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And why is that desirable?

November 21, 2023

This is ultimately a post about values. More specifically, it presents a technique by which to get at people’s (or your own) values. Values are important, because they drive much of what we do: they form a sort of bedrock foundation for our actions, even if hidden from sight. When it comes to long-term consequences, some values produce better results than others. Modernity tends to have a fairly destructive set of values, in the end. I hesitate to call them bad. It is easy enough to see their innocent origin, but by consistently serving the more-than-human-world so poorly, they no longer serve humans well, either.

The technique explored here is childishly simple: just keep asking the same question over and over. The recipient of this treatment finds it annoying, partly because it forces them to think more deeply than perhaps they are accustomed to doing. How many repetitions of “why?” from a child do we tolerate before we throw up our hands and have no more answers? Embarrassingly few, typically.

In this case, the repeated question is: “And why is that desirable?” Primarily, I use this as a way to examine the values we ascribe to scientific knowledge. Years ago, I regarded science as an absolute “good.” What could be better? What higher achievement could humans point to than a scientific understanding of our world? In fact, the possible loss of this edifice is what disturbed me the most about the prospect of civilization’s collapse.

Some of that admiration will surely stay with me forever, but when I peel back layers of the onion by following the “why is that desirable” line of questioning, I find that scientific pursuit is often based on a core of human supremacy, or anthropocentrism, more politely. To see this, play the game yourself, or follow the examples below.


For the first example, I will spell out the exchange, but will condense the process for future examples. Be aware that these are not actual exchanges: I am doing my best to provide answers that I think would likely come from scientifically-minded people in our society, based on having been one and still being immersed in the culture. But it’s worth knowing that I may not be fairly representing the other side of the imagined conversation.


Statement: We have learned that ripening bananas in proximity to others cause them to ripen faster due to ethylene emissions from nearby ripening fruit.

Q: And why is that desirable?

A: Well, it’s pretty cool to have isolated the chemical cause of this observable phenomenon.

Q: And why is that desirable?

A: I suppose it could go two ways: use this to accelerate ripening on demand, or to hold off ripening by clearing out the ethylene.

Q: And why is that desirable?

A: This is good for food distribution: better control to better serve demand.

Q: And why is that desirable?

A: By being more efficient, we can reduce waste and serve more people: provide nutrition to a greater fraction of the population; fight hunger, etc.

Q: And why is that desirable?

A: Need I justify this? You insist? Okay—people suffering or going hungry is bad. By mastering the whole ripening process, we might help prevent starvation and even unnecessary death.

Q: And why is that desirable?

A: You are a piece of work, aren’t you? It gets us a healthier population. We want to support as many people as we can. To say otherwise seems pathologically misanthropic or even evil.

I’ll stop it here, but perhaps see my comments on the implications of supporting the human enterprise, in present form. For the first few rounds, the answers simply better connect the dots toward the unquestioned underlying belief that ought not need to be spelled out. By pressing on, it can become almost offensive to have to articulate the actual foundation. Is it offensive because some kernel of awareness creeps in that the statements are becoming value statements that cannot be scientifically backed up? That’s my suspicion, but I could be wrong. It could just be a sense of a perceived attack on cherished or obvious beliefs. Or, keeping in mind that I imagined the exchange, the reaction is hypothetical and may not deserve analysis. I think it’s consistent with our society, but maybe I’m off.

In this scenario, the underlying value judgments (what’s good or bad) involved humans, and cannot be buttressed by scientific argument or logic. Sure, lots of people may want to support as many humans as possible, but we lack objective proof that this is the best thing to do. Ecological trends might credibly argue the reverse. In general, following the chain in this way eventually leads to beliefs or values—usually of the unquestioned sort.

Cancer Cause

Here’s another sequence. Statement: We understand that mutations to DNA from high-energy particles (e.g., cosmic rays, radioactive decay) can lead to runaway growth, which causes cancer.

Skipping the prompts, here is a possible response sequence to repetitions of “And why is that desirable?”

  • By understanding the causes of cancer, we can perhaps protect people from exposure, but also better understand the nature of the disease.
  • Cancer is a leading cause of death, and better understanding it could potentially lead to a cure.
  • Well, a cure for cancer has been a holy grail of medicine for generations. Finding a cure [for some forms] would be a game changer.
  • In the ideal case, we could cross cancer off the list as a health threat, relegating it to a disease of the past.
  • People would live longer, enjoy their loved ones longer, not have this random element strike us down like a thunderbolt from the sky.
  • Need we ask? One step closer to immortality? I don’t know. But it would eliminate a lot of suffering, result in more people being happy, and bring one more random element of our world under control.
  • I’d say that maximizing human happiness speaks for itself, but I suppose we could assume that it would allow more creativity, more innovation, more productivity, more novelty, more progress if we had more healthy people in the world.
  • Maybe more cures, more control over the environment, more collective affluence, closer to what humans are meant to be.

What might possibly be amiss, here?  Enhancing benefits that are exclusive to domesticated species like humans—especially the more affluent half, in practice—results in an acceleration of already frightening ecological damages.  A more thorough exploration (specifically around cancer) can be found in an earlier post.

