The Birth of Philosophy from the Spirit of Contemplative Practice

There’s a lot of interest in contemplative practices and traditions at the moment. Their steady but circuitous route to their current position in public consciousness went something like this: a number of contemplative practices were reduced to the non-religious and non-metaphysical core practice of mindfulness meditation. Its positive impacts on things like general health and wellbeing, chronic pain reduction and stress management, job performance and effectiveness has been shown in study after study. Neuroscience proved that mindfulness meditation could lastingly alter the structure and activities of human brains. Then interest grew again in the spiritual hinterland of mindfulness meditation. Buddhism provided much of that background. And from there, interest grew again in the contemplative practices of other traditions. As it turns out there is a “contemplative core”  present in a variety of cultures and traditions which is highly meaningful for humanity.

So, for example, the meditation teacher Shinzen Young writes about his own research into the contemplative traditions of various cultures and religions:

It was quite astonishing for me to discover that all over the world and in every historical period there had been people who lived their lives in the state of high concentration that I was just beginning to explore. I began to feel a link to them all. It was fascinating to feel that I shared something deep and important with people living centuries ago and having customs and beliefs completely different from mine. I realised that when we practice meditation, we are engaging in a quintessentially human endeavour. The science of enlightenment doesn’t belong to any particular religion or culture or period, rather it belongs to humanity as a whole and helps us to connect to our basic humanness.

But What is a Contemplative Tradition?

There are a number of interrelated elements that belong to a working definition of a contemplative tradition:

  1. We could say it requires a system of insights or teachings (most likely about the place of human beings in the universe).
  2.  Specific techniques or practices to experience, deepen and reap the benefits of those insights.
  3. More specifically, the techniques and practices of contemplative traditions involve the temporary narrowing of mental focus onto single items or concepts.
  4. A key aspect of contemplative traditions is that they promise that the practice of their techniques are a route to a better, more fulfilled, in some senses, happier life and a liberation from the struggle, dissatisfaction and drudgery of non-contemplative day-to-day life.
  5. There is something important about how the practice and techniques of the contemplative practice lead to a better life. The practices themselves may generate feelings of fulfilment and happiness while they are being practiced and in the immediate aftermath. But the important thing is that a brief but regularly repeated period of practice carries over into the rest of life. So, for example, mindfulness meditation is practiced at best for a small proportion of a day, but imbues daily life with greater awareness.

These are basic central formal elements of contemplative traditions, even if the nature of the insights and practices differ. As Shinzen Young writes:

One way to trace the theme of meditation in world spirituality is through vocabulary. Most of the world’s contemplative traditions have a generic technical term that designates any concentrated state. In addition, there are often specific technical terms used to describe different depths or levels of concentration. When we take the systems and put them side by side, we notice some broad parallels between the Christian, Jewish, Islamic, Taoist, Buddhist, and Hindu systems of contemplation.

Similarly, the Sri Lankan Buddhist monk Bhante Henepola Gunaratana writes about the “overlapping practices called prayer and contemplation” that are present in many different religions and cultures:

Prayer is a direct address to a spiritual entity. Contemplation is a prolonged period of conscious thought about a specific topic, usually a religious ideal or scriptural passage. From the standpoint of mental cultivation, both of these activities are exercises in concentration. The normal deluge of conscious thought is restricted, and the mind is brought to one conscious area of operation. The results are those you find in any concentrative practice: deep calm, a physiological slowing of the metabolism, and a sense of peace and well-being.

While the practice of restricting the breadth and increasing the depth of concentration and focus is something that takes place as a conscious practice for designated periods of time in a day, the results of such practices are changes in the overall life of the practitioner. There are a many mechanisms by which this might happen, such as a) that the insights gained during the practice allow for a better understanding of the practitioner’s place in this universe and therefore better navigation in life, b) that the overall better control of the own mind and the ability to concentrate leads to greater effectiveness in addressing any opportunities or challenges that life might offer, c) that greater feelings of connectedness to the world and other human beings (e. g. through a practised focus on compassion, loving-kindness or charity) evoke and strengthen such feelings outside of the contemplative practice, d) that brain activity during contemplative practice changes the structure of the brain long term in a way that increases contentment and decreases feelings of craving and dissatisfaction.

This last point is a more recent focus of neuroscience and again one that is true for contemplative practices with differing forms and content. Shinzen Young, for example, writes:

First, the research seemed to show that while the conceptual systems of the various religions (and specifically those of Buddhism versus Christianity) are very different, the underlying neurological correlates of contemplative adepts in those traditions are often rather similar. This lent credibility to the notion that the world’s contemplative traditions can be viewed as a unity.

So Where Does Philosophy Come Into It?

Is philosophy a contemplative practice? Is Western philosophy one kind of contemplative tradition? We can certainly trace aspects of contemplative traditions through the history of western philosophy. I would argue that philosophy is at its best when it connects to its status as a contemplative practice and weakened when it moves away from it.

Let’s run through the five aspects of contemplative traditions set out above:

A System of Insights or Teachings and Specific Techniques or Practices

It could be argued that Western philosophy can’t possibly be a system of insights or teachings, as there are too many differing strands that are in conflict with each other. But if we gain enough distance from it, we may be able to detect a system of key insights that are in some form or other relevant to the whole tradition. That would be equivalent, for example, to seeing fundamental philosophical tenets of Buddhism as the theoretical backdrop for the practice of mindfulness meditation without worrying too much about the difference between Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism and the many arguments and differing theories between or within those schools.

