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Space and time are measured in hours and metres, value is measured in utility. In these three fundamental scales, I have read that zero and the unit are arbitrary. I can see that there is no beginning of time, and no bottom to the universe and no absolutely valueless state of affairs, but it seems perfectly sensible to talk of two states of affairs being of equal value, in which case the difference in value would be zero. Two durations could be of equal length, as could two bodies. So is there a non-arbitrary zero in space, time and value that corresponds to the difference in length, duration or utility between the equally long, enduring or valuable?

Space and time are measured in hours and metres, value is measured in utility. In these three fundamental scales, I have read that zero and the unit are arbitrary. I can see that there is no beginning of time, and no bottom to the universe and no absolutely valueless state of affairs, but it seems perfectly sensible to talk of two states of affairs being of equal value, in which case the difference in value would be zero. Two durations could be of equal length, as could two bodies. So is there a non-arbitrary zero in space, time and value that corresponds to the difference in length, duration or utility between the equally long, enduring or valuable?

Read another response by Allen Stairs

It may be that there are two questions hidden here. You're right: if we can compare things in terms of length or duration or utility, then we'll sometimes be able to say that they're the same on this scale -- that if we subtract one value from the other, we get zero. But there's another question: is there such a thing as a thing's having zero length, taking zero time or possessing zero utility?

Length and duration are not quite the same sorts of scales as utility. Length and duration are ratio scales. It makes sense to say that this stick of wood is twice as long as that one. Turns out that this goes with the fact that there is such a thing as having no length or lasting for no time. In these cases, we have a natural zero. However, it may not make sense to say that one thing has twice as much utility as another. Utility scales are interval scales. All that matters are the ratios of the differences.

Let's make this a bit more concrete. I might rate the utility of a cup of coffee at 1, the utility of a cup of tea at 3 and the utility of a glass of beer at 6. That makes it look as though the utility of a cup of tea is three times the utility of a cup of coffee, and that the utility of a glass of beer is twice that of a cup of tea. But for purposes of decision theory, what matters is that the

differencebetween the utility of the tea and the coffee is two-thirds of thedifferencebetween beer and tea. As far as decision theory is concerned, we preserve all the relevant information if we re-write the utilities this way:coffee: 5; tea: 9; beer: 15

Notice that the utility of tea no longer appears to be three times the utility of coffee. Likewise, the utility of beer no longer appears to be twice the utility of tea. But the difference between 9 and 5 -- i.e, 4 -- is 2/3 of the difference between 15 and 9 -- i.e., 6.

For that matter, we could even represent the same utilities as

coffee: 0; tea: 2; beer: 5

or even as

coffee: -20; tea: -14; beer: -5

When we start mixing our utilities and our probabilities together in the way that decision theory says we should if we want to figure out what to do, all that matters are the ratios of the intervals.

It could still be that there's a natural zero point for utilities -- a sort of neutral point, as it were. But decision theory can get along without assuming that.

So yes: if we can say that two things are equal on some scale, that automatically means that we can say that the difference between them on that scale is zero. But whether the scale has a natural zero point, as in "having zero length" or "having zero utility" is another question.