There are so many diverse things we find pleasurable: the smell of mulled wine, the slick warmth of a shower and the cool even air on your clean skin, the laughing embrace of a lover, the exotic sight of a grotto hidden behind the trees, the gentle gravitational tug of a blanket on a crisp morning, the satisfaction of burning-hot niblets of fried chicken pulsing down your throat after a long day of physical and mental exertion outdoors, the flush of heat in your face from a sincere yet unexpected compliment, the constriction of your voicebox and rise in the pace of your breath during a heady moment of sacrificial grace, the jocularly offensive absurdities that your friends propose in the midst of a game of Cards Against Humanity, and endless more. There are so many diverse things we find painful: the sulphurous odor of rotten eggs, the shocking rush of cold water poured down your back, abandonment by a lover, the dawning realization that the smoldering ruins you now see were your home, the clinging weight of a blanket when you are gripped by a fever, the burning of too-hot unchewed food as it is slowly pushed down your throat, the flush of heat in your face from a shameful failure, the constriction of your voicebox and rise in the pace of your breath during a moment of mortal peril, the offensive absurdities that your political enemies debate amongst themselves, and endless more.
Last month I described how the feelings of pleasures and pain that we all get can be matched up with a common kind of cognitive process, so that they are at bottom the same thing, but that the pleasures and pains are what it is like when observed from the subjective perspective of you inside your own mind, and the neural excitation and inhibition patterns are what it is like when observed from the objective perspective of others looking at your brain from the outside. That the “inside view” of qualia and the “outside view” of physical processes are different perspectives on the same reality is, in my view, the likeliest conclusion after the “hard problem of consciousness” is someday, somehow, solved. In the present case it applies by identifying pleasure with the upregulation of a neural pathway and pain with the downregulation of a neural pathway. When the relevant neural pathways code for a behavior, pleasures would therefore be the physical effect of making that behavior more likely to occur in the future, and pains would be the physical effect of making that behavior less likely to occur in the future.
A natural next step is to learn more about the workings of the mind by applying the same principle to more features of the brain. After all, pleasures and pains are not the only processes that effect and affect our behaviors. Take for example this model of how your brain’s working memory might function to get things done. In the first step, I supposed, neurons change how likely or unlikely they are to fire, based on your senses at the time but also based on what you have learned and how it has been reinforced. That reinforcement is the role described above that is played by pleasures and pains. In the second step, different sensory tracts converge to the working memory tract, and the amount that it can hold depends on how much you have and how well it is working. The feeling of having less working memory is, in part, the feeling of getting drunk or high, and the feeling of having more is, in part, the feeling of sobering up. In the third step, signals are prioritized based on how active your current desires (hunger, thirst, dyspnea, loneliness, lust, frustration, boredom, etc.) are. The feeling of honing in on the thoughts helpful to your current desires is the feeling of relevance, and the feeling of thoughts galloping off in different direction without regard for current needs is the feelings of scatterbrainedness, distraction, and creativity. In the fourth and fifth steps, the most relevant input signal signal is sent out to all the brain’s different “modules” in their various places, so that they can all work on it in their own ways. The feeling of the brain “modules” working on a thought more effectively is the feeling of being skilled, and the feeling of them working on a thought less effectively is part of the feeling of being clumsy.
All of these cognitive processes (insofar as they are real) affect the behaviors you choose and engage in. It’s not just pleasure and pain. In this model, there are four distinct categories of fundamental human value. First is pleasure/pain. Second is comprehension/incomprehension. Third is relevance/irrelevance. Fourth is skill/unskill. I discussed previously some of the non-obvious ways in which pleasure and pain can work their effects. The processes of comprehension and incomprehension lead us to accumulate and integrate our knowledge, building ever more abstract and high-level concepts from the more concrete and low-level concepts we’ve previously learned. The processes of relevance and irrelevance, especially when paired with social competition, produce sport and fashion and art and subcultures and more, as we try to shape ourselves and our works to stand out amidst the crowd of things as first, best, or most. The processes of skill and unskill cooperate with those of relevance and irrelevance, and by dutiful, deliberate practice we develop the fine motor control, habits of thought, and social responses to achieve great things in the world.
It is my belief that, if we possessed a truer model of the human brain and its function, and if we considered the processes at work in how they shape human action, then these objective processes, considered from the inside-view, would constitute the full panoply of human values. This is not a process that can be done by introspection. Take note how often we cannot see past pleasure and pain, though they are but one of four processes here! Now with four processes to use in explanations of human behavior, there is even less chance of finding the aspects of human value which they cannot explain, and if we add even more distinct processes, the task becomes more difficult still. Thus the task of understanding human values, I believe, is more likely to be completed by neuroscientists rather than by philosophers.
Anecdotally, though, the view with these four values is a great improvement over the view which considered pleasure alone. When I sit on a bench out in public to watch the passing crowds of people, and I think about what they are doing and why, and I imagine them as being driven merely by pleasures and pains, then I find them to be uninteresting, and I find the idea of valuing them as good things in themselves to be wholly arbitrary. But when I sit there, people-watching, and imagine the people as partly chasing pleasures and running from pains, partly driven to understand ever more of the universe, partly desirous of achieving more perfect realizations of particular ideals than anyone else in their social group, and partly motivated to become powerful and skilled enough to do all these things with ease and grace? Then I see these humans walking as gods upon the earth.