10 Oct A philosopher’s thoughts on happiness – reading for a quiet Sunday
The Spoils of Happiness – by David Sosa for the NY Times
In 1974, Robert Nozick, a precocious young philosopher at Harvard, scooped _ã–The Matrix_ã:
Suppose there were an experience machine that would give you any experience you desired. Super-duper neuropsychologists could stimulate your brain so that you would think and feel you were writing a great novel, or making a friend, or reading an interesting book. All the time you would be floating in a tank, with electrodes attached to your brain. Should you plug into this machine for life, preprogramming your life experiences? […] Of course, while in the tank you won_ã_t know that you_ã_re there; you_ã_ll think that it_ã_s all actually happening […] Would you plug in?. (Anarchy, State, and Utopia, p. 3)
Nozick_ã_s thought experiment _ã” or the movie, for that matter _ã” points to an interesting hypothesis: Happiness is not a state of mind.
_ã–What is happiness?_ã is one of those strange questions philosophers ask, and it_ã_s hard to answer. Philosophy, as a discipline, doesn_ã_t agree about it. Philosophers are a contentious, disagreeable, lot by nature and training. But the question_ã_s hard because of a problematic prejudice about what kind of thing happiness might be. I_ã_d like to diagnose the mistake and prescribe a corrective.
Nozick_ã_s thought experiment asks us to make a decision about a possible circumstance. If things were thus-and-so, what would you do? Would you plug in? Some people dismiss the example because they think the very idea of that sort of decision, with respect to a hypothetical situation, is somehow bogus and can_ã_t show anything. _ã–These are all just hypothetical! Who cares? Get real!_ã
But the fact that a scenario is hypothetical doesn_ã_t make it imponderable or worthless. Compare a simpler case: Suppose there were a fire in your building and you could either save your neighbors, who_ã_d otherwise be trapped, by dragging them outside, or you could save your pencil, by holding on tight to that as you escaped, but not both. What would you do? I hope the answer_ã_s easy. And that_ã_s the point: We can, sometimes at least, answer this sort of question very easily. You are given a supposition and asked whether you would do this or that; you consider the hypothetical situation and give an answer. That_ã_s what Nozick_ã_s example is like.
So, would you plug in?
I don’t necessarily agree with the opinions expressed in this piece but I do love the way it encouraged me (and hopefully it will encourage you as well) to think about the meaning of happiness and other happiness related matters. So if you want to read the remainder of this thought provoking article – JUST CLICK HERE