Friday, February 12, 2016

Aquinas, Vanilla Sky, and Nozick’s experience machine

I’ve been meaning for about fifteen years now to write up something on the movie Vanilla Sky (a remake of Open Your Eyes).  It’s a better movie than it seems -- which is fitting, since the flick is all about the unseen reality lurking beneath the sea of superficiality (moral and metaphysical) that is the life of the Tom Cruise character.  Alas, this isn’t quite the article I’ve been meaning to write, since it’s not primarily about the movie, though I’ll have reason to say something about it.  Rather, it’s about a famous philosophical thought experiment that might as well have inspired the movie even if (as far as I know) it didn’t -- Robert Nozick’s “experience machine” (from Anarchy, State, and Utopia).

Nozick considers a scenario in which we could be plugged into a machine which would give us any set of experiences we desired for the rest of our lives.  Should you plug in?  Would you?  What reason could there be not to do so, since (Nozick asks rhetorically) “what else can matter to us, other than how our lives feel from the inside?” (p. 43).

Yet Nozick does not think most people would plug in, and suggests three reasons why they wouldn’t.  First, what we really want is to do certain things, and wanting the experience of doing them is a consequence of wanting to do them, rather than the experience being something we are seeking in itself.  Second, we want to be a certain way, and again, wanting the experience of being that way is a byproduct of wanting to be that way.  Third, we want contact with reality, rather than merely with some man-made simulacrum. 

The message of Vanilla Sky, or one of the messages anyway, seems to be the same (spoilers to follow).  David Aames (Tom Cruise) is about as shallow a man as you can imagine -- a spoiled heir who leaves others to attend to running the company he inherited from his father while he burns through money, parties, and women.  One of these women, Julie (Cameron Diaz), so as to ensure that she can keep his attention, pretends that their relationship is purely sexual and without commitment -- a pretense Aames is happy to go along with -- even though they both know she is deeply in love with him.  Even after Aames himself falls in love with another woman, Sofia (Penelope Cruz), and decides to break things off with Julie for good, he opts for one last hop into bed with her.  That is a mistake he pays dearly for, as the spurned Julie’s invitation was merely a ruse to get him into her car, which she proceeds to drive off a bridge in order to kill the both of them.  He survives but ends up horribly disfigured and in constant pain, his good looks -- and with them his life of superficial pleasure-seeking -- now gone forever, as are his chances with Sofia.

Or so it seems.  But suddenly, Sofia appears interested in renewing things with him after all, he is told by his doctors that his face can be repaired, and it appears that he will live happily ever after.  Yet there’s another twist.  As a series of increasingly surreal events unfold, Aames seems to be losing his sanity.  It is revealed that the life he has thought he was living from the point Sofia returned to him onward has all been a mere virtual reality generated by a computer to which he had voluntarily had himself hooked up, making sure that his memory of having done so was erased.  The aim was to realize artificially the life with Sofia and the restoration of his good looks that he knew would never be achieved in reality.  A breakdown in the program had led to the series of surreal experiences and the need to let him in on what was really going on.  He is told by the company that runs the virtual reality machine that the problem has been fixed, and asked whether he wants to re-start the virtual reality.  But he decides not to: “I don't want to dream anymore.  I want a real life.”  Having, in effect, plugged into Nozick’s experience machine, even a superficial man like Aames decides it wasn’t such a great idea.

So, even in a hedonistic age in which people are addicted to electronic entertainments of various sorts, contemporary philosophy and pop culture alike give expression to the idea that there is something unsatisfying and unworthy about seeking pleasurable experiences as an end in themselves and divorced from the objective actions and circumstances with which they are normally associated.

And yet… there is a reason people often confuse happiness with pleasure.  It would certainly be bizarre to think that if someone had a solid marriage, a good job, good health, well brought up children, many friends, a good moral character, was deeply religious, and so on -- but somehow still generally felt miserable and rarely took pleasure in any of these things -- that he could nevertheless intelligibly be said to be happy.  And most people find off-putting dour moralizers who regard even natural and innocent pleasures with suspicion.  (Recall Mencken’s definition of Puritanism: “the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.”)  Pleasure clearly has something to do with happiness, even if (as those who, in some inchoate way, find the experience machine repellent rightly perceive) it is not identical with happiness.  But what, then?

