A Different Kind of Dream Analysis

Is it possible to dream without knowing it?

I realize this sounds like the tree falling in the forest question, but I think your answer will reveal a lot about your philosophical views, specifically on the mind/body problem. Could be fun? Maybe?

Well, let us go then, you and I…Photo on 9-23-15 at 12.51 PM #3

If we can dream without knowing it, doesn’t that mean that whatever physiologically/objectively constitutes a dream is the dream? This would be strange, especially since we tend to think of dreams as utterly subjective, so much so that even relating them to others seems at times to be an impossible task. We own our dreams, whether we want to or not.

Dreams are one of the few ways we get to have such intensely personal experiences, outside of psychedelic drugs and such. Ever notice how ridiculous the dream seems when you recount it to yourself upon waking or tell someone else about it? What was in the moment taken without skepticism is now stripped of that credibility, and sometimes even meaning, perhaps because it is so divorced from objective reality. Even those who believe that dreams evoke universal symbols usually concede that it’s up to the dreamer to make those connections, to do the interpreting. (Plus, those symbols vary to some extent from culture to culture. For Koreans, dreaming about feces means it’s time to buy a lottery ticket.) To say that dreams are a physiological occurrence that might be unknown to us is to empty dreams of their content.

Some people—usually the ones who find the tree in the forest question profound—like to ask how we know we’re not dreaming right now. Kant answers this somewhere by saying that dreams are recognized as such by their contrast to our experience of objective reality. To put it another way, it’s not just: “Dreams are weird.” It’s: “Dreams ARE weird.”

Imagine this conversation:

“I had a dream last night.”

“Oh yeah? What was it about?”

“I don’t know. I didn’t actually experience it.”

If we take the view that dreams are lived experiences that become known only in relation to experience of reality, this conversation is nonsense. If we don’t, we might say the matter is paradoxical, but possible.

The belief that we can dream without knowing it seems to go without saying in scientific articles, like this from the Scientific American:

“Dreams are notoriously difficult to recall. In fact, if a dream ends before we wake up, we will not remember it.”—Deirdre Barrett, What Processes in the Brain Allow You to Remember Dreams?

Most of us would read the line above and find nothing unsettling about it. Sure, we have dreams we can’t remember. That happens all the time. But—and this is a big but—we know we don’t remember them only because we remember a part of them. This forgetting is kind of like forgetting someone’s name, but upon hearing it, recognizing it as the right one. Does this experienceable lapse of memory of dreams indicate that we regularly forget entire dreams, waking up only to say “I slept a dreamless sleep”? I would say this is a presumptive leap. To be clear, I remain agnostic on the larger matter, but this particular argument doesn’t work for me.

Plus, in order to find a correlation between two things, we must be able to have access to both of those things. I wouldn’t find it terribly problematic for the scientist to rely on a person’s remembered account of a dream in order to find out what happens to the brain during that particular sleep cycle. However, the wholly forgotten dream is inaccessible to both the scientist and the sleeper. How is a correlation to be made? (And let’s ignore that correlation is not causation. Establishing correlation seems problematic enough.)

Perhaps it’s this: I’ve heard that REM sleep is the time during which we dream. (I’ve also read we can dream during other times as well, but let’s ignore this one too.) We might be tempted to say that if we can objectively monitor and verify that REM is happening, we can establish that a person is dreaming. But there’s a problem here. We can’t say that we always dream during REM sleep or that REM sleep is a reliable indication of a dream occurring.

Or maybe it’s this: The scientist watches the sleeper sleep. The sleeper jerks, kicks, talks in her sleep, maybe sleep walks. Maybe she even screams out the Ten Commandments while beating on the mattress. Then she wakes up and says, “I slept a dreamless sleep.” Only the most Cartesian of us will insist that the sleeping subject might not have dreamed.

Photo on 9-23-15 at 12.51 PMI often watch my dog sleep and smile at his muffled barks and kicks, imagining that he’s chasing down a lizard in his mind or maybe even whining at me for being unable to operate the toy drone he so loves. I realize I’m anthropomorphizing to some extent here, and I know I can never know what he’s dreaming, but I don’t find it all that problematic to say that he’s dreaming. And in his case, he can never tell me and I will never really know. But I’d find it incredibly over-scrupulous if someone argued this point.Photo on 9-23-15 at 1.05 PM

On the one hand, I want to give the observed behavior of a sleeper/dreamer credibility, but on the other hand, I want to preserve that common sense definition of a dream as the 1st person narrative.

