Friday, December 23, 2005

Rid yourself of the myths and ideologies

HAPPINESS, PLEASURE AND KNOWLEDGE: It’s possible to make numerous distinctions with regard to pleasure, but the main seem to me to be
  • a) the pleasures of the senses vs. the pleasures of the mind
  • b) the different kinds of happiness.

It may also be possible to relate the different kinds of pleasures, and observe that an excess in one kind of pleasure often results in the diminution of another kind, perhaps even pain of some kinds. I think the first thing to observe about pleasures is their variety. Apart from the two identified above, there is also a third kind which some regard as a life goal or wish: the pleasure that is brought about by the exercise of power or influence. I would extend that to include the pleasure associated with helping others, or exercising compassion or kindness towards others. This third kind I will (for the purpose of this discussion) call psychic pleasure. Not all psychic pleasures are benign, such as the pleasures of sadism or domination or “schadenfreude”.

The first point that I would like to make about the three kinds of pleasures is that they are so different that they cannot be measured by a common measure or metric. Bentham tried to do this with his concept of a util, but it’s an absurdity that lives on in shadowy form in economics. The second point is that they are sufficiently different that it is often difficult to see what is common to them. Try and compare the pleasure of sitting and trying to catch fish on a sunny day on the Bosphorus, and the pleasure of listening to say, Bach’s Unaccompanied Cello sonata. The only way of “comparing” them is to ask which of the two one would rather do if one is given a choice, or what sacrifice one is prepared to make in terms of a common numeraire or measure of value (such as money). Either way, one is expressing a subjective preference between two pleasures, but this outwardly shown preference is a substitute for choosing between the two literally incomparable kinds of subjective internal experience one undergoes with each action or source of pleasure.

If one examines this subjective internal experience (called qualia in the philosophical jargon) associated with various kinds of pleasure, one discovers that there is indeed something common to them all, and that is the fact that bodily sensations accompany them. (Of course the sensations themselves may differ from case to case.) This is clear in the case of sensual pleasures (eating, sex, music, etc.) but I suspect (and scientists claim that there is evidence to show that) there is also a certain set of physical bodily reactions or phenomena associated with the qualia of mental and psychic pleasures, of which we are only dimly aware, such as slightly raised heartbeats, the release of certain hormones or neurochemicals, or certain sorts of muscular reactions such as hair standing up. In other words, the act of feeling pleasure is accompanied by emotion and a physiological response from our bodies. Anyone who has developed a neat and “elegant” solution to a difficult mathematical problem, or written a really good poem or essay, or watched a deeply satisfying film, is likely to have become acquainted with such mental and bodily processes.

Possibly because of these physiological reactions, we tend to become attached to pleasures, and to seek their sources, but also to avoid pain. (The absence of pleasure need not be pain, nor the absence of pain, pleasure.) This tendency to develop attachments or addictions to pleasures is the source of desire, which in turn is the source of pain and suffering. Note that although the absence of pleasure need not be pain, the dependence and attachment caused by repeated experiences of pleasure cause desire. And because the sources of pleasures in the world that we experience are ephemeral and finite, they are ultimately causes of suffering. Yet it is impossible to avoid them altogether, for that would mean that one has to cease to live.

The central teachings of more than one major Indian philosophical tradition (but not all!) try to address this problem. Essentially, what these philosophies say (and I am simplifying horribly here) is that our highest goal is to liberate ourselves from those attachments I spoke about, and to treat both pleasure and pain the same. This consists in trying to “see through” the illusory nature of the phenomenal and sensual world known as samsara, and therefore attain the realization that our pleasures and pains, our love and anger and desire, are all subjectively real but objectively not so. We feel pleasure and pain, but we must try and stop mentally and psychically running after pleasure and from pain. Important parts of Indian philosophy, even when they are quite secular, are devoted to an examination of how the illusory nature of the phenomenal world is preserved by our psychological processes. This creates a trap into which all of us fall, but few of us learn to escape from them by “seeing through” the trap. We think the self is real, but in the noumenal world there is no self, only the world. In fact, the self and the world are objectively one, but subjectively separate, according to these schools. The Sanskrit word for the philosophy of knowledge is “darşana” which literally means “seeing” or vision - seeing through the traps of concepts and language and the Kantian categories.

So what about happiness? Happiness lies in the cultivation of the senses and the emotions and the psyche, at the right stage of one’s life, and in the right ways; but ultimately one needs to realize (and not just intellectually) as one gets older that the attachment to the senses and emotions and psyche is a trap through which one needs to liberate oneself. Indian philosophical literature is apparently full of analogical references to this entrapment (such as the caged bird), and the contrast between the real and the illusory, (such as the diamond hiding in the ashes, the rope being mistaken for a snake, the man looking desperately for a necklace he thinks he has lost, all the while wearing it around his neck).

