philosophy at last

I’ve neglected philosophy on this blog in favor of linguistics, which is the nobler science for providing factual knowledge and explanation; philosophy is mostly a lot of talk. But here’s a challenge for a friend who has a theory of volition according to which all voluntary actions seek some kind of happiness.

Now one familiar response will claim that such a theory is circular and therefore vacuous: whatever one seeks, that is happiness, so that if one seeks pain, then pain is happiness, and if happiness can be even pain, then happiness has no meaning. But my friend is a materialist too. Happiness is defined, for him, a favorable mental state identifiable with a brain chemical state.

And so I have a mind experiment for him. Consider a curious learner. A deeply devoted learner, for whom the worth and meaning of life is learning. And suppose his doctor has discovered a chemical that can induce the learner’s mental state when he is learning or having learnt. And suppose the chemical will be permanent and will prevent his ability to learn forever. Will the learner prefer ingesting the chemical to the effort of learning?

It seems to me that anyone who is truly curious will reject the pill out of hand, although the temptation to feel it might be great. Not every voluntary action has as its goal some pleasure. Sometimes our goals are based on values, and they are beyond our sensibilities. They are moral in nature.

Now, that’s not the whole story. If the pill might allow a few tries without permanence, I’m sure the learner would try it, and might try it repeatedly, and, like a junky, might keep on with it to the exclusion of learning. And if this chemical induced a complete sense of well-being, I have no doubt that the learner, or, at least, many learners, will end up as permanent junkies. But that doesn’t decide the mind experiment. The question is whether our goals are solely determined by seeking brain states, rather than say, accomplishments or moral actions. The answer seems to be a bit of both. It depends on whether we’ve eaten the lotus fruit or just contemplated it: some of our goals are beyond well-being, but we are easily corrupted.


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