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Ask Dr. Cobb

October 2002 Question

It is well known that process thought affirms along with Buddhism the absence of an intrinsic existence, that is, no underlying and eternal substance behind any activity. But how then does it maintain this position and at the time affirm the Jamesian account of intrinsic value?

Dr. Cobb's Response

Intrinsic value without intrinsic existence.

The question points out an apparent tension between denying "intrinsic existence" and affirming "intrinsic value"?  The answer will need to explain both concepts.  The questioner is correct that process thought is very similar to Buddhism in its opposition to substantial existence.  Although the term "intrinsic existence" is not commonly used by process thinkers to state what they are against, it will serve as an equivalent of the term we most often use: "substance".  Intrinsic existence, then, means that something exists in and of itself apart from its relations with other things.  It has its own, autonomous power of being.  Descartes, and some others who thought of substances in this way, acknowledged that this power of being,  derived ultimately from God, thus modifying their own doctrine.  But the denial of the interdependence of the entities making up the world remains.  Process thought, like Buddhism, opposes this position.

For process thought the entities that make up the world are momentary events or occurrences.  No sooner do they come into being than they perish.  Further, they do not come into being out of their own resources.  They are brought into being by the past events that jointly constitute them.  Each event is largely the unification of features of past events.

To understand this, it is best to think about one's own experience, moment by moment.  For the most part it is constituted by reenacting much of the antecedent moment of experience.  There is a great deal of continuity.  The past experience flows into the present one.  If one was angry a moment ago, chances are one will feel much the same anger now.  But there are always new events in the environment, including those in one's body, that also help to shape the next moment of experience.  Perhaps someone steps on your toe.  The new experience will incorporate the resulting pain and the emotions associated with it.  But these will not end the influence of the past experience in which there was no such pain.

Clearly there is no "intrinsic existence."  Still there is "existence."  Each moment becomes something definite and forever changes the world that will participate in shaping future moments.  The momentary existence depends on the world (and God), and what exists is largely the synthesis of their contributions.  There is no isolated, independent existence.
One feature of this Western process view is not highlighted in most Buddhist teaching.  Despite the dependence on the past and God, every occasion decides just what it will become.  There is no given decider with intrinsic existence who makes the decision.  On the contrary, the decision brings into existence the decider.  This is very much the kind of thing that the Buddhist philosopher, Nagarjuna, taught.  Another way of saying this is that what exists is an act that transforms potentiality into actuality. Being actual does not precede the act but is the result of the act.

This is hard to grasp because our language leads us to place the noun first as the subject of the verb.  Still, if we focus on our actual experience rather than on the language we use to describe it, it is not really so hard to see the point.  What is happening may be seeing a cat.  Distinguishing the "i" who sees from the act of seeing comes later.  The "I" who sees the cat is brought into being by the act of seeing.  Previously there was an "I' who was seeing, or feeling, something else, but it was not the "I' who is seeing the cat. The "I" does not first exist and then act.

We'll let this stand for the explanation of the rejection of the notion of "intrinsic existence."  It is a central teaching of Buddhism and of Western process thought.  It has difficulty getting accepted because our language encourages us to interpret experience in another  way.  But when it is accepted, it resolves many problems that the notion of "intrinsic existence" raises.

Now, what is "intrinsic value"? The term is used in contrast with "instrumental value." Most of our talk of how valuable something is is about instrumental values.  Food is valuable because it keeps us alive.  Cosmetics are valuable because they improve the appearance of people. In economic theory the value of a thing is its price, and in common parlance today this is widely accepted.  The value of a diamond is the amount someone will pay for it.  The value of an education is the amount it will add to one's income. But we can always push the question. What is the value of improving one's appearance or having more money. Ultimately the answer is usually that it adds to pleasure or happiness or the richness of experience or enjoyment. If we press the question as to why these are  valuable, there is no further answer. People want pleasure or happiness or rich experience or enjoyment for their own sake, not because, or only because, they may have positive consequences in the future. They are desirable in themselves. We call them "intrinsic values." Those things that are only instrumental, that is, contributions to intrinsic values, can also be called "extrinsic values."

The fact that momentary experiences have no intrinsic existence does not mean that they have no intrinsic value.  Quite the contrary!  Each of these momentary experiences is a decision to actualize itself in order to realize what intrinsic value is possible in that  moment.  However it actualizes itself is an intrinsic value, trivial or significant.  To understand this, consider again your own experience.  It is never value neutral.  It may be a moment of intense enjoyment, or quite miserable, or just "blah".  These are all ways of describing intrinsic value.  Part of the value may lie in anticipation of its contribution to a greater enjoyment in the future or to the avoidance of something negative.  I don't enjoy my hour in the dental chair getting teeth cleaned and checked, but my expectation that this will reduce future problems gives the experience a certain positive intrinsic value.  Normally, it also has instrumental value in actually accomplishing what I anticipate.  But even if I die the next day, whatever the anticipation contributed to the intrinsic value remains.

The telos of the universe and of every occasion in the universe is the achievement of intrinsic value, partly in each present moment and partly through its contribution to the future.  In short, God's aim and ours, derivatively, is at intrinsic value.  There is nothing else to aim at.

This means that identifying the locus and the character of intrinsic value is of great importance.  In much modern Western thought, the locus is human experience and only that.  Modern economics is based on this assumption.  The value of a cow is the price it will bring.  The cow's perspective is totally ignored.  For process thought, every actual occasion has intrinsic value, and this becomes of practical ethical importance when we are dealing with animals.  We may regard the human perspective as more important than that of the cow, but we cannot deny the reality and significance of the cow's intrinsic value.


With respect to the nature of intrinsic value, that is, what characteristics of an experience make it more valuable, there are no simple answers.  Whitehead wrote about "intensity" in Process and Reality.  In his most sustained discussion, in Part IV of Adventures of  Ideas, he talked about strength of beauty, but also about peace and adventure.  Bernard Loomer proposed "size".. Charles Birch and I suggested "richness of experience." There are important issues here.  But all of us in the process tradition think that the integration into an experience of complex data contributes to its intrinsic
value. Following Whitehead we speak of "contrasts" and of "contrasts of contrasts." These occur in the process of the becoming of occasions of human experience and, to a lesser extent, in other animal experiences. Understood in this way, there is only a verbal puzzle in affirming intrinsic value while denying intrinsic existence.

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