Monday, June 14, 2010

About Value

Why do we do research, man?! In fact, why anything?
One simple answer is: to make ourselves happy, prosperous, richer etc. That's OK.
But the 'why' becomes significant when we are talking about making choices between various things.
Often, there's a question raised about the practicality of the topic of research. For example, should a person do research on philosophy, or on digital electronics. Simplistic answers are:
- Whatever you feel like.
- Whichever is funded well.

These formulae may work in very clear cases. But, sometimes, things aren't clear enough. For example, whether you have enough funds for a research project depends a lot on whether you are interested enough in it or not. As long as the settlement of this balance between interest and funding is with one person, it may reach a steady state after some soul-searching. But what happens when the researcher is not the one who funds the research? His interest will hardly work as a great motivation for the military general who may be the one to sign the funding cheque.

Framing the whole problem of deciding research can be framed conveniently as a business problem where everyone has different (sometimes conflicting) motives. But the motive of profit-making unites all motives. Economic forces reign supreme. A capitalistic model.

But ignoring the fact that this model is insufficient to define motives of research could have disastrous effects on everyone. If economic forces are allowed to decide all research policies, it will drive the frontlines of knowledge in such directions as will mutate the whole body of human knowledge into an ugly monster.

The point is: what really is the meaning of the word 'useful'? What are those basic acts A, B, C... etc which are useful. If we are able to define that set, we could just argue on that basis to define the usefulness of other activities on the basis of laws like the following ones:
Law of composite activities: Say, some other composite act X is a combination of acts A and B. If A and B are known to be useful, we may conclude that X is useful.
Law of enabling activities: Say, an activity X results in increase in the ability of people to do activities A and B, then we may conclude that X is useful.

There might be many such laws if we give it a thought. That's the easy part to come up with such laws. The difficult part is to define a fundamental tenet of usefulness. The law that lets us conclude that atomic activities like A and B are useful. Their usefulness isn't derived from the usefulness of some other activities.

Let me dwell a bit on why our current knowledge falls short of achieving the above. Say, arbitrarily assign some positive value to some activities. If more of such acts are done, there is an overall rise in the 'value'. Thus, these acts are useful in that sense.

Say, one such act is 'eating'. A person who eats feels happy. So, there's a sense in assigning some positive value to eating. The more people eat, the more value there is. Nice and simple!

But there's trouble brewing there. If I eat too much, I get indigestion. My arteries may clog and I may die of heart attack. So, eating too much now may result in my dying early reducing the total number of times I enjoy eating. Also, suppose I am a criminal psychopath. I like killing people. The more I eat, the longer I live. The longer I live, the more number of people I murder. Hence, my eating results in many other people not living enough to enjoy eating. Hence, whether my eating indeed is valuable overall depends on what other activities it enables or disables, and the value contained in them.

Both the difficulties above are operational. They talk about the difficulties in computing the actual value of an activity. The difficulty arises from our inability in determining what other activities it may enable/disable. This difficulty, though significant, is not fundamental. It doesn't still present the fundamental difficulty of defining usefulness, or 'value', to be more precise.

The sense of that fundamental difficulty can be got from the apparent vacuousness of the idea of assigning value to such mundane things like eating, sleeping, having sex, etc. To me, doing this makes the whole idea of life appear vulgar! So, it's all about maximising eating and making merry?! There's nothing more than that?! Even computer programs, which can be broken down into a sequence of bits, or an electronic circuit, which can be looked at as a combination of numerous gates, seem to have a more respectable existence. At least when brought together, they serve purposes which can't be served by individual bits or logic gates. On the other hand, it appears blasphemous to compute the value of the most elevated life on the basis of the number of meals, sleeps and copulations it eventually results in.

There lies the problem of value. That hunch: That the value of elevated acts must lie in something less vulgar than can be reduced to a large series of mindless animal acts. I haven't read much of ethics, but I surmise that this is, in some way, the essential problem of that subject.

...and that's also my underlying thought when I ask: 'Why do we do research?'

Note: I foresee a link to this post appearing in many many of my future posts.


fuse me said...

Very very interesting read. Probably you forgot to add this to Buzz?

I like the way you analysed the value of research. I suppose that is true about the value of anything. The value of anything depends on the model the society adopts. If it is a monarchy, the value of things the kings finds dear is high and the value of things the king finds low is cheap. Thats the kind of research which took place in olden times. Research which was required to build temples and stupas and predict the victory of the king etc. and that kind of research was useful and valuable. In a socialist system, the value of something is determined by the people, not individually, but as the uniform authority which claims to represent the people. The research that showed new ways by which the government could control people was highly valuable and so useful. In a capitalistic system, everything is about money, and any research that can mint money for the corporation is considered valuable and also useful. This adopting a research model based on capitalism does make it as vulgar as McDonalds. On the other hand, if you adopt the feudal system, then whatever is valuable to the guild of scientists (who fund themselves) is considered valuable and useful. That was the kind of research going on in the renaissance era where the scientists funded themselves from the money they got from the peasants.

In America as everything else, the most popular is the capitalistic model, in China is the socialistic model, in India it is the feudalistic model and in military juntas (like Myanmar and North Korea) it is the monarchic model.

Pritesh said...

I agree with Ananth that this sure is a very universally applicable dilemma. Not just about research, but also about things we do in life on a daily basis, or for that matter, anything we do at all.

I don't know if breaking it down to smaller bits (e.g. eating, sleeping etc.) will really give us a total picture. Eventually, it does boil down to what one takes home from it. Subjectivity at work.......

fuse me said...

Commenting on another aspect of your post, value and usefulness...
Each one places a different value on everything, eating, sleeping, research etc. But if a thing of value becomes too abundant, then its value goes down (demand supply business).

Breaking down into its components is the most scientific method of analysing anything. But the whole system is more than just the sum of its parts. The interactions between each of its parts adds something wholly unique to the system.

Thats the problem with usefulness. It is a whole system of several parts and even though each part is quite trivial, the way these parts interact with each other are quite diverse. One needs several interaction laws (like demand-supply law) and several more of them to be able to derive the system of usefulness. So while almost everybody knows the qualitative definition of usefulness, the quantitative definition is almost impossible to make. But one thing is for sure, that usefulness is not as vulgar as the sum of the individual parts.