In a conversation last night with a dear friend, the issue of what is more important—truth or happiness–arose. As a skeptic, my answer is truth. But I want to say a few words about that because I think that maybe the terms are not as clear as they may seem.
Is there a “truth”?
…OK, so I should not be so flippant about that answer. For some people, this question is not so clear, and for others the answer is no. For the philosophically inclined, I will say that I reject the concept of reality being inaccessible or an illusion. So While our perceptual tools are not always reliable on their own, there is a reality out there and it actually is what it is regardless of our often faulty perceptions. Reality is there whether we think about it rightly or wrongly.
The issue following that (and in another way, preceding it) is which epistemological methodology we use; how do we figure out what reality is like while avoiding those mistakes of perception? Skepticism, obviously. We demand demonstrable, repeatable, and rational evidence for things and the better that evidence the stronger our acceptance of that thing should be. So our path to truth is an empirical, logical, and and ultimately a skeptical one. We believe things when we cannot disprove them, for so long as the theories we generate maintain their justification.
A word about theories.
Remember, theories are things which have survived the assault of people who want to try and tear it down (for the sake of, perhaps, another potential theory). Theory is the graduation point in science, not some mere guess. But also, they are nothing but language; they are descriptions based upon the logical rules which make up thought, perception, etc within our heads. The theories themselves are not real, objective things (they are, at best, intersubjective). But they try and describe real events and phenomena, sometimes successfully. Pointing out that the theories we use–the language we use–are subjective narratives which are not objectively real says nothing about the world itself. The fact that our subjectivity is stuck in our own head, and that theories are subjective experiences, does not mean that the referents are not actually there. It only means that the language we have to describe it is an imperfect map to the terrain.
Theories are not corresponding maps, in other words, but they try and describe reality in terms our minds can comprehend. And many scientific theories do this so well that we can predict and construct to such a high degree of complexity and resolution that the computer you are reading this on can work. Amazing, isn’t it? Such huge accomplishments, based on an empirical theory of truth, that provides some happiness for many people. Technology is the evidence that our ideas can represent the world well.
Unless, of course, you believe some sort of solipsism is true. In which case, you are writing a wonderful blog post right now! And no, that is not me being full of myself, that is you being full of yourself. Also, you are responsible for everything, including the things you hate and don’t believe are true. If the world is an illusion, you are responsible for Republicans.
What is happiness?
Are you insane? Don’t ask a philosopher that! Unless you want to read 50 pages that will ramble in incoherently, don’t ask that.
Let’s say that happiness is some kind of emotional or intellectual (and no not “spiritual” because that word does not mean anything!) experience. Whether it is a conglomeration of emotions, it’s own emotion, or even some kind of an intentional stance we take to ourselves, it is an experience or a background set of experiences. It is a mind or body state, of some kind. You want more detail, too bad. All I am willing to say here is that it’s a real, physical thing like any other experience. It happens in our brain (and possibly in other parts of our nervous system), and is a real phenomenon of some kind.
Happiness is nice. it’s better than non-happiness, by definition. It may (or may not) feel different for different people, but it’s a good thing. People like happiness.
See, less than 50 pages! And only a little incoherent!
And yet you still have no idea what I think happiness is, do you? Well, I don’t give a flying purple fuck, because it’s not important to the point here. So go eat a pile of expertly-thrown monkey shit if you are left unsatisfied by that.
I’m apparently feisty today.
Are happiness and truth at odds?
There certainly is a tension between truth and happiness in our culture, but is that tension necessary?
Will learning more about the actual nature of reality cause happiness to decline?
Maybe. There might be some (scientifically and empirically valid) studies which talk about that. I’m not looking them up, mostly because I want to believe that the answer is no but I know deep down inside that the answer of yes would make me unhappy. Try that mind-fuck on for size!
So, in other words, I want the truth to lead to happiness. I have an emotional interest in the proposition that valuing truth will at least not make us more unhappy. That being said, here’s my rationalization; I have a value for truth, which trumps happiness, because I know that when people don’t know the truth it often causes harm. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, then you need to browse this website:
False beliefs may seem harmless, but they are not. Not always, but they are often harmful. By demanding a level of evidence to accept something, you make it less likely (ideally) to get swindled or support a dangerous lie. And because I care about my happiness, which is in part related to the state of the culture around me, I am motivated to care about truth prior to happiness. Mostly this is because the harm of non-truth upsets me, and so if I try and consider happiness first, it backfires. But, of course, this is only true because I care about what is true, fundamentally. If I didn’t care what was true (or if I thought that truth was subjective or didn’t exist) then I could just be concerned with happiness since truth is, in that hypothetical world, not a real thing.
