality science is something that we all practice every day. If the memory-producing aspects of our brains are intact, we inevitably build off of our experiences to shape predictions about our future. The difference is the level to which we take our practice of science. Do we make it a conscious activity that we are acutely aware of? Do we take this awareness and use it to mold the level to which our scientific inquiries probe? If we are at all concerned about exercising as much pure judgment as possible when it comes to answering questions of value in our life, valuescience calls for us to strive to make the answers to those questions an affirmative and empowering yes.

Photo by Pilottage

The above is a piece I composed while a student at Stanford University, as an assignment for one of my classes. With deadlines to meet and such, it may not be 100% polished. So feel free to point out any imperfections you may perceive–I’d value being made aware of your thoughts.

Leave a Reply