While I’m recovering from an intense but seemingly short-lived cold, I got out the TV and this morning I stumbled on a british documentary about the greek philosopher Epicurus. He lived from 341-270 BCE on the island of Samos, and did a lot of thinking on the subject of personal happiness, ie. what do we really need to be happy? His thinking is amazingly relevant here 2000 years later.
One thing he came up with was:
…the so-called ‘four-part cure’, the Epicurean remedy for the epidemic sickness of human anxiety; as a later Epicurean puts it, “Don’t fear god, don’t worry about death; what’s good is easy to get, and what’s terrible is easy to endure.”
I like these four principles – following them will keep you safely grounded in the life you’re living right now, and strengthen your ability to believe that “everything will work out just fine”. While this belief may be right or wrong, it does tend to instill people with a confidence and serenity, that better allows them to make things turn out right.
Epicurus emphasized pleasure – in moderation. Fine foods, sure, but no more than you need. He believed, that we don’t need much to be happy – mostly friends and contemplation (philosophy). There’s an excellent and comprehensive Epicurus reference at epicurus.info.
Edge magazine have posted their annual roundup of answers to the question:
“WHAT DO YOU BELIEVE IS TRUE EVEN THOUGH YOU CANNOT PROVE IT?”
Great minds can sometimes guess the truth before they have either the evidence or arguments for it (Diderot called it having the “esprit de divination”).
One of the topics in review is the matter of free will; do we or don’t we have free will? Clifford Pickover holds a view that is similar to mine: That we do have free will, even though our brains are essentially tinkertoys:
If we believe that consciousness is the result of patterns of neurons in the brain, our thoughts, emotions, and memories could be replicated in moving assemblies of Tinkertoys. The Tinkertoy minds would have to be very big to represent the complexity of our minds, but it nevertheless could be done, in the same way people have made computers out of 10,000 Tinkertoys. In principle, our minds could be hypostatized in patterns of twigs, in the movements of leaves, or in the flocking of birds. The philosopher and mathematician Gottfried Leibniz liked to imagine a machine capable of conscious experiences and perceptions. He said that even if this machine were as big as a mill and we could explore inside, we would find “nothing but pieces which push one against the other and never anything to account for a perception.”
If our thoughts and consciousness do not depend on the actual substances in our brains but rather on the structures, patterns, and relationships between parts, then Tinkertoy minds could think. If you could make a copy of your brain with the same structure but using different materials, the copy would think it was you. This seemingly materialistic approach to mind does not diminish the hope of an afterlife, of transcendence, of communion with entities from parallel universes, or even of God. Even Tinkertoy minds can dream, seek salvation and bliss and pray.
Susan Blacmore has a totally opposing view, and is even trying to rid herself of her sense of making decisions and even of having a conscious self alltogether:
It is possible to live happily and morally without believing in free will. As Samuel Johnson said “All theory is against the freedom of the will; all experience is for it.” With recent developments in neuroscience and theories of consciousness, theory is even more against it than it was in his time, more than 200 years ago. So I long ago set about systematically changing the experience. I now have no feeling of acting with free will, although the feeling took many years to ebb away.
But what happens? People say I’m lying! They say it’s impossible and so I must be deluding myself to preserve my theory. And what can I do or say to challenge them? I have no idea – other than to suggest that other people try the exercise, demanding as it is.
When the feeling is gone, decisions just happen with no sense of anyone making them, but then a new question arises: will the decisions be morally acceptable? Here I have made a great leap of faith (or the memes and genes and world have done so). It seems that when people throw out the illusion of an inner self who acts, as many mystics and Buddhist practitioners have done, they generally do behave in ways that we think of as moral or good. So perhaps giving up free will is not as dangerous as it sounds but this too I cannot prove.
As for giving up the sense of an inner conscious self altogether this is very much harder. I just keep on seeming to exist. But though I cannot prove it I think it is true that I don’t.
This book had, and still has, me thinking hard. What is life? What is death? Are some lives worth more than others? When is it ethically correct to take innocent human life? I found myself having to reconsider all my previous answers to these questions, and while I still can’t get my mind around the radical new ethic that Singer proposes in the last part of the book (also the most provocative part), I can definitely see that the man and the book has a point. The book WILL make you rethink life & death, it’s very well written, very clearly thought out, very well presented and (astonishingly for a philosophical work) highly readable.
It used to be obvious when a person was alive or dead, but as so often happens, new technology forces us to reevaluate existing ethics. TO mention just a few examples, respirators (invented right here in Copenhagen) allow us to keep people alive who would otherwise have died; we can now freeze eggs, sperm cells and even embryos and revive them later; and the increasing succes rate of organ transplants create an impetus to take organs from a still living body – thus killing the donor.