Of course, some might say that my belief that there is actually an objective reality is not true (or only true for me; from my subjective perspective), and so the harm is illusory. Of course, I want to know what method they used to tell me that my belief in truth is not true! If there is no truth, then we couldn’t tell the difference, rationally, between truth or untruth. The concept of truth would be meaningless, and chaos and nihilism would ensue. Pure hedonistic, lawless, chaos! Well, not really, but if there is any means to make a distinction between two ideas in terms of which one is more in line with how the world operates, then we have a methodology to determine truth. It may not always work, but when it does work we have access to the real world! Amazing!
Bu the more important point is that if we deny the distinction between a helpful and a not-helpful method and set of ideas, we ignore real-world harms. There is no truth, eh? No objective reality? Tell that to the children who die because their parents choose prayer over medicine. Tell that to people getting the Measles right now because other people believe that the MMR vaccine causes Autism (thanks Jenny McCarthy). Tell that to creationists and other delusional people who deny evolution for the sake of an ancient mythological just-so story about a man, his wife/property, and a garden they were kicked out of because the property/wife was too skeptical. Without a reality, we cannot be angry about these things because there is no objective truth to tell the difference. But we can tell the difference. and that very ability to rationally discern indicates a methodology of decision. It indicates a way to choose between theories.
And yes, there are complicated problems with theory choice in the philosophy of science, but this does not point to the lack of objective truth, but only to problems in refining the methodology to attain it. it’s sort of like how this is not a duck. The empirical evidence can give us clues, even if we are missing pieces or are not sure which, among similar theories, to choose.
There are actual truths. Evolution is true, the creation stories of the world religions are not. This is not mere opinion, this is an idea backed up by evidence derived from experience of the world around us, meticulously tested and probed to the breaking point–but does has not broken. Mythology is not true for the culture is exists within; it’s either verifiable or it is bullshit. Saying that mythology is “true” seeks to conflate meaning with truth. An idea might have meaning, but meaning does not imply truth. If something is true and is understood by someone then that idea has meaning, but the fact that it is also true is a different question. The Harry Potter Universe is largely internally coherent and meaningful, but magic isn’t real so the story is not true. The concept of “spirituality” might have meaning for you, as if does for many people, but it does not correspond to anything intersubjectively real. When it’s tested, it fails (there is $1,000,000 waiting for you if you can prove otherwise). Things that have meaning to you might simply not be true. Yeah, it sucks, but only because you prefer comfort to reality.
This is not about comfort v. truth, because if so comfort would win in a landslide election, But mere comfort, for me anyway, is not enough. Comfort is not happiness. They might coexist, but not necessarily.
So what about happiness, then?
Some people might not like how reality is. Compared to an emotionally powerful narrative of some religion, the apparent coldness of truth seems dry and is not conducive to happiness. I don’t give a flying fuck. Happiness within an illusion can only remain happiness in ignorance. And this is where some people may come back with “well, I’d rather be happy and delusional than see the world through your eyes and be miserable!”
Christianity and it’s ideological ancestors and cousins may have tainted this question for us too much to see this clearly (Nietzsche sad that “the Christian resolution to find the world ugly and bad has made the world ugly and bad.”), but there are no mythologies more awesome than the intricacies of cosmology, biology, quantum mechanics, or even mathematics. As I have argued previously (please read that post if you have not already, as it applies to more than just humanism), the attempts of many liberal-minded people to seek solace in some sort of religious or spiritual environment in the face of the wasteland left behind the wars between the powers of monotheism and science (which has created an illusory dichotomy between the beauty and meaningfulness of religion and spirituality versus the dead, meaninglessness of a world without divinity) are still stuck in that Platonic worldview. The question is framed in such a way that to ask whether we want religion or science/atheism seems to be asking if we want happiness or boring, dry, grey “truth” (which is actually just a lie, a deception of Satan or at least Loki). The idea that truth is a fiction is, surprisingly to some, a very Christian (Platonic) theme.
The narrative of Zoroastrian, Jewish, Christian, and Islamic (hell, it’s down-right Platonic, neo-Platonic even, of them) dichotomies between meaning and nothing, Heaven and Hell, etc is ubiquitous. It’s so old, so natural-seeming to us, that most people simply don’t even know it’s there. When I discovered it myself, I was blown away, and frankly I still reel from it. I, who never believed in any gods, always distrusted Christianity, and who found the idea of Heaven silly from a young age, was susceptible. It is one of the most invisible assumptions and ideological axioms in our culture, and it’s power to sway not only our actions but our very beliefs, cannot be underestimated. And if we think that we avoid it by leaving those large-tent religions, we are fooling ourselves.