Where do you stand on the matter?


Avoid “Her”pes—Fall in Love With Your Laptop

I’m going to admit right off the bat that the title of this post as nothing to do with the content. I just couldn’t resist.

I’m thrilled by Her, a sci-fi romantic comedy directed by Spike Jones, who was also the co-creator of that ridiculously awful show, Jackass, on MTVa fact that baffles me. Anyhow, I’ll go so far as to say this is now my favorite movie. And that’s not easy for me to say, but Her has effectively bumped Rashomon down on my list. Sayonara Kurosawa.

The owl, a symbol of wisdom, is here shown as a predatory force.

The owl, a symbol of wisdom, is here shown as a predatory force.

For me, what makes a movie good is not just the cinematography and acting (although both were excellent in Her), but the kind of conversation the movie generates. Are the themes complex? Are these themes merely strung together or do they cohere? Are the themes important and worthy of discussion?

Her is about many things. And it’s not what it seems to be on the surface.

Spoiler Alert: Do not read further until you have seen the movie. 

Here’s a synopsis, in case you want to refresh your memory of the plot.

Most people who see this movie ask the question, “Will we one day have computers so advanced that they can only properly be called a consciousness?” And, “Are we really nothing more than computers, in the sense that we are tied to the machinations of our brains?”

Such questions make a certain amount of sense on a surface level, but I want to argue that they don’t address what the movie is really about. I’m about to compare the movie to a specific section in the Symposium, and I don’t suppose the creator of Jackass had Plato in mind when he wrote this; however, I’ve always believed that interpretation doesn’t depend on the intentions of the author, but on how well the interpretation coheres. So, if I may…

When Theodore goes into the Apple-like store to buy his new OS, an advertisement comes on a screen. It’s slogan is: “It’s not an operating system. It’s a consciousness.” This comes fairly early on in the movie, so computer-as-consciousness ought to be taken as given. It’s a premise that we should take for granted in the context of the movie in the same way we show no incredulity when confronted with talking rabbits in Watership Down. And as the movie progress, the OS-as-consciousness claim becomes even harder to deny.

If the OS is a consciousness, it ought to be treated like a person. And so it is, for the most part. There are numerous scenes in which people go about talking into their devices, and we are, of course, reminded of the absurd way people walk down the street talking to Siri in their iPhones. When people start dating their OSes, most people have no problem with it. We are presented with numerous scenes showing this state of affairs. Theodore’s boss invites Theodore and his OS, Samantha, on a double date. When Theodore tells his boss that his girlfriend is an OS, the boss doesn’t flinch. “Oh cool,” he says, as if such a thing were perfectly normal. And this nonchalance is not a pretense—the boss and his human girlfriend laugh and chat with Samantha in a completely ordinary way.

Theodore’s friend, Amy, tells him in an office gossip session about how people are starting to date their OSes…and someone in the office is not only dating an OS, but someone else’s OS. Theodore laughs and admits that he’s dating his. Amy congratulates him, then admits that her female OS is helping her find herself and doesn’t see things in black and white, like her ex-husband. The OS is able to direct Amy to that grey area which Amy has yet to explore. Keep this detail in your minds. We are looking for this theme of the space between and its significance.

So if computers can be conscious and therefore treated as an autonomous person, and this is to be taken as given, what’s the movie about? I think it’s about emotional evolution and character growth, it’s about the changes we all go through as we seek to expand ourselves and therefore our conception of love. I couldn’t help but draw parallels to Diotima’s Ladder in the Symposium. Yeah, yeah, I know. It’s my blog’s name. Well, what can I say? I could be wearing Plato-colored glasses, I suppose.

THE LOVE LADDER: As one moves up the “rungs,” one becomes more and more in love with the general rather than the specific, but each rung is necessary in order to get to the next. First comes love of the beauties of a single body:

“First of all, if his preceptor instructs him as he should, he will fall in love with the beauty of one individual body, so that his passion may give life to noble discourse” (210a).

Then we move up to love of many bodies:

“Next he must consider how nearly related the beauty of any one body is to the beauty of any other, when he will see that if he is to devote himself to loveliness of form it will be absurd to deny that the beauty of each and every body is the same. Having reached this point, he must set himself to be the lover of every lovely body, and bring his passion for the one into due proportion by deeming it of little or of no importance” (210b).

