The National Park Service makes photographs of a generous sampling of the Florissant fossils available here. (The fact that the NPS makes these images available to all is an amazing public service for which we should be grateful. Thank you, NPS.)
These are from the late Eocene, some 34 million years ago. They were formed when dead bugs and leaves sank to the bottom of a lake. Thanks in part to nearby volcanoes, a messy mix of clayish sediments, volcanic ash, and freshwater diatoms blanketed the dead lake-bottom stuff, forming compression fossils between thin layers of shale. One special thing about the resulting fossils is the sharp contrast between the carbonized organic material and the light color of the background matrix. Some of the insects look like they might get up and fly right out of the rock.
Fossils clearly have evidential value, in the sense that they convey information about the past, and because we philosophers of science tend to fixate on epistemic issues, that is sometimes the only value we see. But as Joyce noted in an earlier post, fossils also have aesthetic value. If you are like me, you would much rather spend half an hour transfixed by a carbonized Eocene bug than staring at one of Monet’s haystacks.
But how exactly do evidential and aesthetic values mutually suffuse? An idea from recent environmental philosophy can help us to get a little more precise about the relationship between the aesthetic and the evidential.
Sahotra Sarkar uses a simple thought experiment to show that some things have transformative value. This is an idea that he gets from Bryan Norton, but Sarkar’s thought experiment is especially vivid.
Suppose that you have never listened to classical music. You have little or no experience with it, and you’d prefer sitting at home watching television to going to a concert. The concert therefore has no demand value for you, where demand value is the value something has insofar as it satisfies your existing preferences. Or to put it another way, if an economist asked how much you’d be willing to pay to attend a classical music concert, the answer would be: zilch. You simply don’t care about classical music.
Then one day, some friends mention that they have an extra concert ticket. The local symphony is performing. Although you’re totally indifferent to classical music, you succumb to peer pressure and go along. The experience of hearing Bach’s Concerto for Oboe and Violin in C Minor changes you profoundly, making you want to hear more and learn more. You don’t have the vocabulary (yet) to describe the oboe solo, but you have a sense—vague and powerful—that you just experienced something important. The experience transforms your preference structure so that next time around, you will gladly fork out the money for a ticket to the symphony.
[Please listen to this, and then continue reading.]
Sarkar argues that the concert in this case has transformative value, insofar as it transforms your preferences. What he cares about is not music but biological diversity. The suggestion is biodiversity's value is a lot like the value of the musical performance. Sardar's (and Norton's) philosophical aim with such an account is to find a way through the old impasse between those foot-stomping non-anthropocentrists who insist that biodiversity has intrinsic value—that it’s valuable for its own sake—and those who think that it has merely instrumental or demand value. Sarkar characterizes his view as “tempered anthropocentrism.” It’s anthropocentrism, but without the idea that things in nature only have value insofar as they satisfy existing human preferences.
A problem with the Norton/Sarkar account of transformative value
I should say up front that I don’t think the Norton/Sarkar account succeeds as an account of environmental values. One obvious problem is that bad things can also have transformative effects on us. For instance, the experience of witnessing the suffering of innocent people could have a profound effect on your goals and preferences, transforming you into a humanitarian activist. Or for another example, seeing the carcass of a poached elephant could turn one into a conservationist. But it sounds perverse to say that human suffering, or the dead elephant, have “transformative value,” especially if the whole point of the account is to set up inferences from “X has transformative value” to “We should preserve and protect X.” It could turn out (depending on contingent facts about human psychology) that an elephant carcass has more transformative value than a living elephant. That’s a pretty weird result for anyone trying to make progress in environmental ethics.
Nevertheless, even if the account fails as an approach to environmental ethics, it might still contain some insight that can be applied in other places.
