Monday, October 4, 2010

Happiness and Reason

There's a Methodist church just down the road from me, with one of those signs you often see being made fun of on the internet.  Honestly, most of the messages have been benign so far, and a few have even been pretty funny.  A couple of weeks ago it said something to the effect of: "Remember: When your life needs a reboot, Jesus saves" which I thought was quite clever, being the nerd that I am.

I passed by the sign again yesterday, and they had a new message up:

Happiness without reason is the ultimate freedom 

My first thought after reading it was: "That's idiotic.  Do people really prefer being obliviously happy to actually thinking?"  It seemed so alien of an idea to me.  But it got me thinking more about happiness and my belief system.

I don't doubt that some people who believe all kinds of nonsense truly are happy, perhaps even because of those irrational beliefs.  I'm sure some people really are blissfully happy and carefree, because they think God is taking care of them, and that everything is happening for a reason.

Furthermore, I know that being concerned with the atheist community does cause me some unhappiness.  I believe that this cause is important and worth the trouble, of course.  That's why I'm writing this blog.  But it is frustrating to have your character and morals questioned by our opponents, either directly or indirectly. I've had many more positive experiences than negative, but there's no doubt it can be tiresome at times.

Is it possible I could be happier if I weren't so concerned?  What if I was carefree?  I don't see how I could be, it would be unreasonable given the current state of affairs, particularly in America, for non-theists.  But if I were an unreasonable person, it's certainly possible I could be completely oblivious of these problems, and happier because of it.  To me, this leads to two questions:  1. Would I be happier if I wasn't so concerned with being reasonable and rational? and 2. Is being happy more or less important than thinking clearly and critically?

George Bernard Shaw's words came to mind when thinking about all of this:

The fact that a believer is happier than a skeptic is no more to the point than the fact that a drunken man is happier than a sober one. 

But what exactly makes being sober better than being drunk?  I've drink once in a while, and have always had a good time.  What is it that makes me think being sober is somehow a better state than drunk?

I thought about this for a long time, and my conclusion stems from the commonalities between being sober and being a clear and critical thinker.  I realized that one of the reasons I was having so much trouble tackling this issue is because I was ignoring a very important part of all the questions I was asking.  These were personal questions, and every one of them contained words like "I" "me" and "myself."  These words are often thrown around and used without much thinking.  But I'm a philosopher dammit, and I'm going to be consistent!  When I use words like "I" and "myself,"  I'm not just talking about my physical body or my brain; I'm talking about my "self," the thing that makes me, me.  If you could transfer my identity from my current body to another one, my self is the thing that would need to be transferred.  Nothing else would really be required.*  Some might like to use the word "soul," but I prefer not to confuse with metaphysical language.

The point is this: I may have a good time when I have a few drinks, but there's something about being in that state that make me less "me."  In the same way, I probably could be happier if I let myself be blissfully unaware of the world around me, but that would require a fundamental change to my self.  That person wouldn't be "me," in a very real sense.  As difficult as it can be, I am a critical thinker; it's an important part of who I am, and it helps define other parts of me.  That doesn't mean I can't make changes and improvements to my self and my life, but they are going to come about via rational thought, not just wishful thinking.

In addition, thinking critically gives my self the freedom to make decisions based on reality, the same way being sober gives me more freedom to act based on my reason than being drunk.  I had forgotten about that word "freedom" in the original message on the church board, but it actually turns out to be pretty important (and completely wrong, it seems).  Those people who believe whatever makes them feel good, regardless of evidence, may be happier.  But they are not free.  They aren't free to change their minds, because they have no faculty by which to do it.  Being happy without reason is a simple loop, without any feedback from the real world.  How can you improve your self if you never get any input from the outside?

So after a lot of thought, I prefer being true to myself and thinking critically.  That doesn't mean there aren't things I can do to be happier, but it does mean it's going to take real work.  It's not enough for me to just wish all my problems and concerns away.  If it was, I wouldn't be me.  And I've gotta be me.

* Perhaps it's impossible to transfer my self without using my brain, or even my body.  But if it were possible, my current brain isn't really necessary for any essential reason.  My argument isn't really concerned with whether a self could exist inside another brain; only that if it could, that's all you'd need to transfer.  I'd recommend The Mind's I by Douglas Hofstadter and Dan Dennett for a great collection of essays on this subject.
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