Thursday, January 28, 2016

Goodness and Happiness

Morality and the Good Life,
Part Two

A fundamental idea in Michael A. Bishop’s 2015 book, The Good Life, is that positive psychologists study “causal networks” composed of attitudes, emotions, traits, and accomplishments.  Because the various parts of a causal network reinforce each other, such networks tend to persist over time; they are “homeostatic property clusters.”  According to Bishop, empirical research conducted by positive psychologists demonstrates that causal networks are a real feature of human psychology; causal networks would exist whether psychologists study them or not.  Positive psychology is the study of positive causal networks (PCNs).
            What makes a positive causal network positive?  At one point in his book (96-98), Bishop says “negative causal networks” may also exist, and that a complete theory of psychology ought to teach us how to recognize and escape negative networks (e.g. cycles of depression) just as the complete theory would teach us how to recognize and promote positive networks.  Bishop says little about negative psychology—the “theory of ill-being”—because his task is to propose a theory of well-being.  He does, however, recognize that it is crucial to his theory to distinguish positive causal networks from negative ones.  Bishop says:

...among all the causal networks (i.e. homeostatic property clusters of emotions, attitudes, traits, and accomplishments) in the world, the positive ones are those that feel good, that bring about states that feel good, and that are valued by the person or her culture. (41, emphases added)

Bishop knows full well that philosophers will take him to task here.  That a person or culture values a state does not mean that state is valuable, they will way.  That a state feels good and leads to states that feel good does not imply well-being, they will say.  Bishop faces this criticism head-on.  He imagines “Josef,” a

… wicked, sadistic man with a robust PCN.  He instantiates a causal network involving feelings, attitudes, traits, and interventions in the world that are ‘successful’ in the sense that they consist of positive experiences for Josef and are valued by Josef and his culture.  This seems to be a real possibility, particularly in sick societies (think Mengele). (187-188)

A moralized view of human well-being, Bishop says, would deny that Josef leads a good life.  This is a feature of what Bishop calls “consilience” views of well-being; on any consilience view, virtue and well-being converge.  Bishop points to Aristotle’s ethics as a prime example, but there are many other important philosophers who held such a view.  For example, Epicurus asserted that virtuous living had to be pleasant and that without virtue one could not have pleasure.  Disagreeing with Epicurus, Kant recognized that goodness and happiness do not always converge in this life, and for that reason he proposed that rational persons might believe in an afterlife and a moral God who could guarantee that goodness and happiness would coalesce in the next life.  Kant was as convinced as Epicurus that goodness and happiness should converge.
But there are problems with moralized views of well-being, Bishop says.  First, there are a great many notions of the good life on offer, and they disagree significantly about components of the good life.  More importantly for his project, Bishop says that moralized views of the good life will systematically exclude empirical evidence from positive psychology.  We should seek theories of human well-being that are scientifically adequate, and one feature of scientific adequacy is that a theory accommodates empirical evidence.
An illustration will help.  Consider the debate between vegetarians and carnivores.  For many people, deciding whether to eat meat is a purely instrumental matter: will a diet containing meat help them reach their life goals (e.g. health, weight control) as well as a vegetarian diet?  However, for other people the decision about eating meat is an important moral decision.  Some vegetarians argue that it is morally blameworthy for any person (or for most persons) to eat animal flesh, while carnivores reject that conclusion.  It seems that a moralized view of well-being has to take some position on this question.  Either eating animal flesh is immoral, or it is permissible (or permissible in some circumstances, in the past or in certain cultures).  Bishop’s first objection to moralized views of the good life is that such views require that we resolve such debates before we can study well-being.  Bishop’s second, and more important, objection is that whichever side we take in regard to eating animal flesh, we will end up ignoring empirical evidence.  After all, there could be (in this case, there actually is) (1) empirical evidence that vegetarianism can be an important part of a positive causal network, such that vegetarian practice leads to a variety of states that feel good and lead to other states that feel good, and (2) empirical evidence that eating meat can be an important part of a positive causal network, such that meat-eating leads to a variety of states that feel good and lead to other states that feel good.  Vegetarians sometimes point with glee to empirical evidence suggesting that vegetarianism is “good for you” in one way or another; just as often meat-eaters emphasize evidence that moderate meat consumption is also “good for you” and pleasurable.  Both sides like to use evidence (readily available) to show that their view promotes well-being.  Bishop’s point is that both are right.  Therefore we should conclude that well-being is multiply-realizable.  A scientific approach to positive psychology will be inclusive, Bishop says.  Therefore, Bishop rejects moralized views of human well-being. 
This does not mean that Bishop proposes a revolution in our moral thinking.  After all, “Josef” really is a wicked human being.  “It’s just a sobering fact about our world that bad people can have well-being.” (188) 
Bishop says that well-being, studied inclusively according to the network theory, is an objective feature of human lives, and it is objectively valuable. (211) Individuals, organizations, and governments can legitimately weigh factors of well-being when making decisions.  Well-being is not the only factor in making decisions, Bishop says.  An individual may sacrifice some of his well-being in order to keep a promise or promote the well-being of others.  An organization or government might spurn a policy that promised to promote the well-being of many if it were unjust or violated the rights of a few.  (211)
Most people like to think, with Aristotle or Epicurus, that goodness and happiness go together.  Or, like Kant, they think that goodness and happiness ought to go together.  Bishop challenges this predilection.  Well-being can be empirically studied, he argues.  We ought to accept what the research shows us.  If it shows us—and it does—that well-being can be achieved without goodness, we need to get used to that fact.
To this point, I have merely explained Bishop’s claims.  The next step is to ask: So what?  What are the implications if Bishop’s theory if it is right?  I will turn to that question in my next essay.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Thinking with Michael Bishop

