Sunday, April 29, 2018

The Goodness of Grief: Is it Integral to the Well-Lived Life?

(Series Index)

Grief is often painful. When I think about my deceased sister, I cannot help but be struck by a deep sense of tragedy about her loss. She was relatively young — 43 years-old — and had a young son whom she loved greatly. She was a bright and effervescent person, rarely saying a bad word about anyone, and incredibly generous and charitable with her time. At her funeral, I was amazed at the number of her friends and work colleagues who shared these impressions. When I die, I doubt anyone will say the same about me. ‘Selfish’ and ‘introspective’ maybe. It pains me to think that she is gone and I am still here. When I first learned of her illness, I became quite depressed. I felt sapped of the energy needed to complete the ordinary business of life. I also felt considerable guilt and regret. Her death jolted me out of this, to some extent, but even now I am reluctant to pursue life with the same vigour I once had.

From what I have read, many people experience similar emotions as part of the process of grieving. This prompts an obvious question: is grief a good thing? If it causes so much mental anguish and pain, would we not be better off without it? There are some famous ‘sages’ who thought as much. Seneca, for example, in his sixty-third letter to Lucilius, advises Lucilius not to feel too much grief at the passing of his friend. Indeed, he goes so far as to suggest that Lucilius should look to replace the deceased with a new object of affection as soon as possible:

You have buried one whom you loved; look about for someone to love. It is better to replace your friend than to weep for him… the most shameful cure for sorrow, in the case of a sensible man, is to grow weary of sorrowing. I should prefer you to abandon grief, rather than have grief abandon you; and you should stop grieving as soon as possible, since, even if you wish to do so, it is impossible to keep it up for a long time.…Nothing becomes offensive so quickly as grief; when fresh, it finds someone to console it and attracts one or another to itself; but after becoming chronic, it is ridiculed, and rightly. For it is either assumed or foolish. 
(Seneca, Letter 63)

To many, this will sound like inhuman advice — we should simply forget about the deceased and move on? — but I will consider the merits of Seneca’s Stoic approach to grief in a subsequent post. Right now, I want to consider the antithetical point of view: that grief is, contrary to initial appearances, a good thing. It is something that is central to the well-lived life. I will consider two arguments in favour of this view. The first comes from the work of Michael Cholbi; the second from the work of Amy Olberding. I’ll spend most of my time looking at Cholbi’s argument partly because his article was the first thing I read on the topic and so I learned a lot from it, and partly because the issues raised by Olberding’s argument have been discussed before on the blog.

1. Cholbi on the Problem of Grief
Cholbi’s defence of grief can be found in his article ‘Finding Good in Grief: What Augustine Knew that Meursault Couldn’t’. One of the nice things about Cholbi’s defence of grief is that he is acutely aware of the challenges it faces. Anyone who wants to claim that grief is good must overcome the following, deceptively simple argument (note: this is my formulation not Cholbi’s):

  • (1) Grief is painful.

  • (2) Pain is bad.

  • (3) Therefore, grief is bad.

We could add to this some subsequent argumentation to the effect that since we ought to avoid anything that is bad so too ought we avoid grief. Indeed, if I were being more pedantic I might insist upon adding that argumentation onto the end since, ultimately, Cholbi is concerned with our prudential attitude to grief not the intrinsic experience of grief per se, but I will stick with the simpler version for now because Cholbi talks primarily in terms of the goodness/badness of grief in his article, not about the wisdom of avoiding it.

Granting this, what can be said about the argument? Premise (1) seems unimpeachable. The experience of grief is undoubtedly painful. Sometimes this manifests in physical symptoms of pain, but even when it is primarily mental it is still painful. Memories of the deceased often trigger deep sadness and regret and this causes turmoil. Premise (2) also looks to be pretty unimpeachable. Most philosophers agree that pain is bad — indeed some might go so far as to say that it is the only thing that is intrinsically bad — but premise (2) is the weak link in the argument. There are some obvious grounds for appeal against it.

One ground for appeal would be to highlight the existence of masochists. These are people for whom pain does not appear to be bad. On the contrary, it appears to be good. It is something they actively seek out and from which they derive pleasure. But appealing to masochists isn’t going to provide much consolation for the defender of the goodness of grief. After all, not everyone is a masochist so even if the response was successful it would have limited appeal. Furthermore, masochism is a somewhat paradoxical phenomenon. For masochists, pain and pleasure are indelibly interlinked: that which is painful for the ordinary person is actually experienced as pleasurable for the masochist. Consequently, it may not even be right to say that for the masochist pain is good. It may be more correct to say that they are just wired to experience the world differently. This holds no comfort for the defender of the goodness of grief because the pain of grief seems to be pure — not some odd intermingling of pain and pleasure.

Another ground for appeal would be to emphasise pain’s contribution to a ‘greater good’. In other words, to say that something that is prima facie painful might be ultimately good because it is an essential precursor to something that is good. A vaccine injection is often said to be ultimately good, even if intrinsically painful, because the pain of the injection contributes to the greater good of inoculation against disease. Cholbi thinks there is some promise in this response, but it too faces challenges. For one thing, anyone who uses it must be able to come up with some plausible account of the greater good to which grief contributes. For another, they must address a concern with all ‘greater good’ theories: that they make the painful precursor an undesired side effect of a particular pathway to a greater good: something that should be avoided if possible; not something that is itself integral to the good. For example, if we could attain the greater good of inoculation without the pain of injection, then that would be all the better. Grief doesn’t seem to work in the same way. If grief is good, its painfulness seems like it must be an integral part of its goodness. Augustine put it well in his exploration of grief:

My heart was black with grief. Whatever I looked upon had the air of death. My native place was a prison house and my home a strange unhappiness…I had no delight but in tears, for tears had taken the place my friend had held in the love of my heart. 
(Augustine, Confessions)

In this passage, Augustine is suggesting that the pain of grief — the tears he cried for his departed friend — is something he actively seeks out. I have experienced something similar in the aftermath of my sister’s death. I find that there are certain memories of her that I want to revisit in the hope that they will make me sad. So much so, in fact, that I’ve become frustrated by the extent to which I have become desensitised to their effect over time.

So Cholbi thinks the defender of grief faces a twofold challenge: (a) can they come up with an account of the greater goodness to which grief contributes? and (b) can this account still respect the seemingly central role that the painfulness of grief plays in this good? He thinks he can.

2. Cholbi’s Solution: Grief and the Good of Self-Understanding
Cholbi first tries to show how something that is intrinsically painful can, nevertheless, be an integral part of a greater good. He uses an analogy to make the case. Anyone who has engaged in long-distance running will be familiar with the trauma it induces on the body. It can cause severe pain and overwhelming fatigue. Sometimes there is a payoff — the famous ‘runner’s high’ that emerges as endorphins flood your system — but sometimes the pain is so overwhelming that you just want to give up and quit.

Cholbi tells us that he used to run a lot when he was younger and frequently experienced these runner’s ‘lows’. Despite the obvious unpleasantness of these feelings, Cholbi began to look forward to them. He found that painless runs were ‘ungratifying’. Why? Because he saw the pain as being an essential part of an activity that was overall good (because it made him fitter and pushed his body to its limits). In other words, the pains were situated within a broader context that caused him to reinterpret their axiological status. Cholbi is adamant that the pains he experienced were definitely pains. They were not, as might be the case for the masochist, some distorted form of pleasure. He did everything he could to minimise the painful sensations once his runs were completed. It was just that he did not judge them to be bad because of their context.

Cholbi argues that this phenomenon — a genuine pain that is not judged to be bad because it is situated in a context that is, overall, good — holds the key to the defence of grief. Grief may itself be painful, but it can be situated in a context that is, overall, good. The critical question is: what is that context? Cholbi’s answer is ‘self-understanding’. The loss of a loved one provides a significant motivation and grounding for self-understanding. The pain of the grief is integral to this process of self-understanding.

This is actually a common enough view. Many of the famous philosophical and literary discussions of grief fixate upon the idea that the death of a loved one is the loss of something that was integral to your identity. Someone who was part of the warp and weft of everyday life is now gone and you need to re-form yourself in order to go on. C.S. Lewis (who is not someone I would ordinarily cite) captures this idea rather beautifully when he describes his feelings after the death of his wife (referred to as ‘H’):

I think I am beginning to understand why grief feels like suspense. It comes from the frustration of so many impulses that had become habitual. Thought after thought, feeling after feeling, action after action, had H for their object. Now their target is gone. I keep on, through habit, fitting an arrow to the string; then I remember and have to lay the bow down. So many roads lead through H. I set out on one of them. But now there’s an impassable frontier-post across it. So many roads once; now so many culs-de-sac. 
(C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed)

Cholbi uses the less poetic concept of an ‘identity-constituting relationship’ to flesh out the idea:

Identity-constituting Relationship: Is a relationship between yourself and another that features prominently in your autobiography and that shapes your ‘practical identity’, i.e your values, concerns and commitments.

