Archives for posts with tag: choice

Everyone wants to be happy. Being happy is so critically important that the pursuit of it is literally a right guaranteed by the American Declaration of Independence. Thousands of books have been written about that pursuit, and given their continued publication one can only assume that the pursuit has yet to be concluded. Happiness is always just one more life-affirming meme away, ever out of our grasp. Perhaps this is due to the elusive definition of happiness, for what does it mean to be happy? Wikipedia defines it as “a mental or emotional state of well-being defined by positive or pleasant emotions ranging from contentment to intense joy.” So, accordingly, happiness is varying degrees of synonyms for happiness. That is super helpful.

Since I’ve already ragged on memes once, let’s see if they can redeem themselves, and we’ll try to learn what they can teach us about defining happiness since the ever-infallible Wikipedia ended up being a disaster. This website has a collection of “Happiness Is” memes that describe various instances when the word ‘happy’ seems appropriate, such as not having to set your alarm clock for the next morning, or finding an old family album. These examples give quite an accurate depiction of how many people view happiness: ephemeral events that elicit an upswell of positive emotion. Happiness can’t be defined linguistically because it exists beyond descriptive vocabulary as an almost spiritual experience, and it arrives in a way that we only recognize when we feel it.

Now when we live by the maxim that “if it’s in a meme then it is factually improbable,” as we all should, we’re forced to analyze this version of happiness more discerningly. If happiness is as laudable as the profit-driven self-help industry claims it to be, then we’re dedicating all of our life goals to a fix. We hop from island of bliss to island of bliss, desperately searching for that next dopamine rush, dreading the moments in between. That sounds a lot less like a fulfilling existence and more like Jennifer Connelly’s character at the end of Requiem for a Dream. Is most of life utterly without value? Discounting the feelings outside of happiness is the pinnacle of delusion. Creativity requires a good deal of personal suffering and frustration. Inside Out taught us that even sadness has its own virtue, and anger is often the healthiest response to unjust events. Happiness has never once moved the world forward, and if we only celebrate positive emotion then we are putting pacification above progress.If our sole focus is maintaining a happy persona, we may even disregard warning signals of an impending crisis simply because to acknowledge it would get in the way of our placid, happy thoughts.

Regardless of my argument, people will still pursue happiness. Not because they’re meme-loving sycophants abstaining from reasonable thought to endorse the epidemic cult of positivity, but because as human beings we intrinsically strive for it. Even a curmudgeon like myself still seeks to find the light in this world of darkness. The Founding Fathers were not dumb, and their inclusion of happiness was not a mistake. Even Aristotle suggested that a life of happiness ought to be a person’s ultimate goal. Aristotle, however, had a different definition of happiness from today’s life coaches peddling their snake oil. He believed that a happy life was one of virtue, and happiness was derived from adhering to the golden mean rather than embodying the hedonistic platitudes of fucking internet memes.

Of course there are plenty of faults in Aristotle’s Virtue ethics, but he began a philosophy of happiness where it wasn’t understood as an emotion, but as a way of life. Nietzsche expanded on this philosophy by saying that the happiest people were those who thrived in suffering, and could create meaning through it. Have some irony:

Wisdom without context. The highest plateau a meme can achieve.

Wisdom without context: the highest peak a meme can achieve.

Here is a happiness that could weather any negativity, for it is a way of life that thrives in any emotional state. It is a happiness that demands value and purpose to enhance our life, rather than a narcotic high to dull it. Nietzsche’s philosophical meaning is somewhat controversial, but the brilliant Viktor Frankl survived the culmination of Nietzschean values, and in doing so, created his much more widely accepted interpretation. According to Frankl, a meaningful life is found through our works, our connection to others, and/or our attitudinal outlook.

This last point may seemingly endorse a meme-spirited happiness delusion, so let’s address that nonsense before it gets out of hand. Have another meme:

This post is now officially my least favourite blog.

This post is now officially my least favourite blog.