For Aquinas, happiness is the possession of some good, where the good is to be defined in terms of the realization of a natural end.  For example, the natural end of eyes is seeing, so that it is good for us when the eyes are able to realize this end and bad for us when (as in poor vision or blindness) they are unable to do so.  Hence, insofar as they are able to realize it we will, to that extent and all things being equal, be happy; and insofar as they are unable to do so we will, to that extent and all things being equal, be unhappy.  Of course, seeing is only one part of human life, and there are many other ends that our nature directs us to pursue.  And some of those ends are more important than others.  That is why a blind person can still be happy overall, and a sighted person might still be unhappy overall.  The blind person can still realize many other ends, and higher ends, whereas the sighted person may fail to do so.

But what, specifically, these various natural ends are, how they are ordered in terms of importance, and how they relate to our overall happiness is not to the present point.  (Aquinas considers the issue in some detail, e.g. here.)  What we want to know is how pleasure is related to happiness.  Aquinas answers as follows:

[E]very delight is a proper accident resulting from happiness, or from some part of happiness; since the reason that a man is delighted is that he has some fitting good, either in reality, or in hope, or at least in memory.  Now a fitting good, if indeed it be the perfect good, is precisely man's happiness: and if it is imperfect, it is a share of happiness, either proximate, or remote, or at least apparent.  Therefore it is evident that neither is delight, which results from the perfect good, the very essence of happiness, but something resulting therefrom as its proper accident. (Summa theologiae I-II.2.6)

Pleasure or “delight,” then, is a “proper accident” of happiness.  Now, a “proper accident” or “property” of a thing, in Scholastic jargon, is not the essence of the thing, but rather something which flows or follows from the essence, as a natural consequence.  To take a stock example, the capacity to find things amusing is not the essence of human beings, but it does flow from our essence as rational animals.  Now, this “flow” can be “blocked,” as it were, which is why things don’t always manifest their proper accidents.  But they will be manifest in the normal and healthy instances of a thing of a certain kind.  A normal and healthy dog will have four legs, for example, even if some dogs will, as a result of injury or congenital defect, fail to have four legs.  (See pp. 191-92 and 230-35 of Scholastic Metaphysics for more detailed discussion of properties or proper accidents.)

What Aquinas is saying, then, is that although pleasure or delight is not the essence of happiness, it is nevertheless the natural or proper consequence of happiness, and will in the normal case be associated with it.  In that sense he takes pleasure to be necessary for happiness even if not sufficient for it:

One thing may be necessary for another… as something attendant on it: thus we might say that heat is necessary for fire.  And in this way delight is necessary for happiness.  For it is caused by the appetite being at rest in the good attained.  Wherefore, since happiness is nothing else but the attainment of the Sovereign Good, it cannot be without concomitant delight.  (Summa theologiae I-II.4.1)

Or as Aristotle puts it in Book 10 of the Nicomachean Ethics, pleasure “perfects” the activity of our natural faculties and is in that way part of happiness even if it is not itself happiness. 

Now, the distinction between the essence of a thing and its proper accidents has, like so many important distinctions and theses in Aristotelian-Scholastic thought, gone down the memory hole in modern philosophy.  And here we have an excellent example of how an error concerning what might seem to be an abstruse question of metaphysics can have catastrophic moral consequences.  Some people, rightly perceiving that there is some necessary connection between happiness and pleasure, make the mistake of reducing happiness to pleasure.  That is the error of hedonism.  Others, rightly perceiving that pleasure is not the essence of happiness, make the mistake of separating the two entirely, and thereby suppose that pursuit of the good has nothing at all to do with pleasure.  We might call that the error of puritanism (in Mencken’s sense).  Each error tends to feed off the other, which is why individuals and societies sometimes veer wildly between hedonism and puritanism, falsely supposing that to reject the one requires embracing the other.  The correct, middle ground position is that pleasure is not the essence of happiness and is therefore not that which should be pursued for its own sake, but that it is also nevertheless a natural consequence of happiness and in that way completes or perfects it.