The most important identity-constituting relationships in our lives are those between ourselves and our families and friends (though it possible to form them with others). These relationships play a significant role in our self-conception. Sometimes this role is underappreciated. We take so much for granted in our everyday lives. We form habits around our environments, our families, and our friends that go unquestioned. They are part of the furniture of life. The background scenery that is out of the spotlight. We don’t realise how fragile and contingent this background scenery is. It is only when it is gone that we realise how important it was.

That feeling is certainly something I have experienced in the aftermath of my sister’s death. It was so easy to take her for granted when she was alive; to assume that she would always be there; and to forget how she shaped my values, interests and dispositions. It’s this realisation — the importance of the deceased to one’s practical identity — that is captured so well by C.S. Lewis in the above-quoted passage.

Cholbi’s argument is that there is some value in this realisation. Self-knowledge is an important human good. It is important that we know something of our values, commitments and beliefs — that we know what is important to us. The emotional complexity of grief makes it a rich source of self-knowledge. Grief is a process; not a moment. It involves oscillations between despair (at the loss) and longing (at the remembrance), and multiple awakenings and insights. It jolts us out of the auto-pilot of everyday life and forces us to reconsider who we are. As Cholbi puts it:

Grief thus looks like our psyche’s way of instigating an emotional data dump. We would be wise to seize the opportunity to make sense of that data and thereby attain deeper levels of self-knowledge. 
(Cholbi 2017)

What are we to make of this argument? I think Cholbi is certainly onto something with the suggestion that grief jolts us out of the auto-pilot of everyday life, and that one of its distinctive qualities is to reveal how contingent much of what we rely upon on a daily basis is. I also think he is correct to argue that something that is intrinsically painful can, nevertheless, be good if it is situated in the right context.

I’m less convinced by the claim that self-knowledge is the ‘greater good’ that is at stake in the debate about grief. For starters, I’m not sure that self-knowledge, as defined, is a robust enough good to justify the pain of grief. Indeed, I find it disheartening to think that the value of grief lies in some good that it does for me (i.e. the person who is grieving). That seems so self-centred and egotistical. Surely the value of grief should be grounded in the person who is deceased, i.e. in the recognition of how important and special they were? It feels grubby to view my sister’s death as an opportunity for self-knowledge. It’s like something a self-help guru would say. I’m also not entirely convinced that there is such a thing as ‘self-knowledge’, i.e. that there is a ‘self’ about whom we can make epistemic discoveries. I carry a lot of philosophical baggage here, and I’m not going to unpack it all, but I tend to think of the self as something that is largely constructed. So I would probably like to reformulate Cholbi’s argument and say that grief provides an opportunity for significant self-reconstruction. That probably wouldn’t change much about the argument as whole; it would be more a difference of metaphysical emphasis. That said, there is one other problem I have with the argument. Cholbi is clear in the article that he is not claiming that grief is necessarily good. He thinks it can be destructive in some cases and may fail to result in self-knowledge. That sounds right but seems like a significant admission. One of the objections to the typical ‘greater good’ theory is that it makes the lesser pain an unwelcome side effect of the greater good — something that it would be better to avoid if at all possible. Is there not a danger that the same is true in the case of the relationship between grief and self-knowledge? Surely there are other opportunities for self-knowledge, and if grief isn’t always a reliable pathway to self-knowledge, perhaps we would be better off avoiding it?

3. Olberding on Grief and the Value of Life
I want to turn now to another argument in defence of the goodness of grief. This argument comes from Amy Olberding’s article ‘Sorrow and the Sage: Grief in the Zhuangzi’. As you might surmise from the title, Olberding’s article is largely interpretive in nature, focusing on the key text from the philosophy of Daoism. It tries to come up with the best interpretation of the behaviour of the sage ‘Zhuangzi’ who is the central character in the text called the Zhuangzi (and the name that Olberding uses although she is aware that the text is probably not the work of one author), and who, like Seneca, seems to counsel against grief at times and yet experiences grief at the death of his wife.

I’m not going to follow Olberding down her particular hermeneutical rabbit-hole. I’m just going to focus on what I take to be the core argument she presents in the paper. Her thesis is that Zhuangzi’s grief at his wife’s death is more consistent with his philosophy of ‘robust joy’ and human flourishing, than is the behaviour evinced elsewhere in the text suggesting that grief is to be avoided. To set this up, she contrasts Zhuangzi’s experience of grief with the lives of other sages described in the text of the Zhuangzi. These other sages seemed to ‘laugh and play’ in the face of death:

Death appears to them not as a horror or tragedy but as an embarkation point from which additional transformations become possible…They find joy in shared accord with what nature provides. Notably, in this accord, grief has no place. Indeed, it features as an impediment to the free exercise and pleasure of shared understanding. 
(Olberding 2007, 344)

I’ll discuss what is meant by the ‘accord with nature’ in a later post. For now, I want to focus on Olberding’s claim that there is something deficient in this approach to life and death. She makes her case in an interesting way. She first looks at arguments that philosophers have offered against the desirability of immortality. There are several such arguments, but the most famous probably come from Bernard Williams and Martha Nussbaum (although, strictly speaking, Nussbaum doesn’t say that immortality is undesirable; just that it comes at a cost). I’ve covered these arguments in detail before so I’ll limit myself to a brief summary here.

Williams argued that immortality would be tedious. He said that part of what makes life good is that we have certain ‘categorical desires’ (projects, ambitions etc) that we try to satisfy. These desires are integral to who we are. If we lived forever, we would run out of categorical desires or have to constantly find new ones. We would lose all sense of who we are and become fed-up with the repetitive nature of life. Nussbaum makes some similar observations. She claims that much of the value attached to our activities comes from the fact that we have limited options and limited time. There is, consequently, great normative weight attached to our choices: it is important to choose wisely and cherish the friendships and attachments that we have. Finitude is, as she puts it, ‘a constitutive factor in all valuable things’. If we had infinite time, nothing would really matter. We could constantly revisit and correct our past mistakes.

Olberding runs with this idea. If we lived as immortals, we would have a remarkably frozen emotional life. Nothing would perturb us, but neither would it entertain, uplift or overjoy us. There would just be an endless sequence of, more or less neutral, events. Although they are not immortal, Olberding criticises the sages from the Zhuangzi for having a similar attitude to life. They have lost the ability to truly engage with the highs and lows of lived experience. The suggestion then is that it is better if we don’t develop this emotionally frozen attitude, if we have hopes and aspirations for the future, and if we become attached to and engaged with the people around us. If we do this we will appreciate the pleasures that are alien to the sages, but also, naturally, experience grief at the departure of a loved one.

Is this a strong argument? To answer that I think we need to make a distinction. It is clear from their depiction in the text that the four sages that Olberding criticises are not completely apathetic characters. They have some ability to enjoy the world: they laugh and joke in the face of death, after all. They have only lost the ability to experience some of the good things. To explain, I’m going to distinguish between two kinds of pleasures in life:

Ludic pleasures: These are pleasures that arise from in-the-moment game-like enjoyment of the world. They are often ‘repetitive’ in nature (i.e. can be enjoyed over and over again) and disconnected from some larger mission or purpose. They are also ‘light’ and ‘frivolous’, not requiring deep engagement or attachment to what one is doing, and accompanied by a degree of flexibility and adaptiveness. Examples could include joke-telling, singing, eating and, of course, playing games.

Achievement/attachment pleasures: These are pleasures that arise from the achievement of some goal or purpose, or from some deep attachment to objects or persons in the world. They are often ‘once offs’ and require patience, endurance and skill. Examples could include writing a book, building a business, and raising a family.

The way I see it, Olberding is arguing that if we adopt the attitude of the sages, we will be cut off from the achievement/attachment pleasures, but not necessarily from the ludic pleasures. The implication then is that: (a) a life without achievement/attachment pleasures would be somehow impoverished and (b) that such a life also brings with it, of necessity, the capacity to feel grief. We can distill this reasoning into the following:

  • (4) The capacity to experience achievement/attachment pleasures makes for a better life.

  • (5) If we are to have the capacity to experience achievement/attachment pleasures we must also, by necessity, have the capacity to experience grief.

  • (6) Therefore, if we are to live a better life, we must have the capacity to experience grief.

I think this argument can be challenged. For one thing, it is not obvious to me that a life of achievement/attachment pleasures is necessarily better than one of merely ludic pleasures. There would seem to be two problems with that claim. First, on what basis do we assign more weight to achievement/attachment pleasures? Why do we think they are more important? Second, if achievement/attachment pleasures necessarily have a dark side (frustration, failure, loss etc.) it is possible that someone’s life could be filled with more of the dark side than the light. They might, consequently, be much better off if their life was filled with merely ludic pleasures.