I sincerely doubt that this meme is referring to a meaning-based form of happiness, given the message of its sister-meme here:

It's because I hate memes. That's why it's my least favourite blog. I really shouldn't have to spell this out.

It’s because I hate memes. That’s why it’s my least favourite blog. I really shouldn’t have to spell this out.

but we’ll give them an intellectual boost and just assume that some degree of intelligence went into their production, and that they are in fact referring to Frankl’s attitudinal outlook dictating happiness as the representation of purpose.

Frankl viewed the attitudinal approach to meaning as the absolute last resort. He saw it as the only option in approaching the Nazi gas chambers with either dignity or shame. This isn’t a Godwin argument; look him up. He says that if there is even a chance at overcoming a negative situation, to adopt a positive outlook in spite of it is to embrace irrational masochism. The solution is always to change the circumstances, not the attitude.

There is also an underlying tone of condescending individualism in these insipid and ridiculous memes. To say that the person who is wealthy and employed has the same choice to be happy as the broke bum who just lost their job is statistically wrong. Saying happiness is a choice is being oblivious to the countless circumstances that have a direct impact on our well-being. Oh, you lost your baby in a miscarriage after five years of trying for a child? All you need is a change of perspective, and you’ll feel better! That’s an asshole thing to say. Like the worst thing. Never say that. To reiterate: other emotions are necessary parts of our lives, to demand happiness at all times is unnatural and cruel, and to call emotions a choice is completely ignorant of our instinctual reactions. It’s wrong no matter how you define happiness.

At what level are we responsible, if at all, for the happiness of others? Meaning is entirely unique and subjective, so we can’t exactly create it for other people. However, Frankl’s second aspect of meaning is a connection to others, which does suggest that if we are open and caring then we create meaning both for ourselves and for those with whom we come into contact. That sounds like a good start.

What about collective responsibility? If we recognize happiness as meaning, and Mazlow’s hierarchy of needs puts “self-actualization” at the top of the pyramid, wouldn’t that mean that a country that promises its citizens the right to pursue happiness must accommodate all the underlying needs in order for that promise to be fulfilled? Happiness can’t even begin to be pursued until the third level of “love and belonging,” and even then there would need to be a societal agreement and plan to abolish discrimination of all kinds. The progress on that 240 year old promise is a little slow. Way to make liars out of the Founding Fathers, America.

Happiness as an emotional state is nice, I guess, but when planning out one’s life that version should only play the most minor of roles. Pursue meaning. Pursue purpose and value. Treat the happiness that we strive for as a way of being that incorporates the full spectrum of emotion. Live a fulfilling life, and allow that life to connect with others. Define happiness properly, and stop learning how to live from fucking memes!

Have some links:

Say No to Happiness – Ideas with Paul Kennedy: A CBC radio show investigating the philosophical implications of happiness and meaning, and which is more important.

Smile Or Die – Barbara Ehrenreich: The social implications of the cult of positivity.

Why Be Happy When You Can Be Interesting? – Slavoj Žižek: Žižek is a combination of popular neo-communist philosophy and that one scene from Dazed and Confused. These are his thoughts on happiness.

I find quite often people referring to seemingly justice-oriented events as karmic in origin. Bad things happening to bad people; good things happening to good people; mediocre things happening to the rest of us.That’s karma. If the alleged consequence is after only a brief amount of time, the karma becomes instant; like cosmic pudding, available in minutes.

Except… that’s not karma. Karma is a universal justice, spanning eternity. The tribulations or treats one endures in this lifetime are the result of the countless lifetimes one has existed in prior to their current incarnation. If you punched a granny and then slipped as you strutted away proudly, that retribution was thousands of years in the making. The consequences of our current deeds will be felt in our lifetimes to come, not immediately after the fact. THAT is karma.

