Nature And Happiness

14
Apr
Nick

Back in 1789, Jeremy Bentham, a British jurist and philosopher, noted that nature placed mankind “under two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure.”1 These two forces have a very clear evolutionary purpose: to make us behave in a way which is beneficial for our reproduction.2

This post raises two related questions:

  1. How effective is this incentive system (for the goal of reproduction) today?
  2. Should reproduction be our ultimate goal?

1. How effective is this incentive system today?

Considering that the world’s population is quickly approaching seven billion people, the incentive model seems to work quite well. However, on an individual level, nature sometimes evaluates our actions incorrectly.

  • In many cases, the incentive system demonstrates a chronic short-sightedness. For example, we don’t want to go to the dentist because it causes pain, but dental care is necessary to avoid much more severe pain and maybe even life-threatening consequences later. The incentive system of pleasure and pain cannot reflect this long-term approach, so our actions must be guided by other means, such as rational thinking.    
  • Some of nature’s rewards are not in the best interest of reproduction. For example, we are rewarded for eating sugary and fatty foods, driven by the evolutionary scarcity of crucial calories. If nature “knew” that eating at McDonalds makes us fat, shortening our life expectancy as well as making us less attractive to the opposite sex, we would experience severe pain each time we bit into a hamburger.3

In other words, the incentive system of pain and pleasure does not always work as it should (from nature’s perspective) and therefore is imperfect.

2. Should reproduction be our ultimate goal?

Nature gave us the goal of reproduction and built an incentive system around it. However, do we need to accept this inheritance?

Most people who answer “yes” to this question are convinced of the intrinsically good nature (i.e., the belief that because something is natural, it must be good). I am very sceptical of that conclusion, for several reasons.4 

If we don’t regard reproduction as the ultimate end-goal in itself, what should take its place? In an earlier post, I argued that happiness should fill this role, despite being only a byproduct or a means-to-an-end-tool from nature’s perspective.  

Conclusion

The takeaway from all this is that pleasure and pain should not be regarded as untouchable. Instead, we should keep in mind that:

  • Pleasure and pain are an incentive model with clear weaknesses
  • We don’t have to agree on the goal implied by the model
  • We should deliberately try to maximize pleasure and minimize pain as much as possible

Continuing this line of thinking, a future post will discuss how we can reduce pain or uncomfortable feelings. Until then, I welcome your feedback, as always!

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1) Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation, 1789.

2) Or, more precisely, for our genes’ reproduction, as evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins pointed out. Our cousins also carry our genes, at least in part, so we should be interested in their reproduction as well. Read more on this in Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene.

3) Many similar examples like this exist, and perhaps the most dramatic is that of taking drugs. The direct reward (in terms of happiness) could not be higher, yet the effects on our capability to reproduce (quick death) could not be more disastrous. 

4) To avoid any misunderstandings: I like nature very much, in the sense that I love walking in the woods, climbing mountains, enjoying the view, being impressed by the sublime and vast sky, etc. However, I also understand that nature is only the result of how it has developed. I am not religious, and I don’t believe anyone masterminded this Greatest Show on Earth.

If I remember correctly, I started to question the concept of intrinsically good nature (which every kid is taught, either directly or indirectly) when I began to understand the horrible consequences of natural disasters, such as hurricanes and tsunamis, which kill hundreds of thousands of people. These phenomena are nature in its purest form. I recently watched a documentary on TV, showing the remains of a herd of zebras that died painfully after their source of water dried up. This made clear to me again that nature is just how things came about, without the intervention of a higher power and without mercy. 

Can Religion Make You Happy?

23
Mar
Nick

Child praying

I am not religious. However, this post is not about my beliefs (or non-beliefs), but rather about whether religion should be regarded as a good thing. For me, being primarily interested in people’s happiness, the question is: does religion bring more happiness into the world, or not?

The Advantages of Religion

What’s good about religion?  

  • Religion can provide a strong feeling of security
    Believing in a higher power who looks over the world can provide substantial comfort. It simplifies people’s lives and diminishes feelings of incomprehensible and overwhelming complexity, as well as concern about the lack of order and uncertainty, which can be very unsettling.
  • Religion can reduce the fear of dying
    Fear of death is in our bones, and everything which reduces it can be beneficial to our happiness. Religion does this by telling us that God will take care of us and that our life will continue in some form after our death.
  • Religion can give us hope
    No matter how bad the situation is, the belief in a divine power which metes out ultimate justice can provide an almost inexhaustible source for hope and optimism from which we can draw new strength.
  • Religion can give us a mission and energy
    Any task we believe in can be a very strong source of energy and motivation. Religion can provide such a task. Think about Mother Theresa: her belief gave her the energy to help increase people’s happiness and decreate their suffering, all while making herself happier. Even atheists must struggle to not develop sympathy for the driving force behind these actions!
  • Religion can give us guidance on how to behave in society
    It’s true for the Ten Commandments and all similar rules: having guidance that directs people to do what is good (e.g., don’t steal) can be very beneficial to the happiness of the individual obeying these rules, as well as for the happiness of the society (provided they are good rules, of course!). This is especially true in cases where there would be no other “law” to take its place (leading to chaos).
  • Religion can make people socialize
    Meeting with others for religious events is more than just practicing faith. It is an opportunity to meet old friends and make new friends, sing together and socialise. This can be a very powerful source of happiness, as many research studies in the field of happiness have shown.
  • (?) – Please add your ideas below!

The Disadvantages of Religion

I only see one main disadvantage of religion, but it is a big one: Religion poses a threat to logical reasoning, and therefore puts at risk all the benefits we receive from analytical thinking and critical reflection.

For example, the price we pay for the feeling of security and simplicity (see above) is that we don’t reflect on our belief which we’ve accepted as the truth (otherwise, it does not work). If this state of non-reflection is “locked” in a belief which is causing unhappiness (e.g., kill everyone who denies my god) it can be fatal – literally.

Religion’s threat to critical thinking can be observed in many situations. For example, a staggering 29% of Americans believe that creationism should be taught in science class in schools (either exclusively or along with evolution). This does not provide a healthy ground for human progress, which is based on logical reasoning and constant reflection.

Conclusion I (for you are not religious)

Religion offers major benefits, as well as a substantial drawback. So how should we deal with this two-faced power?

Firstly, get an appropriate view of religion. Non-religious people, such as me, should acknowledge that religion can be a major contributor to people’s happiness. It may be a source of happiness we are unfamiliar with and don’t think we need (maybe because we were lucky to have sufficient alternative sources of happiness), but we should not try to take it away from other people – especially not by arguing that there is no god, which misses the point entirely.

We should also keep in mind that logical thinking (which we should value very, very highly) is not an end in itself, and we should not make it become “our god”. For example, imagine the following scenario: you are terminally ill and know you have only weeks to live. Despite having been a highly sceptical and non-religious being all your life, you now feel the draw of religion, which could remove your fear of dying and diminish your pain (just accept this scenario for a second, it may happen). Who would not turn to this method to diminish the pain, and why?

Conclusion II (if you are religious)

If religion makes you happier, appreciate that you have discovered this source of happiness. However, keep in mind that religion is not founded on a scientific analysis and that it poses a threat to analytical reasoning and critical reflection. Especially in situations where religion guides you to take actions that cause unhappiness for other people, it is important to keep this in mind.

Also, all proponents of religion should understand that being religious is a personal choice. As soon as that belief intimidates or otherwise negatively affects other people’s free choice in any form (e.g., by educating pupils based on a religious belief), it must be fought against rigorously. Everybody should consciously decide whether they want to follow a religion, being fully aware of its advantages and drawbacks.

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