linguistic custom (out with the old…?)

One of the points raised by an audience member during the talk on Pain and Embodiment last Friday was to replace the term essence [of pain] with the neuroscientific phrase describing the mechanism of pain perception in the body. With the following quote, I am not making the point that “essence” and some chain reaction of proprioceptors (or whatever words describe the actual biochemical mechanism) are somehow equivalent to the substitution of ‘value’ for ’cause,’ but I am in agreement that the phrases we use – while they do not change the fact, do enable conversation and may, on that basis, lead to new conceptions.

“To say that ‘A causes B’ or to say that ‘B values preconditions A’ is to say the same thing. The difference is one of words only. Instead of saying, ‘A magnet causes iron filings to move toward it,’ you can say, ‘Iron filings value movement toward a magnet.’ Scientifically speaking neither statement is more true than the other. It may sound a little awkward, but that’s a matter of linguistic custom, not science. The language used to describe the data is changed but the scientific data itself is unchanged. The same is true in every other scientific observation…you can always substitute ‘B values precondition A’ for ‘A causes B’ without changing any facts of science at all. . . .
“The only difference between causation and value is that the word ’cause’ implies absolute certainty whereas the implied meaning of ‘value’ is one of preference. In classical science it was supposed that the world always works in terms of absolute certainty and that ’cause’ is the more appropriate word to describe it. But in modern quantum physics all that is changed. Particles ‘prefer’ to do what they do. an individual particle is not absolutely committed to one predictable behavior. What appears to be an absolute cause is just a very consistent pattern of preferences.” ( p 119)

“The greatest benefit of this substitution of ‘value’ for ‘causation’ and ‘substance’ is that it allows an integration of physical science with other areas of experience that have been traditionally considered outside the scope of scientific thought.” (p. 121)

from Lila: An Inquiry into Morals
Robert M. Pirsig 1991

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