Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Quotes: What is happiness?

Gary Zukav:

”The word "happiness" is the label, or symbol, which we pin on this indescribable state. "Happiness" belongs to the realm of abstractions, or concepts. A state of being is an experience. A description of a state of being is a symbol. Symbols and experience do not follow the same rules.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb:

"Let me distill the main idea behind what researchers call hedonic happiness.

Making $1 million in one year, but nothing in the preceding nine, does not bring the same pleasure as having the total evenly distributed over the same period, that is, $100,000 every year for ten years in a row. The same applies to the inverse order--making a bundle in the first year, then nothing for the remaining period. Somehow, your pleasure system will be saturated rather quickly, and it will not carry forward the hedonic balance like a sum on a tax return. As a matter of fact, your happiness depends far more on the number of instances of positive feelings, what psychologists call "positive affect," than on their intensity when they hit. In other words, good news is good news first; how good matters rather little. So to have a pleasant life you should spread these small "affects" across time as evenly as possible. Plenty of mildly good news is preferable to one single lump of great news.

Sadly, it may be even worse for you to make $10 million, then lose back nine, than to making nothing at all!

* * *

Consider that our major satisfaction for thousands of years came in the form of food and water (and something else more private), ad that while we need these steadily, we quickly reach saturation."

Fernando Pessoa:

"To be happy it is necessary to know that one is happy. * * * But the knowledge of happiness brings unhappiness, because to know one is happy is to know that one is passing through happiness and is, therefore, soon obliged to leave it behind."

Brené Brown:

”Anne Robertson, a Methodist pastor, writer, and executive director of the Massachusetts Bible Society, explains how the Greek origins of the words happiness and joy hold important meaning for us today. She explains that the Greek word for happiness is Makarios, which was used to describe the freedom of the rich from normal cares and worries, or to describe a person who received some form of good fortune, such as money or health. Robertson compares this to the Greek word for joy which is chairo. Chairo was described by the ancient Greeks as the ‘culmination of being’ and the ‘good mood of the soul.’ Robertson writes, ‘Chairo is something, the ancient Greeks tell us, that is found only in God and comes with virtue and wisdom. It isn’t a beginner’s virtue; it comes as the culmination. They say its opposite is not sadness, but fear.’”

Jonathan Lear:

"But if psychoanalysis lies outside the ethical, how does it promote happiness? Here we need to go back to an older English usage of ‘happiness’ in terms of happenstance: the experience of chance things’ working out well rather than badly. Happiness, on this interpretation, is not the ultimate goal of our teleologically organized strivings, but the ultimate ateleological moment: a chance event going well for us — quite literally, a lucky break. Analysis puts us in a position to take advantage of certain kinds of chance occurrences: those breaks in psychological structure which are caused by too much of too much. This isn’t a teleological occurrence, but a taking-advantage of the disruption of previous attempts to construct a teleology. If one thinks about it, I think one will see that in such fleeting moments we do find real happiness."

Virginia Woolf:

"Very gently and quietly, almost as if it were the blood singing in her veins, or the water of the stream running over stones, Rachel became conscious of a new feeling within her. She wondered for a moment what it was, and then said to herself, with a little surprise at recognising in her own person so famous a thing:

'This is happiness, I suppose.' And aloud to Terence she spoke, 'This is happiness.'"

Baron de Montesquieu:

"Happiness is not the absence of problems but the ability to deal with them."

Dr. Who:

"Sad is happy for deep people."

Amos Oz:

"Well you know In Hebrew, we don't even have a proper word for happiness. The Hebrew word 'osha' which is normally translated as 'happiness' means 'positive feedback from others.' There are six Hebrew words for joy, because there are many kinds of joy, whereas happiness is an abstraction and everlasting happiness is a nonexistent experience. I believe in passing joys, in coming joys which come and come and go and disappear. I don't believe in everlasting happiness."


Gary Zukav. The Dancing Wu Li Masters: An Overview of the New Physics. New York: William Morrow and Company, 1979. p. 271.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb. The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable. New York: Random House, 2007. p. 91.

Fernando Pessoa. The Book of Disquiet. Edited by Maria Jose de Lancastre. Translated by Margaret Jull Costa. London: Serpent's Tail, 1991 (a collection of writings that were unorganized upon Pessoa's death in 1935). p. 219.

Brené Brown, The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You're Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are, Center City, Minn.: Hazelden Publishing, 2010.

Jonathan Lear. Happiness, Death, and the Remainder of Life. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2000. p. 129.

Virginia Woolf. The Voyage Out (1915).

Baron de Montesquieu, quoted in the Associated Press, quoted in The Week, April 15, 2011, p. 21.

