Read Do You Think You're Clever? Online

Authors: John Farndon

Tags: #Humour

Do You Think You're Clever? (7 page)

What does it mean to be happy?

(Philosophy and Modern Languages, Oxford)

If there’s one thing that most people agree about, it’s that they want to be happy. But it’s surprisingly hard to pin down just what happiness is. It can be both a brief moment of pleasure and a lasting sense of well-being – of feeling good, in all senses of the word. Oddly enough, although it’s so universally wanted, most of us very rarely say that we are happy unless specifically asked – and even then it tends
to make us stop and think a while, ‘Am I happy?’ That, of course, does not mean at all that we are not happy – just that we do not think about it when we are. In some ways, when we are happy, we no longer need to strive for it and so cease to be aware of it. The great Victorian philosopher John Stuart Mill wrote, ‘Ask yourself whether you are happy, and you cease to be so’.

In an article in the
New Internationalist
in 2006, clinical psychologist John F. Schumaker argued that in this consumer age, we have become obsessed with the search for happiness, citing the avalanche of self-help books, articles, TV programmes, websites, courses and so on that guide us towards the nirvana of personal bliss. We’re all after those feel-good moments, those blissed-out moments of joy because ‘we’re worth it’. And yet somehow, the harder we search, the harder we find it to achieve. As Søren Kierkegaard wrote, ‘Most men pursue pleasure with such breathless haste that they hurry past it’.

When it comes to personal satisfaction, most people say they are ‘happy’ in answer to surveys – and yet seem to acknowledge that there’s something missing. Apparently, we only laugh a third as often as we did 50 years ago, and we make love more infrequently and enjoy it less, despite the sexual revolution which has removed the sense of guilt and unleashed a flood of sexual imagery in the media. And in Western society, where material pleasures, from good food to comfortable homes and exciting foreign travel, are more freely available than ever before, most people seem
to be less happy than ever before. There is a depression epidemic and in the Western world a huge proportion of people believe they are psychologically ill-adjusted.

There is a nagging sense that the old saw ‘they were poor but they were happy’ has some truth in it. At the back of our minds is the feeling that happiness is not really about all the material pleasures the consumer society can bring, despite all the effort we put into achieving them. Some feel that we have been led astray by this search for happiness. ‘America’, the author John Updike wrote balefully, ‘is a vast conspiracy to make you happy’, while J.D. Salinger admitted: ‘I’m a kind of paranoiac in reverse. I suspect people are plotting to make one happy.’

It might be true indeed that happiness won’t come to those who look for it. Schumaker describes how a few decades ago, the small Himalayan nation of Ladakh was one of the most joyous nations on earth. ‘Their culture generated mutual respect, community-mindedness, an eagerness to share, reverence for nature, thankfulness and love of life. Their value system bred tenderness, empathy, politeness, spiritual awareness and environmental conservation.’ And then in 1980 it all changed as the country was hit by consumer capitalism. Ladakh’s new Development Commissioner announced: ‘If Ladakh is ever going to be developed, we have to figure out how to make these people more greedy.’ They succeeded and the people of Ladakh now experience widespread crime, family breakdown, depression, pollution and deprivation.

Of course, none of this should be a surprise. Over 2,500 years ago, the Greek philosophers debated what it means to be happy and very few came down on the side of hedonism and simple material pleasures. Democritus argued that the supreme goal in life was being cheerful, but a life of pleasure got few other supporters. Epicurus is often misunderstood as the ultimate hedonist – his live-for-pleasure theories badly characterised in the phrase ‘Eat! Drink! For tomorrow we die!’ But what Epicurus argued was not for chasing after each and every immediate thrill, but rationally ordering your life to achieve the maximum pleasure in the long term. A life lived like that, he argued, would be a happy, virtuous life.