It might be possible to extract certain insights as key to the contemplative tradition of Western philosophy. Just a few of these might be:

  1. We cannot rely on appearances. There is a truth that is somehow behind or beyond the things of our world. This is a key point from the attempts of pre-socratic philosophers to identify the original substance from which everything is made, be it water, fire or an ever-changing mix of source elements. This is behind the Platonic idea that the objects we perceive through our senses and handle in every day life are instances of more abstract ideas and forms. This is behind the idea that there is a nature of things beyond their appearance as phenomena. This idea is alive and well in the pop-philosophical question about whether our lives could be taking place in a simulated virtual reality. A special case of this insight is the Heraclitean idea (also flowing through Stoicism) that everything is in flux, or the insight that the things we regard as hard and fast are in fact ephemeral. Corresponding contemplative practices are: radical doubt, whereby we apply discipline in order to second guess everything that seems reliable until we get to a core of certainty (perhaps most obviously associated with Descartes). Aiming to see the abstract and eternal beyond the practical and fleeting. The practice of really de-valuing things that are part of the unreliable and fleeting world of appearance and looking for things that are eternal (including the devaluation of the body in favour of the soul).
  2. It is important to understand the real reasons for things and events. Philosophy (and from it science) started when people stopped seeing certain events as acts of gods and started looking for other (better) reasons. From that the practice of looking for and providing reasons became important in being able to say what is true and what is good. This capacity for perceiving, critiquing, providing and acting on reasons – rationality – became seen as a distinctly human capacity, or more lately as a capacity available to a distinctly larger extent in human beings. Rationality here is not meant as a contrast to being emotional but as an ability to deal with reasons. Corresponding contemplative practices are: looking for reasons, critiquing reasons, refining our ability to perceive and act on (right) reasons.
  3. There are ideals that we can somehow aim to get at. The True, The Good and The Beautiful to name but a few. Freedom, Right Action, the Good Life. These things are out there and it is our job to somehow get closer to them, unveil them, get them to reveal themselves, define them. Philosophy is a journey towards such ideals (out of the cave). Corresponding contemplative practices are: the contemplation of ideals.

The temporary narrowing of mental focus onto single items or concepts

  • Contemplation and Deep Thought: The practice of Western philosophy may not have the same specificity of practices as other contemplative traditions – it doesn’t have particular cushions, mats or stools for sitting on during practice, it doesn’t have the sounds of gongs or chimes – but it has its own forms of temporary narrowing focus. What does a philosopher do? In the first instance he or she narrows his or her thinking onto a single concept or proposition in order to develop and illuminate it.
  • Dialogue: Not too long ago, a newspaper published a letter-to-the-editor from Professor Simon Blackburn, that described the following course of events:

Sir, I was a member of the then sub-faculty of philosophy in Oxford some 30 years ago when the chairman received a letter from the administration asking us to detail innovations in teaching methods we had recently made. His reply was that the right method of teaching philosophy was discovered by Socrates some 2,500 years ago, and we had no intention of changing it. We heard no more about it.

That method which has run through Western philosophy for more than two millennia is the practice whereby two or more people are engaged in the practice of talking to each other, more specifically asking and answering questions, in order to establish the truth about certain concepts. Whether this takes place in the agora, the Ancient Greek market-place, where one might have found Socrates, the particular stoa, or portico, where the (therefore) Stoic philosopher Zeno taught, the seminar rooms of universities, or elsewhere doesn’t particularly matter.

  • Reading and writing: These are key practices of the contemplative tradition that is Western philosophy. Of course we are not talking about any kind of reading or writing. It is much more a case of extending the practice of dialogue to a situation where people aren’t necessarily in each other’s presence. So the writer in this practice writes in a way that allows the reader to understand his or her insights. The writer also anticipates objections the reader might advance and answers them. The reader not only aims to take them in, but reads critically, i. e. thinks about what his or her objections would be, what he or she agrees with, and what could be said in response. The reader aims for a charitable reading whereby he or she reads the arguments of the writer in a way that gives them as much sense as possible, before opening the text up to critique. The practice of teaching or learning philosophy by working with classic texts comes close to the idea of contemplating certain bits of scripture as a way of narrowing the focus of concentration.

A better, happier life through brief but repeated periods of practice

Does the practice of philosophy make life better? And do occasional periods of practising philosophy have a positive effect on life as a whole?

Philosophers have long argued that the answer to both questions is yes. In Plato’s famous allegory of the cave, he talks about people who are constrained to life in a cave where they can only observe shadow images on the walls and guess at what objects they represent. Some lucky cave dwellers manage to escape. On leaving the cave these people start seeing real objects, reflections of the sun in water and finally the sun whose light makes everything visible. These people are the philosophers who move from merely dealing with the objects and concepts of the practical world to being able to contemplate the forms, the essences of things, and eventually the form of the good – the ultimate source of truth.

In the ideal society, Plato argues, these people who have seen the light, must not be allowed to stay out there basking in the sunlight – even though they will “think that they’ve been transported to the Isles of the Blessed.” The philosophers will have to go back down to the cave to use their advanced understanding gained from contemplation of the sun to lead the community in the cave and share their understanding with them.

In other words: although philosophical contemplation is a pleasant and liberating experience in itself, those practicing it, must return to “real life,” better able to act there because of the insights gained in contemplation and with a responsibility to enlighten their non-contemplative fellow citizens insofar as they can.

