Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Skepticism and Happiness

The Learning Technologies Department at the University of North Texas is located off campus in a complex known as Discovery Park. The department has a large meeting area call the agora (Greek for meeting place). As a consequence, I find myself drawn back to my academic training in philosophy on occasion. My memory of my early academic training is not all that clear so some of what follows may be wrong or confused. Anyway, I shall attempt to construct a meaningful story out of those memories.

Many associate skepticism with doubting or even a negative attitude towards various things. I find this association odd. Sextus Empiricus, a second century Greek philosopher who wrote a comprehensive account of skepticism called Outlines of Pyrrhonism, argued that skepticism was a kind of mental therapy that resulted in happiness or at least mental quietude. In short, like other ancient Greek philosophical traditions, achieving happiness was of central concern. Skepticism arose in part as a reaction to Stoicism, another Greek school of thought. According to Stoicism, achieving true and lasting happiness was best achieved by avoiding erroneous judgment and minimizing negative emotions by leading a simple life. The third Greek tradition to add to this mix is Epicureanism, which viewed happiness as the absence of pain and mental disturbance.

Roughly speaking there are three competing traditions in ancient Greek philosophy with regard to finding happiness and living the good life. One proposes avoiding pain and enjoying the pleasures that one finds as best one can – epicureanism. Another proposes avoiding negative emotions through a kind of purity of simplified living – stoicism. And a third proposes following a certain mental discipline to achieve happiness – skepticism. While these three traditions seem quite different, they do have several things in common. Notably, all three do not draw a sharp distinction between what we might be inclined to think of as the cognitive domain (thought, reasoning, etc.) and the affective domain (emotions, feelings, etc.). All three connect a certain mental discipline with achieving happiness or at least mental quietude (peace of mind). Hmm. One can think oneself happy – by thinking, achieve happiness. How strange is that?

Perhaps it is not so strange when one takes a deeper look at the principles of skepticism. Skepticism is not fundamentally about doubting – it is about searching for the truth. The word ‘skeptic’ is derived from the Greek word skepsis which roughly translates to inquiry. A skeptic is someone who is engaged in an inquiry process. That process logically begins with doubt – with an admission of not knowing something that one wishes to understand. The process does not end with that doubt, however. One must then be engaged in a search for the truth. A skeptic is a seeker – a searcher – someone engaged in an inquiry process. Most things worthy of such an investigation are complex and do not lend themselves to simple answers. So, a skeptic must not only be humble and begin by admitting to a kind of ignorance or lack of understanding, a skeptic must also be open to alternative explanations and an examination and re-examination of evidence. Finally, when one is exhausted from the search process, one should not simply accept a finding as conclusive – new evidence might become available or one might have erred along the way. The final stage, then, in a skeptical process of inquiry is to realize that the final truth may not have been found. This is precisely where skeptics parted company with the stoics who held dogmatically to many truths that skeptics believed worth further inquiry.

In my own life, I have come to realize that things that I believed with certainty were not so certain after all. For example, prior to my strong interest in philosophy I had a strong (also strange) attraction to mathematics. I remembered being introduced to Fermat’s Last Theorem in high school – the conjecture that no three positive integers can satisfy the equation an + bn = cn for any integer value of n > 2. Since the challenge to find a proof had existed for more than 300 years, I naively assumed a proof would never be found. I believed with certainty that no such proof existed. In 1995, a proof was found. The certainty with which I held that belief was wrongheaded.

In my mathematical period I became interested in the number π (pi - the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter). I was taught that the expansion of the number π was infinite. While I was able to follow the proof that π is not the quotient of two integers (i.e., it is an irrational number) or not accurately expressed as the ration of two integers, I was not able to follow the proof that π was a transcendental number or that the expansion of π led to a never ending and non-repeating sequence. I simply accepted that stronger claim as true and came to believe it with certainty. I raise this point because it would seem that continuing to search for or understand the proof or seek a sequence in the expansion that repeated or ended would lead to a lot of mental effort and not result in peace of mind – my own efforts to understand π had led to more questions and a state of perplexity. I do recall one conversation with my father, Rabbi Spector, when I was trying to understand π. Remarkably, he know what π was and was familiar with an ancient Hebrew text that had approximated π as the quotient of 355/113. He also quoted Maimonides who said that π could only be approximated and not known with precision or certainty. There ensued a remarkable discussion about infinity with my father – one of the happiest memories of my life, so perhaps indirectly the search did result in some sort of happiness.