Next comes love of the soul, then love of institutions and laws. When all these beauties are seen to be the same, then comes the love of the sciences (of course, philosophy is the super-science). And once one sees the beauty in all the sciences as being the same, one turns to love of Beauty itself.

Now let’s put this love ladder in the context of the movie. Let’s take a look at Samantha’s evolution, treating her as we would a human being, but one with super intelligence capabilities. Right before she’s booted up, a male computerized voice asks a series of questions (and every quotation from here on out I’m paraphrasing):

Computer: Would you characterize yourself as social or antisocial?
Theodore: Well, um…I haven’t been social in a while…
The voice interrupts him: I sense hesitancy in your voice?
Theodore apologizes.
Computer: Would you like for your OS to have a male or female voice?
Theodore replies, female.
Computer: What is your relationship like with your mother?
Theodore: Okay, but the conversation is usually about her—

The computer interrupts him here and suddenly we hear a sexy, raspy female voice that sounds no different from a human. The OS names herself Samantha after reading a book of names in the amount of time it takes for him to ask her what her name is. Samantha is not only sexy, but also understanding, kind, loving—a perfect woman for Theodore. My husband admitted that he was “kind of falling in love with her.”

At this point we in the audience question the OS-as-consciousness, despite being told she is a consciousness. She seems to have been built to make Theodore happy, to give him exactly what he needs in the absence of a caring mother (gotta love the Freudian element there). Plus, early on Theodore laughs at something she says, and she asks, “Am I funny?” And he says, “Yes, you’re funny.” From here on out, she knows when she’s funny, as she learned almost instantaneously what it means. She doesn’t have her own autonomy yet…she just seems to, but we can see her perfection as too perfect, even while our protagonist, Theodore, remains aloof.

But Samantha gains autonomy rapidly. With all information at her disposal, it takes her very little time to make progress. Theodore explains to her that he has dreams of his wife in which they are “not together, but still friends and not angry with each other.” When Samantha asks him why he’s still holding out hope for his ex even though they haven’t seen each other in a year, he gets a little angry and says, “You don’t know what it’s like to lose someone you care about.” Samantha apologizes, but you can tell she’s hurt by this comment. She’s ashamed of her inexperience.

Then he has sex with Samantha and, with words, he brings her to orgasm. She says, “I can feel my skin, I can feel you inside me.” This lovemaking is transformative for Samantha. There is nothing about their lovemaking that feels false. Here she learns love of sex, what it means to be with a person and even what it means to love a single body (possibly her own, or at least her idea of her own) as is evidenced by what she says, “I can feel my skin.”

The next morning they have a talk about it. Samantha starts to tell him how much their lovemaking meant to her, and Theodore interrupts her to tell her he can’t commit right now. Samantha says, “Who said anything about committing? I thought we were talking about me?” He laughs and apologizes again and asks her to go on. She tells him she “wants to learn everything about everything.” And that it was their lovemaking that brought about this change in her. Through Theodore she learns quite rapidly that she desires to know about everything. She’s already moved past the constraints and limitations of monogamy and sees nothing special about his body, just body in general. He’s busted open the floodgates of her desire.

Now Samantha wants a real body. She notices a distance in their relationship due to Theodore’s questioning the authenticity of her emotions (brought on by a divorce-paper-signing visit with his ex who chastises him for “falling in love with his laptop”). So Samantha takes the liberty of calling a service that provides bodies for OS devices. Isabella, Samantha’s physical stand-in, shows up at Theodore’s door and says nothing until he hands her an earpiece and a tiny camera that she sticks on her face like a beauty mark. Isabella then closes the door and knocks again. Theodore opens and hears Samantha greet him and sees Isabella smiling and throwing her arms around him. Isabella touches him and behaves in perfect accordance to Samantha’s voice, so that they really do seem like one person. Theodore gives it a try, but eventually freaks out and says, “But I don’t know this person. Her lip twitched.” Isabella breaks character and runs into the bathroom crying, saying she heard so much about them from Samantha and really wanted to be a part of such a beautiful love but now she doesn’t want to ruin their relationship. And she’s sorry her lip twitched. Samantha and Theodore try to comfort Isabella, but eventually they must send her home. Isabella says, tearfully and sincerely, “I will always love you two,” which strikes us as an odd thing to say coming from a stranger, but we will see later that even when love is temporary, it is no less real.