Morality and the Good Life,
Part One

Michael A. Bishop’s 2015 book, The Good Life, introduces a philosophically informed theory of positive psychology.[i] I’ve been thinking about Bishop’s theory for a couple months now; I will read a paper that responds to some of Bishop’s ideas at a philosophy conference in March 2016.  The Good Life touches on fundamental questions in moral philosophy, questions relevant to my ambitions as a philosopher and novelist.  Today I will introduce the basic ideas; in future posts I’ll discuss them.
“Positive psychology” has been a growth industry for at least forty years, reflecting the desire on the part of many mental health professionals to move from treating illness to facilitating health.  Rather than concentrating on the dark side—neuroses, psychoses, debilitating syndromes, etc.—positive psychologists want to understand the “light” side of human mental functioning.  Are there ways for ordinary people to get better?  Can we be happier?  More content?  More productive?  How can professional therapists help people achieve their deepest aspirations?
The idea is intuitively appealing, at least to some.  So psychologists have produced thousands of empirical studies that investigate one or more aspects of “well-being.”  And they have discovered correlations, at least some of which must represent causal connections, between behaviors, patterns of thought, accomplishments, attitudes, perceptions, and emotions.  Having discovered causal connections, therapists are sometimes able to say, “Research shows that people who do x fairly reliably experience y as a result.  Since you want more y in your life, I recommend you do x.”
A concrete example: C.R. Snyder’s “hope theory” begins with an operational definition of hope and then, having conducted a great deal of empirical research on the basis of that definition, suggests practical interventions by which therapists can help patients increase their hope.  Snyder’s research colleagues have collected plenty of evidence that these interventions work, in the sense that patients report improved life outcomes on a number of measures.[ii]
It should be stressed that Snyder’s hope theory is only one example among many.  Positive psychologists have researched organizational leadership, creativity, marital success, physical exercise, happiness, video game playing, generosity, workplace satisfaction, and lots of other particulars.
According to Bishop, the problem is that until now no one has proposed a good theory to say what positive psychology is.  What is it that all these empirical researches actually study?  His answer: “positive causal networks” or PCNs.  Here is an illustration.
Many runners report that running improves their mood, their creativity, and their overall mental state.  After much experience running, runners have a well-founded belief that goes something like this: “Even though the weather is nasty today and I’m tempted to skip my run, I know I’ll feel better if I do it.”  This belief, or pattern of thought, obviously tends to keep the runner participating in her running regimen.  So there is a feedback loop: running leads to feeling better; feeling better leads to a pattern of thought; the pattern of thought leads to more running.  As Bishop says, persons get “stuck” in a causal network that improves their lives.
Positive causal networks are usually much more complex than my example of running.  Bishop lists four components to causal networks: emotions, attitudes, traits, and accomplishments.  Notice that my example, running, refers to a “pattern of thought,” which may seem hard to fit into one of Bishop’s components.  Bishop might try to squeeze “patterns of thought” into his structure (maybe such patterns contribute to “attitudes”); more likely, he would admit that the components he names may not be all there are.  At several points in his book, he stresses that he is offering an initial theory and would welcome corrections.  The key idea is that the parts of a positive causal network (he calls these “PCN fragments”) reinforce each other.
There is plenty of evidence that positive causal networks are real, Bishop says.  That is, they exist in the world whether or not we understand them or pay attention to them.  To a limited degree, people have long been aware of positive causal networks, before modern science began exploring them in detail.  Consider the time-honored advice of parents: You say you want to do well in school?  Very well, make friends with the good students.  Enjoy the activities they enjoy.  Copy their attitudes toward books and schoolwork.  Build more friendships based on shared academic interests.  And so on.  Your friendships will help you develop the right attitudes and habits, the right attitudes and habits will help you do well in school, and doing well in school will attract the right kind of friends.
Bishop says we should see a parallel here between positive causal networks and other natural kinds, such as “water.”  Obviously, water was an important real thing in the world, though people referred to it for thousands of years without knowing its chemical composition.  When chemists discovered that water is H2O they improved our understanding of water and enabled us to do things with water that we were previously unable to do.  Bishop says that as psychologists gain better understanding of positive causal networks they will enable us to improve our lives in various ways.
One more example: people who are kind, generous, and considerate of others’ feelings tend to make friends.  Having friends tends to create pleasurable experiences.  Having friends is a kind of personal relationship that is highly valued in our society.  Having pleasurable experiences that are at the same time highly valued by society tends to make persons kind, generous, and considerate of others’ feelings—and the cycle renews itself.  Bishop says that much empirical research by positive psychologists supports the conclusion that PCNs are “homeostatic property clusters.”  The emotions, traits, attitudes, and accomplishments in such a property cluster tend to reinforce each other, so the cluster tends to endure.  Bishop points to empirical research that indicates that people displaying a high degree of a positive trait, attitude, emotion or accomplishment at time t1 will have (compared to those who have a lower degree of that trait, attitude, emotion, or accomplishment) a statistically significant greater chance of having a high degree of that trait, attitude, emotion or accomplishment at time t2even when t2 is years or decades after t1.  Further, persons who have a higher degree of one component of a PCN at time t1, say component c1, will have a greater chance of having some other component of the PCN, component c2, at time t2.  Positive causal networks are real and, as homeostatic property clusters, they tend to endure.  Positive psychology research can teach us how to build and strengthen PCNs.  According to Bishop, that’s what positive psychologists are doing, and that’s how they should conceptualize their work.
That’s enough to start.  Next week, I’ll explore a feature of Bishop’s theory sure to be controversial among philosophers.

