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Happiness and Suffering as the Basis for Morality
Posted: 17 December 2007 03:40 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 46 ]  
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Antisocialdarwinist - 17 December 2007 07:45 PM

Agreed.  But the question isn’t whether faith is unshakeable, the question is how widespread this phenomenon of pretend belief is.  Your theory, if I understand it, is that it’s quite common, that “true” faith is virtually nonexistent (hence the mootness of Derek’s point about the goodness of faith vis-a-vis Harris’s happiness test). You may be right, but the evidence I’ve seen so far is anecdotal.  You wouldn’t want to draw a conclusion based only on anecdotal evidence, would you?  No matter how appealing the conclusion might be? 

I really can’t think of how to phrase the question to get a straight answer.  It’s unlikely that someone pretending to believe would ever admit it.  As you say, they would probably take such a question as an attack.  Maybe the question could be phrased in such a way that it’s not perceived as an attack, and the answer gleaned by reading between the lines of the response.  Or we could ask more ex-believers like homunculus, although one could argue that their experience is atypical.

Why do you necessarily need to poll ex-religious believers to get at this question? Everyone has believed something at one point that they later judged to be false, haven’t they? Or have none of you ever changed your beliefs about anything?

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Posted: 17 December 2007 04:07 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 47 ]  
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derekjames - 17 December 2007 08:40 PM
Antisocialdarwinist - 17 December 2007 07:45 PM

Agreed.  But the question isn’t whether faith is unshakeable, the question is how widespread this phenomenon of pretend belief is.  Your theory, if I understand it, is that it’s quite common, that “true” faith is virtually nonexistent (hence the mootness of Derek’s point about the goodness of faith vis-a-vis Harris’s happiness test). You may be right, but the evidence I’ve seen so far is anecdotal.  You wouldn’t want to draw a conclusion based only on anecdotal evidence, would you?  No matter how appealing the conclusion might be? 

I really can’t think of how to phrase the question to get a straight answer.  It’s unlikely that someone pretending to believe would ever admit it.  As you say, they would probably take such a question as an attack.  Maybe the question could be phrased in such a way that it’s not perceived as an attack, and the answer gleaned by reading between the lines of the response.  Or we could ask more ex-believers like homunculus, although one could argue that their experience is atypical.

Why do you necessarily need to poll ex-religious believers to get at this question? Everyone has believed something at one point that they later judged to be false, haven’t they? Or have none of you ever changed your beliefs about anything?

I think the question is easier to phrase than you might think.  No believer is going to admit that they are just “pretending” to believe, unless they are having an existential crisis, or have achieved true faith and can look back and say something like “until the scales fell from my eyes I was merely following the forms without real understanding.”  The question that a believer could give an honest answer to would be something relating to their struggle to maintain their faith.  They would never admit that their belief was a mere pretense, but would certainly admit that they had to make an effort to keep the faith.  (From a religious point of view, it is that struggle and effort that tempers and strengthens faith.)  The thing would be to distinguish between believers who were really serious, and those who were just fellow travellers—they would tend to say they had no problem keeping their beliefs, although of course they were fallable and had the occasional lapse.

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Posted: 17 December 2007 04:19 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 48 ]  
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[quote author=“Antisocialdarwinist” date=“1197949550] I really can’t think of how to phrase the question to get a straight answer.  It’s unlikely that someone pretending to believe would ever admit it.  As you say, they would probably take such a question as an attack.  Maybe the question could be phrased in such a way that it’s not perceived as an attack, and the answer gleaned by reading between the lines of the response.  Or we could ask more ex-believers like homunculus, although one could argue that their experience is atypical.

Pardon the interjection.

An interesting thing Hitchens noticed when doing his book-tour through the Bible belt for GING was that none of his opponents were willing to acknowledge any specifics of their faith; i.e. “do you really believe in a virgin birth, do you really believe Mohamed spoke to Gabriel”.
Granted, these were probably not the grunts of their religious groups but it does tell us that these people say they believe X and Y until they are put under the spotlight.

My take on this is that religious people generally really believe the propositions that are aligned with or enhanced by emotional responses and tendencies that we all share.

For example, I know of no Catholic who really believes in the whole transubstantiation proposition. Most of them don’t even know what the word means. It is a ritual, but besides that I doubt that it means anything at all to them.

On the other hand, our fear of death mixes rather nicely and gruesomely with the proposition of hell and I am quite sure, although I can not prove this, that most fundamentalist Christians actually believe this idea. 
Likewise, having an imaginary friend is something that most of us can relate to from childhood. I do think that Christians really believe that there is one for them called Jesus, otherwise they would not spend time addressing him when stuck on their roofs in New Orleans.

