a post pointing to an article in the New York Times. Matt admitted “I can’t figure out quite what I think about it. I need a little goading I think.” This inspired me to append a hasty comment which I had completely forgotten about, till I recently revisited his site, several months later.
So I went back and read the article again, quickly because I’m more interested in the ideas a philosophy professor inspires in me, than those of the professor himself. Which is surely as it should be. A professor who inspires his students to think differently from him—that’s my definition of a good professor.
Prof Sosa asks us to consider, as a thought experiment, a happiness machine. Plug into it and you become euphoric. Would you plug in or not? One anticipates a “no”, the interest being less in the actual answer, more in the supporting reasons. To Sosa, the choice is between happiness seized from Reality, or happiness injected by a Dream Machine.
So then it occurred to me that we already have these machines. In the nineteenth century, an opium den was the paradigm, leading Karl Marx to make his famous observation about religion, reproduced below thanks to Wikipedia:
The struggle against religion is, therefore, indirectly the struggle against that world whose spiritual aroma is religion. Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people. The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions. The criticism of religion is, therefore, in embryo, the criticism of that vale of tears of which religion is the halo.
Without looking at the world through Marxist spectacles, we can nevertheless see that the range of opiates offered to the people is legion. Capitalism has outlived Marxism and its main driver is the production of metaphoric opiates to suite every taste.
I think Sosa is hardly in a position to offer his thought experiment to his students and readers of the New York Times. Anyone who’s already plugged into such a machine, albeit a metaphoric one, is not unbiased enough to make an informed choice between reality or ersatz. But this may not be obvious. As he says:
There’s an important difference between having a friend and having the experience of having a friend. ... Now, of course, the difference would be lost on you if you were plugged into the machine—you wouldn’t know you weren’t really anyone’s friend.
In my original comment to Matt Lowe on his blog I rather ineptly mentioned Fernando Pessoa. I was thinking about his semi-fictional narrator in The Book of Disquiet, who time and again prefers dreams and unreality to the Lisbon of his immediate environment. Opening his book at random I find this: “Direct experience is an evasion, or hiding place, for those without any imagination.” Of course Pessoa, through his persona Bernado Soares, is being deliberately provocative in this stark expression of what most of us would call “escapism”, a derogatory word inviting guilt or blame.
My challenge to the professor goes like this. In a world where most people’s reality is tainted with capitalistic opiates (of which his imaginary machine would be just one other), isn’t it better to dwell in the clean air of one’s own inner space? I read once that car advertisements aren’t so much to persuade you to buy a particular model, but to assuage your doubts after you’ve already bought it. So when you look at your car from the outside, or indeed from the inside, the ad tells you what kind of a person you are, and flatters you for possessing those virtues. The car may not please you, in fact the manufacturer doesn’t want it to please you more than a couple of years, but he wants you all the same to feel good about yourself for buying it.
I’d sooner be like Bernardo Soares, described by Richard Zenith, translator of Disquiet as “a prose writer who poetizes, a dreamer who thinks, a mystic who doesn’t believe, a decadent who doesn’t indulge. ... The semi-fiction called Bernardo Soares ... is an implied model for whoever has difficulty to adapting to real, normal, everyday life.” A secret home-grown opium, then.