This example is, understandably, laced with connection to human concerns from the very first bullet. Yet, note that both examples (quickly) led to the topic of human health and well-being. I suspect that would be typical of many of these chains. Let’s try one that seems less directly related to humans at the start.

Pascal’s Triangle

Statement: Pascal’s Triangle is super cool. It connects to so many applications, like probabilities (combinatorics), binomial expansions, series and sums, and even the Twelve Days of Christmas song.

And why is that desirable?

  • It provides so many gifts! The list of properties and connections is extensive—only hinted at in the statement above.
  • It’s a simple, yet powerful tool to help conceptualize and speed up some computations.
  • Since the applications are so diverse, I don’t know where to start. But if speaking generally, I would say that it is one of many tools that facilitates other endeavors in math, physics, biology, and engineering.
  • Tools help us do things more efficiently or even accomplish tasks that would be nearly impossible without them.
  • Pascal’s Triangle is a tool so deeply placed and foundational that it’s tough to begin. Does the entire lineage of my smart phone somewhere connect to Pascal’s Triangle? It seems likely. So look around: would we have any of our technology without this brick in the wall? I don’t know, but it almost seems strange to imagine that we could have gotten here without it.
  • Are you asking why technological progress is desirable? Geez, that’s a tall order, but sort-of everything. In a word: modernity. Food for 8 billion people; advanced medicine; computers; global markets; skyscrapers; cars. Just look around.
  • Amazingness. An exciting and glorious time to be alive [as a human]. Longer, happier, more diverse and fulfilling lives [not for wildlife].
  • Well, isn’t that the point? What more could we want? Sure, it could be better, but it probably will be, and I wouldn’t want to try it without Pascal’s Triangle.

This one took longer to connect to human concerns, but wound up there. I suspect most any statement, when pressed in this way, would end up in a similar place for most people in our society: the values of modernity are anthropocentric, so digging down to root values will probably lead to a similar result from almost any starting point.

An Important Window

It’s probably obvious why I am pursuing this line of thought. Dogged repetition of the “why is that desirable” question provides a window into our human supremacist culture. According to this pervasive club, anything that’s good for humans (in the short term) is unambiguously good.

I could be justifiably accused of stacking the imagined conversations. So, I encourage you to try your own answers (and your own starting statements) or try this technique on others.

Maybe none of this seems problematic: why would centering values around human concerns be either surprising or harmful in any way? Wouldn’t most animals see themselves as the proper focus of their own concerns?

The issue I have is that humans have developed such profoundly powerful capabilities that operating so powerfully under an anthropocentric paradigm becomes staggeringly destructive to the more-than-human world. The Nazis would not have been threatening if their capabilities did not extend much beyond baring teeth and throwing feces. But the Wehrmacht was a formidable force. Supremacism and crack capabilities make a dangerous pair, which describes modernity pretty well. By favoring ourselves, and stacking the deck so that we win practically every contest, we not only destroy innocent and intrinsically valuable species but in the end ironically make ourselves losers as well. And why is that desirable?


As an afterthought, it might be instructive to tackle this exercise from an Indigenous perspective—being clear that I am not well qualified to do so. When asked “and why is that desirable?” to the three cases above, what if the answers are all: “It’s not.” End of chain. No connection to deep values.  Ambivalent, at best.

But a whole different kind of statement could unleash deep passions. For example, let’s try the statement: “The honorable harvest takes only what we need, removes no more than half of what’s there, and does not disturb the first one found.” Why is that desirable? This time, the modern response might be “it’s not,” while the Indigenous person might say:

  • It leaves some for the critters; it keeps the resource healthy.
  • Because the critters are our kin, and need to thrive; this helps everyone into the future.
  • This world is a gift to all of us, and ceases to work if all are not able to thrive.
  • Life, in all its diversity, is amazing, and holds the ultimate value.

It’s not about us—or at least not exclusively. What we pursue and what we value are shaped by deep foundations. Without changing/addressing core values, it is hard to see how a person would try something very much different, even when failure is obvious.

Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a professor of physics at the University of California, San Diego. An amateur astronomer in high school, physics major at Georgia Tech, and PhD student in physics at Caltech, Murphy has spent decades reveling in the study of astrophysics. He currently leads a project to test General Relativity by bouncing laser pulses off of the reflectors left on the Moon by the Apollo astronauts, achieving one-millimeter range precision. Murphy’s keen interest in energy topics began with his teaching a course on energy and the environment for non-science majors at UCSD. Motivated by the unprecedented challenges we face, he has applied his instrumentation skills to exploring alternative energy and associated measurement schemes. Following his natural instincts to educate, Murphy is eager to get people thinking about the quantitatively convincing case that our pursuit of an ever-bigger scale of life faces gigantic challenges and carries significant risks. Note from Tom: To learn more about my personal perspective and whether you should dismiss some of my views as alarmist, read my Chicken Little page.

Tags: anthropocentrism, cultural values