Amos Oz, in a radio interview by Tom Ashbrook, On Point, Oct 31 2011. (11 minutes into the show)

Saturday, August 20, 2016

The latest screed against gender transition (National Review, Aug 2016)

David French's column "The Tragic Transgender Contagion" (National Review, Aug. 18, 2016) is only the most recent attempt to revive old tropes that invalidate transgender identities. The word "contagion" in the headline should give a clue; undesirable groups have always been spoken of metaphorically as carrying infection or otherwise recruiting normal people into their ranks. In this case, the article is built around the idea that some impressionable children copy each other's assertions of transgender identity because it is seen as the cool thing to do. The author mentions this anecdotally but does not really explore the topic.

French spoils an opportunity to learn or teach anything meaningful in the following ways: by relying on terms like "radical ideology" in reference to those who have transgender identities or who support others who have them; by claiming that the medical procedures transgender people choose to undergo are "mutilating;" by implying broadly that all queer people and their allies are plagued by such lack of insight that they believe that "every bad outcome is a bigot's fault;" and by declaring that "our responsibility is to deal with people as they are, not as identity politics defines them" (read: other people are the gender I say they are). He caps his error by adding that "to claim otherwise is nothing short of cruel" (read: when we allow other people to live according to their own self-understanding, we are at fault for their misery and regret because we ought to have stopped them).

There is a looming contradiction throughout the article: After complaining about the facile wrong-headedness of the belief that "every bad outcome is a bigot's fault," the author himself treats transgender support systems and care providers as the real bullies who damage children. If it is an oversimplification and a shirking of responsibility for queer people to take the former attitude, how is it a greater philosophical achievement for him to take the latter position? In either case, the problem is a deep identification with the role of a victim and the belief that all damage in one's own life is caused by someone else's ideology. In this article, French begins by saying that the problem is with blame itself, but he does not go on to encourage people to take responsibility for themselves — instead, he shifts blame onto allies of transgender people, accusing them of misusing their influence, and then he swipes and assumes their mantle of moral authority for himself. This doesn't get at the root of the problem he purported to identify, but just perpetuates it.

In this column, French appears to be deeply uncomfortable with or disturbed by the idea of anyone transitioning. For him, the idea of a child's transition is worse than the idea of an adult's transition, and anecdotal weird social phenomena among children who transition are worst of all. He uses his personal nightmare worst-case scenario — that gender transition could become a fad — to issue a polemic about other people are the gender I say they are rather than exploring the details of the incident in a journalistic way. This is just as well, since it is unclear why the personal details of anyone's gender identity (temporary or permanent, physical or not, insightful or not) would be fair game for a magazine column and should become anyone else's business, all the less so when the people involved are minors. The incident with the children in question isn't really the driving force behind the article. Think of the children, goes the typical rallying cry against sexual liberation, but the concern is rarely about the children. It isn't one specific misinterpretation or misapplication of medically assisted and socially sanctioned gender transition that French wishes to flag; it's everyone's gender transition that he invalidates by association.

French does provide some examples in his article to buttress his concerns about specific incidents where social support for gender transition may have missed the mark and backfired. The problem is that the article also reveals his disapproval of gender transition overall, so it is impossible for the reader to spot fine distinctions about how he thinks the social support system could be improved. The author ought to disentangle it for the reader and make viable recommendations, and he hasn't done so, because he seems to believe that no one's gender transition should receive any support. He calls the recognition of the validity of transgender experience "a comforting lie." He denies that transgender people are "trapped in the wrong body" and says that many have "traumas" and "mental disorders." Indeed, few would say that they are literally, rather than metaphorically, trapped in the wrong body, and it is true that many transgender people (as do many people of all types) have emotional difficulties, but what this has to do with the price of fish is hard to say, other than that it bolsters an atmosphere of discarding transgender people's testimonies. He also sets up a straw man by finding a five-word definition of "transgender" — “defy[ing] societal expectations regarding gender” (Julia Serano) — and then tearing it down as hopelessly vague, saying that it applies to everyone, thus gleefully erasing the specificity of what makes a feeling, experience, or life a transgender one. If other people's feelings and experiences aren't any different from your own, you don't have to go to the trouble of respectfully acknowledging them.