Nozick makes nothing like the Scholastic distinction just summarized -- nor, needless to say, does the Tom Cruise flick -- but I would suggest that both reflect an inchoate recognition that this is the right way to understand the relationship between pleasure and happiness, which is why both are by no means negative toward pleasure and yet at the same time are skeptical of the notion that a series of pleasurable experiences could by itself constitute happiness.  They perceive that the idea that plugging into an “experience machine” could generate happiness reflects the error of hedonism, or reducing happiness to pleasure.

Interestingly, Nozick -- though a libertarian with the usual libertarian position on drug legalization -- sees in the “experience machine” thought experiment a way to understand hostility to drug use:

[P]lugging into an experience machine limits us to a man-made reality, to a world no deeper or more important than that which people can construct.  There is no actual contact with any deeper reality, though the experience of it can be simulated.  Many persons desire to leave themselves open to such contact and to a plumbing of deeper significance.  This clarifies the intensity of the conflict over psychoactive drugs, which some view as mere local experience machines, and others view as avenues to a deeper reality; what some view as equivalent to surrender to the experience machine, others view as following one of the reasons not to surrender! (pp. 43-44)

Nozick suggests here that some of those who are favorable to psychoactive drug use are motivated by the idea that such use might open the door to perception of otherwise inaccessible aspects of objective reality (where a desire to maintain access to objective reality is precisely why we find plugging into the experience machine repellent).  But Nozick recognizes that someone might draw the opposite conclusion, viz. that such drug use is precisely a way of cutting oneself off from objective reality, and is repellent for precisely the same reason the experience machine is.

I would say that that is indeed exactly why many people find such drug use repellent, even if they cannot articulate their revulsion the way a traditional natural law theorist would.  They have an inchoate grasp that there is something contrary to the realization of what is good for us in separating sensory pleasure from the objective circumstances and actions that are its normal source, and making of it an end in itself.  That such drug use can be so addictive only underlines its “experience machine”-like character.  The user becomes locked into a world of pleasure-seeking and can no longer rightly perceive what is truly good for him.  He has become fixated on what is really only the proper accident of happiness, and loses sight of happiness itself.  This is why addiction is typically frustrating and miserable even apart from the physiological damage it often causes.

Needless to say, this is for the traditional natural law theorist also part of the reason why pornography and masturbation are immoral.  On a traditional natural law analysis, sexual desire is naturally directed outward, toward another human being, and the pleasure associated with its fulfillment is the proper accident of this other-directed end being realized.  Sexual pleasure is thus of its nature something to be shared between the partners; that is its natural teleology, qua the perfection of an act whose natural end is to unite the partners corporeally and psychologically.  The less perfectly the pleasure is a shared one, the less perfect is the act itself. 

Now, pornography and masturbation involve the deliberate seeking of this pleasure in a way that is not directed toward another person.  They are “experience machine”-like in the way psychoactive drug use is.  In fact, at least in one respect, they are worse than that.  The natural teleology of sexual pleasure is interpersonal, so that the pursuit of such pleasure in an “experience machine”-like way is perverse in something like the way that an archer’s directing an arrow back at himself rather than toward the target is perverse.  By contrast, the pleasures the user of psychoactive drugs is seeking might not all be of their nature interpersonal.  (For example, ordinary visual experiences -- seeing the tables, chairs, rocks, trees, etc. around you -- are not interpersonal but have as their end merely the provision of information to the person doing the seeing.  The psychoactive drug user seeking unusual visual hallucinations is thus not perverting his faculties in the specific way that the person seeking sexual pleasure apart from another human being is.)

Just as the drug addict becomes so fixated on what is only the proper accident of happiness that he loses sight of the true nature of happiness itself, so too, from the traditional natural law point of view, does habitual pornography use and masturbation make it more difficult to perceive the true, essentially interpersonal nature of sexual fulfillment.  The quest for gratification becomes so inward-looking that, even in sexual encounters with other actual human beings, the other tends to be reduced to a means to self-gratification, rather than a partner in something shared. 

Naturally, then, whatever is conducive to such self-gratification will come to seem to the self-gratifier to be good at least in principle, and that there is an objective, natural teleology of the sexual act -- and thus objectively good and bad kinds of sexual behavior -- will become increasingly difficult to see, and certainly something the person will be very reluctant to see.