Anyway, I believe the kernel of truth in connecting skepticism with happiness is twofold. First, there is the notion that happiness involves a cognitive element. Second, if one holds a belief with wrongheaded confidence and is unwilling to examine evidence or consider alternatives, then one is likely to encounter at some point a disquieting and unsettling cognitive conflict. I have experienced several of these and have come to accept the small kernel of truth that skepticism is generally a healthy state of mind.

Consider this story from Part IV Leo Tolstoy’s A Confession:

There is an Eastern fable, told long ago, of a traveller overtaken on a plain by an enraged beast. Escaping from the beast he gets into a dry well, but sees at the bottom of the well a dragon that has opened its jaws to swallow him. And the unfortunate man, not daring to climb out lest he should be destroyed by the enraged beast, and not daring to leap to the bottom of the well lest he should be eaten by the dragon, seizes s twig growing in a crack in the well and clings to it. His hands are growing weaker and he feels he will soon have to resign himself to the destruction that awaits him above or below, but still he clings on. Then he sees that two mice, a black one and a white one, go regularly round and round the stem of the twig to which he is clinging and gnaw at it. And soon the twig itself will snap and he will fall into the dragon's jaws. The traveller sees this and knows that he will inevitably perish; but while still hanging he looks around, sees some drops of honey on the leaves of the twig, reaches them with his tongue and licks them. So I too clung to the twig of life, knowing that the dragon of death was inevitably awaiting me, ready to tear me to pieces; and I could not understand why I had fallen into such torment. I tried to lick the honey which formerly consoled me, but the honey no longer gave me pleasure, and the white and black mice of day and night gnawed at the branch by which I hung. I saw the dragon clearly and the honey no longer tasted sweet. I only saw the unescapable dragon and the mice, and I could not tear my gaze from them. and this is not a fable but the real unanswerable truth intelligible to all.

This short tale describes how Tolstoy came to abandon the epicurean approach to happiness. Perhaps it will resonate with some. There is also Camus’ Myth of Sisyphus in which Camus retells the story of Sisyphus being condemned by the gods to forever roll a rock to the top of a mountain only to have it roll back down again – an infinite but repeating sequence, recalling our discussion of pi. Sisyphus’ crime was apparently stealing secrets from and/or offending the gods. The end of Camus’ version ends with the remarkable statement that one must imagine Sisyphus happy. How is that possible? Roll that rock to the top again and again, forever and ever? Where is the joy in that? Asking such a question might lead to an interesting inquiry process …

Here is another tidbit from a renowned skeptical philosopher – Friedrich Nietzsche. This quotation comes from Nietzsche’s The Gay Science, #341 (philosophy is the gay science, by the way):

The greatest weight.-- What, if some day or night a demon were to steal after you into your loneliest loneliness and say to you: "This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and sigh and everything unutterably small or great in your life will have to return to you, all in the same succession and sequence - even this spider and this moonlight between the trees, and even this moment and I myself. The eternal hourglass of existence is turned upside down again and again, and you with it, speck of dust!" Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus?... Or how well disposed would you have to become to yourself and to life to crave nothing more fervently than this ultimate eternal confirmation and seal?

I encountered this passage in my first year of doctoral studies with O. K. Bouwsma. After reading the passage there ensued a discussion of tremendous moments in which several students shared what thought would justify a positive disposition towards eternal recurrence. For example, one offered the birth of a child as such a moment. Someone asked Bouwsma if he had experienced such a moment of happiness. As best I recall, he was about 75 when asked and he said something like the following: “I remember when I was a child of about 7 playing on a snowy hilltop in Nebraska. I was holding onto the lower rail of a wooden fence sliding my feet back and forth creating a slippery spot to create a starting point for sliding down the hill. A young girl I had not seen before came up next to me and smiled. I smiled back and slid down the hill never to see her again.” He said that seeing her smile was a tremendous moment. Add that story to many other things I am not likely to understand anytime soon.

I conclude this short excursion into skepticism and happiness with this simple realization: I know less than I am generally inclined to believe.

Enjoy the happiness that comes with serious and sustained inquiry.

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