Another problem with this argument is that it is not obvious to me why we must have the capacity to experience grief in order to enjoy achievement/attachment pleasures. I understand the reasoning, but I’m not sure that the capacity for grief itself is physically/logically necessary for such enjoyment. Furthermore, I have a suspicion that there are similar emotional states/processes that could substitute for grief in this context. Celebrating and enjoying memories of the deceased, for example, could show just as much recognition of their importance to your life as would endlessly crying over their absence.

Finally, as Olberding herself acknowledges, the argument does not entail a strong endorsement of grief. It does not suggest that we should marinate in grief for months on end. It merely says that some capacity to experience grief, however brief the experience may be, is important. Indeed, Zhuangzi’s own experience of grief was short-lived, suggesting that if we are to follow his lead we won’t be using grief as a major tool in some journey of self-discovery.

4. Conclusion
I have come to the end of this post. I am not sure that I have reached any firm conclusions. I think there is something in what Cholbi and Olberding argue: that the experience of grief has some value, provided it is not pushed to extremes, particularly in the recognition of the importance of the deceased in one’s lifeworld. At the same time, I think there are weak points in their arguments. Perhaps my own prejudices and predilections are affecting my interpretation of what they have to say. I’m not a strong believer in the power of emotions; I’m much more naturally inclined to the Stoic point of view outlined earlier in this post. I will examine that view in the next post.

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Epicureanism and the Problem of Premature Death

Philippe de Champaigne Vanitas - Life, Death, Time

[I dedicate this post to the memory of my beloved sister, Sarah Danaher Greene (1974-2018). Sarah was diagnosed with terminal cancer in March 2018 and died, suddenly and unexpectedly quickly, just three weeks later. I finished writing this post the day she died and I had been hoping to discuss it with her before I posted it. Sadly, I never got the chance. I appreciate that discussing the problem of premature death might seem like a very morbid thing to do to someone suffering from a terminal illness, but Sarah was always interested in similar things to me and she regularly read this blog. She was the most intelligent, curious and caring person I knew. She saw the good in everyone and everything, and rarely complained when things didn’t go her way. I will miss her always.]

Is it a tragedy to die young? Most people would say ‘yes’. When we hear of a 20 year-old dying in a car crash, we can’t help but be struck by the tremendous sense of loss. They were deprived of a future; they didn’t get a chance to do the things that make up an ordinary human life. When we hear of a 93 year-old dying, we are less perturbed. The death may still be deeply upsetting to their family and friends, but the sense of loss is less profound. They had a ‘good innings’; they had a chance to make something of their lives.

Although this is the standard view of premature death, there are those that dispute it. The ancient philosophical school of Epicureanism is probably the most famous example. Epicurus and his followers dedicated themselves to philosophically dismantling death-anxiety. They argued that the good life consisted in attaining a state of ataraxia (perfect contentment, free from all fear and anxiety) and that this could only be achieved once we rid ourselves of the fear of death. This, in turn, could only be done through correct philosophical training and reasoning.

I have covered the most famous Epicurean arguments before. I have looked at Epicurus’s claim that death is ‘nothing to us’ because it is an existential blank, i.e. a state of non-being in which we cannot experience either pain or pleasure. I have also looked at the Lucretian symmetry argument, which claims that the state of non-existence prior to birth should be viewed in the same light as the state of non-existence after death. Each of these arguments has its strengths and weaknesses, but one weakness they both share is that they don’t address the problem that I introduced in the opening paragraph: the problem of premature death. If the arguments are successful, they may give reason to feel more sanguine about death at the age of 93. But they give no reason not to lament death at the age of 20. Different arguments are needed for that.

The Epicureans were aware of this shortcoming and they did have different arguments for the problem of premature death. In this post, I want to review those arguments. I do so by following the excellent exposition of them in James Warren’s book Facing Death: Epicurus and his Critics (side note: this is probably the best book I have read on the philosophy of death; I highly recommend it). I’ll start by considering the arguments that can be mustered in favour of the common view — that premature death is a tragedy — then I’ll look at the Epicurean alternative, considering criticisms and weaknesses as I go along. As will become clear, my sympathies lie with the Epicureans, though I recognise that embracing their position has costs.

1. Accumulationism and the Narrative View of Life
To appreciate the dialectic that follows you’ll need to bracket one commonly-held belief: that death is always and everywhere a bad thing. Nothing that is said in what follows addresses that concern. We’re focusing solely on whether premature death is a bad thing. The other Epicurean arguments address themselves to the more general concern about the badness of death. So you can read the following as an exercise in suppositional logic. Suppose, for the sake of argument, that the Epicureans are right that death is not, generally, a bad thing. Are they, nevertheless, wrong in thinking that premature death is not a bad thing?

The affirmative answer to that question can be defended in a number of different ways. One way — which I will call ‘accumulationism’ — holds that pleasure/well-being is something that accumulates over time. In other words, the more pleasurable experiences you have, the better your life is. Premature death is, thus, a tragedy because it prevents the accumulation of more pleasures. The problem with accumulationism, in the present context, is that it implies that death is always a bad thing because it always cuts off the possibility of accumulating more pleasures. It’s just as tragic for the 93 year-old as it is for the 20 year-old (though the balance of pleasure over pain may affect this to some extent). So we would have to modify the position to make it relevant to the debate about premature death, perhaps by arguing that there is some quota of pleasures that a ‘complete’ life would have. If someone dies before they meet their quota (before their life is ‘complete’) it is a tragedy. The problem with this modified view is that it is pretty difficult to determine what the quota is: it is, after all, notoriously difficult to quantify and measure pleasures. The best we could do is some rough and ready assessment, and that may not lead to the conclusion that death at a young age is always a tragedy. A 20 year-old could live a life of intense and continual pleasure, while a 93 year-old could live one of perpetual misery. In that case the 20 year-old has the more complete life and their death is less tragic.

This is an important insight and it is worth dwelling on it for a moment. It suggests that the debate about the badness of premature death is less about the number of years lived and more about how they have been lived. Has the person lived a full life? Adding more years, in and of itself, is not necessarily a good thing; it’s the quality and content of the lived experience that matters.

This insight is taken up by another way of defending the tragedy of premature death. This one focuses on the typical pattern of life, on what we might call its ‘narrative arc’. The complete life, we are told, passes through a number of stages. Shakespeare’s ‘Seven Ages of Man’ speech, from As You Like It is probably the pre-eminent expression of this view in Western literature (although it contains a good degree of cynicism and pessimism). It tells us that the typical narrative arc of life passes through seven distinct stages, from puking and mewling in your mother’s arms, to sitting in a slippered pantaloon waiting for oblivion. Other stuff happens in between. Taking inspiration from Shakespeare, we might hold that the typical narrative arc to life includes an educational/training phase, a mastery/success phase, a relationship/family-building phase and, eventually, a retirement/relaxation phase (some phases may overlap and run in parallel). The tragedy of premature death arises from the fact that it prevents someone from passing through all the stages of the typical narrative arc.

To express this in more formal terms:

  • (1) Death is only a tragedy if it occurs before a life is complete.
  • (2) A life is complete if it passes through the right narrative arc.
  • (3) A premature death is one that prevents a life from passing through the right narrative arc.
  • (4) Therefore, a premature death is a tragedy.

Premise (1) derives from the Epicurean supposition (i.e. that death is not always bad) and from the preceding discussion of accumulationism. As you’ll recall, the conclusion reached at the end of that discussion was that the total number of years was not really what mattered but rather the quality and content of lived experience. I’m using ‘completeness’ as the concept that captures this idea. I do so largely because it is the concept that Warren refers to in his discussion, and is something that appears to have preoccupied the ancient schools of philosophy. Indeed, as we will see below, the Epicureans themselves accepted this premise: they just had a very different notion of what made for a complete life.

Premises (2) and (3) are the ones that are critical to this particular argument about narrative arc. What can be said about them? Well, premise (3) is, in a sense, true by definition. Since we have abandoned the notion that prematurity is necessarily a question of age, it is now effectively being defined in terms of the incompleteness of a narrative arc, which is all that premise (3) says. This means that premise (2) is carrying all the weight in this argument, and I have two critical observations to make about it.

The first is that the concept of the ‘right narrative arc’ is incredibly fuzzy. I mentioned the Shakespearean view as an illustration, but given the pessimism and cynicism implicit in that view, we might question whether it really presents a compelling vision of the ‘right’ narrative arc. If the idea is that one’s life should ‘tell a good story’, then we run into the problem that there are many different conceptions of what a good story is. Tragedies can be good stories. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s biography has always struck me as being a good story. He packed a lot into his short life, even though it contained a degree of deprivation and struggle, and he left quite a legacy too. Was his life narratively complete, even though he died at the age of 35? I have heard some philosophers who really seem to think that narrative arcs that tell a good story are what ultimately matter, and that you should work on making your life story as entertaining and interesting as possible. It’s not necessarily bad advice (provided one bears in mind other moral duties) but it doesn’t provide much guidance on determining when and whether a death is tragic. It allows for quite a lot of pluralism and individualism. We cannot easily say that the death of the 20 year-old is tragic on this view. We would have to carefully examine the narrative arc of their life and consider the story it tells.

