RS#37: The science and philosophy of happiness

On Episode #37 of the Rationally Speaking podcast, Massimo and I talk about the science and philosophy of happiness:

“Debates over what’s important to happiness — Money? Children? Love? Achievement? — are ancient and universal, but attempts to study the subject empirically are much newer. What have psychologists learned about which factors have a strong effect on people’s happiness and which don’t? Are parents really less happy than non-parents, and do people return to their happiness “set point” even after extreme events like winning the lottery or becoming paralyzed? We also tackle some of the philosophical questions regarding happiness, such as whether some kinds of happiness are “better” than others, and whether people can be mistaken about their own happiness. But, perhaps the hardest question is: can happiness really be measured?”

A. J. Ayer to the rescue!

A. J. Ayer is known for writing "Language, Truth, and Logic." Lesser known is his sequel, "Language, Truth, and Being a Friggin' Badass."

Couldn’t resist this anecdote from the biography of one of my favorite philosophers, logical positivist A. J. Ayer:

“Ayer was now standing near the entrance to the great white living-room of Sanchez’s West 57th Street apartment, chatting to a group of young models and designers, when a woman rushed in saying that a friend was being assaulted in a bedroom. Ayer went to investigate and found Mike Tyson forcing himself on a young south London model called Naomi Campbell, then just beginning her career. Ayer warned Tyson to desist. Tyson: ‘Do you know who the fuck I am? I’m the heavyweight champion of the world.’ Ayer stood his ground: ‘And I am the former Wykeham Professor of Logic. We are both pre-eminent in our field; I suggest that we talk about this like rational men.’ Ayer and Tyson began to talk. Naomi Campbell slipped out.”

A. J. Ayer: A Life, by Ben Rogers

Oh Sidney, you wag

A linguistics professor lecturing at Oxford explained that although there are many languages in which a double negative implies a positive, there is no language in which a double positive implies a negative.

He was interrupted by legendary philosopher Sidney Morgenbesser, who piped up dismissively from the audience, “Yeah, yeah.”

“Is there an answer?” Searching for the meaning of life in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

(posted at 3 Quarks Daily)

The Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein gets credit for pointing out that many classic philosophical conundrums are unsolvable not because they are so profound, but because they are incoherent. Instead of trying to solve such questions, he argued, we should try to dissolvethem, by demonstrating how they misuse words and investigating the confusion that motivated the question in the first place.

But with all due respect to Wittgenstein, my favorite example of the “dissolving questions” strategy comes from Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, which contains a cheeky and unforgettable dissolution of which I’m sure Wittgenstein himself would have been proud:  A race of hyper-intelligent, pan-dimensional beings builds a supercomputer named Deep Thought, so that they can ask it the question that has preoccupied philosophers for millions of years: “What is the answer to life, the universe, and everything?”

After seven and a half million years of computation, Deep Thought finally announces the answer: Forty-two. In response to the programmers’ howls of disappointment and confusion, Deep Thought rather patiently points out that the reason his answer doesn’t make any sense is because their original question didn’t make any sense either. As I’ve written before, questions like this one, or the very similar “What is the meaning of life?” question, seem to be committing a basic category error: life isn’t the kind of thing to which the word “meaning” or “answer” applies.

But in this article I want to take my analysis a little further than that.

Read the rest, at 3 Quarks Daily.

What is 0^0? And is math true, or just useful?

When you hear mathematicians talk about “searching” for a proof or having “discovered” a new theorem, the implication is that math is something that exists out there in the world, like nature, and that we gradually learn more about it. In other words, mathematical questions are objectively true or false, independent of us, and it’s up to us to discover the answer. That’s a very popular way to think about math, and a very intuitive one.

The alternate view, however, is that math is something we invent, and that math has the form it does because we decided that form would be useful to us, not because we discovered it to be true. Skeptical? Consider imaginary numbers: The square root of X is the number which, when you square it, yields X. And there’s no real number which, when you square it, yields -1. But mathematicians realized centuries ago that it would be useful to be able to use square roots of negative numbers in their formulas, so they decided to define an imaginary number, “i,” to mean “the square root of -1.” So this seems like a clear example in which a mathematical concept was invented, rather than discovered, and in which our system of math has a certain form simply because we decided it would be useful to define it that way, not because that’s how things “really are.”

This is too large of a debate to resolve in one blog post, but I do want to bring up one interesting case study I came across that points in favor of the “math is invented” side of the debate. My friends over at the popular blog Ask a Mathematician, Ask a Physicist did a great post a while ago addressing one of their readers’ questions: What is 0^0?