But replacing one version this narrative with another one, rather than discarding it, is much easier. Christianity and New Age Paganism, for example, have a lot in common despite the fact that they hate one another in many cases. They have very different theologies, for sure, but the similarities of their basic metaphysical assumptions are striking. There is an implicit distinction between the spiritual and the physical, the sacred and the profane, and meaningful and the meaningless. These are false distinctions. They simply are not real except in the mind of believers, and then only as abstractions with no correspondence.
There is no meaninglessness. If it were meaningless, we couldn’t conceive of it, think about it, etc. We have a place-holder word, but it points to nothing. (Also, there is no nothing. Same reasons). There is no ‘spiritual’ world or being. Because of that, ‘physical’ is redundant. Everything that exists is physical (or material, or whatever term you prefer. It is made out of stuff). Tell me the difference between the lack of marbles, the non-physical marbles, and the imaginary marbles again, please? In other words, the dichotomy between the area (or realm, or whatever) of the source of happiness and the (other) area from where happiness cannot derive, is not a real thing. Wherever happiness comes from, it is coming from somewhere real. And knowing more about that reality will give you more information about your happiness (if you look in the right places), and what causes it (or prevents it). Must I invoke Sam Harris?
So, the best way to be happy, both individually and as a culture, is to value skepticism as a methodology towards truth. That way, your worldview is accustomed to change, possibly being wrong, and since you have been using it you are more likely to already have ideas which are rationally justified, so more likely true. No matter how open-minded your faith tradition is–no matter how new, radical, or enlightened it is–the nature of faith is to conserve itself. Conservation of culture is stifling of curiosity, freethinking, and ultimately of the truth. So while paganism and other forms of Western New Age might be tied to liberalism generally and may provide more happiness than the traditional religions, they can only become less so and never more so.
Not without truth, anyway.
The longer a tradition which is not skeptical stays around, the more tradition, and thus conservatism, becomes important. So the new age is preferable to Christianity, but only because Christianity has been in a position of power, and power only seeks its own happiness, not yours.
Progress is in the direction of atheism and naturalism. That’s where the truth leads. So, again, what about happiness?
Spirituality and religion only look like better sources of happiness because, in our culture, we have been conditioned to see a relationship between meaning and belief in something more than this mere physicality. Since Plato’s long influence, people have thought that the physical is cold and dead, and needed something more to give it life and meaning. This is a disease which has been eating at our species for two and a half millennia. And as Nietzsche said, in my favorite quote of his,
“To translate man back into nature; to become master over the many vain and overly enthusiastic interpretations and connotations that have so far been scrawled and painted over the eternal basic text of homo natura; to see to it that man henceforth stands before man as even today, hardened in the discipline of science, he stands before the rest of nature, with Oedipus eyes and sealed Odysseus ears, deaf to the siren songs of old metaphysical bird catchers who have been piping at him all too long, “you are more, you are higher, you are of a different origin!”—that may be a strange and insane task, but it is a task”
We need to ignore the siren calls of spirituality and religion, thinking they are the only possible source of happiness. We cannot be content to lie happy in illusion. There are more things in reality here on Earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your mythologies.
So, tell me that your religion provides happiness where the truth cannot, and I will say you are not looking closely enough at the truth, or are still viewing it though lenses with Platonic or Zoroastrian labels on them. I think you need new glasses, ones with scientific lenses. Because if you want to know more about happiness, you need truth. Truth is the tool by which we better understand the potential for, as well as limits and causes of, happiness. Because while we could experience happiness with little truth, the truth is the only sure way to lead to any more. The better our access to truth is, the better we can be sure we are heading in the right direction. Without truth, our forays into happiness will be a crap-shoot at best. Being a good craps player means knowing the odds, and the odds are a kind of truth.
It’s not so much that truth causes happiness as untruth causes harm (or at least chaos and unpredictability). But remember, even if the lack of truth in your world is not harming you (and it might be doing so without your knowledge), it is hurting someone else somewhere–possibly many others everywhere. And I, personally, can’t remain happy knowing that is possible. Or, at least I can’t without avoiding truth, which doesn’t seem like a good solution. Ignorance is one thing, but willful ignorance is quite another.
I choose truth and happiness.