This week we are discussing: Is ignorance the secret to happiness? Maybe
we are still too close to the summer holidays to appreciate the real
significance of this topic.
In the meantime, Mike for accommodation, can you please help:
hi lawrence, q tal grupo?
acabo de volver a madrid y
estoy buscando piso compartido, algo centrico, 270-400epm, yo (profe de)
Ingles, 9 añitos en Madrid, 40s, tranqui. 691 871 267
x. fav se puede mandar a todos?
estaré el Dom.
job hunting too!!
Take care and see you Sunday
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Is ignorance the secret to happiness?
Of course, there is always some truth in proverbs and sayings. We can
therefore expect some degree of truth in the saying that: ignorance is
The issue here is what role does our epistemological state (of affairs)
play in our mental state? Furthermore, while we can reduce mental states
to brain states, can we reduce epistemological states into another form
or state? For example, into brain states? Of course, it does not work
the other way: not all brain states can manifest themselves into mental
states. Strictly speaking , our epistemological states are also a brain
states, since our "knowledge" does "reside" in our brain and does get
processed in the brain. There is neither a ghost nor a metaphysical
information processor in our brain.
We can also argue that sense perceptions manifest themselves into brain
states and maybe even mind states. The white sheet of paper and my pen,
which I am using to write the first draft of this essay, are sense
perceptions impinging on my brain. Thus, at least, I can say that I have
an epistemological state that my pen is leaving an ink mark on the white
sheet of paper. Or I can say that I have a mind state: I am writing this
essay (at least a draft) with a pen on a piece of paper. I might even go
further and say that I feel pleased, if not happy, that I have started
the essay because there is a good chance I might finish it by Thursday
However, there seems to be a different process involved when sense
perceptions become epistemological states. Whilst mental states are
brain states, sense perceptions are not immediate mental states because
they are not even brain states when they impinge on our senses. For
example, light entering our eyes has first to be converted into suitable
electrical and/ or chemical states in order for the brain to accommodate
what we are seeing. And let's not complicate the issue by factoring in
the fact that the brain also contributes an input to build a picture of
what we are seeing.
Why is this introduction necessary? Ultimately, our happiness is also a
brain state and a mental state. But as I hope to show later on,
happiness goes beyond the brain and mental states. So how the world out
there interacts with our brain and how this is converted into metal
states, which finally introduces the claim, "I am happy" is very
relevant for us.
However, it is not enough to have sense perceptions of the world out
there to arrive at a mind state and an epistemological state. We must
also have other epistemological states in order to "give meaning" to our
sense perceptions. By meaning I do not mean semantic meaning but
perceptual relevance. Someone who does not know what a pen is would
presumably have difficulty figuring out what a pen is and what I am
doing with it. And if you want proof of this idea, next time you are at
the mechanic's having your car repaired have a close look at what he or
she is doing. Very few people know what mechanics do to cars.
For our purposes there is a specific relevance to the status of our
perceptions and our mental states. If ignorance is the absence of
knowledge and information, how does this manifest itself into a brain
state? How does no knowledge or no information about the world out there
cause a brain state and mental state? How does a non-physical state
(ignorance) cause a brain state and then a mental state (happiness)?
After all, ignorance is not a mental state that is different from a
state of knowledge? In the brain, ignorance is the absence of a state of
knowledge; but not in the sense that I have no money in my bank account,
but in the sense that there never was a bank account nor any money. So
how does ignorance cause happiness which I have tried to argue is a
mental state and therefore a brain state?
Furthermore, we can agree that the brain is complex and functions in a
very complex way. But I think that we can also agree that there is a
qualitative difference between our brain being in a state after
perceiving something about the world out there and the brain being in a
state because of a drug or the manipulation of the brain.
There seems to be a qualitative and legitimacy difference between seeing
someone and mistakenly believing them to be my neighbour, and seeing
flying horse after taking some questionable pills. Surely, we are
concerned with naturally induced perception about the world. And by
implication naturally induced perceptions of happiness. Would it be
useful to distinguish between "philosophical happiness" which is derived
in the course of our normal life, and "behavioural happiness" which is
the product of a chemical or a pill?