[i] Michael Bishop, The Good Life: Unifying the Philosophy and Psychology of Well-Being.  Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015.
[ii] See C.R. Snyder (ed.), Handbook of Hope: Theory, Measures, and Applications.  London: Academic Press, 2000.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Another hope essay

History and Hope

The scepter will not depart from Judah,
nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet,
until he comes to whom it belongs
and the obedience of the nations is his.
Genesis 49:10 (New International Version)

            The NIV text notes to this verse in Genesis indicate the translators’ uncertainty about the words “until he comes to whom it belongs.”  Maybe the text means, “until the one to whom tribute belongs.”  Maybe it would be best to leave the word untranslated: “until Shiloh comes.”
            Some context: Genesis 49:2-27 is the prophecy of Jacob regarding his sons.  Jacob, whose name had been changed to Israel, was living in Egypt and nearing death.  What might be called the “poem of the tribes” predicts the future of Israel’s descendants after they leave Egypt and return to the land God promised Abraham.  The poem is a kind of “history in advance.”  The intended readers of this story—Jewish people living much, much later—would see in Jacob’s prophecy an accurate description of the roles of the tribes.  Reuben, the poem says, though the first of Jacob’s sons, would no longer be preeminent among the tribes.  Simeon and Levi would be dispersed among the tribes, not having land of their own.  And so on.
            Judah, of course, is the tribe of David.  According to the familiar story in 1 Samuel, the Benjamite Saul was the first king of Israel.  But Saul failed as king, and David was the one who effectively united the tribes and established Jerusalem as the nation’s capitol.  So when Jacob’s prophecy says, “the scepter will not depart from Judah,” later readers would understand this as referring to the Davidic line of rulers.
            Passages like this tempt some Bible readers to launch into debates over prophecy and historicity.  Did Jacob really predict the future of Israel?  Were any of the characters of Genesis, including Jacob, actual persons?  Shouldn’t we read Genesis as a collection of legends? 
            It is a mistake to spend much energy on such questions.  They distract us from grasping fundamental biblical ideas.  Whether or not Jacob was an actual person who said precisely these words or only a name in the national mythology, the prophecy embodies a Jewish understanding of history.  History is going some place.  There are worldviews in which time is circular, an eternal repetition of seasons, lives, or epochs—as in Nietzsche’s idea of the eternal return or in the Hindu doctrine of reincarnation.  But the biblical view of history has a beginning, a middle, and an end.  In the Jewish view, the world is not the scene of endless cycles, because the God of the Bible acts in history.  When God creates or redeems or makes a covenant, something new happens.
            Sometimes this biblical view of history looks back.  Soon after Jacob’s death, some of his sons feared that Joseph would finally take revenge on them for the way they treated him.  Joseph told his brothers that they should not reproach themselves for having sold him into slavery in Egypt.  Yes, they acted out of spite and cruelty, but what the brothers intended for evil God turned into good.  Joseph interprets the past in the light of the God who acts in history.
            Other times the biblical view looks forward.  Not only has God acted in the past, he will act in the future.  God will fulfill his gracious promises to his people.  The difficult phrase in Genesis 49:10 speaks of the future.  Jacob’s prophecy says, “the scepter will not depart from Judah … until Shiloh comes…” 
            Interpreters debate how these words should be translated, and their meaning is even more contested.  Christians have traditionally read the verse as a messianic prophecy fulfilled in Jesus.  Naturally, Jewish readers disagree.  But both sides agree on the fundamental assumption, that the God of the Bible has plans for the future.  That means hope is an essential element of biblical religion.
            People who believe in a God who acts in history will orient their thinking toward the things God intends to do.  They believe God has promised a good future.  Therefore, no matter how bleak current circumstances may be, people who believe in the biblical God have grounds for hope.
            Perhaps I can make my point clearer this way.  Given the biblical view of history, salvation should not be understood as escape out of the world.  That is a metaphor of place, where salvation means going to heaven.  Unfortunately, many Christians think in these spatial terms: “This world is not my home; I’m just passing through.”
            A temporal metaphor better fits the New Testament.  In the New Testament, salvation is the coming new age.  The new era begins with Jesus, so in one sense his followers already live in the new age.  But Christians look forward to Jesus’ return, to the full flowering of the Kingdom of God.  We live in hope.