This position is not unique to the western bastardization of Indian religions. Even within Christianity we lament that God works in mysterious ways when terrible things inexplicably happen to us, and we question how God could allow this injustice to occur. However, I’m pretty sure the Bible is clear about its distribution of justice: heaven for good folks and hell for the bad ones. That is not mysterious. That is the opposite of a mystery. Granted you could counter with the Providence doctrine where God has actually laid out a predetermined plan for us all, but then your acceptance into heaven and hell has already been preordained, and if that’s the case, who gives a fuck? You either got the Grace or you don’t, and worrying about it isn’t going to change anything. If you’ve got free will, then Providence is less relevant, and you’re stuck with the traditional cosmic justice of working for your golden ticket.

Why do people reject these firmly established religious tenets in favour of their own made up doctrine? Why do we purposefully misinterpret cosmic justice for the more immediate and personal substitute? I suppose it could be we’re just a lot less patient than we used to be, and waiting til we’re dead before we experience justice does seem a little bleak. However, I think the reason is that immediate justice is much more palatable to human beings, and being able to experience justice delivers a much more significant weight to it.

The thing is, the world is the human realm. Cosmic justice is important to the nature of reality, but existence itself is outside of our jurisdiction. Our justice is our justice. When we see bad things happening to good people, it is up to us to provide redress for that imbalance. Externalizing that justice only seeks to pass on the responsibility that we otherwise would need to sustain.

If you want to include karma in your spiritual choices, that’s fine, but building better lifetimes means building a better world, and a better world is the result of human effort and human diligence, not any interference from divine forces.

One of the common philosophical tropes is asking what makes us who we are. We all have a sense of Self; we all have a sense of Others, but what actually makes up that essence of Self? There are usually two answers that are given: either the body or the mind.

Let’s start by looking at the body because a lot of people who are trying really hard not to be superficial want to say the mind. The body actually has a great importance when it comes to identity. It’s how we recognize people. I look at you, and I see the way your eyes crinkle when you smile your crooked smile, I hear the sound of your voice, etc. If I see you walking down the street, it is because of the physical make-up of your body that I am able to say, “That is you.” The Christian tradition says that when we are resurrected after God finally gets bored letting us play around, it is our physical body that we inhabit within the heavenly realm. 2000 years of tradition is not easy to dismiss. Lastly, the absolute worst “Would you rather?” question makes us really ponder the essence of a person, be it body or mind, by asking us, “Would you rather have sex with your girlfriend’s body inhabited by the consciousness of your mother, or your mother’s body inhabited by the consciousness of your girlfriend?” If you prefer boyfriends or others, make whatever substitutions you need to until you realize that it’s gross either way. If body was unimportant towards identity, this question would be significantly easier to answer.

So, if body is important to identity, what happens if someone loses a leg and requires a prosthetic? And then an eye and needs a glass one? And then an arm and gets a chainsaw, Evil Dead-style? If the body represents identity, and the body is replaced, (keep in mind that the body has completely new cells every seven years), how can we say that it is still the same person? If I am A, and then later I am B, how is that consistent since A ≠ B? It doesn’t seem logically sound. When we see two clones fighting to the death in a movie, one is typically the normal version, and the other is usually evil. We accept them to be different despite their identical bodies, and it is their minds that separate them.

To those reading this, you know my identity through my mind. My body does not register for this one-sided conversation. If my body was destroyed through a lab experiment gone wrong, and my mind was transferred into a machine that could transmit my thoughts into text, those who know me best would likely be able to ascertain that it is in fact my mind within that machine. They would get my jokes, recognize my allegories, and know enough about my patterns of speech that they might eventually accept that this machine was now me. And of course everyone knows that it’s not what’s on the outside that counts, but what’s on the inside!

But what about someone who suffers brain trauma and whose whole personality changes? Or someone suffering from PTSD and whose mind has been altered because of it? Are we a totally different person when under the influence of narcotics? Or when suffering from Alzheimer’s and Dementia? We might think, “oh, the real them is in there somewhere!” We reject that this new mind cannot be the real them, but we maintain their identity because we accept that the body gives a person the consistency of identity even when we have no other evidence outside the body to suggest this. For example, we continue to love our elderly with Alzheimer’s because we recognize a sense of identity beyond the mind.

