Monday, July 16, 2012

The Dangers of Being Happy

*Note: I use the word "happy" here pretty loosely.  I don't want to get bogged down in a discussion of happiness vs. joy vs. contentment, when I really mean all of them at once, so feel free to substitute your favorite word for "happy" throughout the post*

I'm pretty sure I could be happy as an atheist.

I know this because I've been happy as an atheist in the past.  Sure, it would require some cognitive dissonance on my part- I would have to reject the nihilism that seems to me incumbent on the atheistic worldview- but I certainly wouldn't be the first to do so.  More to the point, it's starting to look like any cogent world view is going to require some cognitive dissonance on my part.

It often crosses my mind, as I'm driving to work, or sitting at home browsing reddit, that if I let myself, I could be happy right now.  I could pretty easily choose to focus on the present moment and the things I'm pretty sure have meaning, even if I don't have a metaphysical basis for why I think they have meaning.  I could still value love, empathy, conciousness, and the human experience, completely devoid of a moral framework to back it all up.  Believe me; I've done it before.

But I'm really, really nervous about choosing to be happy, for two reasons.  First, it seems like once you allow yourself to be happy, you've eliminated the motivation to keep looking.  Unless you're really, really sure that your philosophical system is the right one- or that it doesn't matter one way or another- then being content with your philosophy is the most dangerous thing you can do. 

Second, I'm pretty sure I'd rather be right than happy.  This is not an ideological stance, but rather a practical one.  It seems really likely that the consequences of being wrong are a lot worse than the consequences of being unhappy.  This is definitely true if any religion is correct, but even if atheism is true- to bend our moral intuitions to some external authority of religion is a really bad idea if we pick the wrong religion.  People have written entire books based on the strife that religion has caused- and continues to cause- in human society.  If there is no God, then the best thing we as a species can do it get over it and make the best of reality.

My belief system at the moment is extremely uncomfortable.  But if being uncomfortable is the natural outcome of my belief system, it seems better that I remain uncomfortable rather than paper over any holes in my metaphysics like a college senior moving out of a dorm.  This leads to the question I really don't want to ask- is it ever ok to be happy?  It seems like the answer here has to be "no", unless I'm really sure I've found the truth.

To be fair, it's not like there's no middle ground between being happy and thinking for yourself.  But I've seen in myself that the main motivation for me to care- the reason why I spend so much time and energy on metaphysics, philosophy and religion- is my philosophical discomfort.  If being happy entails ignoring that discomfort, then I'm going to go do more worthwhile things (read: play more video games).  I'm just not that interested in philosophy. I only care about it because I think it matters.  And once (if) I no longer have any need for it, I expect I will jettison that part of my life in favor of whatever else catches my fancy.

I wonder how other people deal with this problem.  It seems like most of the people roaming the philosophy blogosphere are genuinely interested in philosophy, so it's not such a problem for them.  But there's plenty of people- most people- who go about their everyday lives without so much as a thought towards metaphysics.  I'm suspicious of the heuristic they're using to reach the conclusion that they've done enough metaphysical legwork to find the local maximum of philisophical utility; how did they decide when they were done thinking about their ethics?  We all act on our ethics, but which ethical standards we use is highly dependant on which metaphysical system we adopt.  If Christianity is wrong, then Christians are doing life wrong.  If Atheism is wrong, then Atheists are doing life wrong.  And I'm not at all sure how to bootstrap myself out of a sort of inherent uncertainty about my metaphysical system with the level of confidence I would need to declare myself unequivocally right about things.

1 comment:

  1. I'm a happy atheist, and I'm never very sure I'm right. So, over many years, I've been much more likely to read advice columns than philosophy or religion/atheism blogs. Advice columns concern themselves with ethics AND happiness in the context of particular human problems- problems recurring, recurring, recurring with a wrinkle, and recurring. How should I deal with {lying, cheating, nagging, stealing, crazy, sick, dying} {friend, spouse, neighbor, self} so I can be {happy, right}.

    The most popular advice columns are syndicated in newspapers, and I'd venture that millions of people daily go through a little ethical-examination-arc in reading the questions and answers: what would I do if I were the advice-seeker? What advice would I give, if I were the columnist? Our ethics are continually tested, both by the peculiarities of the lives we ourselves lead, AND through our empathy (i.e., in reading about the plight of others). Interestingly, it's only occasionally that the religion or non-religion of the advice-seeker comes up; the advice columnist doesn't ever have to show off some complex "metaphysical" underpinning to be useful to all sorts. Just another enjoyable activity contributing to my happiness, as I imagine posting to your blog contributes to your happiness... well, I hope. Thanks for writing, I've enjoyed reading your pieces.