On some comments to a recent post by Mark on Sam Harris and the ought/is distinction, I noted that Harris assumes that “happiness” (or “flourishing”) is an un-problematic concept — a well-established ruler against which one can easily measure the success or failure of behaviors. Hence when he claims that science can tell us what is right and wrong — by telling us what makes us happy — he has merely tabled the harder, philosophical problem of what happiness is (not to mention whether it ought to be our measure of right and wrong).
In yesterday’s Philosopher’s Stone, Gary Gutting mines a similar vein: the nature of happiness is a) not uncontroversial and b) a philosophical rather than scientific question. Empirical studies that try to establish the nature of happiness by simply asking people what makes them happy are problematic because the meaning of “happy” is unclear and may vary between respondents significantly:
But the most powerful challenge concerns the meaning and value of happiness. Researchers emphasize that when we ask people if they are happy the answers tell us nothing if we don’t know what our respondents mean by “happy.” One person might mean, “I’m not currently feeling any serious pain”; another, “My life is pretty horrible but I’m reconciled to it”; another, “I’m feeling a lot better than I did yesterday.” Happiness research requires a clear understanding of the possible meanings of the term. For example, most researchers distinguish between happiness as a psychological state (for example, feeling overall more pleasure than pain) and happiness as a positive evaluation of your life, even if it has involved more pain than pleasure.
Hence if we wished to make rigorous empirical use of the concept “happiness,” we would need to clarify it significantly with a non-empirical, philosophical analysis. But then this philosophical inquiry largely obviates the empirical one: saying what happiness really is requires philosophical reflection, not surveys.
I’d like to add here that respondents don’t simply have different conceptions of happiness: they’re likely to be uncertain as to what they think it is. That’s why many of us have trouble formulating goals and figuring out whether we’re satisfied when we’ve achieved them. If happiness were a well-defined, hash-marked ruler with which we could run about making uncontroversial empirical measurements, life would be a lot less hard than it is. The underlying explanatory model here is inner conflict: as in, one part of us wants one thing and one part wants another, not-entirely-consistent thing; and really there are very many working parts pulling in a vast number of directions (“everyone wants everything,” to quote a psychoanalyst I know). And so to say what happiness means we might talk, for instance, about establishing harmony between conflicting parts of the psyche (see Plato, Aristotle, Freud, and Nietzsche).
I’d like to take this example — barebones as it is– and say a little more about what it means to give a philosophical as opposed to a scientific explanation. We can compare this case of a model of the psyche that employs the concepts of conflict and harmony with (because I happen to know a little about it) Bohr’s atomic model. What phenomena are being explained in each case?
In the case of the scientific model the phenomena are clear: Bohr’s atomic model, for instance, explains the frequencies of light produced by hydrogen gas after it has been heated and subsequently loses energy during cooling. The phenomena being explained are not themselves conceptually unclear: if we were unclear as working scientists about what “emissions spectrums” meant or looked like, we’d have to clear that up in order to do our work successfully. (We need other theories to do this by the way — at minimum some theory of electromagnetic radiation, which might in turn be subject to revision as we try to work out a coherent picture; but this does not decrease the relative clarity of our working conceptions).
Further: when we develop an atomic theory, we do not have to query atoms about what spectra they’re giving off and wait for them to report back to us; nor do we have to know what it’s like to be an atom or give off spectra. The situation is radically different for psychology and philosophy. My concept “light” does not implicate me in it to the same degree as my concept “sadness.” If I had to get another human being to understand the former, our joint attention to a few cases would be sufficient. But in the case of sadness, pointing to someone crying, or crying myself, would not in itself be a demonstration unless the person to whom I were demonstrating it a) had already experienced sadness and b) knew how to interpret the outward behaviors of others in terms of that experience (i.e., to empathize).