Of course, there are problems with all this. How can we tell one form of
happiness from the other? Especially, if behaviourally we cannot tell
the difference. And does it matter how happiness is induced? Especially,
when a lot of people depend on some form of medical drugs to experience
happiness? I will opt out from offering an opinion on these very
Since we are dealing with an epistemological problem, or at least it
seems as if we are dealing with an epistemological problem, it would be
very relevant to ask: what do we mean by ignorance? I will distinguish
three different types of ignorance:
Ignorance because we don't have any information/knowledge. There is no
information to have because it has not been discovered yet.
Ignorance because we have the wrong information or misinterpreted the
information we have.
Ignorance because we don't care whether there is information or
knowledge about some issue. Ignorance through carelessness or inertia.
For example, health has been causally linked with our state of happiness
(see Wikipedia on Happiness for example), but maybe the food we are
eating is contaminated with a toxin that will make us sick in less than
twenty-four hours. But we don't know that now, because there is, now, no
information about the toxin in the food. (I don't want to complicate the
thought experiment by introducing ideas such someone might have put the
toxin the food etc. etc.)
Being mistaken is also a part of life. However, we might be mistaken
about something that in turn might make us happy or sad. For example, we
might have a pain which we believe is caused by a serious problem, but
in fact our doctor can fix in no time at all. Thus we are unhappy, when
in fact we should be happy because the pain can be dealt with quite easily.
I would argue that lack of information and genuine mistake are instances
when ignorance might lead to happiness (or lack there of). And
furthermore, this would be a sort of legitimate happiness, what I
earlier called philosophical happiness.
Of course, our state of happiness might change once we know the truth or
have more relevant information about a given issue. A new instance of
sense perception changes our brain state, our mind state, then manifest
itself into happiness (or the absence there of). However, like our other
physical traits, it is unlikely that our state of happiness can last for
ever or a very long time. There is always something to interrupt a happy
state of affairs; even if for a very short while. Of course, I am not
considering situations when a disease causes nothing but constant pain
in a person with no real hope of remission.
Maybe sometimes ignorance is bliss, but what makes these instances of
this happiness legitimate is not necessarily our actions but the
circumstances in which we act.
In other words, we still seem to need some sort of "sense perception"
from the world in order to achieve a mental state that makes us happy.
But in the no-information case, we are missing some information which we
are not aware of: we find the food tasty but we don't know about the
toxin. And in the other case we misinterpret our sense perception
because we have false information: it is not our appendix that is
hurting but our tummy from a bad case of indigestion. In either example,
the causal link between the world out there (let's agree that our tummy
is in the world out there), our sense perception, brain state, mental
state and ultimately happiness, is not compromised.
You would have noticed that until now I have not mentioned morality or
moral issues. The brain, of course, does not need morality to function.
However, our brain has devised survival strategies that do include
concepts of morality: for example, cooperation, altruism, sharing,
caring, justice, fairness etc. But because we are not automata coming
off a mass production line, we are disposed to employ these strategies
in various degrees. Some are more cooperative than others, etc. etc.
Biological survival, and I would add psychological and emotional
survival, are also part of the natural process of life. And in and of
themselves these activities are amoral, just natural processes. It is
when we employ morality as part of the strategy that what was once
natural and amoral becomes moral and therefore good or bad. For example,
if I share my freshly killed antelope with my friend, this would just be
an act of sharing in nature. However, if we label sharing as morally
good and then encourage sharing, then sharing my antelope with my
friends would cease to be just an act in nature but now also becomes a
moral act. And it is because of this moral act that ignorance also
becomes a moral issue and not just a state of affairs in nature.
But I would argue that only one type of ignorance assumes this special
condition: precisely, ignorance because of a lack of interest or inertia
from seeking more information.
Maybe we might feel virtuous and happy from having saved a hundred euros
on our new washing machine. But a market transaction, I would argue, is
not devoid of moral implications. Therefore, it would be legitimate to
ask, what are the costs of my virtue or my happiness? Maybe my washing
machines uses more water than the machine I did not buy. Maybe the
people who made my new machine were paid very low wages.