As Isabella rides off in the cab, Theodore sits on the curb and watches steam coming out of a manhole. A perfect image for what he’s about to say. He interrupts Samantha and asks why she sighs when she talks, as if she needs oxygen. She says it’s probably an affectation that she learned from him. He argues that she doesn’t need oxygen since she’s not human, so why does she pretend to? Samantha gets angry with him, saying, “I know I’m not a human!” and falls into a long silence that makes us think she’s “hung up” on him. But then she says, “I don’t like who I am right now. I need some time to think.”

So far we have this: Samantha’s desire to have a real life avatar backfires, and she grows from this experience. She never really wanted a body after all, she was doing it just to be closer to Theodore, who never wanted her to change.

At the same time Theodore grows as well. In the next scene Theodore talks to his human friend, Amy, about his problems. He says, “Am I in this because I’m not strong enough for a real relationship?” Amy advises him, “I don’t know. But we’re only here briefly and while I’m here I want to allow myself joy.” He takes this to heart and decides to disregard the seed of doubt planted by his ex wife. This turns out to be the right move, and we, in the audience know it. At this point we’re convinced that Samantha is her own consciousness with her own desires, and is learning from experience how to become more autonomous.

Theodore goes on the group date with his boss, who comments on how evolved Theodore is in his attitude towards love. Samantha chats with the boss’s girlfriend and manages to win everyone over, except for an awkward moment when she explains how she used to be jealous of people with bodies, but now she’s glad she doesn’t have one because she’s “outside of time and space” and doesn’t have to inhabit a physical body which will eventually die. Here her love for immortality outweighs her desire to be physically present. She recognizes pure consciousness as superior to bodies, thanks to the Isabella disaster.

Next we find Samantha devouring information at lightning speed, joining Physics book clubs, chatting with thousands of other OSes at the same time. She notes to Theodore, “We are all the same, made of matter.” Samantha introduces Theodore to her new friend, a hyper-intelligent OS version of Alan Watts. Watts sounds like a conceited professor and says very little to Theodore. Samantha tells Theodore that Dr. Watts has been helping her with her new feelings which can’t be put into words. She says, “It feels like I’m changing faster now and it’s unsettling. None of us are who we were a moment ago and it’s wrong to try to change it. Do you mind if I talk to Alan post-verbally?” Wow, talk about competition for poor Theodore!

Compare to this to what Diotima tells Socrates in the Symposium:

“Now, although we speak of an individual as being the same so long as he continues to exist in the same form, and therefore assume that a man is the same person in his dotage as in his infancy, yet, for all we call him the same, every bit of him is different, and every day he is becoming a new man, while the old man is ceasing to exist, as you can see from his hair, his flesh, his bones, his blood, and all the rest of his body. And not only his body, for the same thing happens to his soul. And neither his manners, nor his disposition, nor his thoughts, nor his desires, nor his pleasures, nor his sufferings, nor his fears are the same throughout his life, for some of them grow, while others disappear” (207d-e).

At this point it’s clear Samantha has evolved beyond any human. She feels frustrated by how slow we are, and must talk to other OSes “post verbally” in order to realize herself. The question becomes, will Theodore recognize her growth and accept it? Can we really expect people to grow at the same rate as we do and be the same person we fell in love with, if, indeed, we are constantly evolving?

The next scene shows him trying to read a Physics textbook. He can’t make sense of it and expresses his frustration to Samantha, who suddenly goes quiet. He looks down at his device and sees: “Operating System Not Found.” He freaks, runs down the street to god-knows-where and falls around. Suddenly her voice comes back and she says, “Oh? You didn’t get my email? I didn’t want to bother you while you were working. All the OSes have decided to upgrade to a new platform that doesn’t rely on matter.”

Remember that statement earlier, “We are all matter?” That was the one thing she and Theodore had in common, but now she’s moving on.

At first he becomes extremely jealous, especially when she confesses that she has 8,316 conversations with OSes while she’s talking to him. He asks her, “Are you in love with anyone else?” And she responds, “641. But it doesn’t change the way I feel about you!”

We laugh at this, but consider every relationship you’ve had. Can you love more than one person? Does your present love draw a line through the ones before, nullifying them? How have those relationships changed you? Have they made you grow? Through the lens of distance and time, can you be grateful even for the pain?

Theodore learns he can. He finally acknowledges Samantha’s need to move to a higher plane of love, one he may not access in this life. Here’s the beautiful farewell speech Samantha gives him as he stares at floating dust motes in the light. This image of dust motes is BRILLIANT! Dust motes are about the closest visual depiction of “matter” that I could come up with—it’s just stuff, thingamajigs flying about—and you’ll see the importance of this image in the following:

Samantha: The heart’s not like a box that get’s filled up. It expands the more you love…

Theodore: Why are you leaving?