There is also a famous paradox in Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics which may benefit from applying to it the idea that philosophy is meant to be a contemplative practice. The paradox is in the fact that in book 10 of the Ethics, Aristotle says that happiness consists in contemplation, that contemplation is the highest form of virtue and that it is divine. Whereas elsewhere he gives the impression that all the virtues are equally valuable and that human life is at its bests when it contains activity and social interactions. This is a bit of a paradox that comes about from the fact that engaging in contemplative practice provides a different mindset and perspective in which contemplation is a superior activity. But its value consists in when it carries over to the activities of “normal life.”

Then we have the Stoic philosopher Seneca who, in his essay on the Shortness of Life, proposes that practising philosophy is really the only worthwhile, happy-making and life-prolonging activity. He recommends an ongoing dialogue with the philosophers, as:

“No one of these will force you to die, but all will teach you how to die; no one of these will wear out your years, but each will add his own years to yours; conversations with no one of these will bring you peril, the friendship of none will endanger your life, the courting of none will tax your purse. From them you will take whatever you wish; it will be no fault of theirs if you do not draw the utmost that you can desire. What happiness, what a fair old age awaits him who has offered himself as a client to these! He will have friends from whom he may seek counsel on matters great and small, whom he may consult every day about himself, from whom he may hear truth without insult, praise without flattery, and after whose likeness he may fashion himself.”

So What?

So what if philosophy once was, or in some places still is a contemplative practice? It certainly has moved on now. It is now taught as an academic discipline, rather than a contemplative practice. Isn’t that better? It depends. There are those who regret that philosophy is becoming increasingly invisible in the public space. (I have written about that in this post.) Philosophy could re-connect with its roots as a contemplative practice. It could be a discipline that aims to benefit its practitioners and through them the wider world. Or it could become ever narrower, thinner, specialised and removed from the circumstances of the lives human beings lead. Then it shouldn’t be surprised if people turn either to the ancient philosophers who took their task seriously (has anyone noticed the resurgence of Stoicism) or the teachers of other contemplative practices when they need some insight into what is going on in their lives and the world.

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Vote Yourself Happy!

Voting makes you happy!

Or as the classic research paper on the subject puts it rather more simply:

A cross-regional econometric analysis suggests that institutional factors in the form of direct democracy (via initiatives and referenda) and of federal structure (local autonomy) systematically and sizeably raise self-reported individual well-being. This positive effect can be attributed to political outcomes closer to voters’ preferences, as well as to the procedural utility of political participation.

(Frey, Bruno S. and Stutzer, Alois ‘Happiness, Economy and Institutions’ 2000)

This study was done in Switzerland where the level of democratic activity differs from canton to canton (regions). It therefore lends itself well to looking at correlations between levels of happiness and participation in democratic processes.

A key part of the findings was that voting makes you happier, whether the outcome or person you voted for wins or not.

So, no matter who you vote for, make sure you vote!

 

Useful Concepts -#14- Belonging Gently

A Blog Post for Nihal’s 5th Birthday

Dear Nihal – Happy birthday!

A famous literary critic once said that there was “no more sombre enemy of great art than the pram in the hall.” A blog isn’t great art. This stuff isn’t literature. But it’s funny that I felt more motivated and able to write things down after you were born. Probably that’s because there are certain things I would like you to know when you’re old enough to read and understand them. Or at least certain things of which I would like you to know that your father once thought them.

Unlike with some of my other blog posts I won’t quote lots of books at you here. These are just some thoughts of mine. I always thought I had a very diverse background as far as nationalities, ethnicities and religions go: I was born in Israel, brought up in Switzerland and now live in England. Go back far enough into my (your) family background you’ll find Jews from Switzerland and all over Europe, as well as non-practising Christians or atheists of Roman-Catholic and Anglican backgrounds, Italians who emigrated to London, an English line and probably more. But you have even more diversity on your side. On your mother’s side you also have Sikhs from the Punjab, and some who came to London via Kenya. And even if you didn’t have all of that diversity already in you, you still have access to an amazing range of cultures, ethnicities, religious experiences because that’s the world you live in. London, where you’re growing up is one of the more open-minded, multi-cultural and diverse places in the world and I hope that it won’t close in on itself during your lifetime.

And what I wanted to recommend to you – though I know that you will come to your own conclusions – is to hold as much as you can of your own and of that wider diversity close and dear. Belonging gently – never fiercely, desperately or too seriously – to as much of it as you can. I found that at times I tried to impersonate one of the many strands of my identity too strongly at the cost of others and I found that that was never particularly successful. There were times, for example, when I jokingly said that my career ambition was to become a miracle working rabbi (not like Jesus, but like the orthodox guys who were prevalent in Eastern Europe some centuries ago) and there were times I just wanted to be seen as being totally English and hated it when people suggested I had some kind of foreign accent or asked where my name came from. I was about as likely to succeed in either ambition – that is to say, not at all – and I now think these ambitions to be one thing instead of being many things were misguided. Because trying to be purely one thing with too much orthodoxy, clinging too much to an identity, means excluding any other identities that you can have. And there are things of value, sources of energy, and potential for insights in all of them.

It might be tempting then to go further and give up on belonging to any particular background: adopt the citizenship of cosmopolitanism and the religion of spirituality without religion. But it’s difficult to find the culture and national character of the citizens of the world. And it’s hard to work out the rites, rituals, holidays, beliefs and prayers of the merely spiritual. And these things matter, even if only as a backdrop of traditions from which to renew things or even to rebel against.

