Thursday, July 16, 2015


Podcast. Finished Harari's Sapiens, a hugely entertaining and provocative contribution to the Big History genre. I do have bones to pick with him about humanism, meaningfulness, and happiness. (Also "amortality," but I'll save that for later.) One passage I found particularly engaging:
If planet Earth were to blow up tomorrow morning, the universe would probably keep going about its business as usual. As far as we can tell at this point, human subjectivity would not be missed.
I'm missing it already!
Hence, any meaning that people ascribe to their lives is just a delusion.
That was a quick "hence," much too quick.
The other-worldly meanings medieval people found in their lives were no more deluded than the modern nationalist and capitalist meanings modern people find.
The scientist who says her life is meaningful because she increases the store of human knowledge, the soldier who declares that his life is meaningful because he fights to defend his homeland, and the entrepreneur who finds meaning in building a new company, are no less delusional than their medieval counterparts who found meaning in reading scriptures and going on a crusade or building a new cathedral.
Not okay, especially not in the scientist's case. "Delusional" is not the word for knowledge lost to cosmic inexorability. Tragic might be one word. Fragile, precarious, precious... I'll check the thesaurus.
So perhaps happiness is synchronizing one's personal delusions of meaning with the prevailing collective delusions. As long as my personal narrative is in line with the narratives of the people around me, I can convince myself that my life is meaningful and find happiness in that conviction. This is quite a depressing conclusion.
Quite depressing indeed. But entirely unnecessary. Bertrand Russell still has the best answer to the Alvy Singers of the world, who think our ultimate finitude means that nothing matters and that happiness is a sham.
...if you accept the ordinary laws of science, you have to suppose that human life and life in general on this planet will die out in due course... I am told that that sort of view is depressing, and people will sometimes tell you that if they believed that, they would not be able to go on living. Do not believe it; it is all nonsense. Nobody really worries about much about what is going to happen millions of years hence. Even if they think they are worrying much about that, they are really deceiving themselves. They are worried about something much more mundane, or it may merely be a bad digestion; but nobody is really seriously rendered unhappy by the thought of something that is going to happen to this world millions and millions of years hence. Therefore, although it is of course a gloomy view to suppose that life will die out -- at least I suppose we may say so, although sometimes when I contemplate the things that people do with their lives I think it is almost a consolation -- it is not such as to render life miserable. It merely makes you turn your attention to other things. "Why I Am Not a Christian"
So, to Harari's rhetorical "Does happiness really depend on self-delusion?" I reply: it depends on self-awareness, self-knowledge, occasional self-abnegation, ultimate self-transcendence... but not on self-mockery, which is what you get when you presuppose the futility of all human endeavor on account of cosmic finitude. As Dr. Flicker (having read his Russell) told Alvy, we still have millions and billions of years ahead of us, multiplied by countless loci of  conscious experience. It's too easy to wave away all that experience, all that potential meaning and enjoyment, as mere transient subjectivity. It's anti-sapient. It's unwise.

And to his claim that "to be happier, we need to re-engineer our biochemical system," I say, un-rhetorically: take a hike.

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