Might pornography use be not only an effect but also a cause where hostility to traditional sexual mores is concerned?  Gee, ya think?  What we have here is a spiral, as the “onanization” of sex makes people more unwilling and unable to see the natural ends of the sexual act, which in turn makes them more inclined to “onanize” it, which in turn makes them even more unwilling and unable to see its natural ends…   And it’s bound only to get worse when virtual reality pornography takes off.  (More on natural law and sexual morality, the effects of sexual vice, the teleology of sexual desire, etc. in the posts collected here.)

As all of that indicates, it may be that the revulsion toward the “experience machine” idea that one finds in Nozick and in Vanilla Sky, though reflective of an inchoate grasp of what is naturally good for us, is a revulsion that might decrease as Western society becomes increasingly “onanized” and otherwise addicted to electronic gadgets and entertainments of every kind.  In a future remake of the remake of Open Your Eyes, Aames might decide to plug back in after all.


  1. In a future remake of the remake of Open Your Eyes, Aames might decide to plug back in after all.

    And a future remake of The Matrix will portray Cypher as a hero, who wanted nothing more than to enjoy a juicy and delicious virtual reality steak.

  2. Dr Feser,

    I found this post applicable to all aspects of Sexual Ethics, not just pornography and masturbation. In fact I think it is even more applicable to less intuitive aspects such as contraception and sex in marriage, especially in light of your commitment to Catholic Sexual Ethics. Perhaps an addendum is in order.

  3. Dr. Feser,

    Wouldn't your line of reasoning here against the experience-machine prove too much, in that various art-forms (cinema, theater, music, TV shows, etc.) also aim to immerse us in alternate worlds?

  4. I say that the analogy with psychoactive drugs at least is fallacious preciously because it only provides a parallel to a limited experience machine. Surely most of the bite in Nozick's initial thought experiment comes from the fact that the machine experience replaces and thus thoroughly precludes the experience of real life. Drug usage - leaving aside the question of addiction which raises other moral questions - does not do this anymore than, say, reading a book or watching a film. True it would be at least irrational and probably immoral if one intended to do something the drug effects would interfere with e.g. driving heavy machinery, but that issue arises with many forms of activity.

    The point about non-veridical perceptual experiences is interesting, but if true would prove too much. Why should we not turn our intentional gaze back on our own experiences themselves? Unlike the case of the archer it's not as if that action is harmful or even necessarily profitless. Is the phenomenologist perverting his faculties when he or she consciously brackets all external objects and refuses to take a stance on their extra-mental existence? As long as we pay attention to our experiences we stand to perceive and thus learn something even if it's just the nature of said experience itself. Again it would be at least irrational for someone to prefer their faculties to be unreliable i.e. not to know whether they perceive really exists, but the self-sort nature of most artificially induced hallucinogenic experiences mitigates against this.

    And now let me flip the thought experiment background on the Natural Law theorist. Consider if instead of Aames suffering a debilitating accident it was Sofia - let's say Julie push her from the window of multi-story building. Anyway the upshot of the accident is that not only is she crippled and disfigured but she also enters a permanently vegetative state; she is brain-dead.

    Soon after this God or maybe the Cartesian Demon appears to Aames and offers to restore Sophia to her prior physical state. The catch is that though this physical restoration will only suffice to bring back a philosophical zombie - to all external standards she will appear the 'ideal' woman, she will converse and laugh with her husband, offer him council and support, continue with her no-doubt highly paid and tedious job, and when the time comes bear children and act in all the ways a mother should to raise/educate them; yet through all of this the inner theatre will remain: there will be no consciousness, no empirical and transcendental notions of selfhood.

    Considering she can fulfil all bodily functions required for thriving on an NL basis and provide the right actions we analogise as mental stimulation would it be immoral for Aames to accept such a creature?

    (In some way my bringing the thought experiment into line with the initial Vanilla Sky plot is unhelpful as the implication of replacing Sophia with another woman, even were she to be completely normal, raises questions of fungibility)

  5. Considering she can fulfil all bodily functions required for thriving on an NL basis and provide the right actions we analogise as mental stimulation would it be immoral for Aames to accept such a creature?

    I don't see that the antecedent is in any way the case in this example; "bodily functions required for thriving" are not at all detachable from rational context, and the social requirements of reason are not met by treating something that is not a person as if it were. But even if that were ignored, it is a precept of natural law, associated with the virtues of prudence and temperance, to avoid the unnecessary appearance of evil, and the action would raise all sorts of questions about the appearance or symbolic character of doing something like that, and what it could suggest, and how appropriate such an outward expression would be to a genuine respect for Sofia, even before we got into more substantive matters.

