Out of Sleep: Welcome back, Consistent Hedonist. I hope you are well.
Consistent Hedonist: Quite well, thank you.
OoS: I’d like to return to something we touched on briefly last time. I asked you “How do you determine which pleasures are worth pursuing? Is it instinctual? And do you ever question your judgment, wishing you had pursued some other course of action?” And you answered the second part first. But we never returned to the first part.
So let me ask again, if as you say hedonism is not just grabbing the nearest cookie, not just “hook a morphine tube to my arm, please,” then how do you determine which pleasures are worth pursuing?
CH: Well, some of it seems to be inborn. Not every person likes the same things, and that’s just fine. For many people, I suspect, it comes awfully close to just grabbing the nearest cookie. Other people, myself for one, have high intelligence and low time preference. I’m from Northern European stock, and most of the people in my family share these characteristics with me, so it’s probably largely genetic.
I’m simply not the kind of person who can get much consistent pleasure from, say, fatty foods and internet pornography.
OoS: So, genes determine what you find pleasurable?
CH: There’s also a cultural factor, of course. Nothing is purely genetics. But yes, it is largely genetic.
OoS: So that purports to explain your suite of desires, but what about the choices you face daily within that range? How do you prioritize your pleasures?
CH: Well, I start with the desire to stay alive as long as possible, in as optimal a state of bodily health as possible. So that means I need to have a basically healthy structure to my life. I need to work to earn money and accumulate resources. That provides a basic structure to what I choose to do. I’m willing to do less-than-thrilling things like work at my job, etc., if it maximizes my overall opportunities for pleasure.
From there, I must admit it’s really about whim. I don’t think too much about it. Certainly sex is a top priority. I could go into all the prurient details, but I’m not sure your audience would appreciate that.
OoS: We’d all be secretly titillated, I’m sure.
CH: Ha. But yes, generally I look for unique experiences. Travel is a wonderful thing, though it has its down side. Women are a top priority. I love great food, great wine. And, as I think I mentioned before, I do enjoy intellectual stimulation and even debate. Hence agreeing to do this interview with you.
OoS: And the provenance of these more refined desires, also genetic?
CH: Genetic and, again, cultural. I don’t see why this should be any harder to accept than the concept that desires for sex and fatty foods are genetic. Man has a huge brain, capable of all kinds of abstract reasoning. This evolved over time as an adaptational advantage. Men that are better at abstract reasoning tend to get a leg up on their coevals. Therefore it is to be expected that abstract reasoning give pleasure.
OoS: So the content of the reasoning is irrelevant?
CH: Hmm. That’s an excellent question. Well, I think there has to be some basic truth content to the reasoning, if it is to give one true pleasure. Just messing around with ideas and numbers can be fun, but not as pleasurable as getting to the core of things.
OoS: Do you see why this is problematic, coming from your lips?
CH: Yes, because it implies I believe in a concept of truth. And a theist would say “whence objective truth?”
OoS: Yes, that’s one way to put the dilemma.
CH: Let me try and reason out oud with you then. Let’s take something we can both agree is a natural desire, the desire for sex. Now, this desire, in a male, is presumably based on the desire for a real, live woman. But of course there need not be a woman in the room for a man to feel this desire. A picture of a woman, the mere thought of a woman, is enough to stimulate the desire.
Some men — more and more these days, I suppose — live entire lifetimes where this innate desire is played out almost entirely through fantasy. And I don’t mean “fantasy” in the sense that two humans often have skewed understandings of each other in their interpersonal dealings and thus might be said to have “fantastical” views of each other. No, I mean full-on fantasy. You know the type. Pornography is the most obvious manifestation. But porn isn’t just pictures of living women, even; it can be drawings, animations, computer simulations. There are men who masturbate to pornographic cartoons depicting characters from video games, projected via electronics onto a flat, glowing two-dimensional screen. Now this, surely, is fantastical.
But the entire complex doesn’t exist without the original desire for women. There were no computers with video-game character drawings on them in the ancestral environment.
OoS: Indeed not.
CH: So, where was I?
OoS: I’m not sure where you were going with this, but you were talking about the difference between desiring the real thing versus a facsimile, and perhaps what this had to do with the desire to reason out real truths rather than just mess around with logic problems or whatever.
CH: Yes. So who is to say which is more true, “real truth” versus logic games? It’s just like sex with a real woman versus some computer simulation. Some people are perfectly happy with the simulation.
OoS: Perfectly happy?
CH: Well … a figure of speech. Content enough not to do anything about it. How about that?
OoS: As you wish. But you just claimed that there was a real desire for human women that lies at the back of the desire for computer-simulated women. Is there not then a real desire for truth that lies at the back of the desire to play logic games?
CH: That’s stretching the analogy, I think.
OoS: It was your own analogy.
CH: Fine. Then yes, there’s a real desire. Desiring the truth was an evolutionary advantage, therefore it developed.
OoS: And does the object of this desire actually exist, in the sense that the object of the sexual desire, flesh-and-blood women, actually exist?
CH: No. Not in that sense at all. Desiring truth is an epiphenomenon, you see. People are only good at solving problems because it confers an evolutionary advantage. The first problems we solved were simple, like some chimps can manage. Then more and more complex, like small children and retarded people. And so on.
OoS: But what is the matrix within which these problems are being solved? How is it even possible that there be true and false solutions?
CH: Yes, I see you are trying to get at a proof for objective truth. But that’s no problem, don’t you see? All I have to do is posit that the universe has physical laws — which you also believe — and that solves my problem. All our abstract concepts of true and false are just extrapolations from the basic operation wherein man tries to make predictions about the natural environment and use those to his advantage. And our concepts of right and wrong are just the result of evolving as a social or tribal animal. Actions that lead to getting banished by the tribe feel evil to us. Actions that lead to our fellows accepting, trusting, and mating with us feel good.
If the question then becomes, “Yes but where did the physical universe itself come from?” my answer is that I don’t care. Why does it matter? It’s there now. It makes for a fascinating mind puzzle, but it has no impact on my conduct and it’s essentially unknowable anyway.
OoS: So when you argue with me like this, it’s not because you believe in an absolute truth that lies behind your arguments, but because you’ve evolved to enjoy these kinds of arguments?
CH: Precisely. That’s the answer to the question theists ask, “If you don’t believe in truth, why do you bother saying or doing anything at all?” The answer is, I get pleasure out of it, because that’s how I’ve evolved. It’s not very satisfactory, but where is it written that it must be satisfactory? That’s assuming a premise that I don’t accept.
People also ask, “Why not commit suicide if nothing matters?” Which is an absurd question. It’s like they are listening to me at all! Why not? Because I was evolved not to commit suicide. There is an extreme disincentive to suicide from an evolutionary perspective, obviously. It feels wrong, to most people most of the time. Now, as to the question why not commit suicide once you are past reproductive age and if you are suffering? Well, I would answer that it’s definitely the best option in that case, but that many people can’t manage it because of the evolved fear of dying. The case for suicide is hedonistic, and the case against it is also hedonistic. It’s a matter of where each individual is on the spectrum, a matter of hedonic emphasis, if you will. As with everything in life of course.
OoS: Thank you for clarifying that. Would you be willing to undergo some more directed questioning next time? I’m curious what your take is on the hedonic content of religion. I assume we can go beyond the “God-shaped hole” argument?
CH: Well, that’s not an argument to be dismissed out of hand. But yes, I promise you more than a facile retort. I look forward to our next session then.
OoS: Until then.