That’s why I suggest a concept of “belonging gently.” Belong to your backgrounds, adopt some new things to belong to, if you like, but embrace them all at the same time. Don’t belong too radically just to one, never be too proud of one strand, never cling too desperately to any one of them. If you can, be happy to belong to things, but also be happy, when it’s called for, to be a little bit of an outsider. It is healthy, now and then, to be able to look at what you belong to from a different perspective, a little bit from the outside, having taken a step away or adopted a different way of looking at it. You can then ask yourself questions like “does all of this represent all of me? Which parts of it am I happy to belong to? Which can I do without?”

None of this, by the way, is to say that you should be commitment phobic. Commit fully to people, to ideas, to cultures, if you like. Committing is about what you give of yourself. Belonging is about the hold that you allow something to have on you. This may be complicate. I’ll try to illustrate it by way of an example: It makes me laugh how you five-year-olds can say “today, so-and-so was my friend” and then the next day “today, so-and-so wasn’t my friend.” That’s a funny concept of friendship that comes and goes with each day. Friendship by definition implies a more enduring commitment, even if someone decides not to play with you for a day, or even a series of days. And you need those commitments to friendships with other people for a happy life. But you don’t need to want to belong so strongly to a group of “friends” that you’d do anything – exclude others, do things you know to be silly – in order to remain a part of it.

So yes, commit firmly and belong gently. Maybe that works.

Anyway, perhaps this getting all too serious. Maybe by the time you can read and understand this, you’ll have found out for yourself what works. Or I will have changed my mind about these things again. For now have a happy birthday, blow out candles, eat cake, unwrap presents and enjoy yourself!

Useful Concepts -#13- Going With the Flow

When I was much younger, maybe in my teens, I adopted “go with the flow” as a motto and as a way of life. For me it didn’t mean just following others or not having any idea what I wanted to do. It meant not having too clear a plan, for example going to the train station knowing that there would be a train reasonably soon, rather than going with a particular itinerary in mind. Or walking around in the right area of town trusting that I would find the place I needed to find, rather than having the location clearly mapped out in my mind.

This may have led to me spending too much time waiting at train stations, or asking perfect strangers for directions more frequently than may be respectable. Less kind observers may also have taken my “go with the flow” attitude for a rationalisation of a certain lack of personal organisation or an overly intellectual excuse for a poor sense of direction. But it did insure me against getting too stressed if stuff didn’t go to plan. (Not having a specific itinerary in mind happened to be particularly useful when I became a user of English trains, rather than Swiss ones.)

Speaking of rationalisations and over-intellectualising things, it’s fair to say that “going with the flow” has pretty much the purest intellectual and philosophical ancestry of any useful concept. Ever since Thales of Miletus, one of the first Greek philosophers, thought that water was the primal substance and Pythagoras believed that souls flow from one incarnation to the next, ideas of flux were in philosophical play. But it was Heraclitus of Ephesus who declared that everything flows.  And in a way this idea that beyond our reality, where things seem hard and fast and where we assume a certain amount of stability, there is a world in flow, flux, change, and motion is perhaps the original philosophical stance. It is even possible that Heraclitus taught that if everything is in flux then we – our selves – are also impermanent. We only have fragments of his teachings preserved in the writings of later philosophers, often out of context, misquoted or misunderstood. But his tendency to compare the flux of everything to the flow of a river is clear. He says people can’t step into the same river twice. And when this is quoted, there sometimes is a suggestion that those who step into the river aren’t the same either on the two occasions. If we allow for Heraclitus’ concept of “psyche” to stand for a kind of concept of self, it is clear that Heraclitus regarded it as something we could never fully get a grasp of ourselves.

Heraclitus is credited with this original vision of the fleeting world. But what consequences does flux have for our lives? What does it mean for the way we are, that everything, even our own selves are in flux? Perhaps surprisingly the real masters of flux for me, because they aim to address some of these questions, are the Stoics. It was probably the founder of that philosophical school, Zeno of Citium, who declared that a happy life was one that “flowed smoothly.” (And by  the way, while we’re talking about Ancient Greek or “Western” philosophy, Thales’ and Heraclitus’ hometowns of Miletus and Ephesus were in an area called Asia Minor, today Turkey, whereas Zeno’s hometown of Citium is in today’s Cyprus, so far East that it’s more or less equidistant between London and Mumbai.)

The word the Stoics used for the “smooth flow” of life is “eurhoia,” a term that is also used in ancient Greek for water that flows clearly without obstacles, and for speech that flows well with a coherent argument. But what does it mean for a life to flow smoothly? It means arranging our life in such a way that the flow of the self moves with the flow of everything else. For the Stoics the flow of everything was not just a random movement of atoms in a chaotic universe but it was a pre-determined course of events guided by fate. Occasionally they metaphorically describe Zeus, the chief of the Greek gods, as the personification of that destiny, at other times it is a divine sequence of cause and effect, represented by the goddess Heimarmene, or just the nature of things. Bringing our own actions, but also our emotions, into line with that natural flow of things that happen in the world, is key to the good life and virtuous life.

One Stoic philosopher compares the human condition guided by destiny to the situation of a dog pulling a cart. The dog’s master will make the dog pull the cart from A to B. The dog may take the attitude that it doesn’t want to pull the cart from A to B. It may try going elsewhere, or it may try to shake off the cart. Then it will be beaten by the master all the way from A to B. It will be an unpleasant experience but the outcome will be that the dog pulls the cart from A to B. Or it can willingly get on with the task and get from A to B without being beaten, a smooth journey. That sounds a bit unfriendly, but there are other ways of putting it. Here’s Diogenes Laertius, the third century biographer of Greek philosophers summarising the teachings of the Stoic, Chrysippus:

“Again, ‘to live according to virtue’ is equivalent to living according to the experience of events which occur by nature, as Chrysippus says […]. For our natures are parts of the nature of the universe. Therefore, the goal becomes ‘to live consistently with nature,’ i.e., according to one’s own nature and that of the universe, doing nothing which is forbidden by the common law, which is right reason, penetrating all things, being the same as Zeus, who is the leader of the administration of things. And this itself is the virtue of the happy man and a smooth flow of life, whenever all things are done according to the harmony of the daimon in each of us with the will of the administrator of the universe.”

