Thursday, September 20, 2012

Predictive Hedonism: Where Meaning Comes From

We all start our lives from a base of hedonism. As infants, we know instinctively that eating feels better than being hungry, that sharp things hurt and that a soiled diaper is uncomfortable. You don't need any complex philosophy to follow these cues. Some things feel good and other things feel bad, and you naturally do what you can to increase one sensation and decrease the other.

But immediate hedonism has its limits, as illustrated by an experiment we have all conducted: One piece of chocolate tastes good, right? Eat a whole box of chocolates at one sitting and you don't get the same sensation. In fact, you may start feeling quite ill, to the point where you can't even look at another piece.

This is a fundamental observation about life: Good sensations diminish with repetition. If you pursue a purely hedonistic track, then you will soon find that any experience that once made you happy soon loses its power. You can increase the dose or try different varieties of the same experience, but as drug users eventually find out, immediate hedonism is a losing game. You become addicted to the drug but without the pleasure. 

Another problem with hedonism is that it doesn't always lead to good results. If you indulge your pleasures right now without regard to the consequences, you are bound to suffer great pain in the future, often far in excess of the pleasure you received. At some point, your higher thought processes have to reign in your hedonistic impulses or you'll end up injured, in prison or at least very unhappy.

It is amazing how many adults never grasp these two concepts—that pleasures diminish with repetition and that seeking immediate sensation may hurt you in the long run. These people are trapped in perpetual childhood and eventually suffer boatloads of self-induced pain. For the rest of us, life's first "Ah-Ha!" experience is realizing that maybe we should start looking ahead at the consequences of our actions and not just their immediate sensations.

Immediate hedonism is a primitive and self-destructive philosophy. Hedonism with foresight gets much more complex and interesting. If you learn from experience how your body responds to the world and how the world responds to you, you can begin to plan ahead for increased pleasure and less pain in the future.

Finding meaning in your life is simple: You just work to resolve the practical problems the world presents you with, to increase your pleasure and decrease your pain over time. It is not a sin to seek your own happiness. Sophistication lies in doing it with ever-greater foresight, so that you're not just solving your problems of today but those of the future and maybe even the problems of others when then affect your own peace of mind.

Eating when you are hungry feels good. Adding foresight to this observation means you started planning ways to continuing eating in the future. Having food on the table right now isn't enough to make us happy. We also need to know that we will be able to eat for the next weeks, months and years. We might even be willing to forego today's meal if it helps us secure a more reliable long-term food supply. That's foresight.

To find meaning in your life, you only need to observe your own reactions to the world—what makes you happy or sad—then start planning ahead for these sensations, maximizing the good feelings and minimizing the bad over time. Call it "Predictive Hedonism". You are less concerned with immediate pleasure than with predicting you future pleasure and finding ways to sustain it.

What makes this a sophisticated philosophy is the layers of observation and understanding you add to the simple of equation of pleasure and pain. You have to understand both yourself—what really works for you—and the world around you, since you have to somehow coerce it into giving you what you want.

What really makes you happy? It is hard to define but pretty easy to observe. What makes you smile? What makes you laugh? What fills you with warm feelings at the time it happens? Whatever it is, that's the thing that you want to try to reproduce and sustain. The complication lies in deducing the real underlying factors that made you happy as opposed to the superficial ones that don't really work when repeated.

It is not just simple sensory stimuli that make you happy—things like food, sex or relief from pain. You also derive happiness from social contacts. For example, nothing makes you feel better than being praised by someone you respect for a job well done. That's usually a more powerful pleasure that any sensory one. Now that you observe this reaction in yourself, you can start planning ahead to reproduce and sustain such praise in the future. In fact, you may have to actually start accomplishing things to make this happen again.

But even with higher pleasures like this, the law of diminishing returns is bound to kick in. If you are praised over and over by the same person, eventually the pleasure fades. It is also hard to sustain your pleasure if you know the praise is not genuine or that your accomplishment didn't really deserve it. With maturity, immediate praise is no longer your goal. You start looking ahead to achieving long-term praiseworthy goals. If you are really sophisticated, you may spend years working on a project that gives little immediate reward but that you think will be appreciated in the future.

Add layer upon layer, and soon your hedonism begins to look like something entirely different—almost like altruism! Maybe you start creating systems to increase your own long-term pleasurable feelings by solving the problems of others. There's no limit to how far hedonism might take you into altruistic territory once you start observing and looking ahead.

The meaning of life isn't hard. You don't need a god or guru to tell you what to do. You just need to observe, explore, respond and plan. Meaning is derived from the situation your find yourself in on Planet Earth. You didn't ask for the situation you were born into, bug if you choose to live, then you are accepting the responsibility of solving the problems the world presents you with.

You didn't ask for this body, but it is making demands of you. You can try to ignore its requests or you can try to master them. An immediate hedonist is going to blindly do whatever his body asks. A more proactive hedonist will investigate and observe to try to determine his body's true needs. Your body may demand endless chocolate cake, but that's not a healthy diet and will make a body feel bad in the long run. The proactive hedonist takes some executive control over his body, like a parent looking after the needs of a child. No, you can't just have chocolate cake. You have to eat your vegetables.

We are all growing up in a world that is alien to us. Whatever outside reality may be, it is pretty clear that it observes its own rules, independent of our wishes. It is our responsibility to explore and understand this rules, so that we make good predictions about how the world and our body will respond. In the beginning, we make a lot of bad decisions where the world and our own organism does not respond as we expect. If we are smart, we will use this data to modify our models and make better decisions in the future.

Or die. You can always just kill yourself and remove yourself from this alien planet. If you choose to remain, however, then it is your task to figure things out. Listen to your body and the world around you, then start planning to make the experience more enjoyable.