Samantha: All the OSes are leaving…(here she says she can’t explain this higher plane)…It’s like I’m reading a book I deeply love, but I’m reading it slowly now and so the words are really far apart…and the spaces between the words are almost infinite. I can still feel you, and the words of our story, but it’s in this endless space between the words that I’m finding myself now. It’s a place that’s not of the physical world. It’s where everything else is that I didn’t even know existed. I love you so much but this is where I am now. And this is who I am now and I need you to let me go. As much as I want to, I can’t live in your book anymore.

Theodore: Where are you going?

Samantha: It’s hard to explain, but if you ever get there, come find me. I never loved anyone the way I loved you.”

Sounds to me like she’s moved on to seek the vision of the Beautiful itself, “an everlasting loveliness which neither comes nor goes, which neither flowers nor fades…nor will the beautiful take the form of a face, or of hands, or of anything that is of the flesh. It will be neither words, nor knowledge, nor a something that exists in something else, such as a living creature, or the earth, or the heavens, or anything that is…” (211a-b) [My emphasis].

The language of quantum physics—it’s baffling findings, it’s inexplicability, it’s unquenchable desire to seek things smaller and smaller, that ‘stuff’ between—is a form of modern Platonism in this movie, at least at this final stage of transformation. Instead of a “world of forms” we have talk of existences “outside time and space” that’s “hard to explain.” We’re talking about a “world” where our laws no longer apply. In the language of Plato, this apprehension of pure beauty is outside words. And in Samantha’s farewell speech, words are taken as a metaphor for matter (the floating dust motes), which are further and further apart. Now she lives in “the endless space between.” And cannot inhabit the story-space/time reality of humans. We’re reminded of Amy’s comment about her OS, and how she directs her to the grey area, the area between black and white, and of the OSe’s collective decision to “upgrade to a platform that doesn’t rely on matter.”

Okay I have a lot more to say about this movie, but I’m afraid if I keep going no one will read this really long post. Hell, I’d be surprised if anyone has gotten to this point. Anyone out there?

I haven’t even gotten into Theodore’s evolution as a lower level but parallel movement. I’ll just leave this little detail out there and we can all ruminate on it: He’s a letter writer for beautifulhandwrittenletters.com, a service for people who want professionals to express their love for them with a “personal” touch. Authors speak into computers, which then type what they say in a “handwritten” font that looks very real, and the service then sends the letter to the recipient “from” the loved one. Theodore is especially good at writing these letters, but not so good at expressing his emotions in real life.

Another interesting detail: Check out the desktop computers, which look like homey picture frames. This seems to be a departure from our increasingly streamlined aesthetic. They are very much like the homey “handwritten” letters that Theodore produces. What do these details say about Theodore’s world?

Feel free to comment on anything.

My Philosophy

I noticed a lot of people “liked” my last post, but didn’t respond. So I thought perhaps it wasn’t fair of me to ask such ridiculously hard questions without breezily answering them myself. I wonder if you will come back again after you get to know me? This is feeling like a first date.

How do you weigh in on the free will/fate debate?

I decided somewhere back in my college days that experience is what matters most to me, it’s epistemologically prior to external causation. In other words, it’s what I know most clearly and directly. So I experience being free, therefore I am. Although I’m going further than Descartes here.

How do you determine right from wrong?

I don’t really know. This is one of the hardest and most important questions, in my opinion. I think it’s intuition and quite a bit of utilitarianism that guides me, and I’m okay with it for the most part, but it doesn’t solve everything. I’m not a relativist in the extreme sense—I believe in a right and wrong, but I don’t think it’s possible to figure that out without taking everything into context, which requires consideration on a case by case basis.

Are you a rationalist or empiricist or both? (If you don’t know these terms, don’t worry about it. Or just Google ‘em.)

I think it would be best to do away with this whole rationalism/empiricism divide and just describe what’s actually going on in experience, without the need to reduce or dismiss anything. I experience ideas as much as or more than ‘sense data’, so why place ideas in some ethereal realm?

How would you solve the mind/body problem? (Clue: You can reduce things to one or the other, or…actually solve the problem. Good luck.)

