Pleasure and Happiness vs. Gain and Meaning

The confusion on this subject can be resolved by doing away with the words pleasure and happiness.

Come on, really, how much pleasure can one expect anyway. Eating, sleeping and sex comprise the major sources of the pleasure available to most people. OK, so you can think of some additional ones. If you read a novel or go to a movie, how is this different from going into the happiness machine? And what is happiness? You may be happy one moment and just neutral or unhappy the next.

If this is your way of understanding the situation, the machine approach is by far superior. Just dial up always hungry, always horney, always happy, a comfortable bed and an unlimited supply of what satisfies the above. This partly describes the life of Elvis in his later years. Or you could have an unlimited supply of crack cocaine. In the happiness machine world you could specify that it wouldn’t kill you.

It is more enlightened to think in terms such as gains and meaning. Let's look at a few examples. You may get pleasure from eating a hot dog. You don't get much pleasure from eating a hundred hot dogs. If your goal is to win a hot-dog eating contest you may eat a hundred hot-dogs, enduring mostly misery in the process but having the chance of gaining renown as a champion hot-dog eater (secondary gain.) Your reward is fame and, if asked to endorse a certain brand of hot-dog, perhaps fortune. A beautiful woman who is attracted to a champion such as yourself might even consider you a fine mate (tertiary gain.) The chance of gaining all this far outweighs the mere solitary pleasure you get from eating a hot-dog when you are hungry. Being an accomplished person brings meaning to your life, even if you mostly just suffer pain from a tummy ache and ulcers from eating too many hot-dogs.

Most of the gains people pursue are not pleasurable at all because they are pursued beyond the point of mere primary gain (pleasure) to the extent that they may cause pain. They are pursued in order to have the chance of getting secondary gain (self esteem and societal approval) and even tertiary gain (money and girls.) Examples include boxing, running, working, and even hobbies such as hiking, mountain climbing, tournament fishing and so on.

So, one of life’s prime pleasures, food, won’t do, as a primary source of happiness and meaning.
What about sleep? It just won’t work. To get personal and societal kudos for one’s acts they have to be hard or painful. Every nursing home is full of people who sleep all day every day with no effort. On the other hand you could gain your fame by staying awake for a world record period of time. This is especially true if you are doing something while awake, such as dancing.

Sex? Why is there no Guinness Book of World Records for the number of times a day some guy masturbated? It is all primary gain. No sponsors, I guess, and it probably wouldn’t help you attract girls. There are also no rewards for abstaining from sex. Someone needs to come up with a better way to make a contest out of sex, otherwise the happiness machine wins.

From this short discussion, I think that it has been established that primary pleasure is not the source of happiness. In fact, just the opposite is true. Actually pain is more likely to bring meaning. I don’t know what this has to do with social policy, but, I have heard that the most intense forms of happiness or meaning are the escape from pain or danger. I am told that, a man who has just passed a kidney stone is very happy, as is a shipwrecked sailor who has just been rescued. A social policy that simulates this might be most efficacious in making people happier. It is futile to try to make people happy by placing them on welfare. It does just the opposite. They become even more hostile and demanding.

Since meaning is gained more often from pain than pleasure, the happiness machine would be most likely to deliver lasting efficacy if it were programmed by the United States Marines or coach Bear Bryant than by Timothy Leary.

Next we shall explore the happiness and meaning that comes from creativity and discovery. In the post referenced by Constant, the example was given of a new pill that equaled the happiness inducing properties of making a major scientific discovery, all while having discovered nothing. Surely no one could prefer the state of fake discovery, even if it were a sure thing to a real discovery.
I submit that persons are awarded with happiness and meaning in their life for fake creativity and discovery all the time. Look at the hordes of brilliant intellectuals who created page after page of Marxist “Works.” Observe the libraries full of scholarly treatises relating to the Talmud, the Bible, Galenic Medicine, and what have you. I am not judging these belief systems here but if they turn out to have no external validity, how are their adherents different from the people who enter into the happiness machine?

Then you have the sad history of various brilliant scientists and intellectuals who made one or two real discoveries and then succumbed to their public adulation and star status by spending the rest of their lives promoting crackpot causes. Bertrand Russell, Noam Chomsky and Linus Pauling come to mind. Once the initial valid work is done, if the later output is nonsense, what difference does it make whether these people are in the real world or the happiness machine?

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I submit that persons are awarded with happiness and meaning in their life for fake creativity and discovery all the time. Look at the hordes of brilliant intellectuals who created page after page of Marxist “Works.” Observe the libraries full of scholarly treatises relating to the Talmud, the Bible, Galenic Medicine, and what have you. I am not judging these belief systems here but if they turn out to have no external validity, how are their adherents different from the people who enter into the happiness machine?

They are essentially the same, with the important exception that in the thought experiment the person who enters into the happiness machine is aware, at the time that he makes his choice to enter, that his experiences will be false (typically, he is promised that this awareness of the falsehood will be erased upon entering the machine - this by the way is the same as the deal that Cypher made with the AIs in the Matrix, when he says, "I don't want to remember nothing. Nothing! You understand?").

In contrast to Cypher when he makes his deal, and to the person in the thought experiment who decides to enter the experience machine, intellectuals who spend their lives in the pursuit of delusions don't realize that that's what they're doing. It's sad, but hard to avoid. We get caught up in delusions easily.

(Anyway, the word I had in mind, actually two words, is "mental masturbation".)