When pressure is applied to a believer, whether it is in the shape of a cantankerous, alcoholic Englishman or flood-waters or a doctor who tells them that their spleen will fall out in 2 months, then you can see what they really believe.

Sam’s core message is urging people like us to provide this pressure.
People will always be afraid to die and they will always talk to imaginary beings, but you can chip away at all the other bullshit because most of it is not truly believed anyway.

Sorry for rambling on about this, please carry on.

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Posted: 17 December 2007 04:30 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 49 ]  
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This scintillating dialogue reminds me of a line Jason Alexander said as George Costanza: “Remember Jerry, it’s not a lie if you believe it.” smirk

In regard to Sam’s notion and derek’s question: I think that we can determine “moral” or ethical behaviour without the aid of Faith…in fact, Faith (name your religion here) is, as Sam pointed out and we can observe, at times at odds with what a modern, civilized, rational society would consider moral or, more accurately, ethical. If the mighty lawmakers used the foundational premise or question: will this law increase the potential for human happiness and decrease overall suffering? before passing a law, what kind of laws would we end up with?
Perhaps what is frightening about this for some is that we would have far fewer laws…:question:  excaim
This wouldn’t have to be the only “test” for determining ethical or fair law, but it ought to play a role, don’t you think derek?

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Posted: 17 December 2007 05:10 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 50 ]  
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isocratic infidel - 17 December 2007 09:30 PM

In regard to Sam’s notion and derek’s question: I think that we can determine “moral” or ethical behaviour without the aid of Faith…in fact, Faith (name your religion here) is, as Sam pointed out and we can observe, at times at odds with what a modern, civilized, rational society would consider moral or, more accurately, ethical.

I definitely agree with this. I’m completely on board with using the faculties of reason to articulate a secular moral system.

If the mighty lawmakers used the foundational premise or question: will this law increase the potential for human happiness and decrease overall suffering? before passing a law, what kind of laws would we end up with?
Perhaps what is frightening about this for some is that we would have far fewer laws…:question:  excaim
This wouldn’t have to be the only “test” for determining ethical or fair law, but it ought to play a role, don’t you think derek?

Well, this was the motivation in my original question. It seems to me that all sorts of other principles can be diminished in favor of happiness or the reduction of suffering, and that using happiness as the foundational principle for a secular morality is a very, very bad idea.

I was trying to point out that Harris obviously seems to value the principle of truth above that of happiness, if he rejects the idea of believing a falsehood that tends to increase net happiness (not only in yourself, but others). Many people in this thread reject out of hand the notion that a false belief could result in a net increase in happiness; it may increase an individual’s happiness, but at the expense of others. I actually didn’t expect this level of resistance on that particular point, so that’s been interesting to think about.

I think other principles, such as freedom, can clash with the principle of happiness. Issues such as the legalization of drugs/guns/gambling/prostitution bear directly on the conflict between allowing individuals the freedom to access something that may result in a net decrease in happiness in society at large. People here may argue that individual liberties and societal happiness are always positively correlated, and just as with the false belief and happiness debate, such things are difficult to empirically quantify.

I think in the case of many individual liberties, if we asked your question: Will this law increase the potential for human happiness and decrease overall suffering? The case could be made that limiting many individual liberties would increase the potential for human happiness and decrease overall suffering.

A simpler, very extreme way to draw the distinction would be to ask: Would you rather be a slave in a happy society or a free citizen in an unhappy one?

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Posted: 17 December 2007 06:57 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 51 ]  
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derekjames - 17 December 2007 10:10 PM

Many people in this thread reject out of hand the notion that a false belief could result in a net increase in happiness; it may increase an individual’s happiness, but at the expense of others.

That’s probably because the idea of someone acheiving happiness through a false belief is so galling to them that it negatively impacts their own happiness.

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Do-gooding is like treating hemophilia—the real cure is to let hemophiliacs bleed to death, before they breed more hemophiliacs. -Robert Heinlein, Stranger in a Strange Land

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Posted: 17 December 2007 07:39 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 52 ]  
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Sander - 16 December 2007 10:45 PM

http://www.christian-forum.net/

My name there is Visarion.

Enjoy.

Very entertaining!  I’m reading through the Big Bible Battle now.  Asking them not to quote the Bible was a great idea.  You could probably sell the whole thread to John Stewart.  Aren’t the Hollywood writers still on strike?

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Do-gooding is like treating hemophilia—the real cure is to let hemophiliacs bleed to death, before they breed more hemophiliacs. -Robert Heinlein, Stranger in a Strange Land

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Posted: 18 December 2007 06:16 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 53 ]  
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derekjames - 17 December 2007 10:10 PM

I was trying to point out that Harris obviously seems to value the principle of truth above that of happiness, if he rejects the idea of believing a falsehood that tends to increase net happiness (not only in yourself, but others).