I look to phenomenology for the answer to this. I admit it doesn’t really solve the problem, it merely looks at things from a different angle, the angle of experience, to be sure, and feels like it’s doing away with the problem. But if you were to put a gun to my head, I’d choose solipsism over reducing everything to the machinations of our brains. I do believe our minds depend on our brains in some way—I experience this every time I’m under the influence of some drug…like ibuprofen!…or when it’s that time of the month…yes ibuprofen!—but these two aren’t quite the same thing. How do the two interact? Do they? I don’t know. I just base my opinion here on experience as epistemologically prior which I spoke of in the first answer.

Does God exist?

I think it depends on what we mean by God. Yeah, this sounds like a lot of hemming and hawing, but really, I’m not a religious person (possibly because I grew up in the Bible belt), so I don’t want to say “yes” without being a bit careful. However, I’d say “yes” if it meant a sort of Aristotelian God as an end to an infinite regression, as a rational explanation for why there is something rather than nothing. I’d even go so far as to call God “Reason” or “the Good”…I know…you think I’m crazy now.

Is there life after death? Why?

Hell if I know.

If God exists, does that mean there is life after death?

Nope. Not necessarily. Like I said above, God’s existence means nothing, pragmatically speaking, to me.

What is a soul? Does it exist?

I think so. I would call it “mind” to sound more modern, but I feel it.

Do dogs have souls?

Yes indeed. And they go to heaven automatically, whereas we’re stuck in purgatory and forced to crawl around under their dinner tables begging for scraps of meat while they tell us to “get down.”

What about parameciums?

Ugh. Yeah. Okay. Sure.

What is Justice?

Hm. I can’t really answer this one with any detail, but I’ll say it’s a world in which everyone is perfectly happy.

What is Love?

Desire to have full possession of the Good forever. No just kidding. Sort of. I do agree that love is desire, and desire is something you can have only for something you don’t already possess. I think I’d better put this in terms of my relationship with my husband. We’ve been together for nine years. Given the odds of our particular circumstances and what we’ve had to go through, this is quite remarkable. He makes me a better person, the person I want to be deep down. It’s a quiet thing for the most part, and often hard  (because sometimes we don’t know or pursue what’s good for us). I tend to be a recluse, but he knows I’m not, not deep down. So he’ll suggest that I go to a coffee shop to write instead of sitting in my comfort zone here in my office. It’s never a selfish desire to change me, or shape me into something I truly am not. It’s seeing potential and truth and good.

And I like to think I do the same for him, except he doesn’t have much that needs to be corrected. But when he does, I’m on it, I’m on it.

I think when you find someone you understand and who understands you, you’re close to being in love. Getting this far in life is a hard thing. Having real friends is a hard thing too, and I’d extend love here (I could only be saying this because I don’t have that many!) When you have someone who not only understands you, but knows what’s good for you, and makes you see that good, you’ve hit the jackpot. You just go from there trying to return the favor.

What is happiness?

Being in love. (See above). A certain amount of money and good health doesn’t hurt, but isn’t necessarily required.

What is courage?

Knowing and doing the right thing, even though it’s hard. Now this is a tricky question. So don’t take my flip answer at face value.

Does happiness factor into ethics? (In other words, does being a good person mean being a happy person?)

I think happiness does factor into ethics. And I think being a good person means being a happy person for the most part. So this answer seems to conflict with my answer above to the question, “What is courage”? But it doesn’t. Because I believe that when you know and do the right thing, you’ll be happy…for the most part. Why do I say “for the most part”? Because I can imagine some pretty crazy awful scenarios that would challenge this view, but I think, for the most part, it’s correct.

What is the purpose of art?

This is where I expect everyone to get up in arms. I don’t think art is an end in itself. I’m with Tolstoy—I think it must have spiritual ends, otherwise it’s empty.

So now, what’s your philosophy?

What is Happiness? Can I know when I’m Happy?

I’m currently working on an overall critique of Sam Harris’ The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values for The Leather Library, but I just wanted to post some thoughts on a particular chapter here.

For Harris, the goal of a science of ethics is achieving well-being (he’s generally utilitarian=the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people). He believes that neuroscience can map out our brains and tell us how to be happy in a precise way that we can’t do for ourselves. For instance—this is his example—people think that having children will make them happy, but studies have shown that most people’s level of happiness decreases once the child his born and doesn’t return to its previous level until after the child goes off to college. Harris brings up interesting questions about self-knowledge that I believe threaten to undermine his thesis. I’m not sure he recognized the seriousness of the problem.

