Continuing on with this re-blogged series, I am now coming to the part of the general theory of happiness I have written for my son that involves the most philosophical heavy lifting. But before we get to that, let’s start with some relatively simple observations.
There is a fairly strong consensus among philosophers, psychologists, social scientists, and people in general that, in terms of my alliteration on Cs here, confidence is more important to human happiness than either comfort or control. If we go over to alliterating with Ps rather than Cs, more significant than pleasure or power is a sense of pride, combined with a sense of purpose in life. In order to be truly happy, we have to be convinced that our lives mean something, and that somehow the world will be better because we were here.
On its most basic level this can be a matter of people just having confidence in their personal abilities at something they’ve chosen to do with their lives. My father has told me, and written in his own memoirs, about how his father took a certain pride in the aesthetics of his farm fields. The neatness and symmetry of the rows of vegetables and grain were part of his satisfaction in being a “good farmer”. Happiness by way of confidence begins with things just that simple. I’ve met other people who have found satisfaction in life through being able to put a perfect shine on a hardwood floor, or to make perfectly fitting joints in their carpentry framing projects, or to knit sweaters exactly to size and made to last, or any number of other practical skills that can be done with pride. These aren’t a matter of competition, but a matter of feeling a certain dignity and importance through being able to “do things right.”
The problem with basing one’s happiness on such basic things though is that technology is making many of these sources of pride and purpose redundant. Skilled workers have been replaced by more and more precise and efficient machines. These machines can be operated by pretty much any idiot, and can produce many times more of whatever the product is per man/hour. The more technology proceeds, the harder it is to find necessary simple routines to take pride in being good at.
But even without the changes brought on by technology, the justification for people taking pride in things like shiny floors and symmetrical fields was probably pretty thin to begin with. I mean, in the big scheme of things, what difference do they really make? Are these things really any more important than my Sudoku skill? What is there that we can do in this world that can really give our lives honest meaning? Perhaps you are now starting to see how this could get complicated, and where the philosophical heavy lifting comes in.
In order to consider what is ultimately important in life, we first have to consider what is ultimately real in life as we know it, and in the universe in general. In other words we have to critically examine the field philosophers refer to as metaphysics. This is in fact one of the most notoriously problematic areas in academic philosophy, where some brilliant thinkers (no less than the likes of Hegel) dive in and make total idiots of themselves, and others (no less than the likes of Kant) step aside and say, “it can’t be done, so stop trying.” And yet all of us, on a day-to-day and year-to-year basis, keep doing things to prove to ourselves that, on some higher level, we have value. Those that don’t find any such functional projects for themselves tend to become mentally ill, literally. So like it or not, we all keep coming back to our different metaphysical assumptions about what is out there and what we should do about it. But how should we go about deciding what is most important in our world?
Being as I am also a religious education teacher, the easiest way for me to open up this topic further is to summarize the Bible’s take on the matter, and then use that as a starting point for looking at other alternatives. I can hear choruses of “free thinkers” screaming “No Fair!” on this just from that last sentence, but bear with me. Have a look at the framework that comes up, and see if you find it useful before you make you final judgment on the matter.
The first four words of the Bible are something that any educated person in Western society should know for their place in cultural history, if nothing else: “In the beginning God…” According to this view it all starts with “God,” however He (or She, or It) may be defined. There is some supernatural force out there that is the source of everything. Given the source there’s no big surprise in this perspective, so what’s next?
Well, this God “created the heavens and the earth.” The next reality that we are presented with here, after the divine, is the basic material realm caused by God. Fine. Straight-forward enough. What’s next?
Well, there’s a chapter’s worth of poetic stage setting, in two different epic styles, as the material world gets properly organized before man is finally formed “from the dust of the ground”. The first man is depicted very much as an individual, on his own in relation to the material world and his creator. Eventually, as the story goes, God had to give him a mate at least, but that was sort of an after-thought. And after that everything started going downhill.
Let’s watch this recording in scan-forward mode for a bit: The woman gets curious about new forms of knowledge introduced by a snake. She then “educates” her husband. They become self-conscious and alienated, and get kicked out of their garden paradise. They start making babies. The oldest starts into agriculture while the second starts herding animals. God likes the herding brother better, so the older brother gets jealous and kills him. As punishment the older brother has to leave the rest of the family with his wife and go start his own city elsewhere. (Yes there are a few narrative problems there, but let’s keep going.) With this mention of the oldest son Cain’s city, we move into talking about societies as a significant factor in the narrative, and usually a negative factor at that.