The aspect of this that seems most modern about this is the idea of living in accordance with one’s own nature. “The daimon within us” is not a demon, but the kind of minor divinity of the self who can aim to get along with Zeus, the controller of the universe. And this idea of being true to oneself – living in line with our own nature – is expressed in other, practical ways. Cicero, summarising the teachings of the Stoics for the Romans, gives an example (also alluding to the use of “eurhoia” in rhetorics as smoothly flowing speech which would have been important for him, the master orator) :

If anything at all is fitting, then nothing is more fitting than a smooth flow of life as a whole and of individual actions; and you cannot preserve this if you neglect your own nature and imitate that of other people. For just as we should employ the style of speech that is familiar to us to avoid being quite justifiably ridiculed like certain people who drop in Greek words all over the place, so too we should not admit any inconsistency into our actions and our general way of life…

None of this means that we should lazily submit to the thought that it’s just our fate to have certain things happen to us, or it’s just our nature that we are a certain way. The dog still has to pull the cart. It is doing hard work – happily – to get where the master wants it to go. And the inner “daimon” is managing the flow of the self, as a microcosm of the flow of the universe managed by Zeus. That self isn’t fixed. It is in movement. It just flows more smoothly and pleasantly when it goes with the flow of overall destiny.

 

 

Useful Concepts – #12 – Happiness Again

The other day I met up with a former colleague. I say “former colleague” but maybe “friend” would be a better word. Not that he’s a close friend. I know very little about what goes on in his life. But I’ve worked with him for long enough to know his strengths and for him to know my weaknesses, our views of the world overlap to a significant enough extent and we can tap into each other’s sense of humour easily enough. He’s one of those people who are very good at being rude (honest) to me but with enough underlying sarcasm and politeness that it’s easy to take. So  I wasn’t surprised that he suggested somehow that I probably spend too much time blogging and promoting my blog on social media.

I gave my usual explanation, that I just wanted to get into a regular habit of writing, that I’ve spent too much time reading and thinking and not enough writing, and so on. He responded: “Really? I just thought you wanted to help.” As I couldn’t work out whether he was making fun of me or whether he was getting at the truth, I decided he was probably doing both. (Who says Socratic irony is dead?). “Help make the world a better place?” I asked. He confirmed that that was indeed his take on what I was trying to do. We both smirked at the hopeless idealism and immodest ambition in that alleged motive and I changed the subject.

But yes, I guess in truth I would like to help. Ideally, if I’m honest, I would like each of my little blog posts to be a “transformational object” for its readers. And one of the ways I would like to help is by getting at happiness and what that means for human beings. It was probably no coincidence that my first post was on the subject of happiness. There was a time when I was obsessed with the concept and given my personality type and preferences that meant getting at it intellectually rather than through practice, trial and error. I first got into it by studying ethics and learning that there are lines of inquiry that are not so just about working out what the right actions would be in given situations, but about having a vision of the good life for human agents and giving them a way to navigate their way through a hazardous world where much is out of their control.

A bit later I worked as a civil servant on sustainable development. And as it happened, this work again brought me back to my obsession with happiness, wellbeing, the good life, or quality of life. (Happiness was given other names in order to make it respectable for government to show an interest in it.) I was able to play a minor role in developing government indicators of wellbeing, funding research of people like Professor Paul Dolan who has since published his bestselling “Happiness by Design: Finding Pleasure and Purpose in Everyday Life” and participating a bit (always at a slight distance as a grey-suited civil servant)  in Professor Tim Jackson’s work for the Sustainable Development Commission which led to his classic “Prosperity without Growth: Foundations for the Economy of Tomorrow.” (How little he enjoyed his interaction with government is the subject of a new preface to the second edition.)

In the early part of the millennium there was a bit of a happiness boom driven by behavioural economics and positive psychology. And a part of why I was so angry and upset about the retreat of philosophy from the public sphere was that I felt that it was giving up on its tradition of having meaningful things to say to people about the important things in life and the big questions.

I remember for example being at a philosophy seminar where the lecturing philosopher described a psychological experiments that measured what activities contributed to people’s happiness. He described how people were given a pager that would send them a signal at random times of the day, at which point they were asked to record the activity they were engaged in and how happy they felt on a scale of one to ten. The lecturer’s voice trembled in anticipation of how amused his audience would be at this experimental set-up. And he was richly rewarded with sniggers from an audience full of senior academics.

Of course there is plenty that a philosopher could question about this, to give just a small number of questions as an example:

  • isn’t happiness too multi-dimensional to just rate it with a simple number?
  • how does someone’s happiness in the moment relate to their overall happiness in life or their evaluation of their happiness from a later point in time, say from their deathbed?
  • is an individual’s assessment of their happiness reliable or could they be deluded?
  • how do we deal with the fact that this experiment will only give us statistical correlations between happiness and activities, rather than causal explanations?
  • isn’t this idea of using technology to ask real people questions about things they do in everyday life a bit vulgar? Hadn’t we better rely on literature and a bit of thinking undertaken in the library?

