Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Living compassionately.

What does it mean to be happy? Can we be happy by ourselves, within ourselves, or is happiness ultimately dependent on community? The ancient greek philosophers praised the quest for eudaimonia, The Good Life, as a virtuous end goal for human thought and action. Is happiness a good personal goal to strive for, or should we look for an alternative "cognitive virtue" like contentment, satisfaction, hope, love, or peace?

Some people try to use 'positive thinking' to gain happiness. But is positive thinking really useful?

I think that positive thinking is only as true as this following quote is,

Most folks are about as happy as they make up their minds to be. ~Abraham Lincoln

The reason why I say that is because sometimes I meet people whose lives are pretty much the same as anyone else and yet they are less content. As you will read in a quote below, the different is not one of material fact but seems to be more one of perspective or imagination. Sometimes I am surprised when I find joy in the smallest of things. It might be a tree (thanks, Leesa, I remember your blog about your friend with the panic attack), it might be the reflection of sunlight on water, it might be a cool breeze, it might be a nice coffee and relaxing music. Sometimes happiness finds me and ambushes me like a bandit, sneaking in to my mind when I am least expecting it. But happiness comes and goes and I think is not a good goal per se. I prefer the idea of contentment which can last whether I am immediately feeling happy or not.

Here are some quotes which you may or may not agree with. For the other side of things, and a recognition of the reality of the negative side of life, please do keep reading.

If only we'd stop trying to be happy we could have a pretty good time. ~Edith Wharton.

Happiness is always a by-product. It is probably a matter of temperament, and for anything I know it may be glandular. But it is not something that can be demanded from life, and if you are not happy you had better stop worrying about it and see what treasures you can pluck from your own brand of unhappiness. ~Robertson Davies.

It's pretty hard to tell what does bring happiness. Poverty and wealth have both failed. ~Frank McKinney "Kin" Hubbard.

The foolish man seeks happiness in the distance; the wise grows it under his feet. ~James Openheim.

Often people attempt to live their lives backwards; they try to have more things, or more money, in order to do more of what they want, so they will be happier. The way it actually works is the reverse. You must first be who you really are, then do what you need to do, in order to have what you want. ~Margaret Young.

Happiness is like a butterfly which, when pursued, is always beyond our grasp, but, if you will sit down quietly, may alight upon you. ~Nathaniel Hawthorne.

We tend to forget that happiness doesn't come as a result of getting something we don't have, but rather of recognizing and appreciating what we do have. ~Frederick Keonig.

Happiness is not an ideal of reason, but of imagination. ~Immanuel Kant.

But, also, I really think that the world would be “A Better Place”(TM) if everybody made it their deep, personal goal to make others in their life happy. Imagine knowing that all of your friends and associates wanted nothing more than your own happiness! Imagine how your friends would feel knowing that you wanted nothing more than to see them content. I think that recipe for society would make a huge difference. Nobody would be alone, everyone would be supported by many.

Here are some final quotes to that effect,

If there were in the world today any large number of people who desired their own happiness more than they desired the unhappiness of others, we could have a paradise in a few years. ~Bertrand Russell.

If you want others to be happy, practice compassion.  If you want to be happy, practice compassion. ~Dalai Lama.

The best way to cheer yourself up is to try to cheer somebody else up. ~Mark Twain.

Sometimes people just get given the short stick. That is why I think that happiness is not a solo job (even though I'm not advocating unhealthy co-dependency). Too often our happiness is contingent on circumstance or relationships. And sometimes those circumstances or relationships really, really suck. We can’t help that (and I don’t blame the individual or think it is some part of a Grand Plan). What we can do, however, is to be there for each other.

I think we need a little bit of imagination, a little bit of courage, and a little bit of hope. As Mignon McLaughlin said (in the Neurotic’s Notebook), “Hope is the feeling we have that the feeling we have is not permanent”.

When sadness is present, hope can still remain. And how much easier it would be to feel hopeful despite sadness if we also knew we were deeply and completely loved. For that, we need others. We also need to love ourselves. That means people need to care for people and it also means not be too embarrassed to keep the door open for love from others even when, in deep misery, we may (ironically) least feel like it.

Ah, what a great society we would have if even the government made “love” its civic duty.


What do you think?

Should we be striving for happiness or some other goal?

What is 'the good life' and is it possible?

Can happiness be achieved by yourself, or is it dependent on others?

Feel free to post any other thoughts.

[This post was originally a comment on Jonathan's blog, Spritzophrenia, where he suggested this could be its own blog post. Read his own thoughts on 'positive thinking' here.]

Monday, October 11, 2010

I think, therefore I am awake.

Ernest Sosa is the man with the answers, or so he thinks.

Sosa claims to have solved the skeptical problem of dreaming: are we awake or are we dreaming?

The cogito is famous: "I think therefore I am."

The cogito tells us that we are a thinking thing... that we can rely on our conscious self as existing.

Another way of phrasing this type of problem is whether we are dead: "I think therefore I am alive."

But what about dreaming? How can we tell the difference whether we are alive and conscious or simply stuck in a highly realistic and coherent dream? Well, Sosa thinks he has the answer. Sosa believes that one cannot question (let alone affirm) whether one is dreaming while one is within a dream. I'm not convinced. He doesn't have any trouble with lucid dreaming as lucid dreamers know the difference between beliefs within the dream and propositions about actual reality.

However, Sosa says, "If one is only dreaming, then one cannot be pondering any such question as whether one might be only dreaming, and one could not possibly assent to any answer, whether affirmative or negative. Knowing this, how can one sensibly deliberate on whether one might be dreaming? On our conception of dreams, one is automatically, rationally committed to supposing that one is not just dreaming, whenever one inquires at all. It is hard to imagine a better answer to the dream skeptic. ... We can just as well affirm as ." (p.20)

I don't buy it. I'd like to invite Sosa around for dinner and watch The Matrix with him and then see what he says. I think that it is feasible to imagine a possible scenario where one is dreaming and yet believe existential facts about the current (imagined) reality that happen to be false in actuality. I think that Sosa only privileges his solution by assuming that one can't have a sufficiently advanced enough dream-illusion that allows for existential confusion. In this regard, brain-death or unconsciousness are poor analogies for dreaming.

Do you agree with Sosa? Does Sosa provide a convincing argument against Dream Skepticism?

Do you disagree with Sosa? What problems does Sosa fail to answer?
Want to read more?
Sosa, Ernest (2007) A Virtue Epistemology. Apt Belief and Reflective Knowledge. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Find it at Better World Books or Google Books.