Most of the Greek thinkers, however, were what were called Eudaimons. Eudaimon is a word that cannot easily be translated but it means something like ‘well-spirited’. It’s about a sense of well-being, of a life of excellence, of being blessed by good fortune. It was, according to Aristotle, about the good life in all senses of the word – a life that was materially pleasant and blessed with good things including a loving family and beauty, successful in terms of accomplishments, and morally virtuous. It is in some ways about having a good soul or achieving what Thomas Aquinas later called ‘blessed happiness’. It’s perhaps no coincidence that the word happy originally meant ‘lucky’.

If I think of the moments in life that I remember most fondly – and so must be the moments of greatest happiness – I think I would have to agree with Aristotle. It’s not experiences of material pleasures alone that I cherish, but times when I was surrounded by the love of friends, times when I finished a creative work, times when I was praised by a much-valued voice, times when a kind deed made someone smile, times when I made a great catch at softball, times when I noticed passing beauties such as sun sparkling on water. Of course, there are times of material pleasure in there, too, but all these moments have another, deeper emotional significance as well as sheer physical gratification. I have a feeling that in none of these moments was I actually seeking happiness. Happiness was a by-product. Happiness is an elusive butterfly, the scent of a flower on the wind, caught fleetingly, almost accidentally. Nietzsche, renowned for his gloomy, nihilistic outlook on life, said the key to happiness is to appreciate ‘the least, the softest, lightest, a lizard’s rustling, a breath, a moment’.

Smith sees Jones walking towards a cliff. Smith knows Jones is blind but doesn’t like him, so allows him to walk off the edge. Is this murder?

(Law, Cambridge)

Under English law, Smith is not guilty of murder because he did not actually intend to kill Jones. For Smith to be convicted of murder, it’s not enough that he foresaw Jones’s death clearly and did nothing to prevent it; he has to be shown to have intended it. Since he did not actually push
Jones off the cliff, nor do anything to encourage him to walk towards the cliff, there is no way it could be proved that Smith intended to kill him.

Our initial reaction to this story is that Smith’s silence seems shocking. How appalling, deliberately letting a blind man walk off a cliff. Surely he must be guilty! He is not, and if we reframe the story a little, then we begin to see why. What if the reason Smith doesn’t like Jones is because Jones is a gang leader who likes to murder innocent people for pleasure – and Jones has just herded up another group of victims? Then Smith begins to look more like a hero than a villain. Of course, if it’s Smith who is the murderer and Jones the saint pleading for the hostages to be spared, it all looks very different again. This is why the law has to be framed carefully, and judges and juries must have real, not circumstantial, evidence to convict someone of a crime – and why we must be extremely careful not to imagine motivations.

However, Smith just might be guilty of a serious crime, although it could be hard to prove in court. In English law, that crime is involuntary manslaughter. Involuntary manslaughter is when someone allows the death of someone through extreme carelessness or incompetence or gross negligence. In the USA and other countries, Smith might similarly be guilty of criminally negligent homicide, a less serious crime than first- or second-degree murder. Negligence is not always clearly defined, but in English law it does include omission – omission to do something that
would certainly have prevented death. The prosecution, though, might have a tough time showing that Smith really was culpable in this way, because there could be many entirely innocent reasons for his failure to warn Jones. We would probably need witnesses to show exactly how he behaved – and if there were witnesses, why didn’t they intervene? CCTV footage might show Smith clearly stepping out of Jones’s path, but even that wouldn’t necessarily prove he was guilty.

Overall, the chances are that Smith would get away with it. All that would prevent him being a happy man is the terrible burden of guilt that eventually becomes so unbearable that Smith takes his own life by following Jones over the same cliff …

How would you measure the weight of your own head?

(Medicine, Cambridge)

Not an easy one, since cutting off your head and placing it on the scales would render you incapable of reading the measurements. Keeping your head on your shoulders and resting your head on the scales might not be quite so fatal, but it’s unlikely to provide much of a measurement either, since your neck muscles would invariably offer enough support to invalidate the reading. Even an estimate from measuring a similar-sized melon is likely to be more accurate than this!

