Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Real World FTW!

I want to post something about David Sosa's brief definition of happiness, but I can't figure out quite what I think about it.

I need a little goading, I think.

GOADER: Ya! Living in the Real World is obviously better than living in an Imaginary World! Real World FTW!

ME: [Rolls his eyes. Is not goaded.]

Oh well. Maybe tomorrow.


crystal said...

Well, it's two days after the day after tomorrow ... :)

Smartiniz said...

So, it seems that Sosa's argument is that ultimately the thing that distinguishes happiness from mere pleasure is a sense of purpose, or accomplishment, or engagement with the world. He closes with the caveat that this definition places our own happiness at least some way beyond our control. In other words, real life includes the possibility of NO happiness.

I wonder just how much we take that possibility into account in our estimation of life in the real world. It seems to me that, in this though experiment, most of use choose real life over the machine because we have an expectation that we will achieve real life happiness, in some measure at least. When he was talking about the thought experiment, I wanted him to propose an alternate question: Given a choice between a machine that gave us pleasure and a SENSE of accomplishment (but no real accomplishment) and the certain knowledge of a life in the real world in which we neither felt pleasure nor accomplished anything, what would most people choose? In other words, if we really considered the possibility that life may, in the end, offer us no real happiness, would we still be so keen on the choosing the real world?

Matthew said...


And now it's been even longer. BTW, for those of you who are reading comments on this silly post, Crystal actually has something to say about Sosa's article on her blog


Another reason to mistrust the thought experiment is because it comes from Nozick. =P

Ad hominem attacks aside, I agree with what you're saying. In my opinion, I think Sosa and Nozick look at the thought experiment, as well as our reaction to it, and misinterpret or overgeneralize that reaction. Sosa's interpretation is: "there's something we value about Real experience, and that something is essentially its Realness." But as you point out, this is probably wrong. Because if we tweak the experiment somewhat (options: real life with no pleasure, imagined life with some pleasure), we suddenly become much less keen on the Real option. I also think we're misinterpreting the thing that we value - it's not Realness, it's Honesty or Fairness. In the scenario described, the person who descends into the machine is rigging their life, tricking themselves into believing they are working and growing, when they are doing no such thing.

My main quibble with the article, though, is the metaphysical assumptions that aren't even recognized, much less addressed. Most importantly, there is an assumption that there is a sort of existence that can be properly called Real, and that the Real has some intrinsic value that the Imagined does not. But I think that we can only very tenuously assert Reality and even less tenuously its intrinsic value. Because it seems unlikely that things that we perceive as undeniably real (is that chair real? of course it's real!) have similar value from any perspective but our own. From the point of view of the universe, or God, the concept of "chair" might be so fleeting and illusory as to be essentially unintelligible. So these particles of "wood" hang together in this way for a fleeting moment, and occasionally some particles of "butt" will come and rest on them. And these slightly more complex creatures recognize the concepts of "chair" and "butt". But does that give them some intrinsic value? In particular, does it give them significantly more intrinsic value than the chair the complex creature has in his mind? How is the chair I imagine significantly different from the concept of "chair"? What is it that allows the "chair" to be so undeniably real? And which is really real, the chair made by a craftsman in a physical substrate, off of which the light reflects and projects the image that triggers "chair" in my brain, or the chair that is modeled in software by a software-reality craftsman, which is maybe even projected onto the same ocular nerve, creating the image that triggers "chair" in my brain? Furthermore, in order to be believable, wouldn't the software world have to be so perfectly modeled - personalities, flaws, etc - that it would almost be a world to itself? When you have a dream that is just Too Good To Be True, don't you realize, "I'm dreaming?" Is the thought experiment simply a failure, because fooling ourselves in that way is essentially impossible? (I'm trying to remember if this was part of the movie Vanilla Sky.)

I don't say explain myself very well, but essentially my quibble is, "what's so valuable about your reality?" And while I do think this question can be answered productively and affirmatively, I don't think it can be answered so strongly that we can assert that "imagined happiness" is not happiness at all.

Paul Martin said...

My take on the article is that it makes the distinction between actions we can take that gratify the self - our egos and our bodies - and actions we can take that aim to enhance the lives of others and serve a wider good. Sometimes the two coincide; sometimes they don’t.

If you take aim at realizing a larger good, then win or lose, you find peace. Peace might be a less confusing word than happiness.

Maybe the concept of “happy” could be reserved for those lives where the two coincide to a large extent – where you succeed at an endeavor that serves others and that also gives you pleasure.

Matthew said...

> My take on the article is that it makes the distinction between actions we can take that gratify the self ...

I think you could make that distinction, but I don't think that's the essential distinction that Sosa makes. Sosa says that happiness has to do with /reality/, rather than virtue or goodness.

Paul Martin said...

Thanks, I did read it quickly, so little time online lately.

"Reality" discussions seem to get bogged down easily... The only sense I can make of it is that the idea of a reality that's totally objective and out there apart from the observer is refuted by the physical sciences as well as psychology.

At the same time, I don't think anybody really believes "life is a dream" and everything is subjective. No one lives that way...

The best I can do with it is figure there's a broader reality to which I'm part and parcel - integral. And happiness or peace seems to have to do with realizing this and living from out of it.

Matthew said...

> At the same time, I don't think anybody really believes "life is a dream" and everything is subjective ..

Yeah, I think the idea of "reality" is a good and useful one, but Sosa assigns it intrinsic value without any justification or explanation about what counts as real.

Vincent said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Vincent said...

As for believing that life is a dream and everything is subjective ...

Fernando Pessoa, in his posthumously-assembled Book of Disquiet very specifically rejects a happiness based on reality for one experienced imaginatively.

And as for a definition of happiness, I think a prerequisite would be the sentiment that one would not demand that any aspect of reality be changed.

Working definition of happiness: "I don't ask for more than this. No conceivable event could snatch this from me."