Based on my reading of Harris’ books, he has made no such statement. So you appear to be making an assumption that Harris rejects the idea you keep talking about, essentially creating a reverse straw man.

The burden is on you to show how a falsehood belief can produce a net increase in happiness in society. That is because all mental propositions affect a person’s actions to some degree, even the “true” ones. (I put “true” in quotes because by definition, a belief involves some question as to whether the proposition is true - it has not been proven true or proven false. If the belief is true then it graduates to the realm of knowledge.)

How could a falsehood belief produce a net increase in happiness? Maybe if the person holding the belief was completely isolated from society, which is ridiculously impractical. Maybe if the believer pledged to completely divorce his falsehood from his actions. But I doubt that is possible since humans are imperfect creatures.

So as a practical matter, a falsehood belief tends to decrease happiness for the believer and for others, because the believer is basing his actions on his belief about the world around him, not the actual state of the world around him.

derekjames - 17 December 2007 10:10 PM

People here may argue that individual liberties and societal happiness are always positively correlated, and just as with the false belief and happiness debate, such things are difficult to empirically quantify.

Again, you’re creating a straw man. I would not expect anyone here to make that argument. There seems to be general agreement about achieving a balance between the individual and society. Also, drugs and gambling may lead to short-term happiness for the individual, but the long-term suffering caused by these also affects the individual, often more than society.

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Posted: 18 December 2007 07:19 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 54 ]  
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burt - 17 December 2007 12:42 PM

. . . This is the faith based equivalent of the struggle a person on a path of knowledge must undergo to learn how to distinguish true from false impressions, to learn to reason, to learn about their own mind (“know thyself”), and so on.  No free lunch.

Burt, in a sense, that’s often what greatness is about. Some of the most successful people have at some point put their emotional contentment up for bid. How much is my contentment worth? Do I harbor vivid, often-played fantasies about my future? If so, I’d better be well aware of the potential disappointment I’ll get if things don’t pan out, due to my playing with my expectations, gambling with my emotions.

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Posted: 18 December 2007 07:31 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 55 ]  
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Carstonio - 18 December 2007 11:16 AM

The burden is on you to show how a falsehood belief can produce a net increase in happiness in society. That is because all mental propositions affect a person’s actions to some degree, even the “true” ones. (I put “true” in quotes because by definition, a belief involves some question as to whether the proposition is true - it has not been proven true or proven false. If the belief is true then it graduates to the realm of knowledge.)

How could a falsehood belief produce a net increase in happiness?

I actually find it hard to believe that several people here are arguing that truth is always positively correlated with a net increase in happiness, but I’ll go ahead and reiterate a previous example, and give two more.

I mentioned placebos before. A placebo is a false belief by a patient that they are in fact taking an active drug, rather than something like a sugar pill. Placebos have been demonstrated to be proven effective compared to the absence of treatment. In those cases where real drugs are not available (due to logistical reasons) or the patient has a condition for which there are no current treatments, it is probable that a placebo would decrease their suffering. Their friends and family would be happier that some of the suffering has been alleviated, and so would the doctor. In such a case, the net happiness is increased, relative to a situation where the doctor just said, “I’m sorry, we don’t have any drugs for you…you’re fucked.” I actually looked up the AMA guidelines for placebos, and it turns out there was a bitter fight in the ethics counsel last year regarding the official stance on the use of placebos. Those against the use of placebos apparently won the day, but there are a number of clinicians who think that deliberately administering a treatment the patient holds a false belief about causes a net decrease in suffering.

Secondly, Santa Claus. This is probably more analogous to religious belief. Perhaps some of the people here didn’t grow up believing in Santa Claus. Perhaps they did, and when they found out he wasn’t real, they were submerged in misery and distrust of their parents. But I think in general this is a widespread false belief that creates a net increase in happiness (relative to no belief) among children and parents, and the relative harm of revealing the falsehood does not counterbalance the positive emotions associated with such a belief. Ditto for many false beliefs that children have that they generally grow out of (e.g., tooth fairy, etc.).

And finally, at a more superficial level, there is flattery. People will generate false compliments in order to get what they want, and those at the receiving end tend to be very willing to suspend skepticism in order to believe something nice about themselves. The flatterer may say “Hey, I like your new haircut” when in fact he thinks it looks like crap, and the receiver, probably aware that their hair looks like crap, will probably still lap up the compliment. False praise is like societal glue, and people are very willing to believe praise about themselves in spite of doubt or skepticism, if it makes them generally feel good. So, there’s generally a net increase in happiness via the false acceptance of flattery.