And so while I do not need to know what it is like be an atom, or spectra (or any other observable phenomenon that the atomic model serves) in order to do physics, I certainly need to know what it’s like to be sad in order to employ the concept in a psychological study in which I survey people and ask people to rate their sadness on a scale of 1-10. To further complicate things, in a such a psychological study I am a) relying on second hand reports (people not only frequently deceive us about their emotions, but deceive themselves); b) asking for rankings for something that arguably cannot be ranked in this way, or not easily; and c) dealing with a complex and — for these purposes — unclear concept. The concept of spectra is clear and easily quantifiable, but there are many nuances and varied applications when it comes to the concept of sadness. Arguably, a good novel will use the concept of sadness much more rigorously than a psychological study with a numerical rating scale. (Incidentally, FMRI observations of the brain do not turn psychology into a hard science any more than do survey responses with sadness-numbers on them; such observations still have to be correlated with self-reports and an empathetic understanding of reports in a way that spectra simply do not; and I still need subjective mechanisms — such as “hunger” — at one level of explanation, even if I can explain behaviors entirely in terms of the brain at another).
So armchair psychologists and philosophers actually have some distinct advantages over the researchers who employ such surveys. Their data is various, but it critically involves — shocking as it is to say in this brave new world in which such things are frowned upon — reflection upon their own inner states. It’s not the kind of data to which other researchers have public access, like the sadness rating forms, but it should be clear by now that those sadness forms supply us with the illusion of objectivity, not the real thing. The advantage I’m talking about here is the immediacy of the data (which is Descartes’ fundamental point); yes, we’re subject to the sort of self-deception and error in self-ascription I’ve already described, but so are our survey respondents. We’re not helped by pretending that making someone write down a number about an ill-defined concept makes things more objective. By contrast, the hope is that reflection — self-examination — will help us come to terms with our self-deceptions.
So when philosophers develop a theoretical model — say one involving “harmony” — to explain happiness, they are doing something similar to science in important ways, and different in others. In the case of the atom, the phenomena to be explained are clear but their cause is not; the model will provide us with a cause, perhaps make seemingly inconsistent phenomena consistent, and can help us develop testable predictions.
In the case of happiness, the phenomenon is relatively opaque. We’re not asking the question “where does [the uncontroversial, well-defined state] ‘happiness’ come from?” as an analog to “why does hydrogen gas emit these spectra when excited?” We’re asking the questions “what is happiness?” and “what do we mean by happiness?” To answer these questions, I begin by thinking about my own use of the concept, and subjective states related to that use (impulses to sex and violence are obviously critical here); and I think about its use by others, including popular conceptions of happiness. I need not merely accept a popular conception as definitive here (e.g. happiness consists of wealth), because it might turn out when fully analyzed that this conception isn’t even consistent with itself, or with other uses or concepts to which its proponents are committed. So my task is to take an unclear concept, look at its varied and even inconsistent applications in myself and others, and come up with a theory to explain all of this (including the partial truths reflected in even erroneous positions). My theory in turn must describe some model (say a tripartite soul) and mechanism (as in “harmony”) that. like the model of the atom, helps clarify what’s being explained. It’s just where the model of the atom predicts and explains the origins of a collection of well-defined and publicly available phenomena, the model for happiness must explain an obscure (and publicly disputed) phenomenon by describing a subjective mechanism relating clearer (and yet still subjective and to some degree obscure) parts. The scientific model answers the question “why these phenomena?”; the philosophical model tries to answer the question “what are these phenomena really?” (including “what is their structure?” and “of what parts do they consist?”). And this latter, conceptual question is better explored in the armchair than in the laboratory. (This is not to say one’s knowledge of other subjects, including for example history, sociology, and even the hard sciences, won’t inform this reflection).
Does the idea of such armchair analyses bother you? Is it insufficiently empirical? I’ve tried to make the case here that this is not merely a lazy extravagance, but stems from the the nature of the beast-being-examined. By contrast, I think the fundamental hope of someone like Harris — and the impetus of scientism — is the idea that science will deliver us from a world in which reflection is necessary. That’s because such reflection is open-ended, difficult, and never reaches the definitive, totalizing conclusions to which we are naturally drawn for comfort. Whether such comforting fundamentalisms are religious or anti-religious at bottom makes little difference: as Nietzsche pointed out, they come from the same nihilistic desire to step out of life’s ongoing struggle and master it from an ultimate perspective that we simply do not have.