This rhetorical approach isn't unique to anti-transgender complaints. It has always been common in the debates over same-sex relationships. The critic of homosexuality finds an example of a gay relationship that doesn't meet their personal standards for a role model. Perhaps the relationship is sexually "open" to multiple partners, involves parenting, doesn't involve parenting, is affiliated with religion, isn't affiliated with religion, results in immigration, features HIV, has too much money and privilege, has too much poverty and sorrow, or ends in a breakup. The details don't really matter. It's usually a normal human story. The critic assumes that the people, behavior, incident or situation in question is somehow irredeemably bad, that it serves as a stereotype of all same-sex relationships, and that the badness can be avoided if the people in question were not in any same-sex relationship. The essential conclusion is that homosexuality should not be allowed because love, sexuality and marriage is what I say it is and anyone who believes otherwise has "radical ideology." Curiously, the otherization and demonization of typical human behavior is a contradictory approach to the erasure of the other's real differences, and yet they coexist together — in this case, within the same article. An example of the former: The sexually liberal are otherized by being characterized by "smugness" and "never taking responsibility for [their] own beliefs." An example of the latter: Children's gender confusion "should shock exactly no one" and "every female but Barbie herself is transgender" if the definition of "transgender" is too loose. We are all the same. Nothing to see here; move along, people.

It happens too often. Whether the topic is same-sex relationships or gender transition, the critic doesn't typically make a meaningful attempt to figure out exactly what happened to the people in the anecdote in question. Those people are used only to illustrate the "other." If the critic did explore their worst-case scenarios deeply and honestly to learn more about the facts of others' lives, they'd likely find that that the incident that scares them might not have been entirely bad; if it was bad, it wasn't necessarily anyone's fault; that it was anecdotal and can't be used to generalize; and that the possibility that things can go wrong does not in itself recommend that government authorities or self-appointed moralists should take away other people's freedom to make their own life choices for themselves and for their own families. This is paternalistic ideology. Characterizing queerness as "radical ideology" (and following up with feeble attempts to say that queers don't really exist because we're all a little bit queer and that doesn't mean we have to act on it) does not in itself provide a reason to find factually uninformed, moralistic, paternalistic ideology any more appealing.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Quotes on the mind letting go of categories

David Weinberger:

"Perhaps most important, [the game] Twenty Questions has shown them that the world is organized so perfectly that we can get from ignorance to knowledge in just twenty steps. The game is called Twenty Questions and not Four Thousand Questions because — and this is perhaps the subtlest lesson it teaches our children — we've divided our world into major categories that contain smaller categories that contain still smaller ones, branching like a tree. That we can get from concepts as broad as animal, vegetable, and mineral to something as specific as a penguin's foot in just twenty guesses is testimony to the organizational power of trees."

Robert M. Pirsig:

"He [Phaedrus] wasn't really interested in any kind of fusion of differences between these two worlds [classical and romantic]. He was after something else — his ghost."

The opening sentence of Lovecraft's “The Call of Cthulhu”:

"The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents."

Eric Hoffer:

“In times of change, learners inherit the earth, while the learned find themselves beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists.”

Stephen Prothero:

"What intrigues me about the quest of Zen practitioners for satori (their term for moments of awakening that bring qualities of spontaneity and openness to everyday life) is how often these moments come in a flash of intuition. There is now strong evidence that breakthroughs of many sorts — Eureka! moments for scientists and novelists alike — often arrive only after the rational brain has run into a brick wall. When you are out for a walk or a drive or just waking up or just going to sleep, the solution does an end run around your ordinary mind and pops into your head, fully formed. Apparently you need to wear out the left side of the brain so the right side can do its work. Or, to use language more native to the Buddhist tradition, you can't get to nonduality with the dualistic mind. You can't think your way to nirvana; it comes when you are out of your mind."

John R. Searle:

"First, we must not allow ourselves to postulate two worlds or three worlds or anything of the sort. Our task is to give an account of how we live in exactly one world, and how all of these different phenomena, from quarks and gravitational attraction to cocktail parties and governments, are part of that one world."

John W. Gardner:

"You’ll be surprised how the world keeps on revolving without your pushing it. And you’ll be surprised how much stronger you are the next time you decide to push."


David Weinberger. Everything is Miscellaneous: The Power of the New Digital Disorder. New York: Times Books, 2007. pp. 64-65.

Robert M. Pirsig. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. (1974) New York: Bantam, 1975. p. 217.

“The Call of Cthulhu”, H. P. Lovecraft, first published in Weird Tales, Feb. 1928.

Philosopher Eric Hoffer, quoted in the Monterey County, Calif., Herald. The Week, April 11, 2014. p. 15.

Stephen Prothero. God is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions that Run the World — and Why Their Differences Matter. New York: HarperOne, 2010. p. 193.

John R. Searle. Making the Social World: The Structure of Human Civilization. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010. p. 3.

John W. Gardner, quoted in Christopher Gergen and Gregg Vanourek. Life Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives. Jossey-Bass, 2008.