  6. "Wouldn't your line of reasoning here against the experience-machine prove too much, in that various art-forms (cinema, theater, music, TV shows, etc.) also aim to immerse us in alternate worlds?"

    I would say not. First of all, I don't think music (qua music) aims to immerse us in an alternate world. As for the rest, when I enjoy any of those various art forms, I don't take them for "realities" in their own right, beyond whatever reality they have as art in this world. (When I watch an old episode of "Star Trek," I don't really believe that I'm watching actual events unfold on the U.S.S. Enterprise, much less that I'm standing there on board myself.) And if I did, I think there would be a problem.

  7. I also think the view I've just expressed is consistent with even the most extreme view of art as "world-building." Even Tolkien himself wouldn't take such "world-building" to be the creation of an actual alternate world that we could literally enter by leaving our own. The "world" in question is still at bottom an actual work of art in our world, even if the artist is engaging in (the human analogue of) "creation."

  8. I am sitting at my desk working on a "Valentine's Day" sermon on the proper relationship of the intellect, will, and emotion in marriage, and decided to pop over to my fav contemporary philosopher's page for a quick break, only to read an article that perfectly summarizes the main point of the sermon! Happiness is not the basis of a godly marriage, but it is the sure result of a godly marriage. And the same is true with our life in God in general. "Delight yourself in the LORD, and he will give you the desires of your heart" (Psalm 37:4).

  9. Anon @2:01

    That's a neat objection, but like Scott I think it's answerable. It seems to me that art aims to immerse us in this world by a kind of exit-and-return. I don't get lost in the rage of Achilles as if it were my own; I come to a deeper appreciation of rage and loss and sorrow in this world. The tragedians didn't want to severe the audience from civic life but connect them to it more deeply. Christian art (the real stuff, not the cottage industry crap of the 20th century) aims to connect us to higher realities we are wont to forget.

    Cool question though. Thanks for that. And I'm a real Philistine; some real artiste is going to really go places with it!

  10. ralspaugh:

    "Christian art…aims to connect us to higher realities we are wont to forget."

    Thank you. That's an important point and you've made it succinctly.

  11. Many Dawkinsian atheists exhibit a sort of simmering rage at Christianity for telling them that living like a horse (to use the aristotelian version of the experience machine) is wrong. I think this will only intensify as the anti-teleological nature of Dawkinsian atheism becomes better understood. (In their view, all pleasure is a misuse of something "designed" to make surviving ancestors.) given this anti-teleology, it seems likely that experience machines will be argued for as ideal on the basis of minimizing harm to others.

  12. I'm posting only because I want to get onto the e-mail list for comments and don't know any other way of doing so.


  13. Professor Feser, I am glad that this article brought up proper accidents and accidents in general. I have been personally struggling to understand in what sense quantity is only an accident of body. Saint Thomas somewhere (I think in the Summa Contra) defined body as that in which three dimensions can be posited. That is of course perfectly true; however, common sense would actually normally or at least probably define a body at that in which three dimensions are (i.e., necessarily) posited; that is, its length, depth and breadth would not be merely a potency ("can") of body. Of course, Faith does urge us to this conclusion; I would have normally taken or accepted this possibility as a matter of faith and, probably, would have retained it as a strictly miraculous thing (i.e. a body retaining substantial being and being bodily absent any actual or determinant dimensions, such as presumably necessarily the Virgin Mary's body and the Lord's have "in Heaven" but even perhaps men like Enoch).

    Still, I think such a thing really does require cashing-out for the average person who, I think, can most definitely be forgiven for not thinking or believing that something can be a body absent actual determined dimensions (at least minimally - he probably is willing to entertain the idea of a body that is constantly fluctuating in all of its dimensions but, notwithstanding, at least always have dimension or length, breadth and depth). May I ask if your Scholastic Metaphysics goes into the accidental nature of quantity?

    Thanks! And great article as usual!

  14. "Each error tends to feed off the other, which is why individuals and societies sometimes veer wildly between hedonism and puritanism, falsely supposing that to reject the one requires embracing the other."