A second observation follows on from this. Someone who was worried about excessive pluralism and individualism might try to impose a more objective, standardised view of what the narrative should be. The right narrative arc, we might be told, is a life of ‘three score and ten’ years, which consists in a childhood of play and education, an adulthood of careers, relationships and child-rearing, and a retirement of relaxation, travel and family. The problem is that any imposition of a standard narrative will risk seeming incredibly parochial and historically arbitrary. The narrative I just sketched, for instance, is a relatively recent model of the ‘typical’ life and is something that is challenged and resisted by many (e.g. why postpone retirement until old age? why not take mini-retirements when you are younger? why not look for more years?). Furthermore, there may be people who can cram most of what we expect in a life of ‘three score and ten’ into a shorter period. Imposing a standard narrative arc seems, consequently, like an unpromising way to shore up the argument.

These strike me as being significant problems for the narrative arc view of life. I’m not saying that it provides no guidance whatsoever on what the complete life consists in; but I am saying that the guidance it provides is fairly limited. Furthermore, it doesn’t enable the kind of resiliency in the face of death that the Epicureans wanted to inculcate among their followers. If your own preferred narrative arc demands of lot of years — if you want to ‘fade away’ in old age rather than ‘burn out’ at the age of 27 — a premature death will indeed be tragic for you. Epicureans wanted you to be prepared for death whenever it might come.

2. The Epicurean View of Premature Death
How did Epicureans do this? As mentioned above, Epicureans effectively accepted premise (1) of the narrative arc argument. In other words, they agreed that death could be a tragedy if life was not ‘complete’ (I won’t try to prove this by reference to Epicurean texts; Warren does this in his book). Where they differed from the preceding view was in how they understood ‘completeness’. For them, it had nothing to do with tracing out the right narrative arc or accumulating a sufficient quota of pleasures; it had do with achieving the right kind of contentment (pleasure) in life. Once you achieved that state of mind, your life would be complete and there would no reason to lament its cessation. Lucretius used some nice metaphors to explain the idea:

For if you have enjoyed the life you have led up to now and you have not allowed all those benefits to flow away and be lost without enjoyment as if poured into a broken pot, then why do you not leave like a diner fed full of life and find secure rest with an untroubled mind? 
(Lucretius, De Rerum Natura)

Why indeed? Why can we not be ‘fed full of life’ and leave the feast with ‘untroubled mind[s]’?

There is a lot going on in this quote — a lot of philosophical commitments not fully stated — and it is important to bring them to the surface. Here’s my best attempt to set out the logical structure of the Epicurean view implicit in the quote from Lucretius. This reconstruction has been supplemented by other Epicurean writings:

  • (5) The sole dimension of value in life is pleasure; or, to put it another way, the completeness of life is to be determined by its pleasurableness.
  • (6) True pleasure is katastematic, not kinetic, in nature.
  • (7) Katastematic pleasure does not accumulate over time; it only varies.
  • (8) Therefore, once katastematic pleasure has been achieved, a life cannot be improved by adding more years to it.
  • (9) Therefore, a life of katastematic pleasure is complete.
  • (10) Therefore, death, after katastematic pleasure has been achieved, is not a tragedy (from (9) and (1) from the previous argument).

Premise (5) is a strong claim but it is a key commitment of the Epicurean view. You might dispute it. It certainly feels a bit off to me. I think that there is more to life than pleasure alone, i.e. that there are more dimensions of value at stake. For example, I think there are moral and scientific values that have nothing to do with pleasure, per se. It is important, for example, to discharge one’s moral duties to others, to care about their well-being and welfare. This is a dimension of value that seems to be obscured to the Epicureans. On the face of it, they seem to tie themselves to a crass form of egoistic hedonism. It becomes less crass when we consider their definition of pleasure (premise 6), but the egoism doesn’t go away. This is something that gets Epicureans into trouble at other times. For example, in the last chapter of his book, Warren discusses whether it makes sense for Epicureans to write wills (Epicurus himself famously did) and argues that it doesn’t if they remain committed to egoistic hedonism. I tend to agree with this critique and think a revised form of Epicureanism, shorn of its staunch egoism, would be preferable.

All that said, I don’t think the debate about egoism vs non-egoism should detract from the more important aspect of the Epicurean argument, namely: that achieving the right kind of pleasure could be critical when it comes to addressing the fear of premature death. I think the strength of that claim is relatively undisturbed by the debate over egoism. It’s also where premise (6) comes in. The language used in this premise will be unfamiliar to most. The distinction between the two forms of pleasure mentioned in it can be characterised in the following manner:

Katastematic pleasure: The pleasure that arises from the absence of pain, want, need in life; i.e. a feeling of contentment/equanimity.

Kinetic pleasure: The pleasure that arises from removing pain or satisfying a need; i.e. the pleasure that arises from filling the ‘broken pot’ (to use Lucretius’s metaphor)

The distinction is subtle but significant. Katastematic pleasure is enduring and is akin to an ongoing feeling of satiation. Kinetic pleasure waxes and wanes. You remove some pain or satisfy some need and you feel pleasure for awhile, but this feeling quickly dissipates. A new pain or need arises that has to be addressed. You get trapped in a ‘kinetic’ loop: constantly seeking out new ‘highs’. This means you can never be truly happy or satisfied with what you have. True pleasure requires greater stability of contentment. What’s more, if you do get trapped in a kinetic loop, death will always be a tragedy for you, whether you are 20 or 93. Again, Lucretius described the problem pretty well:

…because what you want is always at a distance you shun what is at hand, your life has slipped away incomplete and unenjoyed, and death stands by your head unexpected, before you can leave things satisfied and full.
(Lucretius, De Rerum Natura

How do we get out of the loop? Epicureans aren’t too helpful on this. They seem to think that proper study and familiarity with their philosophical teachings — as opposed to some meditative or ritual practice — will suffice (at least, that’s the impression I get from Warren’s book). This is something that differentiates them from the Buddhists and Stoics, who have a very similar attitude toward death and the good life (I covered the Stoic view on a previous occasion), but include meditative and ritual practices as a key part of the effort to attain equanimity.

But we’re not looking for practical guidance here; we’re trying to investigate the logic of the Epicurean argument. Assuming that the distinction between katastematic and kinetic pleasure is accepted we can move on to the next crucial premise. Premise (7) claims that katastematic pleasure does not accumulate over time. In other words, it claims that your life doesn’t get more pleasurable by having more moments of katastematic pleasure. This might look like an odd thing to say. Surely someone who lived for 10 years in a state of katastematic pleasure would be better off than someone who only did so for a few hours? But it does make a certain amount sense. The state of katastematic pleasure is defined by the absence of certain qualities (pain, want, need) not by the presence of certain others (intense joy, mirth, laughter). It is, in a sense, a ‘zero state’: one in which harmony and balance is achieved. As such, it makes sense to say that katastematic its not something that gets better the more of it that you have. Indeed, one of the defining characteristics of katastematic pleasure is the absence of the desire for more. That said, Epicureans acknowledged that katastematic pleasure could vary over time, i.e. you could experience slightly different forms of it in different contexts. This variation, however, did not make life better.

Warren thinks that there are certain problems with the idea that katastematic pleasure does not accumulate. The obvious one is this: if you achieve a state of katastematic pleasure, does that really mean that death, no matter how soon after the state has been achieved, is never a tragedy? What if it comes two seconds after such a state is achieved? To say that death at this point is not bad or premature seems logically obtuse and, indeed, was something that some Epicureans resisted. As Warren notes, many of them appear to have adopted a moderate stance, according to which some reasonable period of time in a state of katastematic pleasure was required (perhaps just enough to show that it was a stable state, not a fleeting one). If you include such a requirement, the argument outlined above would need to be modified to talk about ‘stable’ katastematic pleasure or ‘reasonable periods’ of katastematic pleasure.

If you accept that katastematic pleasure is true pleasure, and that once attained (for a reasonable period of time) it cannot accumulate, it is plausible to then infer that your life is complete: that it is not going to get any better by adding more years. The rest of the argument might then succeed. Death once katastematic pleasure had been achieved cannot be a tragedy. This gives us some guidance on how we should react to the death of a young person. We should ask: did they achieve katastematic pleasure? Were they content and free from want, need, anxiety? That will determine the tragedy.