In Rethinking Life & Death, The Collapse of Our Traditional Ethics, philosopher Peter Singer offers a wildly fascinating look at current medical practices in western society, and demonstrates how they already violate our traditional, judeo-christian based ethic of “the sanctity of life”, which states that human life is sacred, and that consequently it is always wrong to kill innocent human beings. At its most extreme, this ethic holds that abortion is murder, euthanasia is murder (even with the patient’s consent), and we can never allow a human to die even in the case of brain death or people in persistent vegetatice states (where the cortex, the seat of consiousness, has been destroyed).
Singer offers countless reasons why the belief that human life is sacrosanct leads to absurd choices, and succesfully demonstrates that even those who promote that view don’t follow it.
Continue reading Book review: Rethinking life & death
Subtitled “Fast and slow time in the information age”, this book by norwegian Thomas Hylland Eriksen details the struggle between two kinds of experiences. Fast time is when you’re doing 10 things at the same time. You’re talking on the phone while reading email, listening to the radio and half-following another conversation in the room. Slow time is when you focus on one thing only. You take time to cook a nice meal, to play with your child or to do nothing.
Eriksen argues that the information age is geared almost exclusively towards fast time and that consequently we have to make slow time for ourselves. Eriksen also argues that in any contest between fast time and slow time, fast time will win, because it is immediately gratifying and (not least) addictive.
Continue reading Book review: Tyranny of the moment
The Dalai Lama knows a thing or two about how to be happy. Not only has he studied buddhist philosophy, psychology, history etc. all his life, he’s also a terribly nice person who has devoted his life to serving others – his own people (the tibetans) as well as the rest of us. In The Art of Happiness: A Handbook for Living his insights into what makes people happy were paired with those of Howard Cutler an american psychiatrist, to give us a manual of happiness based on eastern and western thought and science.
For their second collaboration, they’ve decided to look at how to be happy on the job. The Art of Happiness At Work is an exploration of the major issues confronting those of us who have jobs: Topics like stress, boredom, anxiety, meaningless jobs are given a new twist through the insights of the Dalai Lama – a man who has never held a real job. It speaks to the depth of the buddhist knowledge and his ability to apply it, that he can offer profound insights and useful advice to people in circumstances so different from his own.
Continue reading Book review: The art of happiness at work
The Art of Happiness starts out by defining the role of happiness in our lives:
I believe that the very purpose of our life is to seek happiness. That is clear. Whether one believes in religion or not, whether one believes in this religion or that religion, we all are seeking something better in life. So I think the very motion of our life is towards happiness…
Howard Cutler got the enviable assignment of sitting down for a series of meetings over a copule of years with the Dalai Lama, and the result is this book. The style is true east meets west as Cutler, a psychologist, seeks to combine his understanding of the mind with the spiritual practices of the tibetan buddhism practiced by the Dalai Lama.
Continue reading Book review: The art of happiness
John Horgans book Rational Mysticism breaks new ground because it is written by a man who is clearly a sceptic but who seems to want to believe in something beyond rationality – yet doesn’t want it so much that he forgets to ask the tough questions. And the strong side of this book is precisely the questions. What is mysticism? What are spiritual experiences, what causes them, why should we seek them and what do they signify? Are mystical experiences triggerede by hallucinogenic drugs as reald or “valid” as those triggered by meditation or prayer? All good questions to which the book offers no one set of answers but rather an examination of many different viewpoints.
Each chapter of the book describes Horgans encounter with one aspect of mysticism, eg. drug related experiences, meditations, prayer, etc. He’s talked to many of the prominent people in the field, such as Ken Wilber, Huston Smith, Stanislav Grof and Albert Hofmann, the inventor of LSD. He allows each of these people to present their viewpoints on mysticism while offering his own thinking also.
One of the main questions examined in the book is that of the perennial philosophy. Here’s a quote from the book:
The perennial philosophy holds that the world’s great spiritual traditions, in spite of their obvious differences, express the same fundamental truth about the nature of reality, a truth that can be directly apprehended during a mystical experience. Implicit in the perennial philosophy is the notion that mytical perceptions transcend time, place, culture, and individual identity. Just as a farmer in first-century China and a website designer in twenty-first-century New York City see the same moon when they look skyward, so will they glimpse the same truth in the depths of a mystical vision.
Do we each see our own little world in our mystical experiences or do we look at the same world only differently. This difference is crucial because it seems to me, that mystical experiences would somehow be truer and more real, if they were not just individual “fantasies” but new ways of seeing our world.
The book is very well-written, highly entertaining and well researched and I recommend it to anyone interested in a view of mysticism that transcends the cool scepticism of the scientist types and the blind willingess to believe of the new-age generation.