The critical thrust in much of western philosophy has a similar message, but a different motivation: the search for truth. The true world is hidden from us through myths, ideology, and other sources of bias and deception that act like dirt on our cognitive and intellectual spectacles. If you want to encounter the real world, learn to “see” the world clearly: rid yourself of the myths and ideologies through rigorous examination of the concepts and categories and language and discourse which are part of the spectacles which we all must wear. GYANOPROBHA November 26, 2005 in Philosophical Musings


One tension that your post highlights between the science-centric (excuse my clumsy phrasing) and the Indian philosophical tradition is this:
Suppose that I were to attain the Indian enlightenment of the sort you are talking about. Suppose I were to "see through" and "attain the realization that our pleasures and pains, our love and anger and desire, are all subjectively real but objectively not so."
It is natural to assume that this would be an achievement for me. My nature dictates that I have some desires for things like food, companionship of others, warmth, sex and etc. If I am to "see through", I'd have to overcome or defeat these desires. In that sense, "seeing through" would be a mental achievement. However, previously you had argued that mental achievements are not purely mental but also have physical indicators:

"...there is also a certain set of physical bodily reactions or phenomena associated with the qualia of mental and psychic pleasures, of which we are only dimly aware, such as slightly raised heartbeats, the release of certain hormones or neurochemicals..."
So I am going to assume that if I manage to see through, since this is an achievement, this will effect pleasure on me, which in turn will have physical epiphenomena associated with it.
This indicates that although I try to overcome the physical world and "see through", I still am redirected to the physical world due to my own physical nature and limitations (i.e. via my own physical reactions at my achievement). Of course, the Indian tradition would just deny that psychic peace would have physical consequences. Posted by: Cihan Baran November 26, 2005 at 12:04 PM

The disciplines and practices that are aimed at the kind of emancipation that I have referred to do indeed seem to have physical epiphenomena accompanying them. There is at least one group of scientists who are investigating these epiphenomena in collaboration with practitioners of Buddhist meditation. See But I don't know whether this indicates that the physiological accompaniments to the achievement of liberation are identical to those accompanying the more earthly pleasures that I have referred to.

The basic message of these religious traditions seems to be well attested in life experience - do not become dependent on the pleasures of the senses, because this dependence is the cause of suffering. But even to take this message seriously, it would seem that one would need to be aware of the pleasurable sensations accompanying them, and say to oneself: "There lies a trap!" and stay away from overindulging them. Both the scientific findings and the acknowledgement of the suffering caused by in the trap of desire seem to affirm the physical reality of the trap itself. When one "sees through" a trap or an illusion, one is not denying it, but realizing that what looks like X (pleasure or happiness) can in fact turn out to be Y (suffering) if one becomes attached to it.

For me people fall into three categories (not necessarily mutually exclusive, because one can jump from on to another and back again): people who are trapped and don't know it, people who are trapped and know it, and people who see the trap for what it is and escape from it (but they have to fall into it first!). All those aspects of our psychology which we associate with our sense of who we are (especially our cultural/ideological filter) keep changing. Hence what we call the self is in fact a very elusive, changeable thing, difficult to define, although we all have a sense of self. According to some philosophies, the self is a constructed illusion, part of the "web of illusion" without which we can't live in this world, but which is the cause of much suffering and unhappiness. Spiritual enlightenment then lies in seeing "through" this illusion, allowing one to become "detached" from the world even while living fully in it. In fact, this detachment is a condition for engaging joyfully and compassionately with the world without allowing oneself to become swept up by its suffering.

Intellectual enlightenment too is a similar process of "seeing through" ideas, recognizing their weaknesses and strengths, moving towards objectivity through realizing the value of other perspectives. One can see connections between different kinds of knowledge and belief and world-views more clearly, and develop them further, if one frees oneself from "attachment" to any of them (i.e., stop clinging to them). To be able to perceive things in a new way, one has to overcome the perceptions to which one clung earlier.To retain an open mind (both intellectually and spiritually), and still be committed to some things without turning into a jellyfish - this kind of engaged detachment is difficult, as I am finding out all the time. (So is this talk of "treating both pleasure and pain the same", or denying the objective reality of our qualia part of the entrapment by concepts and language through their careless use?) Posted by: GYANOPROBHA November 27, 2005 at 05:39 AM

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