3. Conclusion
As I mentioned in the introduction, I am sympathetic to the Epicurean view. But there is some wishful thinking embedded in this sympathy: there is a sense in which I want to believe it because it tries to prepare us for, and reassure us about, the inevitability of death. Given that we are all going to die (and it is worth noting that I think this is always going to true, even if we manage to greatly extend our lives through the use of science and technology) it makes sense to face its reality. Epicureanism is one of the few philosophies that (a) doesn’t deny or ignore death and (b) offers solace or consolation in its face. It would be nice if it were philosophically tenable. Furthermore, I think the Epicureans get something fundamentally right in their understanding of true pleasure. It is dangerous to be trapped on a hedonic treadmill, constantly seeking more and more pleasurable experiences. You will never be satisfied. Admittedly, Epicureans aren’t the only school of thought to make this point, but I appreciate their way of framing it.

That said, there are costs to accepting the Epicurean view. For one thing, an Epicurean life would not appear to be a recognisably human life. If we were all fully committed to achieving katastematic pleasure, and completely inured to the idea of our own deaths, it seems like we would have to become remarkably detached from the ordinary pleasures of life. The narrative arc view, outlined above, at least has the benefit of working with (not against) widely held beliefs about what makes for a good life: engagement with the world, with other people, with family and friends, with ambition and hope, and so on. The Epicurean life seems to warn us against these things. If we become too attached to worldly affairs, we risk losing the requisite equanimity and contentment we need to avoid death-anxiety. As an illustration of this, Epicurus famously urged his followers to withdraw from political life. At the very least, Epicureanism would appear to require a significant shift in our attitudes towards worldly affairs. Maybe we could still do some of the things that make up a recognisably human life, but we would have to do them with a little less vim and vigour, and a little more philosophical distance. This is a criticism that has often been targeted at similar philosophical positions, such as Buddhism.

Furthermore, there are paradoxes and tensions in the Epicurean view. As we have already seen, Epicureans actually do accept that premature death can be a tragedy. They just happen to have a very different understanding of prematurity. Their understanding makes sense, given their other beliefs, and is philosophically consistent, but it doesn’t completely eliminate all anxiety about premature death. There is still a tragedy of dying before katastematic pleasure has been attained. Warren thinks that this leads to something of a paradox for the Epicurean. On the one hand, they think that the key to living a pleasurable life is to rid oneself of death-anxiety; on the other hand, they seem to imply, through their analysis of premature death, that death-anxiety is rational before you have attained true pleasure. There is a chicken-and-egg quality to this: you need to rid yourself of X to have true pleasure but X is rational before attaining true pleasure. There may be ways to resolve this paradox. Perhaps some people are lucky enough to never experience death anxiety and so can achieve Epicurean equanimity before the problem arises. Also, perhaps you can rid yourself of death anxiety indirectly — i.e. not through rational philosophising but through meditative practice. This is, however, not something that Epicureans seem to have endorsed.

In any event, more work needs to be done on the implications of Epicureanism for the rest of one’s life. I will close by simply repeating that I find something attractive about it, despite the complex reevaluations it entails.

Sunday, April 15, 2018

The Intellectual Case for Manned Space Exploration

Scientists are sometimes dismissive of manned* spaced exploration. They think it is a waste of money and effort, often just an exercise in hubristic national chauvinism rather than a scientifically legitimate enterprise. I’ve heard several astronomers and astrophysicists complain about the public fascination with putting people into space. Much better to send the robots, they say. The robots will collect all the relevant data, perform the key experiments, and transmit the results back to Earth. We can interpret and understand from our the comfort of our homes.

Ian Crawford is an exception to this. He is a scientist and a passionate advocate of manned space exploration. What’s more, he is an advocate for largely intellectual, and specifically scientific reasons. He has written many papers over the years setting out his stall. In this post, I want to analyse just one of them, ‘Avoiding Intellectual Stagnation: The Starship as an Expander of Minds’, which appeared in the Journal of the British Interplanetary Society in 2014.

I am primarily interested in the structure of Crawford’s argument. I’ll start by clarifying this structure, particularly the motivating premise (his moral/axiological principle), and then I’ll describe the various sub-arguments he adduces to support his case for space exploration.

1. The Motivating Premise: The Need for Dynamic Stabilism
Arguments for manned space exploration typically have a simple, three-part structure. They start with a motivating premise. This will usually be axiological/deontological in nature. In other words, it will stipulate some duty or value that is important/worthwhile. They will then proceed to a minor premise stating that this duty/value can be satisfied through space exploration. In other words, they will draw some causal link between the project of space exploration and the satisfaction of the duty/value. How close a causal link is open to debate. The strongest case for space exploration will, obviously, suggest that there is some necessary and exclusive causal link between the two. Weaker cases will suggest that there is just some link between the two and thus that space exploration is one of perhaps a number of ways of satisfying the duty/value.

This suggests that the following captures the general structure of all arguments for space exploration:

Motivating Premise: It is important/valuable that we do X; or, it is obligatory that we do X

Causal Premise: Manned space exploration will enable us to do X (or is the only thing that will enable us to do X).

Conclusion: Therefore, it is important/obligatory for us to engage in manned space exploration.

I have looked at a versions of this argument that proceed from a deontological motivating premise previously. Crawford’s argument is different because it is axiological in nature. I don’t read him as saying that we have a duty to explore space, but, rather, that it would be a good thing if we did. It would make our lives go better, and fill them with more meaning and flourishing, if we were to proceed with an ambitious project of manned space exploration.

Why is this? Crawford appeals to the value of an ‘open’ future. In this, he takes his cue from the work of the political theorist Francis Fukuyama. Back in the late 1980s, after the fall of the Berlin Wall and before the imminent collapse of communism, Fukuyama wrote a famous essay titled ‘The End of History’. Inspired by Kant and Hegel, Fukuyama argued that the end of the conflict between liberal democratic capitalism and communism heralded a stabilisation point in history. There would be no more grand ideological conflicts over the best way to live. There would just be practical problems to sort through. This would be good insofar as it called a halt to costly conflicts, but Fukuyama was ambivalent about the ultimate effects of this stabilisation, suggesting that the absence of ideological conflict might sap our lives of meaning:

The end of history will be a very sad time. The struggle for recognition, the willingness to risk one's life for a purely abstract goal, the worldwide ideological struggle that called forth daring, courage, imagination, and idealism, will be replaced by economic calculation, the endless solving of technical problems, environmental concerns, and the satisfaction of sophisticated consumer demands. In the post-historical period there will be neither art nor philosophy, just the perpetual caretaking of the museum of human history. 
(Fukuyama 1989)

As someone whose political philosophy is rooted more in the tradition of Hobbes than Hegel I find this quote somewhat ironic. If Hobbes is to be believed, an endless struggle or conflict is a ‘very sad’ thing too. In the extreme, it leads to the state of nature — the war of all against all — in which there is no place for beauty, art and other civilisational virtues. Caretaking the museum of history sounds like a relief after that. So there is presumably some desirable median, between the extreme of endless conflict and perpetual idleness, in which humans can flourish. Perhaps the key is to find the right mix of stability and struggle? If we could call a halt to conflicts over land and political ideology, and struggle instead towards some grand intellectual project, that would seem to be preferable.

And that’s exactly what Crawford urges. His motivating axiological premise holds that an ideal human society is one in which there is both stability and dynamism. More precisely, he argues that the ideal situation is one in which we have achieved relative peace between ourselves, but in which our future is still ‘open’ — i.e. we are not simply caretaking the museum of past achievements. His claim then is that an ambitious project of manned space exploration is the way to do this because of the intellectual challenges and virtues it will promote.

All of which means that Crawford’s case for manned space exploration can be set out like this:

  • (1) It is important/good for us to live in a stable and dynamic society, i.e. one in which our future remains open.

  • (2) Embarking upon an ambitious project of manned space exploration is one way (maybe the best way) in which to maintain an open future.

  • (3) Therefore, it is important/good for us to engage in an ambitious project of manned space exploration.

I’ll say no more about the motivating premise from here on out. I find it persuasive, but I admit that I’m not sure that I can explain why. I think some dynamism and unpredictability is a good thing, provided it is of the right type. Some forms of stability and repetition are good: I enjoy not having to struggle to find food, clothing and shelter. But some struggle is good too because it gives direction and purpose to life, and allows for a sense of achievement and fulfillment. On top of this, there are some intrinsic and instrumental goods associated with struggle. Curing cancer, for example, would involve a lot of struggle but would bring with it a number of intrinsic and instrumental goods, not least of which would be a massive reduction in suffering and hardship. The idea that struggle brings purpose does not have to be a mystical or religious notion, but beyond what I have said I am not convinced that I could say more to defend this idea that it plays an essential part in the good life.