Aesthetic-Epistemic Feedback Loops
In an earlier post, I argued that scientific knowledge of prehistory can enhance our sense of place and enrich our engagement with the landscape. Sarkar’s lovely thought experiment points to another way in which the study of fossils can have an important aesthetic dimension. It could even be that aesthetic engagement with fossils has something to do with the epistemic success of paleontology. I won’t try to develop such an argument fully here, but I do want to gesture in that direction.
Let’s examine the classical music case a bit more carefully. (If Sarkar’s classical music example doesn’t resonate for you, then feel free to change things up and consider some other parallel case involving art that moves you more than Bach.) Crucially, the aesthetic experience of Bach’s Concerto for Oboe and Violin leaves you wanting not only more experiences of that type, but also more knowledge. You want to learn more about how other composers have put the oboe to work. And what about the three-part structure of the piece? Is that typical of Bach’s work? Does Bach feature the oboe in other pieces? Has the design of the oboe evolved since Bach composed the piece? The initial aesthetic engagement with Bach’s music impels you to learn more. But as you learn more, your knowledge then deepens and enriches your subsequent engagement with the music. You listen to the same piece again, but you hear new and different things. Your growing knowledge changes your experience of Bach’s concerto, changes what and how you hear.
In short, what’s insightful about the Norton/Sarkar concept of transformative value is that it calls attention to these aesthetic-epistemic feedback effects. Aesthetic engagement with X turns you into a seeker of knowledge about X. But having more knowledge of X deepens your aesthetic engagement with it, which raises new questions and motivates you to keep inquiring, in a kind of virtuous circle.
Now think about how this might apply to the Florissant fossils. Hopefully the images above make you want to learn more, or even better, to visit the site in Colorado and see where they came from. How were the fossils formed? What's the relationship between the leaves and insects and the petrified tree stumps that attract tourists to the national monument? How could the geological history of the site give rise to such vastly different kinds of fossils? How are those insects related to insects living today? As you learn more, this changes how you experience the fossils, and the site. Asking questions about the fossils, and the site, is a way of engaging aesthetically with them.
(As an aside, there are some connections between this notion of an aesthetic-epistemic feedback loop and Adrian’s discussion of paleoart, as well as Caitlin Wylie’s research on the practice of fossil preparation.)
The Aesthetic Expansion of Philosophy of Science
Many of us philosophers of science were trained to isolate epistemic considerations, while sharply distinguishing them from “merely pragmatic” issues. Quite a bit of traditional philosophy of science just is epistemology of science. Indeed, an awful lot of my own earlier work focuses narrowly on epistemic questions. But if this notion of aesthetic-epistemic feedback loops gets things even remotely right, then it could turn out that the exclusive—one might say, obsessive—attention to epistemic issues in isolation from other dimensions of science is misguided. Aesthetic engagement is a practical matter, involving the five senses, bodily and perceptual interactions with fossils and landscapes. Knowledge of the past is often instrumental to deeper aesthetic engagement. If aesthetic and epistemic issues interact in anything like the way suggested by the Norton/Sarkar model, then we philosophers might be missing out on a great deal when we give all of our attention to questions about how scientists test hypotheses.
 S. Sarkar, Biodiversity and Environmental Philosophy: An Introduction. Cambridge University Press, 2005, pp. 81ff.
 B. Norton, Why Preserve Natural Variety? Princeton University Press, 1987, pp. 185ff.
 Some technical detail: This is a version of what Sarkar calls the “boundary problem” with transformative value. The basic problem is how to tell which sorts of things can have bona fide transformative value, and which cannot. He tackles this by drawing a distinction between “incidental” and “systematic” transformative value, arguing that biodiversity has the latter, but that lots of other things have only incidental transformative value (2005, p. 102). He says that something has systematic transformative value insofar as we are able to give a general account of how and why it changes people’s preferences. If the most we can do is to point to a particular case where someone’s preferences were transformed by X, then X has merely incidental transformative value. One problem with this is that we surely can tell a general story about how the observation of other people’s suffering (for example) might transform the observer’s preferences. The case for human suffering having systematic transformative value seems just as strong as the case for biodiversity having it.