So is identity some combination of the two? An amalgamation of body and mind? The astute observer might notice that these problems of identity that I have been going over all take place from the perspective of an observer, not the person themselves. It is the understanding of the identity of the Other that has so many flaws in it, and here is why.

The identity of the Other is not any sort of combination of body and mind, it is based on memory. We remember what someone looks like, sounds like, smells and maybe even tastes like, and that is how we define their body. We also remember how they behave, and how they interact with us, and that is how we define their mind. The only dilemma in identity becomes apparent when the memory of a person does not coincide with how we presently perceive them.

If the identity of the Other transcended memory, everyone would know that Batman is Bruce Wayne. No matter how much he hid his body through costumes, or his mind through his billionaire playboy persona, his identity would transcend these memories people had of Bruce Wayne, and Batman would instantly become recognizable due to the connection of identity that he would necessarily possess with others.

If identity is memory, what does this mean? The most glaring consequence of this revelation is that one can only love the memory of a person, as that is the only way we can ever know them. Before you dismiss this, keep in mind that those who are adopted young enough, who form childhood memories with their adopted siblings, will never love them “in that way” based on those early, developmental memories. In contrast, genetically related siblings, meeting for the first time as adults, frequently have sexual attraction towards one another, as the memories required to counteract this superemely gross encounter are nonexistent. Those with Alzheimer’s are notorious for not recognizing their loved ones in the present, but will recall them fondly within their memories of the past.

Is the love of an abstract idea created from memory as powerful as the traditional sense of love that romantics poetically describe to us? I would argue that it is. Created values will always have the strength that we assign to them.

This does also mean that if you lose a loved one, literally everything that you love about them is still with you, so long as you remember them. I can’t tell if this is consoling or not, but… maybe?

Anyway, I feel that I should probably outline the identity of the Self as viewed by the Self. The identity of the Self should presumably go beyond simple memory. Descartes’s cogito ergo sum (I think therefore I am) concludes that there must at least be a receptacle for thinking, or a receptacle for memory, in order for a being to exist. If memories are lost, the identity of the Self is not lost, as the receptacle has just been emptied, it has not disappeared.

Are we just unique cogitos running around? A thinking beacon? We are not necessarily our consciousness, as the being of consciousness is the consciousness of being (which means that we can only be conscious of something. If we self-reflect, we are conscious of our self; if we reflect on anything else, we are conscious of that thing). However, there must be something projecting that consciousness. There is also a neuroscientist named Raymond Tallis who points out that we know all about the input of sight: light enters into our eyeballs, hits a bunch of eyeball parts, and this information is transferred into our brain, but that doesn’t explain the output: what is looking out. The thing that projects sight in theory would be the same thing that projects consciousness.

Whatever it is projecting these aspects of Self, if you were to ask me, is our identity. I don’t want to use the term Soul because that implies a holiness and an eternal nature which I don’t believe necessarily follows from this theory. I like the term cogito though just because it sounds fancy, or the Subject is another way you could put it. Is it a dualistic ghost in the machine, or a creation of the physical brain? It’s hard to say. The nature of consciousness is another blog for another day.

Finally, for those that think that we are our DNA mixed with cultural and environmental factors, then we would have no identity at all. That would be materialistic determinism, and we would only be cogs, no different from all the other cogs mindlessly plugging through our predetermined roles. You’ve obliterated all meaning, freedom, identity, and value from the world. I hope you’re happy with yourselves. Also, quantum probability and the observer paradox have thrown a few wrenches into those deterministic gears, so you’re probably also wrong, but this blog is already long enough.

Post-Script: we can never access the Other’s Subject/cogito, that is why the connection between beings is based on memory.