2. The Intellectual Case for Space Exploration: Science, Art and Philosophy
If we set premise (1) to the side, premise (2) becomes the obvious focus of attention. There are a couple of preliminary things to be said about this premise. First, note how, in my formulation, it does not claim that there is a necessary and exclusive causal link between manned space exploration and the goal of maintaining an open future. This is consistent with something that I previously wrote about ‘frontierism’ and space exploration, in which I claimed that there are other ‘spaces’ to explore that could help us to maintain an open future. I also think it is consistent with what Crawford writes, but I do get the impression that he thinks manned space exploration might be the best way in which to maintain an open future, hence why I have added the brackets. The second preliminary comment is simply to note that the goal of maintaining an ‘open future’ is to be understood as shorthand for maintaining some kind of desirable struggle into the future, i.e. avoiding excessive predictability and listlessness. Crawford thinks that an intellectual struggle is the thing we should try to maintain. He does this partly for instrumental reasons but, more importantly, for intrinsic reasons: he thinks there are goods directly associated with and constituted by intellectual progress that are worth achieving.

So how does space exploration enable intellectual struggle and progress? Crawford makes three arguments. The first is that it will enable new forms of scientific investigation and progress. This is probably Crawford’s most famous argument, and he has defended it in a number of papers over the years. In the paper I’m looking at, he offers a brief precis of his position. His claim is partly based on history — space exploration has enabled scientific advances in the past — and partly based on plausible predictions of what would be possible if we did journey through space. He identifies four types of scientific inquiry that would be made possible by this: (i) physical and astrophysical studies conducted using spaceships as observing platforms; (ii) astrophysical studies of the wide variety of stars and their circumstellar environments; (iii) geological (etc) studies of planetary bodies and (iv) astrobiological and exobiological studies of habitable planets. In response to the ‘why not let the robots do all this?’- criticism, he argues that in situ observation and measurement is going to be far better in many cases, and essential in some, particularly in the search for life on other planets (we cannot penetrate the atmospheres of such planets from a distance). That said, one has to wonder whether this is, to some extent, contingent on current forms and understandings of robotic technology. I have argued elsewhere that creating ‘artificial’ robotic offspring might be the best way to realise the dream of interstellar exploration. This quibble to the side, I do think that Crawford is right in thinking that space exploration would give us a practically limitless frontier of for scientific investigation, which would surely stave off some of the stagnation that he fears.

Crawford’s intellectual case for space exploration doesn’t rest on science alone. His second argument for the intellectual vitality of space exploration looks at its impact on artistic expression. Crawford is a fan of Karl Popper’s ‘three-world’ theory. According to this theory, humans sit at the intersection of three worlds: (a) World One, which is the world of physical objects and events; (b) World Two, which is the world of mental states and events and (c) World Three, which is the world of human knowledge (i.e. theories, concepts, models of reality etc). The ‘worlds’ interact with and relate to one another through a series of feedback loops. Crawford argues that art belongs to World Three (the world of human representations) but is an expression of human subjectivity (World Two) that results from human observations/responses to the physical world (World One) and their place within it. What’s more, artistic expression is made possible when human subjectivity (World Two) speaks through the manipulation of physical objects and materials (World One) to create new artefacts and representations (World Three).

Now, you may of course be wondering: where does space exploration fit into this complex web of feedback loops? The argument that Crawford makes is that space exploration will position humans within new physical ‘landscapes’, which will prompt new observations and subjective reactions, which will in turn prompt new forms of artistic expression. He also argues that it will lead to a ‘cosmicizing’ of the human mind — i.e. an enlargement of perspective — which will add a new dimension to our artistic endeavours. Even without Popper’s theoretical overlay, this argument makes a certain amount of sense. Art has always been, at least in part, a response to the world that we inhabit (though it can also be an anticipation of new worlds), and if space exploration brings us into contact with new experiences and new realities, we can expect our artistic endeavours to respond appropriately. This might help to stave off some stagnation in art, which could arise if we end up ‘caretaking the museum of human history’.

Crawford’s final argument is that space exploration will prompt new developments in philosophy, particularly moral and political philosophy. Why so? Because interstellar exploration will prompt new forms of human association — e.g. interstellar economies and colonies — that will require their own political rules and institutions. Establishing those institutions are working out their operations will provide lots of opportunities for philosophers and lawyers. It may also allow for more experiments in living. Similarly, interstellar exploration will throw open new ethical challenges and questions, such as the ethics of terraforming, multi-generational starships, planetary colonisation, the relationship between humans and machines, the duty to continue and diversify ‘life’, and the relationship between humans and other, potential, moral subjects such as alien life. Philosophers are already starting to explore these issues (see, for example, my recent interview with James Schwartz on this very topic) but one can imagine that the intellectual excitement would increase greatly if we embarked on an ambitious programme of space exploration. All that said, and as noted in my interview with James Schwartz, you could question how ‘new’ the philosophical inquiries being proposed here really are. As with much of philosophy, it often seems like we end up re-deploying old concepts and analyses to new problems. Perhaps that is enough novelty to stave off the threat of intellectual stagnation, but if you are looking for something radically new, you might be disappointed.

3. Conclusion
To sum up, Crawford defends manned space exploration on the grounds that it will help to maintain a desirable balance between stability and dynamism. It will do so by staving off intellectual stagnation and providing some direction/purpose to human endeavours. In particular, Crawford argues that manned space exploration will stave off stagnation in science, art and philosophy by giving us new frontier to explore, new experiences to express, and new ethical and political challenges to overcome.

I don’t have too much to say by way of conclusion. The purpose of this post was not to critique Crawford’s argument but to understand it. Hopefully I have succeeded in this. The only thing I will say to conclude is to reiterate the point I made above: that space exploration is one way in which to stave off intellectual stagnation. It may not be the only way. If you take a more abstract interpretation of what an intellectual ‘frontier’ is, you see that there are other ‘spaces’ that humans could explore to similar effect. For example, I presume there are frontiers of mental and physical experience that we are yet to fully explore (through drugs and enhancement technologies); and ‘virtual’ reality could give rise to new frontiers too. Perhaps pursuing progress on all these fronts would be most desirable.

* Is this unnecessarily sexist language? Probably, but I’m not sure if there is an alternative term. ‘Peopled’ or ‘personned’ don’t sound right to me.

Sunday, April 8, 2018

The Trouble with Instrumentalism: On the Quest for Ultimate Purpose

The Trap Door Spiders was a literary dining club that met in New York in the middle part of the 20th century. It was home to a number of luminaries, but its best-known members were probably the science fiction authors (and publishers) Isaac Asimov, L. Sprague DeCamp and Lester Del-Rey. Indeed, the club was immortalised and parodied by Asimov in his series of short stories about the ‘Black Widowers’ dining club.

The Trap Door Spiders met once a month for dinner. One member of the club would invite a guest and, once the meal was over, the other members of the club would ‘interrogate’ the guest. The interrogations would invariably start with the following question:

How do you justify your existence?

Polite, post-prandial chit-chat this was not. The question was an ominous, intimidating one. The guest was being held to account for how they spent their time — to think of their life as fitting into some larger scheme of value (social, political, economic, scientific) and to justify it by explaining how it contributed to that larger scheme.

While this is not the typical, after-dinner fare, the question itself speaks to something deep within the human condition. We often do feel that, in order for our lives to have meaning, they have to be situated relative to some larger scheme of value. In other words, we feel that the day-to-day activities that make up the mundane details of existence have to be justified in terms of something else. Some people are highly self-conscious about this, often feeling anxious because they don’t think their lives measure up. The audacity of the Trap Door Spiders’ question was in bringing these anxieties to the surface.

In this post, I want to consider the merits of such anxieties. Should we really think about our lives in this way? Should we worry if they cannot be justified in terms of their contribution to a larger scheme of value? I’m going to argue that we shouldn’t. To be more precise, I’m going to argue that it is a mistake to always value our activities in terms of their contribution to something else, partly because this is not how value works in all cases, and partly because doing so gets us into a misguided quest for ultimate purpose.

1. Chains of Value and the Infinite Regress
To start out, it will help if we have a clear sense of the problem that arises when we value our actions in terms of their contribution to something else. As noted above, it is very common for us to do this. You could almost say it is natural, though doing so would raise all sorts of unnecessary questions about what is meant by ‘natural’. But think about any actions you performed today. Why did you do them? In many cases the answer that first springs to mind will be an instrumental one, i.e. you did them because they helped you to achieve something else. Why did you eat? To avoid starvation and to keep going for another few hours. Why did you get up and go to work? To earn an income that you can use to support your lavish lifestyle. And so on. In each of these cases, the value of your actions seems to lie in their contribution to something else.

For ease of analysis, let’s introduce some notation to depict what is going on here. Let’s denote actions with the letter ‘A’ and the goals to which they contribute with the letter ‘G’. According to the instrumentalist account outlined in the previous paragraph, A derives its value from G:

A ← G

Now let’s think about G in a little more detail. Where does it derive its value from? Again, it is natural to think about this in terms of some other goals to which it contributes. Why did you want to stave off starvation? So you could continue to work and earn an income; so you could be a more pleasant companion to your spouse and children; so you could butter-up some client for work; so you could avoid death; and so on. The G we originally identified fits within a larger chain of Gs from which it too derives its value.