    This and the history of the United States I think are closely related. These two extremes tend to almost envelope whole societies and social movements. The United States from her founding already clearly showed in the thinking of the fathers a tendency to one or the other extreme. Benjamin 'beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy' Franklin and Thomas Jefferson made for some odd bedfellows, so to speak. Jefferson was almost puritanical in his understanding of liberty sometimes. For example, his thinking almost seemed to at least tend to in practice a belief that if you were happy you were probably disregarding some fundamental duty to liberty which demanded your absolute attention always. Patriots have no time for pleasure or happiness. Liberty was a goddess who could only be appeased by the sweat, blood and tears of her sons.

    Of course, the USA was formed in a highly Protestant cultural context, which tended of course to puritanism. Purgatory in the Protestant scheme was replaced by work - and only work you didn't enjoy doing. Guilt was expiated by work (a rather shocking practice realized by a belief that based itself partly on a strident denial of salvation by works!). This of course tended to make work look like a curse (just look at Genesis, after all) while at the same time being a massive boon to capitalism and the tendency towards industrialization, which naturally took off in Protestant nations. But of course work is not necessarily a curse nor does it actually expiate guilt. Inside the psyche of so many Americans there really was a conflict raging and I think it basically exploded in the '60s, flying into the other extreme; that is, into hedonism. It's probably not surprising that the cultural shape of the '60s was largely formed in London/the UK - herself also, of course, a very Protestant English country. Hedonism, however, just denies guilt - hence the psychological shift also that had its own independent origins and was also noted to be largely embraced and dominated by Protestants. Of course, guilt is extremely real and unfortunately unless the underlying errors or confusions are healed it is likely either to be destructive or, if turned around, more likely by a return to the other extreme. Naughty us - says the blue-blooded Anglo-American - we are destroying the very foundations that provide us with the optional of living so hedonistically. Back to work and sacrifice. But of course, hedonism seems so enthralling one has reason to worry that people might not even see the doom it leads into even as the barbarians march on the gates of Rome herself. I think you agree with me on that aspect of hedonism, Dr. Feser, when you conclude by noting that the hedonist seems unlikely to repent because of the blinding power of hedonism itself. It also feeds back into the great narrative that Saint Augustine so masterfully described about the nature of the two cities, who's saying in that regard is so famous I hardly need to quote it.

    The twin cities are also reducible to the stories about the two brothers in the Bible, which leads me to my next comment...


  15. "the “onanization” of sex..."

    Onan was trying to steal his brother's inheritance (a constant theme in the scripture and one that the Gospels make quite plain) and have it bequeathed to his son. It was still, of course, completely selfish of him; further, he seemed to believe he could get away with it (somewhat ironically) exactly because of God's promise - I mean, Onan seems to have thought that God could not possibly execute against him the due penalty for the crime of effectively (in lineage) killing his brother and removing his name from the earth (by denying him heirs). But then that other word in Gospels comes to mind about God raising up sons from stones if He pleased. The story of Onan in that light is really about vain attempts of virtually blackmailing God: we need Him not the other way round, and insofar as He needs us that is ultimately His own will and choosing. He shows again later in Christ something of the vanity of human power - even our ultimate weapon, death or killing.

  16. Art is an extension of human nature. Human nature is finite. Art is therefore finite. The 'virtue' of the experience machine does not eliminate the consequent fact that man is simply restricting himself by plugging in since he separates himself from the greater whole of nature. No matter how much man extends his nature via technology/art he still does not encompass other natures. Man only encompasses another nature through knowing it and in art another nature, through its concept, is only used to inform some materials. No matter how much 'virtue' is in the machine I can only know the concepts informing it, but my authentic knowledge of other natures is simply limited by plugging in because only the greater whole provides me with the possibility of going beyond myself in principle. God is the greatest whole (transcending all parts!) and therefore even an implicit theological knowledge should make any Christian jump back from that experience machine in horror.

  17. P.S.

    This is why pure art must be part of a lived experience and must even go beyond its status as art. Art goes beyond its status through MEANING and meaning reconnects man to the greater whole of nature and the possibility of new concepts which are not virtual expressions of another man, but of God as Author of nature. Thus meaning, through art and towards nature, reaches its full end in supernature and the understanding of nature as God's synthesis. The concept, as God knows it, is like the concept which the human artist knows before he uses it to inform some material, but more true. You know how these analogies are of course.