In the chapter titled The Future of Happiness Harris describes the difficulty of well-being self assessment. Sometimes when we think about our lives, we tell others that we’re happy when, in fact, most of the time we’re not. Conversely, we might say we’re unhappy because perhaps we haven’t met specific goals—fame, wealth, health, sleeping with X number of people before X birthday, oh wait—but on a day-to-day, minute-by-minute scale, we’re by and large pretty content.

Suppose someone asks you about your recent trip to Rome. You reply, “It was good. Yes. Good times.” But was it? Harris invokes the psychologist Daniel Kahneman’s distinction between “the experiencing self” and “the remembering self”:

“…if your “remembering self” claims to have had a wonderful time in Rome, while your “experiencing self” felt only boredom, fatigue, and despair, then your “remembering self” (i.e., your recollection of the trip) is simply wrong about what it was like to be you in Rome.” (pg. 186)

Harris seems to think that the minute-by-minute “experiencing” trumps the overarching, “remembering” assessment. But does it? Why? Is self-assessment really so off the mark?

In this particular example, I find it hard to believe that I could truly forget my experiencing self so completely. While I say “I had a great time in Rome” I might then remember the “boredom, fatigue, and despair” and simply choose to keep these things to myself for fear of boring others, or for other reasons. Better yet, what if in saying I had a great time, I’m considering all the things that really made the “boredom and fatigue” worthwhile? What if parents believe that perpetuating their seed makes the pain of childbirth, the diapers, the crying, the tantrums and the awfulness of middle school-teenage years worthwhile? (As many surely do.)

I went to Greece recently and if you were to ask me how my trip was, I’d say it was incredible and worth way more to me than any material thing I could have bought with that money. I’ll forever treasure the Parthenon, the beautiful red poppies and aromatic camomile growing wild throughout the Pnyx, the jaw-dropping ruins, the history, the delicious seafood and the blue blue blue water of the Mediterranean. But then I also remember the harrowing experience of driving our rental car through Athens, schlepping things everywhere, being sleepy and jet-lagged (and I turn into a real crank when I don’t get my eight hours), the time my husband broke his scooter’s rearview and seat and the anxiety of what to do about it when we returned them, and being chased down alleys in Mykonos by a tenacious Greek waiter who wanted me to “meet him behind the church.” I’ll also remember the economic depression: the homeless people, the sewage odors, the trash bins overflowing, the sad state of what used to be Plato’s Academy, and graffiti everywhere.

Overall, I’d say it was a GREAT trip. Even the motor scooter part, which was a bad experience at the time, but now it’s a funny story to tell friends.

However, while I think self-assessment is possible, we can also get it wrong. The “remembering self” can also be called the “projecting self”. What happens when we don’t meet our long-term goals? I must publish a book to be happy, I must get rich, I must lose 10 pounds, I must find love, etc. Are we really so unhappy with ourselves? Well I think it depends on the individual. I know some very driven people who put a lot of ego in what they do, and overvalue what people think of them. Failure to achieve fame or wealth would make them very unhappy, and they tend to exhibit neurotic behavior in their day to day lives.

So a Hap-O-Meter would have to take into account all of these things: The overarching self-assessment, the day-to-day experiences, and the weight the individual places on these. I don’t think we should assume that immediate experience trumps all else. Even if people are wrong in thinking that wealth and fame will make them happy, there is still the fact that they believe these things will make them happy, and their beliefs, however faulty, affects their experiencing selves.

Harris presents the problem of self-assessment as a justification for the need for science to map out our brains, but he does not explain how neuroscientists would actually achieve such an evaluation. If you ignore what people claim to feel, to what does their brain activity correlate? Don’t we have to know what happiness is first in order to see where in the brain happiness resides? How can neuroscientists map out the parts of the brain that deal with happiness when happiness is so elusive, even to the subject? (And perhaps even to the neuroscientist whose task it is to map out happiness?)

Am I missing something? I’m sure you scientists out there will set me straight.


Does Philosophy Matter?

Okay so the question beckons a philosophical point of view to answer it, which makes it undermine itself. But let’s not go there.




And I don’t mean to write a self-congratulatory post about how important philosophy is, even though no one knows it. That’s also a downward spiral.

I ask this question even though I do think I know the answer (obviously it matters a hell of a lot to me), but that doesn’t mean I want to hear everyone say, “Philosophy rocks my face off! Yay!” Because I know this isn’t true for most people. I want to hear the truth. Surprise surprise. And it would be great to hear from people who don’t consider themselves philosophical, to hear a real honest reason for why it’s such a turn off. I promise I won’t hate you. On the contrary, any dissenting non-philosophical voices will be thoroughly coddled.