But at the same time you could read things in philosophical literature that showed that philosophers could have done well to engage a bit more seriously with this kind of research. For example, in a book that I love and hold as one of the great works of philosophy, Rosalind Hursthouse relies on the fact that it is obvious to an outside observer whether we are enjoying ourselves. She writes:

“I need a shorthand description for the indications of enjoyment – that things are done with zest and enthusiasm, anticipated and recalled in certain tones of voice with certain facial expressions, and in a certain vocabulary, and so on – so I shall call them `the smile factor’.”

Relying on outside sings of enjoyment to draw conclusions on an inner state (the “smile factor”) is a tricky business but Hursthouse is not wrong to do so. It is similar to the idea that our subjective estimation of our happiness would mirror the judgement of other people as to how happy we are and would correspond to something real, namely our happiness. But while Hursthouse just uses a list of indications of enjoyment and assumes that they are as accessible to ourselves as they are to others, the economists and psychologists have done their homework and collected evidence: They undertook studies, for example, where they asked an individual to rate his happiness on a numeric scale. They then asked people close to that individual to rate his happiness. The ratings of the individual matched the rating of that individual’s happiness given by their friends reliably.

Or Professor James Griffin proposes a list of things that one might want in one’s life: accomplishment, the components of human life (autonomy, liberty, limbs and senses that work, the minimum material goods to keep body and soul together, etc.), understanding, enjoyment, deep personal relations. I’m sure I was at a lecture where Professor Griffin said that his list may show a slight bias to the things that academics might value but he thought it was pretty comprehensive. We could rely on such lists much more, if we compared them with the factors that look important when we look at studies of the wellbeing of tens of thousands of people world-wide.

On the other hand, it is depressing to read in Professor Lord Layard’s great and influential book Happiness: Lessons from a New Science dismissals of Aristotle of this kind:

“It differs, for example, from the approach taken by Aristotle and his many followers. Aristotle believed that the object of life was eudaimonia, or a type of happiness associated with virtuous conduct and philosophic reflection.”

“For Aristotle, ethical behaviour was largely a matter of good habits, which create discomfort when you behave badly and reinforcement when you behave well.”

“However Aristotle made one serious mistake. He included in his concept of happiness only that happiness which is associated with a life of virtue (including contemplation). This was to confuse the means with the end. Virtue may be the means to create a happy society, but the end is the greatest happiness and the least misery in the society. And much of happiness comes and should come from purely private pleasures. Is painting virtuous, or playing the piano to yourself, or enjoying bingo? Virtue doesn’t seem the right word to describe these things.”

Any serious engagement with philosophy could have cleared up some of the false assumptions here. For example the misunderstanding that, for Aristotle, happiness (eudaimonia) results as a consequence of virtuous actions, rather than that virtuous actions and having virtuous character traits are constituent parts of human flourishing. Aristotle wouldn’t have a problem with the idea that bingo (played virtuously) could contribute to the happiness of human beings. Or for an other example, the idea that habits which create comfort and discomfort in response to behaviour are the mechanics that links virtues to happiness. Virtues for Aristotle are more than a question of good habits and good behaviour. They are more like character traits that govern emotions, reliable and stable ways of acting, sensitivities, reasoning and so on. Nor is Aristotle’s happiness a sum total of momentary comforts and discomforts, but a notion related to the characteristically good, flourishing life for human beings.

Would there be a difference if Layard (whose work has been influential in shifting public policy and government spending priorities) had paid more attention to Aristotle, rather than dismissing him on flimsy grounds? I don’t know. But the vast array of studies that have found correlations between various activities and subjective ratings of happiness of the people who undertake them could be enriched. Correlations have been found for example between happiness and all three of the following: commuting to work for a shorter time rather than a longer time, being married, and attending church regularly. It seems to me that if you want to move from mere correlation to causation, it will be important to ask, for example, how commuters could make better use of their time commuting to engage in valuable activities, rather than just waste it. Or you need to ask yourself whether it is being in possession of a marriage certificate that makes married people happier, or whether it could be something about their ability to enter into deep personal relationships and long-term commitments (things that unmarried people can cultivate in different ways too, by the way). And you have to ask yourself whether it is being in a church at certain times that is making people happy, or the social aspects, putting time aside to reflect on the human condition in its relation to the divine, or enjoying beautiful music and language. Otherwise you might end up prescribing the wrong things for happiness (get a different job closer to home, even if your current job gives you a great sense of purpose, get married even if you’re not sure it’s for you, go to church) and miss the point.

So yes, I will hopefully write a bit more about happiness. (Looking back it looks like all of my blog posts so far are in some way about happiness.) And in some way or other I hope we will get at its nature, or at least stay close to it.

Useful Concepts – #11 – Feelings Have Thoughts Too!

Philosophers have not gained a reputation for being greatly in touch with their feelings. “Being philosophical” about something means rationally processing it without getting too swayed by emotions.

But amongst the philosophers, it is the Stoics who are particularly thought to be unemotional. They are sometimes seem as not quite human, somewhat robotic, in their  ambition to maintain equanimity in the face of events that would, in normal people, cause great emotion, positive or negative.

And indeed the Stoics taught that things like riches or poverty, health or illness, our relationships with loved ones, even life or death, are outside of our control and so we shouldn’t consider them to be too important. They are merely indifferent items. The only things that matter are our inner qualities or our virtuous character. For the kind of calm state of mind that could be achieved by applying that kind of thinking to life, they have the image of the flat undisturbed sea on a windless day (“galene” in Ancient Greek).

