Saturday, December 29, 2007

E2.0: Donald Rutherford: Other Worldly Happiness

This is the fifth in a new series of weekend posts taken from the presentations at the Salk Institute’s “Beyond Belief: Enlightenment 2.0.”. I have placed an index of essays in this series in an introductory post, Enlightenment 2.0: Introduction.

Donald Rutherford from the Philosophy Department at the University of California San Diego, was the fourth speaker at the Beyond Belief 2 conference. His speech had two major concerns.

His primary concern was to distinguish between this-worlders and other-worlders when it comes to happiness. According to Rutherford, all humans seek their own happiness. However, people can be divided up into two groups. One group holds that this world is all there is and we must find our happiness in this world. The other group finds their happiness in another world – a life after death and in values that come from an other-worldly source.

The question that concerns me here is our understanding of the end and value of human life, especially the human life that is mine on the basis of what do I find or fail to find my life to be a thing of value that I am motivated to pursue with energy and commitment. Where, in other words, do I locate my happiness?

I am immediately going to have objections with Rutherford’s use of ‘happiness’ – and especially the happiness that a person might find in “the human life that is mine” as being the ultimate holder of value. I have raised those objections in a number of places, such as the post, “Happiness vs. Desire Fulfillment.”

In that post I say that we judge a theory according to how well it explains and predicts real-world events, and happiness theory fails to explain and predict the answers that people give to questions regarding, “The experience machine.” That thought explains that we value things other than our own happiness.

The experience machine case describes a situation in which people claim that they would readily sacrifice their own happiness for the sake of another person. Happiness theory fails to account for this phenomenon. Desire fulfillment theory explains these cases quite well – the agent is acting so as to make or keep true a proposition that is the object of a desire other than the desire “that I be happy.”

In a separate post, “The Incommensurability of Value,” I argued that the phenomena of value – particularly the phenomena of regret for options we cannot choose – points to the conclusion that we have multiple ends. If we pursued only one end (e.g., happiness), then we would have no reason to regret giving up less of that single end for more of the same. However, when we are forced to give up some ends to focus on gaining others, we do, in fact, regret that which we must give up. This suggests that what we pursue in their stead is not ‘more of the same’. We can then explain regret as the psychological effect of having a desire that A be thwarted by an agent’s attempts to fulfill a desire that B.

In short, happiness fails to explain and predict the components of the phenomena of value as well as desire fulfillment theory. Which means that desire fulfillment theory is the better theory.

Now, we can take desire fulfillment theory and plug it back into Rutherford’s original concern.

The question that concerns me here is our understanding of the end and value of human life, especially the human life that is mine on the basis of what do I find or fail to find my life to be a thing of value that I am motivated to pursue with energy and commitment. Where, in other words, do I locate that which I desire?

Here, the divide between people who find value for their life in this world and people who find value for their life in other worlds is a difference between the propositions that are the objects of their desires. This-worldly people are people who desire that P where P is capable of being made true in this world. Other-worldly people are people who desire that P where P requires a world other than this world in order to be true.

It is a difference, for example, between a “desire that I discover facts that turn out to be crucial to discovering a cure for AIDS,” and “a desire that I talk one last time to Aunt Emma who died last June.”

Where do other-worldly desires come from? Where do we get a “desire that P” where P is a proposition that necessarily links to an outside world?

It would be strange to argue that this evolved. Evolved desires – like our preference for high-calorie food, aversion to pain, desire for sex – are all “this-world” desires. How can an “other-world” desire serve any kind of evolutionary purpose – when it is a desire that cannot be fulfilled in the real world?

A “desire that P” where P is some other-worldly state of affairs can actually motivate action when it comes with a false “belief that P” (or belief that A can bring about P). A desire to speak to Aunt Emma can motivate action if an agent can also be made to believe that a series of actions will bring about a state in which the agent is talking to Aunt Emma. However, compare this “desire to speak to the dead” and “beliefs that certain actions will lead to a state in which one is speaking to the dead” to a standard evolved desire like hunger, thirst, and a desire for sex.

It seems less likely that these desires for other-worldly states of affairs and false beliefs that those other-worldly states of affairs can be realized would have evolved, where a desire for a real-world state of affairs can motivate the same action much more easily. We do not need a set of false beliefs and misdirected desires to have sex, for example.

Still, Rutherford brings up an interesting statistic. In ancient times, the Epicureans had a philosophy that doubted the existence of gods (or, if the gods existed, then they would have no interest in petty human affairs), and asserted that everything was made up of atoms moving through space. At the time, they doubted that they would ever be able to convince more than a small fraction of their countrymen to adopt this theory. Instead, the people would cling stubbornly to their gods.

Over 2000 years later, these arguments have still not persuaded more than a small segment of the population. The advocates of an enlightened way of thinking seem to be making no progress over time when it comes to convincing people to give up myth and superstition.

If the vast majority of the people must believe in myth and superstition, then there is still an argument for leading them into adopting the least harmful myth and superstition available. I would recommend getting people to believe in a God that created a universe in which the propositions that make up desire utilitarianism are true.

Yet it seems strange to argue that we must believe in a religion. Many of us do not believe in any set of religious beliefs. In some parts of the world, the percentage of the population that has given up on mythical mystical entities is quite small, suggesting that among some populations do not have the addiction to false beliefs that this theory responds to.

More importantly, there is nothing unique or special about religious beliefs that could explain why the brain acquired a disposition to lock onto those false beliefs as opposed to true beliefs.

The thesis that we have a compulsion to adopt false (Other-worldly) events needs some work to be done to show that this phenomenon actually exists in the real world.

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