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Posted: 18 December 2007 07:55 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 56 ]  
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derekjames - 18 December 2007 12:31 PM

. . .
And finally, at a more superficial level, there is flattery. People will generate false compliments in order to get what they want, and those at the receiving end tend to be very willing to suspend skepticism in order to believe something nice about themselves. The flatterer may say “Hey, I like your new haircut” when in fact he thinks it looks like crap, and the receiver, probably aware that their hair looks like crap, will probably still lap up the compliment. False praise is like societal glue, and people are very willing to believe praise about themselves in spite of doubt or skepticism, if it makes them generally feel good. So, there’s generally a net increase in happiness via the false acceptance of flattery.

It’s true that people commonly lie to each other all the time. But the older I get, the less of those sorts of lies (the polite ones—those that are not even seen as “lies” in the usual sense of the word) I’m willing to go along with. But having said that, I still lie to the cashier when I’m having a stressful day and she asks me how my day is going.

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Posted: 18 December 2007 08:17 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 57 ]  
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This discussion of “little white lies” is really starting to connect some dots for me. I mercilessly give a hard time to people who gush on and on about “spirituality”, but really I don’t give a frick-frack what little delusions someone harbors to help him/herself toward greater “happiness”.

I like to think of myself as a “product tester” for “spirituality”. My position is that if “spirituality” (namely, belief in likely falsehoods engaged in purely to enhance personal happiness) is effective, it really ought to accomplish its aims. Apparently, however, some “spirituality” does not stand up under fire.

Most of the non-sectarian “spiritual” people I come in contact with respond poorly to my criticism of their “spirituality”, and some act quite wounded by the notion that I might even make fun of it. It seems to me that if a person professing some sort of “spirituality” is perturbed by the fact that someone like me deems it “a lot of hooey”, then their toy is not performing according to specs. They are expressing “unhappiness”.

I will say that I am impressed by the willingness of some people to spout doctrine instead of muttering how insulted they are by my criticisms, but I don’t take that as evidence that their “spirituality” really functions to enhance their “happiness”.

The problem with a placebo is that you can encounter evidence that you have, indeed, been given a sugar pill. You may never discover this, but you have to understand the risks you are taking.

For my part, my “happiness” is based on my experience of the universe as a very interesting place by which we can entertain ourselves endlessly in trying to figure out how it works. Scientifically.

People who prefer “spirituality” to “science” are like the kids I used to meet in my classes who went around moaning “waaaanh, this is too harrrrrrd!” when they were asked to solve a problem requiring logarithms.

[ Edited: 18 December 2007 08:33 AM by Traces Elk]
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Posted: 18 December 2007 08:35 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 58 ]  
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derekjames - 18 December 2007 12:31 PM

I actually find it hard to believe that several people here are arguing that truth is always positively correlated with a net increase in happiness, but I’ll go ahead and reiterate a previous example…

I don’t think anyone is arguing that, specifically. What you are reiterating is your reverse strawman.

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Posted: 18 December 2007 08:58 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 59 ]  
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Salt Creek - 18 December 2007 01:35 PM
derekjames - 18 December 2007 12:31 PM

I actually find it hard to believe that several people here are arguing that truth is always positively correlated with a net increase in happiness, but I’ll go ahead and reiterate a previous example…

I don’t think anyone is arguing that, specifically. What you are reiterating is your reverse strawman.

If you guys don’t have a problem buying that false beliefs are sometimes correlated with a net increase in happiness, then why have you repeatedly pressed me to demonstrate it?

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Posted: 18 December 2007 09:05 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 60 ]  
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homunculus - 18 December 2007 12:19 PM
burt - 17 December 2007 12:42 PM

. . . This is the faith based equivalent of the struggle a person on a path of knowledge must undergo to learn how to distinguish true from false impressions, to learn to reason, to learn about their own mind (“know thyself”), and so on.  No free lunch.

Burt, in a sense, that’s often what greatness is about. Some of the most successful people have at some point put their emotional contentment up for bid. How much is my contentment worth? Do I harbor vivid, often-played fantasies about my future? If so, I’d better be well aware of the potential disappointment I’ll get if things don’t pan out, due to my playing with my expectations, gambling with my emotions.

The point I was suggesting is that for people of faith, it is not just talking the talk, it is walking the walk just as it is with reason, and just as with people who claim to be rational, there is more talk than walk.  But faith comes from a different mindset that can’t accept criticism from an outside perspective of pure rationality because it doesn’t accept reason as the ultimate criterion. 

If you ever get a chance, you might be interested in the afterwords to Doris Lessing’s book The Making of the Representative for Planet 8 (I hesitate to recommend the book itself, powerful but a hard read).  There, she describes a person on the Scott expedition to the south pole who fits your description of greatness.  She has the same view, a man who developed powerful personal discipline, etc., and after describing all of the sterling qualities that he had built into his character, at great personal effort, ends up with a comment (British understatement?) that perhaps he was a bit mad.

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