Thursday, December 23, 2010

Happiness machine

Matt Lowe of the blog “Liberal Jesus” wrote 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.


Vincent said...

My illustration comes from whose Home Page is prefaced with these words, attributed to Aldous Huxley:
“If we could sniff or swallow something that would, for five or six hours each day, abolish our solitude as individuals, atone us with our fellows in a glowing exaltation of affection and make life in all its aspects seem not only worth living, but divinely beautiful and significant, and if this heavenly, world-transfiguring drug were of such a kind that we could wake up next morning with a clear head and an undamaged constitution - then, it seems to me, all our problems (and not merely the one small problem of discovering a novel pleasure) would be wholly solved and earth would become paradise.”

raymond said...

"a mystic who doesn’t believe"

Like Meister Eckhart:
"I pray God to be rid of God."

Rob said...

Thanks for the Xmas card. I'm glad you are enjoying life.

I hope you are both well and have a good 2011.

Sometimes I look at your blog and feel I am not learned enough to comment.

ashok said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
ashok said...

Vincent, Thanks you for the wonderful Christmas Gift, personally signed by you. It is a beautiful book written in an enrapturing literary style.

Hope to see a printed version soon.
Hope you are not delaying that because you want to make it perfect. It already is.

Davo said...

Happiness is the absence of fear.

Vincent said...

Thanks Ashok! Now please clarify: are you, by this, placing your advance order for the printed version? If so, I feel encouraged.

Looking for your email address a few days ago, I stumbled upon a list of publications that you offer free as e-books, and somewhat less free as printed books. I only knew about one. You have been too modest to mention the others!

Vincent said...

Rob, you are certainly learned enough to comment. When are you going to restart your blog, or start a new one? Thanks for your good wishes. Come and see us when you can!

Vincent said...

Davo, you’re right. Absence of fear generates happiness. Sometimes I use another definition: happiness is when you wouldn't want to change a thing.

Vincent said...

Yeah, Raymond, that Meister Eckhart was pretty radical - to the point of heresy, I should imagine. I had an anthology of his stuff once, I think they may have been sermons. It was exciting stuff.

John Myste said...

There was a short story by an American writer named kurt Vonnegut about a happiness device. In the story, the device had an addictive quality that overtook the lives of those who used it and ultimately lead them to ruin. The “rent” for it was not much, but once someone succumbed to the addiction, their ability to earn any income at all was compromised. The idea that ultimate happiness must necessarily lead to ruin, I think may be worth exploring. What is the purpose of the infinitely happy fellow? How does reality look to him? Does he want to grow? Can he? Is he now settled into his eternity with nothing more to do other than feel joy? Has his story ended in a death of bliss?

Your Marx quote is very good. In America, we always hear that Marx said: “Religion is the opiate of the masses,” which is close. Unless we are studying Marx, we only get this fragment, which is less sympathetic to religion than the full quote. The incomplete quote made famous by our poor educational system sounds like a cynical indictment with no inherent ambivalence. The full quote is profound, rather than merely an aggressive reinforcement of a dogmatic position.

“To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up the condition that requires illusions.” That needs to be included, as the thought is not complete without it.

Vincent said...

Yes, John, “the idea that ultimate happiness must necessarily lead to ruin” sounds ripe for exploring. My immediate thought is that Nature (I mean our human nature) provides us with carrot (happiness) and stick (misery) as a guide to our actions much more reliable than reason, which leads us to foolishness much of the time.

If you provide the donkey with an endless supply of carrots he won’t be any further use to his owner. The purpose of the carrot is to dangle it on a string in front of the donkey’s head. But that’s when we are talking of how to manipulate others.

I discover that in a country which approaches ever closer to peace, prosperity and stability (I speak of England) its people find just as many things to complain of in the world of society; but they are more trivial. Within the human psyche, the possibility for dysfunction and neurosis is endless, and not improved by a greater harmony in society at large.

But I am not sure how it is possible to compare the happiness of one person with another. One must not forget that happiness is not the label attached to a real thing, but a word, conventionally used in various contexts.

Let me declare that “there is no such thing as happiness”. But in so doing, I am implicitly declaring that Plato was wrong when he said that the idea embodied in a word exists in its ideal form, in some Platonic heaven.

Wittgenstein was right, but his battle has not yet been won in the public arena. It’s all too easy to get caught in the popular fallacy that abstract words have a meaning which transcends the way people use them.

If you take the word “honey” it has a real-life referent of course. But if you use “honey” as a metaphor for happiness, words are simply tools and pointers. A monkey pokes a stick into a hollow tree, trying to get honey. Imagine the word as a stick, and the hole in the tree as the human mind. You might get some honey that you can lick off the stick, or you might not. But the stick is nothing but a stick.

I think this is what our education systems need to clarify, before they even start talking about Karl Marx, or indeed the Bible.

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