Anyway, the third brother from the family does alright and his kids start seriously populating the world, but they start getting wild and crazy, and so God decides he’s going to flush this toilet; but first God tells this guy Noah what’s coming and how to save his family from the imminent flood. Noah and his kids ride out the storm in this huge smelly houseboat with thousands of animals in there with them, and eventually the water goes down and they all get to re-populate the earth. Then one of the first things they start to do is build a big city together called Babel. Let’s hit the play button and slow the film down now.
We’re looking at the construction site for the famous “Tower of Babel.” This is where, as the story goes, God got somewhat aggravated with the human projects he saw going on down there, so he decided to mess up their system by, overnight, making them all speak different languages from each other. But why would God do that? Was God really worried that they were going to build a tower so tall that it would end up stretching through the clouds and come poking up through his living room floor? Even imagining a world view where God’s home in heaven is physically directly above the flat world we live on, such a threat wouldn’t seem all that believable. So what were they doing that God got so upset about?
Short answer: they were getting religious.
Their tower, “reaching to the heavens,” was intended to systematically investigate the skies, so they could try to figure out something about what sorts of powers were out there. They were thus setting out to make their own gods. This is the sort of crap that happens in cities. God obviously couldn’t have that, so he scattered them around the world using the language confusion trick.
If we discount this final negation as part of the Bible’s bias, what we have is a cycle of four basic metaphysical factors: God as the source of the Material World; the Material World as the source of the Human Individual; the Human Individual (with all of his social and sexual needs) as the starting point for Society; and Society as the source for God(s). My basic premise now is that in order to try and prove that our silly little lives have value, people generally need to pick one of these four factors as their starting point, and from there construct a world view where each of the other three follow.
It may seem counter-intuitive in one sense, but this cycle really can be broken at any of the four causal relation points. This results in four categories of metaphysical premises to base our personal values on. In fact all of them are in fairly common use these days, and all of them have their own strong defenders and significant problems. So as to not appear to be stuck on my religious biases here, I’ll begin summarizing them with the next premise after God, coming back around to belief in his supremacy as the last one.
A value system based on materialist metaphysics basically assumes that the world is the product of random occurrences between physical forces and particles, and everything else is an abstraction built on that foundation. Within Earth’s biosphere people evolved, between people societies evolved, and within societies religions evolved; and in fact all three processes are on-going. Based on this premise then, the purpose of life would be to keep these evolutionary processes going in what we might consider to be a positive direction.
Right away one problem with this premise becomes apparent though: Can we really presume that we know which direction this evolution “should go”? History is full of cases of individuals, tribes and nations taking false pride in being the “most evolved,” all with somewhat embarrassing end results. Or maybe it should be a matter of entirely “getting back to nature” and not letting our technologies disturb the natural balance of things so much. In other world we should stop trying to save sick and dying children, leaving them so that “nature can have its way”… or should we?
In fact probably the worst factor that materialism-based ethical systems have in common, beyond their silly false conceits and uncertainty of purpose, is their lack of regard for individual humans as being valuable unto themselves. If humans really aren’t made in God’s image and don’t have a God-breathed soul –– if we are all just accidental products of nature –– that allows us to think of people as sort of like snowflakes: each is a unique individual, containing its own fascinating pattern and intricate beauty that is worth stopping to appreciate; but at the same time it’s no big deal for me to crush a few million of them each snowy day as I drive to work, or to break them up and smash them together as part of playing with kids in the back yard. What’s to stop us from treating other people like that?
It was in reaction to the disregard for individual human beings based on “evolutionary” ideologies during World War 2 that we got what is now known as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In other ways as well, a new, somewhat anti-materialist, individual-based form of ethical thinking arose in the mid-twentieth century, known as Existentialism. Its most radical and ideologically consistent spokesman would have to be Jean-Paul Sartre. Sartre basically claimed that each person is his or her own starting point. No other causes or influences excuse us from taking full responsibility for everything about ourselves and what we do with our lives. Each of us chooses who we associate with and how, what higher ideals (or gods) we will subscribe to, and what significance we will assign to physical characteristics of our environment. We are each “radically free.”
Does such an approach work? Not entirely. In practical terms Sartre had a difficult time saying why he believed some wars needed to be fought but not others, and it is probably no coincidence that his girlfriend ended up writing one of the most famous books in feminist literature about how little respect women get. Beyond that it’s just plain naïve to assume that there is nothing about our genetics and environments that make us into who we are. Existentialism solves some of the problems of materialism, but it creates more than a few new problems of its own.