  18. How does uncertainty tie into happiness? For example, if we are not 100% certain that God exists, that there are moral truths, that Christ was who he said he was, etc., can we truly be happy, with that worm of doubt about life-altering matters always coursing around in our heads? If happiness is the result of living one's life in accordance with objective reality (and at least for some personality types, the result of *knowingly* living one's life in accordance with reality), whereas our minds are always short of completely certainty about objective reality, is genuine happiness forever out of reach? (This is an intellectual/personal problem I've been struggling with for a while now, one that's been robbing me of a lot of motivation.)

  19. Manoj:

    I'm assuming from your comment that we're talking here about intellectual doubt. If so, then perhaps it will help to bear in mind that there's nothing wrong with taking (e.g.) the existence of God on faith; in fact that's how most of us come to believe in the first place, and the intellectual foundations come later. (In my case a lot later!) It's important that it's possible to demonstrate that God exists (and in fact that's a de fide teaching of the Church), but it's not terribly important that any single one of us be constantly able to summon up 100% intellectual assent to such demonstrations (though of course we should try our best to achieve what understanding we can, both for the sake of our own souls and so that we can assist others—and if we love God, we'll want to understand Him as well as we can!).

    The pattern is faith seeking understanding, not understanding seeking faith. And if faith itself is faltering, then I suppose the proper response is Lord I believe; help thou mine unbelief.

    And of course we can live our lives in accordance with objective reality even without complete certainty. If I drink a glass of water, it will satisfy my thirst even if I'm not subjectively certain to begin with that it's water. It is objectively water, after all.

    At any rate, short of the loss of heaven, genuine happiness is never out of reach.

  20. (More briefly: "Trust in the LORD, and lean not on your own understanding." Generally, your understanding will follow.)

  21. Is genuine happiness (i.e., the beatific vision - cf. Ed's link to Summa th. I-II.2.8) forever out of reach? Yes, it is beyond our reach in this life. That is why faith and hope are necessary. But that this is so is something that we can understand with sufficient certainty. So we both understand in order to believe, and believe in order to understand (see Fides et ratio, chapters 2 and 3).

    'And the devil said to him, "Speak to these stones that they become bread."'

    Origenes in Lucam. "The father being asked by his son for bread, and not giving him a stone in place of bread, he [the devil], however, as adversary and deceiver, in place of bread gave a stone." Basilius. "He was urging him to quiet his appetite through stones; that is, to change his desire from natural food to an existence beyond nature." Origen also says that the devil continues to offer lying words and heretical dogmas ('stones') to individuals, inviting them to 'say to this stone, "become bread."'

    An alternate formulation, then, of the devil's temptation: 'say to this pleasure, "become happiness."'

  22. DavidM, nice post and good point. Here's a link to Fides et Ratio.

  23. OOff topic but what do you make of this? I think the term 'atheism' is being equivocated here:

  24. Sil Rayman:

    Well, it sure doesn't look like it's about "atheism" in the specific sense the term has today (disbelief in theism). By the standard(s) it seems to be employing, the early Christians were atheists (as indeed they were called by the Romans).

    But you're right that this is off-topic, so I won't comment further here.

  25. Much good content in the original post and subsequent comments. Just for the record, the original movie, Open Your Eyes, was much better than the remake.

  26. @Sil Rayman: "I think the term 'atheism' is being equivocated here:"

    Yes, it is.

  27. The original movie contains a great line that is not in vanilla sky. The manager of the virtual world says to the hero created your own hell ..
    The torments he suffered were a punishment he inflicted on himself. He knew he was living a wicked and shallow life so his own feeling of guilt shaped his world.

  28. i found myself focusing on the very persistent conjunction, "pornography and masturbation."

    knowing what a wordsmith you are, Ed, might a reader infer that, separately, either of the conjoined entities may have a 'good purpose' within NL?

    are you intending to leave the door open to, in some common circumstances:

    perhaps pornographic materials could be useful in building a healthier/more-fulfilling sexual experience?

    perhaps masturbation is a natural means for a creature to resolve a frustratingly urgent impulse to orgasm?

  29. Does anyone know of any good literature which expands on the distinction between happiness and pleasure?