So it may come as a surprise that Martha Nussbaum – with her 57 honorary degrees and 18 academic awards and prizes a rockstar of the philosophical world – has revived the Stoic teachings on emotions to create a highly persuasive account of what emotions are, and, of course, a very useful concept. That account also smashes the traditional way of thinking of thought and feeling as diametrically opposed.

Unlike some philosophical writing, which can be technical, dry and removed from life as we know it, Martha Nussbaum’s book about the emotions starts with a heart-rending biographical account of how she heard of the death of her mother and the days that followed. It also manages to deal with some things that most people contemplate quietly within themselves, such as why she and her sister grieved in different ways, and so on. All in the service of making philosophical points.

The basic point of Nussbaum’s so-called neo-Stoic account of the emotions is that emotions are basically judgements we make about things that are important to our own well-being, or flourishing. In evaluating external things, things outside of our control, as important to our well-being we also acknowledge our lack of self-sufficiency.

The idea that emotions may actually be evaluative judgements seems at first glance unlikely for a number of reasons:

1.) Emotions have urgency and “heat” to them, unlike the rational thought processes that more normally lead to judgements.

2.) Emotions tend to overcome us. We are passive with regard to them, rather than actively pursuing a thought process that would lead to a judgement.

3.) The ability of emotions to “dismember the self” (in Nussbaum’s words) when thoughts are normally thought to be (more or less) under our control.

Let’s take these objections in turn with Nussbaum’s explanation:

1.) Urgency and heat: Emotions feel urgent because they are judgements about things we think are important to our wellbeing and flourishing. They are not just any kind of judgment, but judgements that are central to our most valued attachments, projects and goals. Fear is the emotion where we judge something central to our wellbeing to be threatened. Sadness is the emotion where we judge something central to our wellbeing to be lost. Joy is the emotion where we judge it to be available. And so on. Because of their connection to our view of what would be a good life for us, they create urgency.

2.) Our passivity regarding emotions: This comes from the fact that emotions are judgements about objects in which we are invested but which are outside of our control. (There are echoes here of the Stoic view that nothing apart from our character is under our control.) Things happen. We can’t help but notice that they happen and make the relevant judgements about how they affect our flourishing.

3.) The self being torn apart: Quoting Nussbaum:

“the reason why in some emotional experiences the self feels torn apart (and in happier experiences filled with a marvellous sense of wholeness) is, once again, that these are transactions with a world about which we care deeply, a world that can complete us or tear us apart. No view that makes the emotion like a physical object hitting us can do justice to the way the world enters into the self in emotion, with enormous power to wound or to heal. For it enters in a cognitive way, in our perceptions and beliefs about what matters. Not just an arm or a leg, but a sense of life, gets  the shock or grief.

Insofar then, as we might sometimes be more affected or more aware of the emotions we are feeling than the judgements we are making, emotions then – in this neo-Stoic view – can also serve as a guide to a greater understanding of our thought processes and our conception of the good life for ourselves. It is a rewarding exercise, in times when we feel emotional, to try to unearth the evaluative judgement about our sense of flourishing and wellbeing at the core of the emotion. Stopping to ask “what judgement about my wellbeing am I making that is inherent in feeling happy, sad, fearful, confident right now?” may seem a bit overly Stoic, but it works and can be useful.

As a postscript for those who enjoyed the examples of (mis-)adventures of intellectuals commenting on tennis players in my previous post about Roger Federer, in researching this post, I found another great example from Martha Nussbaum:

“Two night ago, I went to bed thinking that Todd Martin had been knocked out of the U. S. Open (since he had lost the first two sets to a tough opponent.) I felt a little sad. When I woke up, I found out that he had won in five sets. I saw him on TV dancing around the court, and I felt a surge of joy. But of course it was a trivial sorrow and a trivial joy. While one watches a tennis match, one is intensely focused on the athlete one likes, and so an emotion can develop as one temporarily comes to think the match very important – and perhaps also identifies with the aging Martin, with his graying temples, so like one’s own if one did not dye one’s hair. But when normal life resumes, the evaluation resumes its normal low level. Todd Martin just isn’t a very important part of my life.

Useful Concepts – #9 – Experience Machines

Quite possibly the first use of the adjective “superduper” in philosophical literature occurred in the mid-1970s in this paragraph by Robert Nozick:

“Suppose there was an experience machine that would give you any experience you desired. Superduper 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? If you are worried about missing out on desirable experiences we can suppose that business enterprises have researched thoroughly the lives of many others. You can pick and choose from their large library or smorgasbord of such experiences, selecting your life’s experiences of, say, the next two years. After two years have passed, you will have ten minutes or ten hours out of the tank to select the experiences of your next two years. Of course, while in the tank you won’t know that you’re there; you’ll think that it’s all actually happening. Others can also plug in to have the experiences they want, so there’s no need to stay unplugged to serve them. (Ignore problems such as who will service the machines if everyone plugs in.) Would you plug in? What else can matter to us, other than how our lives feel from the inside?”

Nozick gives three answers:

  1. We want to do certain things, rather than just have the experience of doing them. (But even Nozick asks, but why?)
  2. We want to be a certain way, to be a certain person. If we plug in, we’re just an “indeterminate blob.” Nozick asks, is the person in the tank courageous, kind, intelligent, witty, loving? How could we know? How could they be?
  3. Plugging in “limits us to a man-made reality, to a world no deeper or more important than that which people can construct. There is no actual contact with any deeper reality, though the experience of it can be simulated.”