G1 ← G2 ← G3;….
Once you go down this route, you get into trouble. An infinite regress seems to arise. If each individual Gn derives its value from another Gn+1, you have to ask where does that Gn+1 derive its value from? Gn+2? Surely this cannot go on forever (lives are finite after all). So what is holding up the entire ‘chain of value’? Is there some final G, some ultimate G, that holds everything together?
You could argue that there must be, that our lives have to have some overarching purpose in order for them to have value. But what might that purpose be? We could, arbitrarily, pick one. For example, I could decide that the ultimate goal of my life is to leave as many offspring as possible. That might provide some measure of purpose and meaning to my day-to-day activities, but I think my choice of ultimate goal could be rightly criticised. What is so valuable about leaving as many offspring as possible? How does that justify my existence? I’m sure the Trap Door Spiders would be sceptical if I offered that as my response to their after-dinner interrogation.

So we need something else. If we are to follow the instrumentalist paradigm, we need some ultimate goal that is more intuitively satisfying and less open to sceptical doubts. We need something that provides a rock solid sense of purpose to our lives. Are we ever going to find this? Should we even try? I offer two responses: ‘no’ and ‘no’.

2. The Case Against Ultimate Goals/Purposes
The first response is justified on the basis that the quest for ultimate purpose is, ultimately, forlorn. We will never find what we are looking for. I take this response from the work of Stephen Maitzen.

To see why the quest is forlorn, we need first to get a clearer understanding of what is meant by an ‘ultimate purpose’. Philosophers append the word ‘ultimate’ to different things. Some philosophers talk about ultimate ontological entities. These are entities that lie at the foundations of reality and from which all other entities derive their essence. Some talk about ultimate causes. These are causes the kick-start the entire chain of causation we observe within the universe. In both of these cases, the word ‘ultimate’ means something like ‘foundational’ or ‘primary’.

When appended to the word ‘purpose’, ‘ultimate’ carries a similar connotation, but it also seems to mean something else. In order to truly count, an ultimate value must be, in some sense, incorrigible or unquestionable. That’s the only way it is going to avoid the problem of apparent arbitrariness that we identified above. That problem arose when we ‘stepped back’ from a suggested final end and considered it from another perspective: maybe having lots of children makes my life meaningful but how valuable is it for the rest of my community, city, nation etc? The broader our perspective, the more trivial and insignificant any purpose we propose will start to seem. Indeed, from a cosmic perspective, everything we do looks pretty silly. We are, after all, just ‘motes of dust floating in sunbeam’, on an obscure planet, in an obscure solar system, in an otherwise hum-drum galaxy. It puts one in mind of the the total perspective vortex in Douglas Adams’s Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series: one you get an absolute perspective on everything, you lose the will to go on.

The most common solution to this problem is to turn to God. He is after all the ultimate being: the foundation of reality and the primary cause. His perspective is naturally cosmic since he created the cosmos. If He has some purpose in mind for us — e.g. to enter into the kingdom of Heaven and worship him forever — then surely it is an ultimate purpose?

Many people put their faith in God for this reason. But does God really help with this? If you don’t believe in God, and if you think there are good reasons not to, then there is little reassurance to be found in this solution to the problem. But even if you do believe in God, it’s not clear that he provides the satisfactory answer. For one thing, there is the problem of knowing what God’s final purpose actually is. More fundamentally, there is the problem that even God’s alleged final purposes are questionable. Maitzen pinpoints this in his critique:

Any purpose that we can begin to understand, we can step back from and question. Consider what theistic religions offer as God’s actual purpose for our lives: glorifying him and enjoying his presence forever. Surely we can ask — I hereby do ask — “What’s so great about that?” What is it about such an activity that automatically answers the question “Why is this ultimately worthwhile?” We’re not asking a confused or senseless question like “What time is it on the Sun?” or “Why is here here?” It’s the same question that [a theist] would aim at any life purpose an atheist might offer. We can sensibly question any possible answer to it in just the same way. 
(Maitzen 2011, 36)

Theists will often resist this by offering us a promissory note: God’s ultimate purpose might seem questionable (or even opaque) to us right now, but it will all make sense in the end. You just have to have faith. But that doesn’t really provide any reassurance. It doesn’t provide us with the rock solid, incorrigible and unquestionable foundation of value that we were hoping to find. But Maitzen’s point — which he himself derives from the work of Thomas Nagel — is that if that’s what we are hoping to find, we will forever be disappointed. Any allegedly ultimate goal or purpose we care to articulate will be questionable. There is always some perspective we can take on it that will challenge its true value and significance.

What does this mean for the quest for value in life?

3. Intrinsic Values and Fleeting Pleasures
It means that we should stop looking for ultimate ends. Forget about finding some overarching purpose that gives your life meaning at a cosmic scale. You are never going to get it. But that doesn’t mean that you should abandon all hope. There is still plenty of value out there. Iddo Landau, in his book Finding Meaning in an Imperfect World has some useful advice in this regard.

He argues that we can, in many instances, abandon the instrumentalist paradigm that gives rises to the problem of ultimate purpose. Not all of our actions have to be justified in terms of their contribution to something else. Some actions are intrinsically valuable. It might seem like a trite point, but it is generally accepted that there are some activities that have this property. Watching an entertaining movie, playing a challenging sport/game, engaging in mutually pleasurable sexual congress. Each of these is an action that can be enjoyed for its own sake. It does not need to serve some other purpose. Such purposes could be found, of course — I could claim that I am watching the movie in order to unwind and recover in advance of tomorrow’s stresses and strains; I could argue that I am engaging in sexual congress in order to procreate — but those purposes are not strictly necessary. In answer to the question ‘why are you doing that?’, I need say no more than ‘because’. There is a potential model for a meaningful life in this:

We need not feel that our life is meaningless just because we cannot name an ulterior goal or end for it, since the supposition that in order to be meaningful a life must have an external goal or purpose is incorrect. The assertion, “I have no general goal or purpose to my life, I just live a life that includes a sufficient number of aspects of sufficient value” can be a good reply to questions such as “What do you live for?” or “What is the goal of your life?” 
(Landau 2017, 139)

In other words, forget about larger goals and purposes: just fill your life with lots of intrinsically valuable moments.

That might not be enough for some people. They might be so deeply wedded to the instrumentalist paradigm that they cannot imagine living without some larger goals. That’s fine too. Such people will simply need to accept that the goals they serve may not have ultimate value. The goals could have some intrinsic value (e.g. making great art or advancing human knowledge), that may be questionable from a particular perspective, but you cannot hope to eliminate all such questions. Some valuable ends may just be brute facts of reality.

Furthermore, there may be a basic logical error underlying the quest for ultimate purpose, that could provide some reassurance for the avowed instrumentalist. As I noted above, the quest for ultimate purpose derives, in part, from a fear about infinite regresses: the chain of instrumentalist justification cannot go on forever. But why not? If each and every link in the chain is justified by a prior or subsequent link, why do we need an overarching justification for the entire chain? There is nothing logically contradictory or absurd about a chain of justification that lacks some final link or some external justification. Your life may simply sit within an infinite chain of justification. You can rest assured that what you do is fully justified in terms of the links within this chain without having some external, cosmic justification. Of course, there are problems with this insofar as we do not know whether our universe is going to be infinite in either duration (as best we can tell it is not past-infinite, but it might be future-infinite) or in chains of justification (maybe the heat death of the universe will bring an end to all valuable activity even if the universe is future-infinite), but there are uncertainties regarding the ultimate fate of the universe that might provide some hope that we (potentially) sit within an infinite chain of justification.

4. Conclusion
In sum, although it is tempting to justify our activities in terms of their contribution to some larger scheme of value, it is a temptation that can lead to some tangled thinking. Once you get into this habit of mind, it is easy to look for some ultimate purpose/end that your life can serve. This is dangerous because it is unlikely that any purpose you find will satisfy the demands of ultimacy. This doesn’t mean that life is devoid of purpose or value. Activities can be self-justifying and we can make do with temporary, fleeting purposes too.

Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Running to Stay Still: The Vice of Delayed Gratification

We’ve all heard of the Marshmallow Test. Put a kid in a room with a marshmallow on a plate in front of them. Tell them that they can eat that marshmallow now, if they want, but if they can refrain from eating it for ten minutes, you’ll give them three. Then leave the room and see what happens. Invented by Walter Mischel and his colleagues back in the 1960s, the Marshmallow Test was intended to be a test for self control. Could children delay gratification for that long? What strategies would they use to resist temptation?

Although the Marshmallow Test was interesting in its own right, it only gained notoriety when Mischel and colleagues performed follow up studies on the original experimental cohort. They discovered that the children who were able to delay gratification were far more successful in later life: they had higher rates of educational attainment, lower rates of obesity and so on. The inference was obvious: the capacity to delay gratification was the key to success (with the obvious caveat that this is a statistical trends, not an immutable law).

