Monday, May 28, 2012

Pleasure: WTF?

Jean-Baptiste Regnault, Socrate arrachant Alcibiade du sein de la Volupté (Socrates Tears Alcibiades from the Embrace of Sensual Pleasure). Oil on canvas, 1791. Via Wikimedia Commons
One of the serious professional hazards of being a professional philosopher is that you find yourself thinking -- brooding, even -- about the very stupidest questions.  These questions have no answers.  Worse, they're questions that the very thinking about them leads you down a rabbit hole that ends in existential paralysis.

Well.  They lead me down a rabbit hole of existential paralysis.  Your results may vary.

It starts with a treat.  Did you ever have the experience of giving yourself a treat -- a nice, pleasurable treat -- and then asking yourself, WTF was the point of that?  Not good.  And it's bad enough if you ask yourself this question after you have the treat.  The paralyzing part comes when you start asking yourself the question before you have the treat.  Then you can pretty much forget it.

For example, I'm in the habit these days of having a little chocolate after dinner.  Quite a pleasure.  If you're human, you know that having a little bit of chocolate often leads you to want a little more chocolate, or to want chocolate at other times, or whatever, and then the whole treat thing becomes a kind of exercise in self-denial -- leading to what I should have called "the paradox of treats."

Sometimes after I've had my bit of chocolate, I think to myself, well, what was the point of that, anyway?  I mean, I wanted it, so I had it, and I enjoyed it.  But now that the enjoyment is over, it's hard to see how the enjoyment counts for anything. And if you're dealing with the kinds of pleasures that make you fat, poor, addicted, and boring (TV, I'm looking at you here), then you really gotta wonder:  what is your mind doing to make you think "worth doing" instead of just "stupid"?

The non-philosopher answer is easy:  it's worth doing because it's pleasurable.  But how is that any kind of answer at all? 

What makes this answer unsatisfying is that it doesn't give you any guidance on how -- or even whether -- to use the fact that something's pleasurable in planning whether and how you'll do it.

I've just been reading this book Nudge, by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein, and one of the things they talk about is how inside each person there's an "Automatic System" -- the "Doer" who eats too much chocolate, binges on new Louboutins, and skips the gym for Jersey Shore, and a "Reflective System" -- the "Planner" who decides how much chocolate is the right amount, knows to spend the money on groceries instead of shoes, and makes up a comprehensive workout plan to achieve ideal fitness.

This metaphor strikes me as a reasonable description of the feeling of selfhood and self-control, and it's one of the illuminations of my life that the Planner can't be a scold.   Your Doer is more like a cat than a person, and cats don't respond to nagging.  What you have to do is structure your Doer's environment.  Want kitty to eat less?  Give her less food.  Want to watch less TV?  Get the TV out of the house.

But the metaphor is totally unhelpful at explaining why the Planner would Plan for one thing rather than another.  Thaler and Sunstein give the example of the Doer making you eat too many nuts at a party and thus spoiling your dinner.  And they say something like the Planner would have some ideal number of nuts to eat, but eating just that many is really difficult, because the Doer is getting in the way, wanting the whole bowl.

But if the nuts are just a pleasure and are getting in the way of enjoying dinner later, why would the Planner plan on eating any nuts at all?  I mean, you maybe have a goal of staying alive through food, but why would the Planner ever take pleasure into consideration in making Plans?  I just don't see why pleasure is something you'd factor in.  Especially given that, as I said before, it's totally ephemeral and when it's over it's over

I guess I just don't get how the Planner is supposed to operate.  Why ought he care about pleasure at all?  When it comes right down to it, why ought he care about any one thing any more than any other? 

Thaler and Sunstein say that the planner evaluates choices in a "cool" moment.  But if you're in a cool moment, why would you care about pleasure?  And on what grounds do you prefer anything to anything else?  Isn't it only the warmth of emotional and lustful involvement that makes some things seem good and some seem bad?

As I understand it, the pop-psychology self-help answer to these questions is something like "Oh, pleasure's important, just don't get carried away."  Aristotelian, in spirit.  Of course this answer does nothing for me:  I don't know why it's important; I don't know what it is to get carried away or not; and I don't get why, if it's pleasure we're talking about, being carried away isn't just what you'd want.

This Blog Will Update Mondays. For A While. I Hope.

I suck at blogging, because I don't really want to write a blog I just want to write some stuff when I have something to say, which isn't all the time.  But there's no format for that on the internet.  So I use a blog.

Anyway, to try to be less annoying, to conform more to my chosen form, I'm going to aim to update this blog every Monday. At least for the next little while.  Hopefully even I, Ms. Ambivalent Blogger, can manage that.