The reason this question is a head-scratcher is that our rules about how exponents work seem to yield two contradictory answers. On the one hand, we have a rule that zero raised to any power equals zero. But on the other hand, we have a rule that anything raised to the power of zero equals one. So which is it? Does 0^0 = 0 or does 0^0 = 1?

Well, I asked Google and according to their super-official calculator, the answer is unambiguous:

Indeed, the Mathematician at AAMAAP confirms, mathematicians in practice act as if 0^0 = 1. But why? Because it’s more convenient, basically. If we let 0^0=0, there are certain important theorems, like the Binomial Theorem, that would need to be rewritten in more complicated and clunky ways. Note that it’s not even the case that letting 0^0=0 would contradict our theorems (if so, we could perhaps view that as a disproof of the statement 0^0=0). It’s just that it would make our theorems less elegant. Says the mathematician:

“There are some further reasons why using 0^0 = 1 is preferable, but they boil down to that choice being more useful than the alternative choices, leading to simpler theorems, or feeling more “natural” to mathematicians. The choice is not “right”, it is merely nice.”

Philosophy Referee Signals

Ok, I love it when I can combine my passion for discussing philosophy with my interest in sports. Check out these philosophy referee signals:

I think I’ll enjoy this most during public debates – I can just see my friends and me gesturing wildly from the back of the auditorium.

Can you think of other signals that would be useful?

What’s my ethical system? A disambiguation.

Jeremy Bentham, founder of utilitarianism

A friend of mine recently asked me what system of ethics I subscribe to. For all that I’ve thought, read, and talked about ethics over the years, I still have trouble answering that question clearly and coherently. This time, at least, I had the useful realization that my difficulty discussing this in the past is partly due to the fact that there are several ways of interpreting the question, each of which leads to a different answer from me.

I’m sure I’ll write a lot more about each of these topics in the future, but for now, I want to share a brief disambiguation. Even if your answers to these questions are different from mine, it still might be helpful for you to break down your own answer along these or similar lines.

“What’s my ethical system,” then, could be interpreted any of the following ways:

1. What ethical system am I most comfortable with intellectually? Act utilitarianism. This system holds that in any given situation, you should do whatever will maximize expected utility over all sentient beings. There are some tricky questions involved (for example, are you maximizing the sum of total utility, or the average? How do you take into account the utility of future beings?). Nevertheless, utility is the only good which I think it makes sense to care about — if you told me “We should try to pursue/avoid result X, even though it won’t affect anyone’s utility,” that wouldn’t make any sense to me intellectually.

2. What ethical system am I most comfortable with emotionally? Some mishmash of act utilitarianism + rights theory. Even though my emotional intuitions usually accord with act utilitarianism, there are some cases in which I simply don’t like the action that act utilitarianism prescribes. For example, I tend to feel that people have a “right” to autonomy even if you knew that they would end up happier if you forced them to make a certain choice. I also tend to feel that people have a “right” to know the truth about certain things, even if you knew that it would make them less happy overall.

But I don’t have any justification for my feelings about those situations, nor do I think any such justification exists — I don’t think the concept of a “right” makes any sense except as a convention we all choose to respect. So I’m still trying to figure out how to reconcile my strong overall preference for act utilitarianism with my strong emotional inclination to discard it in cases like these.

3. What ethical system do I think is “correct?” None. I’m pretty much an error theorist when it comes to ethics, which means that I think ethical claims (e.g., “Causing gratuitous suffering is wrong”) can’t be said to be true or false the way empirical claims (e.g., “Poisoning the well will cause gratuitous suffering”) can. That doesn’t imply that ethical claims are entirely meaningless. Clearly ethical claims can express emotions like disgust and outrage, and a kind of prescriptivism, i.e., “Don’t do X”.

But in my experience, people making ethical claims tend to also believe they are making a factual claim about a property (“wrongness”) that some act has, and that’s where the “error” in “error theory” comes in — I don’t think that properties of rightness and wrongness exist, objectively, in the world.  The explanation that most closely matches my views on this is J. L. Mackie’s, laid out in Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong.  So the preferences I laid out in #1 and #2 are just that — preferences.

4. What ethical system do I actually follow on a day-to-day basis? Some mishmash of #2 + weakness of will + selective apathy + social pressures and habits. I’m not perfect, even by the standards of the system of ethics I myself have chosen. There are plenty of relatively easy things I could be doing to reduce suffering in the world which I am not doing, mainly out of inertia and the knowledge that society won’t judge me harshly for not doing them. I can and intend to remedy this gap, to some extent, but there’s no clear answer to the question of how high a standard to hold oneself to.

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