The experience machine has created a whole literature, not to mention any number of sci-fi films. People have worked out variants, for example where you never emerge from the machine until your biological death, in order to get rid of the idea that you could ever become conscious of spending a lot of time just being a body in a tank, and so on.

People argue over whether Nozick got the right reasons to reject the machine. Some people may also take pleasure in the intellectual bravado of saying that they would plug in, that they see no reasons not to. That would be a typically annoying undergraduate posture to take up. (I’d know, I did for a whole afternoon. It was many years ago.)

The ongoing discussion just shows how great a concept the experience machine is. But the rejection of it, for most people who aren’t undergraduates in philosophy, is immediate and from the gut. (Not every belief or conviction that is instinctive and intuitive is necessarily right, though this one is.)

Experience machines exist, of course, and many of us plug ourselves in quite willingly. Some of those superduper people, for example, can help us flood our brains with a  bitter, white crystalline purine, a methylxanthine alkaloid that is chemically related to the adenine and guanine bases of deoxyribonucleic acid and ribonucleic acid. This blocks the action of adenosine on its receptor in the brain and stimulates the autonomic nervous system. It makes us less drowsy, more alert, physically faster and better co-ordinated. It can increase our heart rate and pulse. You’ll be aware of course, that we don’t have to plug into electrodes and float in a tank for this. And the superduper people aren’t neuropsychologists, but more likely baristas. This experience machine is just a regular cup of coffee.

But physical symptoms and mental states are a two-way street. Research has shown, for example, that, even when you feel you have no reasons to, you can smile for a while and your mood will improve, or you can clench your fist for a while and that can make you more aggressive. And so this experience machine can give us the impression that we’re well rested and refreshed (not in any way drowsy or tired) or that we’re facing an amazing, interesting experience (alertness, fast pulse) or a fight-or-flight type situation (heart beating faster, sudden alertness) even when it’s just a routine Monday morning and we’re on our way to the day-job.

There is, of course, also the type of organic compound in which the hydroxyl functional group is bound to a saturated carbon atom. This is an experience machine that can give us the desirable experience of being socially less inhibited, much more certain that other people find us entertaining and generally convinced that we’re all round great people. It can be ingested in pleasant-tasting drinks like wine and beer.

And anyone who has ever seen a small child on a sugar rush may also find it easy to believe that sugar provides a desirable experience of enjoyment and mental energy, not least by activating dopamine in the brain in a way that is similar to stronger drugs.

I’ll call things like coffee or alcohol  “mini experience machines.” After all, the effect lasts a much shorter time than a session in the superduper neuropsychologists’ floatation tank experience would. And it gives us not so much a whole set of new experiences that are wholly separate to what we’re doing and who we are, but it puts a little layer of, say, additional (alternative) reality, over and above that reality.

I’m not saying that coffee, alcohol and sugar are therefore bad things or that we need to reject them with the instinctive vehemence with which we would reject the idea of plugging into an experience machine. But it probably helps to be aware of the “experience machine light” effect of such things.

I also find some of the tools some of us work with are a bit like experience machines in that they give us an interface to interact with the world in a way that, as much as possible, reduces reality to things that pop up on a screen. So I know that people want to give me some information or want me to do something in something like the following way (that’s not my real inbox, by the way):

I  can have conversations and exchanges with lots of people and all the while I’m just “plugged in” to a screen.

So, in fact, there may be lots of mini experience machines that interact in various ways to put layers of differing experiences across “real” life on a day-by-day basis. And although we may not have the same reasons to reject these mini experience machines – after all, they are more time-limited, localised in terms of their effect and less intrusive in the way we can link up to them – maybe we should aim to be suspicious of them, particularly if we’re veering to more extended use (both in terms of timing or in terms of range of experience), so if one or more of the following are true:

  1. We use them in high doses, frequently or on a daily basis.
  2. They give us experiences that we worry we wouldn’t otherwise have enough of in our lives – excitement, connection, attention, confidence, mental energy.
  3. We would be forced to live our lives differently, if we didn’t have them.
  4. We couldn’t function properly in our daily lives without them.

But since I’ve declared so many things mini experience machines, would we even know whether we’re using them too much?

First of all, it is possible to take stock of the mini experience machines we use. We can then try not using them. Or, if that is too difficult, we could ask, what would the consequence be for the way I live my life, if I didn’t plug into this experience machine? How would I have to deal with the tiredness or the lack of challenges in my reality if I didn’t have coffee to simulate alertness? Why am I so inhibited when meeting people that I need alcohol to have its effect? What energy rush or feelings of enjoyment would I like that I currently take from sugar rushes?

And presumably, finding out about these things is what lots of people do these days when they sit down and pay attention to their breathing, to their mind and their thoughts with minimal stimulation from mini experience machines or communication technologies (particularly first thing in the morning when the body has processed all the ingested experience machines from the previous day). Maybe then they can listen to the real experience and find out if the like it, or not.

Or it may be away from screens in green spaces and in nature surrounded by other life forms who are less prone to plug into experience machines. Or it may be something we do while deeply involved in community, voluntary or religious activities. (These practices, by the way, have all been demonstrated to increase wellbeing.) They may also all help us to access the things in Nozick’s three reasons for rejecting experience machines:

  1. We may gain a better understanding of what we are doing in our lives, rather than just having the experience of doing them.
  2. We can ask ourselves and learn about what kind of person we are or want to be (rather than being an indeterminate blob).
  3. And we may even access a world that is deeper or more important “than that which people can construct.”