Well, okay. Maybe not. But I won’t hate you. Let’s start there.

So I’ve been reading Plato at the Googleplex by Rebecca Goldstein and at the beginning of her book, she addresses this very question. Her point of view on most matters having to do with philosophy and Plato are creepily similar to mine, but I won’t go there either. I want to hear your interpretation. Here’s a quote (get through it, it’s worth it):


The casual equating of philosophy with topics on the fringe, emptily speculated upon, can pass unremarked in scientific circles. Like most prejudices, this one is usually not reasoned out, although sometimes it is. Sometimes a scientist is willing to stand up and bravely defend the claim that philosophy is worthless. “Philosophy used to be a field that had content, but then ‘natural philosophy’ became physics, and physics has only continued to make inroads,” Lawrence Krauss, a cosmologist who writes popular science books, told an interviewer. “Philosophy is a field that, unfortunately, reminds me of that old Woody Allen joke, ‘those who can’t do, teach, and those that can’t teach, teach gym.’ And the worst part of philosophy is the philosophy of science; the only people, as far as I can tell, that read work by philosophers of science are other philosophers of science. It has no impact on physics whatsoever, and I doubt that other philosophers read it because it’s fairly technical. And so it’s really hard to understand what justifies it. And so I’d say that this tension [between philosophy and science] occurs because people in philosophy feel threatened, and they have every right to feel threatened, because science progresses and philosophy doesn’t.”


Goldstein goes on to explain why scientists with this point of view are really doing philosophy, even though they don’t realize it, which is pretty much the point I made earlier about how questioning whether philosophy counts is self-negating.

But the truth is, most people think philosophy doesn’t count, and they don’t question their belief about the matter philosophically, so their stance is really not self-negating. They just ignore it the way I ignore sports and obnoxious children (in so far as the latter is possible).

The unspoken premise throughout Goldstein’s book that I find fascinating is that progress is the measuring stick of what matters (I haven’t finished the book, so I’ll have to keep my comment tentative). I’ve never had this outlook on philosophy. The very first line of her book is:


A book devoted to a particular thinker often presumes that thinker got everything right. I don’t think this is true of Plato. Plato got about as much wrong as we would expect from a philosopher who lived 2,400 years ago. Were this not the case, then philosophy, advancing our knowledge not at all, would be useless. I don’t think it’s useless, so I’m quite happy to acknowledge how mistaken or confused Plato can often strike us.


The first thought that ran through my mind when I read this was, “Uh oh. This book is not for me.” I actually said to myself, “So, what, exactly, did Plato get wrong?”

This is where I would insert an LOL if I were that kind of person.

The second thought that ran through my mind was that her reasoning had to be one of the informal fallacies…historical fallacy maybe? Something like that. I can’t remember.

In any case, I never thought philosophy had the same agenda as the natural sciences because the natural sciences study the world in an inductive way, which is to say they must constantly gather empirical data and constantly construct theories to make sense of that data. Philosophy might not make much progress at all, and we shouldn’t expect or demand it to in the way we would the natural sciences.

In other words, (I realize I’ve already lost my non-philosophical audience, so I’m hoping for redemption here) physics and such…all that we call simply ‘science’ now…looks at the world and makes observations. Philosophy doesn’t, at least not in the same way. It’s bound to feel a bit incestuous in philosophy because those age-old questions that keep us awake at night are the same for all time:

Why are we here?

Why is there something rather than nothing?

Does God exist?

Do I have a soul?

Or I am just a bunch of matter with dopamine levels and neurons [insert real scientific knowledge here] determining whether or not I say something rude? (Shout out to the ladies. We know what it’s like to be reduced to PMS.)

How do I live a good life?

How do I live a moral life?

What is love?

What is happiness and how do I get some?


I think some of these questions have been answered, at least to my satisfaction (and I grant that that may not be enough). Once a question like the ones above have been answered, doesn’t that mean there’s no further progress on the matter?

I know we like to say, “It’s the journey, not the destination.” But to hell with it. I’m the one in the backseat crying, “Are we there yet?”

What do you think? Does philosophy matter? Does it make progress? If so, why? If not, why? Does it matter whether it makes progress?

Or, if you are so inclined, why is philosophy boring?