Thursday, February 21, 2008

Just Another Palliative

I traded a few forum comments over at TGGP's site a while back with a fellow who seems convinced, even in the face of all my brilliant argumentation, that my rather negative attitude towards life stems from depression. It's all about outlook, in his opinion, and I might recognize this if I would only open my eyes to the real world of direct experience, instead of seeing everything through the distorted lens of conceptual thinking. And until I take these steps in order to gain this 'higher' mode of cerebration, I am simply 'wallowing'. He has suggested zen, or some similar mental discipline, as a possible cure for my 'dis-ease'.

Now, I don't want to start a pissing contest here over credentials, or experience. Suffice it to say that I've had an on-again, off-again relationship with zen, in its various flavors, for 25 years or so; old school and new, Eastern and Western, spontaneous versus gradational. I've practiced meditation of various sorts, though I'll confess I've never spent weeks sequestered away in a monastery, observing the rhythm of my breath. And I've read tons of stuff, enough to convince myself that I have the basic ideas down. However, I still possess enough humility to admit that maybe I just don't get it. That being said, I'd simply like to posit here a big, fat 'SO WHAT?!'

Ultimately, 'zen mind' is just another state 'of' mind, and generally transient to a fault. Go back and read what exists of these zen masters' bios, and what do you find? Some of them are assholes, others are depressed, still others show signs of extreme mental imbalance. There are the well-balanced ones, too, and I'd be willing to grant that perhaps that bunch is somewhat more represented amongst the group, than in the general population. But that only means that SOME zen works SOME of the time, on SOME of the people...furthermore, it's a matter of degrees. I don't see evidence of spiritual supermen here, despite the mythological overlays that always grow thicker through the smog of ancient time. Zen is psychological experimentation and manipulation, with mixed results, and it's my belief (arrived at in near to a quarter century of examining this stuff) that most of the changes in consciousness comes about from the extreme changes in lifestyle involved. But the same can be said for any cultic movement...again, so what?

And what does it mean, anyway, to say that zen (or any similar mental conditioning) 'works'? Does human suffering cease to exist? Or is its context merely shifted in the mind of the subject, so that somehow it becomes justified, or at least re-interpreted in a positive light? But just because the subject sees suffering differently, doesn't speak in any way to the suffering that anyone else is experiencing. In other words, how is my suffering lessened simply because you've found a way to psychologically manage it? To discount my anguish just because it's not affecting you, and then to chide me for not seeing it your way, is more than's utter hubris exponentially expanded by your inability to distinguish between your own internal state, and someone else's.

One last thing: part of the original conversations had to do with following the supposedly erroneous path of rational thinking, which supposedly leads to some sort of conceptual cul-de-sac, and that it's this process itself that's actually the cause of suffering. The suggestion is that I abandon reason, and follow a course of meditation, or hallucinogenic drug use (another path with which I am more than I'm also personally acquainted with some of the casualties who went down that road, seeking 'enlightenment'). And while I feel some sympathy for certain aspects of that philosophy (less these days than in times past), I'd just like to point out that even assertions supporting irrationality are, themselves, drawn along rational lines. Reason is THE touchstone for me, without which all conversations, arguments and assertions of any kind become ABSOLUTELY MEANINGLESS. In other words, don't besiege me with calls to abandon reason, unless you can make a good case for it on irrational grounds.

Can't do it? Of course you can't, because the whole idea is self refuting. Non-rational argumentation is a non-concept, like tall color, or leaning against the horizontal, or...or...the god of love, Jehovah. You COULD just put your thumbs in your ears, wiggle your fingers, and stick your tongue out at me, which is pretty much what all this comes down to, anyway. Of course, that might make YOU feel better, and maybe that was the whole point, after all.


TGGP said...

The person you are referring to is Matthew Cromer, who has sites here, here and here.

I say suffering is subjective so that if you alter your brain through drugs and/or meditation so you do not feel like you are suffering, you really aren't suffering. I take the same position on happiness. Similarly, if I kill you or knock you unconscious and then do horrible things to your body during that time you do not suffer.

your host said...

Thanks, TGGP...I actually started this one a while ago, just getting back to it tonight, and I sort of lost track of who I was talking about. Doesn't matter, I guess...jumping around the net, his responses seem to run the typical gamut of end-runs around the actual arguments.

I agree with you about the nature/definition of suffering. My point here is that your hypothetical happiness doesn't say a flying fuck about the quality of someone else's suffering. Matthew seems to hold a differing opinion.

Chip said...