One way of dealing with these challenges is to assume that society should be the starting point for our functional reality. The most direct statement of this I have seen is by an academic named James W. Carey, who says, “Reality is brought into existence, is produced, by communication.” Many other philosophers and social scientists also operate on variations of the premise that language makes our reality what it is. If I can’t explain it in words (or other symbolic performances) then odds are it isn’t all that real to me. So all reality starts with social interaction and builds from there into shared ideals, which effectively become our “gods”. Those ideals in turn tell us how we should relate to the material world, and lastly comes the matter of finding a role for the individual within that system.
This at least has the benefit of limiting our ego-centrism and helping us see our place in a system that is much bigger than we are. And perhaps political agreement can lead us down a more virtuous path than doing whatever makes me feel individually important. But it must also be pointed out that “stupidity becomes concentrated within a crowd,” and just because everyone else believes something, or acts on such a basis, doesn’t mean that you should. In fact it could be argued that it was in reaction to the stupidity of the masses bringing about the death of Socrates that the European philosophical tradition properly began.
After tossing out social consensus as a valid basis for human values, Plato postulated that there had to be some sort of collection of “forms” out there which we should base our standards on –– something which was prior to and more important than the physical. That sort of speculation puts him in good religious company. The search for enlightenment as to what lies beyond the physical is the essence of all mystical traditions, and these mystical traditions are the foundation for all religious world views. The problem, however, comes when those who assume that they have really found the ultimate truth as to what is “out there” then decide that they are justified in killing off any who don’t share their vision, or in encouraging young people to go out and die for the glory of their faith. Enough said about that.
Without going into too much detail, I can think of at least two philosophical approaches which manage to avoid falling into any of the above categories. One is Spinoza’s pantheistic mysticism, which effectively says that all of the causes and effects listed above are continuously operative and impossible to properly separate from each other. We are part of a big cosmic whole which we can talk about in either spiritual or material terms, but none of that effectively changes the fact that we will never be able to control any part of it. We are caught in the cosmic tide and all we can really do is go with the flow.
The other exception to my four-part breakdown of our human search for purpose that I am aware of is Derrida’s theory of Deconstruction. His basic idea is to say that any given metaphysical starting point can do at least as much harm as good, and the follow-through from each premise to the next stage will always be questionable, so we shouldn’t bother to assume that any of the above premises are going to provide us with purpose or confidence. We should just enjoy the randomness of life for what it is and leave it at that. But many have found that trying to build an ethical program based on Derrida’s philosophy is like trying to build a home based on an Escher etching. This sort of belief in randomness, while theoretically justifiable, has limited constructive value. They don’t call it deconstruction for nothing.
Obviously none of these systems provide a foolproof means of establishing my personal importance in the universe. It is also obvious, however, that each of these foundations has been used by particular individuals to reshape the world we live in today. Regardless of which of these premises you base your own sense of confidence on, you have to acknowledge both the harm done and the contributions made by individuals building from each of these premises.
I happen to believe that starting with a search for God –– or the ultimate Platonic forms, or the transcendent, objective source of all virtues, or whatever else you want to call him/her/it –– is the strongest basis for personal confidence, but that’s another essay unto itself. The big question for now is, is confidence of the sort I am talking about here really the highest we can hope to reach in terms of happiness and virtue in life?
Abraham Maslow seemed to think so. Maslow believed that the pinnacle of psychological strength was when people could determine themselves what was actually most important in life as they know it and change their worlds accordingly. He referred to such people as “self-actualized.” A lower level of this same principle would be to have a reasonably strong sense of self-esteem. He further believed that this was only possible for people to achieve after they had solved the problems of meeting their most basic physical needs, feeling safe about their basic survival, and having a basic sense of social acceptance. Loosely translated into my 5 C vocabulary then, Maslow’s ordering of these factors would be: Comfort -> Control -> Connection -> Comparison -> Confidence. I respect his scholarship and his pioneering work in this area immensely, but when it comes to basic priorities in life I have to fundamentally disagree with that order. Then again, Maslow and I are actually asking entirely different questions. Maslow was starting off with the premise that the strongest people in the world psychologically are those who have the strongest sense of self-confidence, and he was trying to find what was necessary to get people to that point. I in turn am trying to determine which sorts of pursuits that we engage in for their own sake are ultimately the most satisfying and useful in life.
On this basis I firmly believe that comparing myself, even favorably, with those around me is really the least satisfying form of the pursuit of happiness. This was the point in part 2 of this series. On the other end of the spectrum I am strongly prone to believe that the most fruitful way in which to pursue happiness is not necessarily by way of strong personal confidence –– as vitally important as that is –– but through a deeper sense of connection with others. That is where this series is going next.