Thursday, January 7, 2016

In my in-box

How should I respond to this?  Post your suggestions in the responses.

Dear Professor Smith,

            I’ve been following your science-fiction story, Castles, on your blog for over three years.  Gracious!  That’s a long wait for an inconclusive ending.  What happened to the aliens?  By the way, you must know that artificially created space-time wormholes are just sci-fi speculation.  That isn’t the way space travel really works.
            That is NOT what I’m writing about.
            Your blog advertises other stories you’ve written, so I went on-line to buy Buying the Bangkok Girl.  Imagine my surprise!  Who gave you permission to write this?  I didn’t.  You and I both know that “Debbie Apple” didn’t.  What were you thinking? Surely you have enough brains to see that you’ve put people in danger.  Yes, danger.  The nut cases are bad enough, charging around with their photos of “aural projections,” but lurking in the corners whenever the conspiracy wackos gather you find people like Lucas Sinclair.  How would you like it if Sinclair came snooping around your house?
            I suppose you think the invented names and details will hide the origin of this supposed “novel.”  Obviously, anyone can check and find out that no “Eleanor Urquhart” graduated from Azusa Pacific University in 2005, that there is no “Hotel Albert” at the location you describe in Monaco, and that there has never been an “Apple Company” offering information and investment advice (at least not in Southern California).  But too many other details of the story fit the real world too closely.  Why name real hotels and attractions in Thailand?  You even included the new Bangkok airport (new in 2006, that is).  Worst of all, the description of the “Apple Company” office practically leads inquiring readers to the exact location!  (Not that they will find anything there now; the demolition was, shall we say, thorough.)
            Surely you know that making all this information publicly available runs the risk of provoking unwelcome interest.  Some people—as you must know, whole organizations—take any mention of telekinesis very seriously.  “Mrs. Apple” may be safe from unwanted attention, but the man you call “Georges Savore” is still alive.  Why would you want to subject him and his friends to harassment and/or exposure?  The really important events are all past now, but some people (you know who) will never accept that.  They will look for us.
            I lent Buying the Bangkok Girl to a few trusted friends.  “Henrietta” said we should buy the copyright from you, in order to suppress further publication, and then we could patiently go about buying up the extant copies.  There can’t be that many in circulation, she said.  But Friendly Fry (Why on earth would you use his real name?  Are you suffering from a defective imagination?  Are you just lazy?) said the solution was not to suppress the story but complete it.  Let the world know—that is, anyone who is paying attention to little known novels—that the time of greatness has come and gone.  “Jason” and “Chandra” agreed with Friendly.
            So that’s the point of this letter.  Since you published Bangkok Girl, you have a moral responsibility to repair the damage you have done.  If you are willing to take on the job, I will send you the relevant information.  We realize there is work involved; you have to actually write the story.  With my notes that shouldn’t be too hard.  And you get the royalties from book sales.  I think that’s fair.  The beauty of this plan is that sane people won’t pay it any mind, and the wackos may be persuaded of the truth.
            By the way, don’t try to trace the origin of this email.  Even if you were as good as “Ben Henry” you would discover only an electronic trail that dead-ends at a temporary router.
            You can indicate your willingness to take the job on your blog.  If you say yes, I’ll put my notes together.  Of course, I can’t promise how long that will take.  The kiddos take a lot of my time, and we have season tickets.  As “Henrietta” says, Mike Trout is fabulous.
I will watch for your reply,
“Eleanor Urquhart”

P.S.  There are portions of Buying the Bangkok Girl that are pretty creepy for the person who lived it.  Good grief!  It’s like you knew what I was thinking.  Who told you all that stuff?