As a gesture of goodwill, I give you the picture above, which I took in Seattle recently.  Window dresser people get low marks on political accuracy but they get super double bonus extra credit for being generally hilarious.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Moods: WTF?

Beavis and Butthead.  It makes no sense to illustrate this post with these guys, but I'm doing it anyway, because seeing them is like a breath of fresh air.
I don't know if you remember Beavis and Butthead or loved it as I did.  To me that show was like Western Civilization stopping in the middle of its long, long downfall to do a quick magic trick, drop some acid, and crack a few jokes before going back on its way.  Who will ever forget Beavis dreaming of being on "True Stories of the Highway Patrol"?

In case you're too young to remember, Beavis and Butthead were idiot teen boys who were obsessed with MTV and videos.  See, back in the day, MTV used to mostly show videos of popular songs.

Of course, at the time, this prompted massive hand-wringing about the downfall of Western Civilization:  OMG how will the kids ever be able to concentrate if they get used to watching three minute videos!!  Little did everybody know that within the next twenty years three-minutes for a concentration span would seem like an eternity.  Watch a whole video? Without online comments, snarky one-liners, and multitasking?  Who has time for that?

Anyway, in one classic episode, Beavis loses interest in videos.  I can't remember if he's bored, or angry, or what happens exactly, but he's like "Ugh videos who fucking cares I'm bored this is stupid" and I think it's that episode that he and Butthead decide to smoke some nutmeg, and you can imagine how that goes.

Then some stuff happens.  And a few minutes later, they're back on the sofa.  And a video comes on.  And Beavis is like "Hey! A video! Check it out, Butthead, a video! Cool!!"

I think about this episode all the time because that happens to me a lot.  One day I'm doing something and I'm like blah blah this is stupid and boring blah blah blah and the next day I'm doing the same exact thing and I'm like "Hey! Cool! Check it out Butthead!"

What's changed is my mood.  And if you think about it, moods change everything.  Sometimes I'll put on a certain set of clothes and I'm like Waaah this looks stupid I hate everything and the next day I put on the exact same set of clothes and I'm like Hey, this is looking OK I guess everything's going to be all right after all what's for breakfast?

The fact that moods alter experience so dramatically is already a little WTF in itself.  But the real WTF aspect of moods comes when you think about what, if anything, you ought to do about your moods.

On the one hand, you think:  as much as possible, you should just do the things that put you in a good mood and avoid the things that put you in a bad mood.  What could be more obvious?

On the other hand, though, you think:  wait, isn't that what that whole SOMA thing was from Brave New World? Wasn't that partly just a drug that would put you in a good mood?

This schizo attitude toward moods manifests itself in our profound ambivalence about mood altering substances of all kinds.  It's like, Well, if you're depressed, you should take something.  But to take those drugs when you're not depressed would be somehow wrong.  And that's true even though you're supposed to try improve your mood by exercising and eating right.

It's convenient to try to explain the inconsistency by pointing out that the drugs have negative side-effects and the exercise has positive ones.  But that cannot be the whole story, because if it were, we'd be trying to develop mood-improving drugs for everyone, and not just for depressed people.  But that's not what we're doing. 

It's tempting to try to explain the inconsistency by appealing to something like the desire for reality, for truth, for accurate information about the world.  Maybe you think, Well, to respond to something as if it's pleasurable and fun when it's really not pleasurable and fun is to be deeply misguided.  It's like living in the matrix.

But "really not pleasurable":  what does that mean?

You might say something like "It means how you, or how people in general, would respond to something when they're in a calm and cool state, a kind of neutral mood, not too up, and not too down.

But I am seriously not buying that this makes any sense.  Because there is no such thing as a neutral mood.  You're always in a mood, whether you like it or not.  A "mid-range" mood is just the mood that happens to be in the middle:  if you were on SOMA all the time you're mid-range mood would be through the roof.  A calm mood isn't a neutral mood; hell, in some ways it's the dullest mood there is. 

So I don't think these work.  I think the inconsistency is based on a deep but false mythology we have of ourselves as having true selves which it would be bad to alter unless you had to because you were, you know, depressed or something.

But everyone knows this isn't true really.  If it were, when we see people who start exercise programs or cheer up through yoga or "anger management" we'd be like "Hey Dude Don't Go Changing! That's you there."  Which is, of course, ridiculous.

I am basically on the side of do the things that put you in a good mood, but I confess to a certain amount of residual puzzlement.  Because there's something creepy about always being in a good mood.  Plus, I can't say that "being in a good mood all the time" is a quality I necessarily find attractive in people.

So I don't really know what the story is.