I recall being well out of my depth in a conversation about subjectivity. Somehow (perhaps appropriately), the focus gravitated to the question of "qualia" and whether there was anything irreducible or coyly Cartesian about assigning some special metaphysical flavor to the "subjective" experiential quality of thoughts or emotional states. I was struggling with Hayek's "The Sensory Order" at the time, which seemed to offer certain epistemological comforts, but in the end I had to admit that, much like free will or ghost-in-the machine-flavored selfhood, subjectivity was probably a bit of a sham, or at best a useful heuristic to regard with due suspicion (which might come closer to my take on free will, actually).

Anyway, while I get the drift of the post (magic spells are cheap for those who can afford them), I remember how my thoughts turned back to this conversation when I was reading David Benatar's recurring accounts of the myriad psychological mechanisms that inform - and bias - our self-reported accounts of well-being. And for some reason, the rejoinder that people are "as happy as they feel" no longer carried the same self-evident force. I'm not saying it's not a sustainable position (it's still my reflexive default, actually), but there are so many evolved neurological tricksters swimming around behind the curtain of subjectivity that I'm given to wonder.

We begin with a view that says "happiness is a subjective mental state." You are as happy as you feel. Fair enough. But what about intelligence? I'm certainly capable of feeling very smart (and very stupid) but here we have a case where my subjective sense of my mental state is subject to factual correction, where my qualitative sense of a thing is sure to come up against quantitative evidence, where my self-report can be shown to be out of step - in relative terms - with the empirical reality that is revealed throgh psychometric tools. Tools designed to measure a reality behind the subjective curtain.

The response is roughly that happiness is a different kind of mental state, one defined by (arguably circular) reference to its subjectivity. And the same might be said of "suffering." But what if it were possible to employ some similar standardized empirical method in the measurment of cumulative hedonic points or currents of suffering that differentiate people on a scale? What if one person's subjective happiness turned out to be experientially equivalent to another's reported misery? Would such a finding merely reinforce the case for the hallowed status of intrinsic subjectivity, or might it suggest rather that some people's homunculi are simply better at tuning out certain frequencies, even if their experience is precisely as acute?

How much has Britney Spears suffered compared with, say, Anne Frank? A hedonic subjectivist is confident that such knowledge is neatly guarded behind the fortress of subjectivity. Me, I'm not so sure.

your host said...

I'm in total agreement with you concerning the 'internal tricksters' with which we shape (or re-shape) our interpretations of our own mental/emotional states, Chip. The only difference I see in your analogy between analyzing our happiness/suffering, versus our intelligence is that we measure intelligence against a standard (choose whichever standard you will), whereas happiness/suffering seems to be a much more justified tautological affair. To say, "I'm happy just because I feel happy", somehow feels right to me, whereas if you tell me you're intelligent, I can reasonably ask, "in what way, and...let's test it". I could be oversimplifying, though.

Hm, I just did some tautology over at Vox Day's 'Irrational Atheist' site...synchronicity??? hehehe!

Be that as it may, trying to convince a person in a straightforward way.that he's not happy when he believes he is seems an ultimately futile exercise. I might approach the matter a little differently, and try to convince him, through evidentiary argumentation, that his happiness is predicated on ignoring certain features of existence which he admits, in theory, would make him sad.

As far as your intrinsic subjectivity versus the ability to 'tune out' (I guess I just touched on that, actually), I'm not sure that the issue is so polar as that; perhaps there's some sort of binary feedback loop thing going on? Recently, I've been kicking around the idea that there's no internal person at all, as well as no invisible world of consciousness (that'll have the Chalmers advocates spitting blood!). Haven't found a way to formulate the idea yet...still in it's infancy, and perhaps will arrive stillborn. We'll see).

Hey! That Anne Frank/Britney Spears question is one for the ages!

As always, thanks for the input, Chip.

TGGP said...

Chip, I don't know why you think there's some real meaning behind "happiness". It's just a word we came up with to describe how we feel, and if you came up with some objective measurement that didn't correspond to it people would just dismiss it as something other than happiness. Eliezer Yudkowsky has been discussing that kind of thing at Overcoming Bias for a few days now.

Chip said...


You're probably right, at least in practical terms. But while I don't want to drift into semantical disputation that's beyond my ken, it seems that one implication of the materialist account of qualia is that the subjective gloss of "how we feel" is itself illusory, or reducible to stuff, and presumably stuff with some objectively discoverable meaning. Perhaps the deck shifting is inevitable, but that doesn't mean that self-reports are the end of the story. Job's suffering is palliated by an opiate, to be sure, but what does he experience?

Maybe stabbing at definitional boundaries is futile in this context as our intuition would suggest. But when people profess to be happy, I can't help wondering what the the hell they're talking about.

Thanks for the link by the way. I'm partial to Warhol's definition:

"Art? That's a man's name."hooverhog23