This feels right. We are taught from an early age that delayed gratification is the sine qua non of getting ahead. Study hard for 15+ years and you might get a decent entry-level job. Struggle through years of low-paid, contingent, grunt work, and you might get a full-time gig. Put in long hours, show-up, suck-up, and you might eventually be able to afford a house. The rewards always lie in the future; the graft is always in the present.

Is this really the best way to live? It seems right to suggest that the best things in life take time and effort — that we shouldn’t always satisfy our immediate lusts and longings. But there must be some upper limit to this? Surely we can’t delay gratification forever? In the remainder of this post I want to consider this issue by looking at something the philosopher Iddo Landau writes about in his recent book Finding Meaning in an Imperfect World. Following him, I want to argue that delayed gratification has a dark side: it can make our lives less meaningful.

1. Meaning and the Paradox of the End
Landau’s book discusses many of the obstacles to meaning in life. Landau is — as Campbell and Nyholm point out in their review of his work — like an inverse-Schopenhauer: where Schopenhauer was thoroughgoing pessimist, Landau is an irrepressible optimist. Contrary to the many meaning sceptics, Landau thinks it is possible to find meaning in life, as long as we avoid the mistake of perfectionism (i.e. looking for an ideal or perfect form of meaning). His book explores this possibility by critically assessing the many objections to meaningfulness.

One of the objections he considers is the ‘Paradox of the End’. The name seems to be original to Landau but the idea underlying the objection is a familiar one. We usually think of our lives as a series of means-ends projects. I go to college to study to get a degree. I train hard for months to run a marathon. The awarding of the degree and the completion of the marathon are the ‘ends’; the studying and training are the ‘means’. Some ends are relatively trivial — saving enough money to buy a nice meal out — others are grand and important — toiling for years at a laboratory bench in order to discover the latest scientific breakthrough. The pursuit of grand and important ends is usually thought to be central to the good life. Orienting our activities towards ends is what gives shape and purpose to our lives.

But what happens if we achieve our ends? Far from making our lives more meaningful, some people have argued that such achievements actually rob our lives of meaning. We are invariably disappointed by our achievements. They are never quite as a good as we hoped. Once we have achieved them, we quickly move on to the next project — like junkies searching for the next hit. There are many bits of folk wisdom that reinforce this belief — ‘the anticipation of something is better than actually having it’, ‘it’s all about the journey, not the destination’ — and there are some philosophers who seem to have believed in it. Landau cites the famous example of John Stuart Mill. Trained from an early age by his father to be the leader of the utilitarian movement, Mill had a complete breakdown in his early adulthood when he contemplated what would happen if he actually succeeded in this project:

I had what might be truly called an object in life; to be a reformer of the world…[Later] it occurred to me to put the question directly to myself: “Suppose that all your objects in life were realised; that all the changes in institutions and opinions which you are looking forward to, could be completely effected at this very instant; would this be a great joy and happiness to you?” And an irrepressible self-consciousness distinctly answered, “No!”. At this my heart sank within me… 
(Mill, Autobiography)

Of course, Mill never achieved his goal. One could, consequently, dismiss his depression as a recognition of the difficulty (and perhaps impossibility) of his task. But you cannot dismiss all such episodes. I can speak from personal experience. I have often set myself goals and, when I have achieved them, felt surprisingly underwhelmed as a result. I always have to move on to the next thing, hoping it will bring me some measure of satisfaction.

This sense that the achievement of ends is undesirable is the essence of the ‘Paradox of the End’. Landau explores several different ways of formulating it, but here’s my preferred version:

Paradox of the End: The pursuit of ends seems to be essential to give our lives purpose/meaning but the achievement of ends seems to strip this away.

Technically, there is no strict paradox here (in the sense of two logically contradictory statements). But there is definitely something odd going on. How could it be that directing ourselves towards ends is essential to meaning but the attainment of them is not? Should we engage in acts of self-sabotage in order to prevent the attainment of goals? Should we constantly delay gratification?

2. Escaping the Paradox and Avoiding Delayed Reward
Landau offers two main responses to the paradox. The first is to argue that the paradox only arises in some cases and that its proponents overlook or ignore the cases to which it does not apply. The second is to argue that even in those cases in which it does arise it is often our education/indoctrination that is to blame for its persistence. Let’s consider both of these responses in more detail.

Think about the goals you have achieved in your own life. Were you always dissatisfied when you achieved them? Landau argues that this is unlikely, at least not when we consider all the projects that make up a typical human life. He gives a few examples of ends that people generally feel proud of once attained and whose worth does not seem to diminish in the rear-view mirror of memory. One example is ‘having raised children successfully’ (though I’m curious as to what ’success’ means here) another is ‘having been part of helpful social or political movements’ (Landau 2017, 150). People’s enjoyment of these ends remains relatively constant over time. Similarly, Landau argues that the paradox does not arise in the case of ‘regulative goals’, i.e. goals that serve as ideals which we approximate over time but never quite achieve. For example, trying to be a more moral person, or to learn and understand more about the world. We can never hope to achieve moral perfection or complete understanding, but we can get better and this provides a constant source of motivation and direction in life. Finally, Landau argues that the paradox does not arise for non-instrumental activities, i.e. activities that are performed for their own sake because they are intrinsically rewarding. Experiencing beauty in the world around you, listening to uplifting music, engaging in deep conversations with your family, are all examples of this sort of activity. There is no goal to be achieved here but there is plenty of value.

The more interesting response, at least to me, is the second one: that even in the cases where the paradox appears to have some bite, it is our education/indoctrination that is to blame for its persistence. This is where we return to the Marshmallow Test and the dark side of delayed gratification. As Landau puts it:

…the paradox is not a constant in human life. It is, rather, a variable that can be changed — the result of several factors that can be largely controlled. Many of these factors are related to education: there are several problematic elements in education that exacerbate the tendency to undervalue achieved ends, and changing these elements will decrease the extent to which the paradox is experienced. 
(Landau 2017, 153)

So what are these ‘elements’ that need to changed? There are at least four mentioned by Landau, though they are all variations on the same thing. The first is ‘workaholism’. This is something that often gets trained into us at school and in early adulthood. We believe that we should always be working; that if we aren’t working we are wasting time. The guilt at not writing and researching — often experienced by academics — is a good example of this. The problem with workaholism is that it encourages us to undervalue achievements, not to rest for a moment to enjoy what we have, to always move on to the next thing. The second element is ‘stinginess with compliments’, which Landau argues is a common feature of modern education. Teachers don’t want to students to become complacent or lazy; they want to train them to develop a ‘growth mindset’ and to have more ‘grit’. This means they always highlight things that students could improve, rather than what they have done well, when giving feedback. Again, this encourages dissatisfaction with achievements because we are trained to find some fault in what we have done. The third element is ‘hyper-competitiveness’. We are often ranked relative to our peers and encouraged to interpret our successes relative to theirs. This is a surefire path to constant dissatisfaction because there is probably always someone out there who is better than you in some respect: there is always something they have that you do not. The fourth element is ‘overstating future rewards’, i.e. selling people a future that will always fail to live up to the hype. This is another surefire path to dissatisfaction.

These four elements contribute to a culture in which people become too good at delaying gratification and as a result experience a constant listlessness. They can never feel happy with what they’ve got. The conclusion, for Landau, is that if we moderated our educational and cultural environment to reduce or eliminate these four elements, we could mitigate the paradox of the end.

3. Conclusion
There are other factors affecting the paradox of the end. Landau mentions several in his book, including our tendency to mis-estimate rewards and to confuse waning satisfaction with a lack of genuine reward. I’ve dwelt on the delayed gratification/delayed reward angle here because it’s the part I found most insightful. It rings true to my own experiences. I feel like I am often guilty of workaholism and hyper-competitiveness and that this breeds a constant sense of dissatisfaction with what I do. I am always reluctant to celebrate any of my personal achievements (to the extent that I have had any) or to recategorise them as non-achievements as soon as they are done. I also worry that this is something that I am passing on to others. It’s safe to say that I am pretty stingy when it comes to compliments on student assessments: I’m constantly searching for the flaws and not the strengths. This is my natural mode of thought. It is a habit that has become deeply ingrained.

So I think there is much wisdom in what Landau has to say. There is a vicious side to delayed gratification and we would be well advised to avoid it. That said, I’m not sure what the best response to it is. The most obvious would be to steer a middle-course, to avoid the vice of immediate gratification as well as the vice of delayed gratification. But what is that middle course? Should we have any ambitions at all? The natural thing to say is that we should, but we should have them in moderation, and avoid becoming so tunnel-visioned that we cannot stop to smell the roses (or whatever your preferred cliche is) from time to time. But that strikes me as being too obvious. I wonder whether there is something in the logic of Landau’s (and other’s) philosophical assessment that suggests that a life of ambition is not the best course to steer? I’ll take up that question in a subsequent post.