I want to argue that happiness as a result of ignorance from lack of
interest or inertia is a different kind of happiness; maybe a happiness
that also carries a moral price tag. As I said earlier, this moral price
tag in not inherent in this type of happiness or transaction, but
becomes part of the transaction because we have developed metal states
that represent a moral perception.
This interpretation has its own set of problems. For example, what
justification do we have to judge others by our morality? Are moral mind
states reducible to brain states? And what does a moral state look like
in its brain state manifestation? Although there are scientists who are
working on these issues (search for fMRI and ethics) I do not wish to
discuss these questions here.
However, I do want to consider some examples of happiness that might
have a bearing on my discussion on morality and ignorance.
In two editions of Scientific American (ref. below; these articles were
also reported in other media at the time) we find two articles with the
following headlines: "Why are conservatives happier than liberals?" and
"Money can buy happiness."
Researchers found, amongst other things, that from 9000 people over 10
countries, right wingers reported greater life satisfaction across
cultures than liberals. The researchers of this study suggested that
"conservatives tend to rationalise inequality as the result of a fair
process in a meritocracy, whereas liberals tend to see inequality as
The obvious comment one feels like making at this stage is that
conservatives ought to spend more time considering the world out there.
But I am interested in a different sort of issue. Is self justification
a form of mental state or a brain state? After all, being better off is
a state of affairs in nature; having more means we have more resources
to survive. But "meritocracy" is a moral concept by definition. However,
where does merit stop and avarice begins? Feeling "good" about one's
state of affairs is different from feeling "justified" for being in a
certain state of affairs.
On the other hand, if society establishes a criteria under which we can
accumulate scarce resources, then surely we are justified to feel happy
if we are justified to feel happy if we pass the necessary test? But
what that test is and what is the nature of that justification are, in
my opinion, issues beyond morality, mental states, brain states and
happiness. I think these questions also take us into the realm of
politics at the very least.
"Money can buy happiness" but only with a twist. The researchers of this
study found that money can buy happiness but only if we spend that money
on others. But before liberals might feel elated with this study, there
is an important caveat: the money we spend has to be our own money. (But
see the article.)
Studies consistently show that at least half of our happiness is
genetically determined. (See The Science of Lasing Happiness and
Wikipedia on Happiness.) Ten percent of happiness is due to
circumstances and 40% is believed to be due to "intentional activity."
Therefore, if we share (money) with others makes us happy, is this
because we feel morally obliged, maybe through social pressure? So this
sharing makes us feel good and therefore positively feed our genetically
inclined happiness. Or is the case that sharing is also a genetically
inherited trait and maybe there is a genetic correlation (or causal
relationship) between happiness and sharing?
If, however, the 50% of our happiness is attributed to genetics does
this mean that our problem is not even an epistemological issue, but
rather a physical issue? And does this mean that our happiness is as
much the result of our inherited brain state as our mental stats due to
our circumstances? Does this mean that pill-popping is OK to become
happy? And where does this leave morality? These are of course questions
which I do not plan to answer here, and then there is the Big Daddy of
these questions: are conservatives excused for their role in society?
Maybe we are happy not because of our ignorance, but despite of our
ignorance. Maybe happiness is so important in our life that nature does
not want to take any chances and leave this vital part of our well being
to our epistemological states and our intentional hands. Could it be
that nature knows something we don't know: maybe that we are, indeed,
Money Can Buy Happiness
March 24, 2008
Karen Hopkin reports
© 1996-2008 Scientific American Inc.
Why Are Conservatives Happier Than Liberals?
- Christie Nicholson
June 24, 2008
© 1996-2008 Scientific American Inc.
The Science of Lasting Happiness
By Marina Krakovsky
© 1996-2008 Scientific American Inc.
Happiness. (2008, September 16). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia.
Retrieved 19:03, September 18, 2008, from
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from Lawrence, Pub Philosophy Group, Sunday meeting: Is ignorance the
secret to happiness? + msg from Mike