So the best approach is to try a couple of methods that would give a rough measure and then take an average between them. First you can establish the volume of your entire body by filling a bath enough to entirely immerse yourself. Mark the water level (level 1) and then get in, allowing the water to completely settle down before gently and briefly submerging altogether. Get a friend to mark the water level (level 2), or do it yourself if you can. Get out of the bath and refill it to level 1 to allow for the water you’ve spilled and dripped out on your body. Now add measured amounts of water until it reaches level 2. The volume of water you added should give you a measure of the volume of your body. It’s only a rough measure, so repeat the exercise several times and take the average to reduce the error. (If you have a person-sized drum, this would make a more accurate measure than a bath, since the water level would rise further in the confined space as you got in.)

Now you can measure the volume of your head the same way, immersing your head only up to a certain point – in a bucket rather than a bath to increase the water level movement. A friend would help ensure that this is to the right point. You could actually measure the volume of your body without your head instead, by getting into the bath to measure your body volume, but leaving your head above water.

Finally, weigh your entire body on accurate scales. Now using the ratio of your body volume to your head volume,
you can work out the weight of your head from the weight of your whole body.

If you repeated this method several times, you would probably get a reasonable measure of the weight of your head, despite the inaccuracies of your measurements and errors introduced by the air spaces in your head.

A quicker but less accurate method would be to measure the volume of water displaced by your head in a bucket, then convert this figure to a weight of water and add 5 per cent (to allow for the slightly higher specific gravity of your head).

Finally, if you have access to a CT scan, you can get someone to measure both the density and volume of your head and then calculate its weight from that.

What is fate?

(Classics and English, Oxford)

Fate is the idea that events inevitably turned out as they did because they conformed to a plan set up by some outside, supernatural force.

The idea that the course of one’s life is somehow predetermined is an old one, and crops up in many cultures, as the Arabic
kismet
, for instance, and the Ancient Greek Fates, the trio of goddesses – Clotho, Lachesis and Atropos – who spin webs to control the path of human lives.

Fate is often linked in the imagination with tragedy rather than comedy. We talk about someone’s tragic fate, but rarely their comic fate. Fate tends to be presented as cruel
and mocking, often playing mischievous games with people’s lives as they vainly try to escape their predetermined course – but end up unwittingly pursuing the precise path that leads them to their unhappy end. Thus in the Greek play
Oedipus Rex
, the young Oedipus, learning from the oracles at Delphi of his tragic destiny (fate foretold) to kill his father and marry his mother, flees Corinth and ends up in Thebes, where he unknowingly fulfils his destiny.

The idea of being trapped by fate is a powerful and emotive image, and recurs again and again in literature. It touches the very core of what it means to be human. Those who strive vainly against their lot and fight against fate seem somehow to be heroes, even if they fail. They are those who, like Prometheus stealing the secret of fire, gain their heroic stature by trying to wrest control of the human story away from the gods. They are heroes because they give the human story dignity and pride. They show that even if we fail ever to break the bonds of fate, we are so much more than mere playthings of the supernatural. That’s why, however appalling it seems to kill your father and marry your mother, Oedipus is heroic in his anguish. That’s why, too, Satan in Milton’s
Paradise Lost
is not simply a nasty demon, but a heroic, tragic titan. Nietzsche’s superman, the
übermensch
, with his ‘will to power’ is in some ways the ultimate tragic hero, gaining his status by banishing any idea of gods from the world altogether and courageously staking out a future in a world devoid of fate and devoid of meaning.

Accepting one’s fate, on the other hand, can either be seen as Zen-like wisdom – why fight what you cannot fight? – or it can be a way of shelving responsibility. If you commit a crime, you can always blame fate. If you cannot be bothered to take a decision, you can say, ‘What’s the point?’, just like the First World War soldiers who fatalistically sometimes declined to wear uncomfortable helmets, saying that if their number was on a bullet it would get them anyway. In this troubled world, many people turn to astrology for the same reason, and ‘it’s written in the stars’ is the same as saying ‘it’s fate’, or listening to supernatural voices. For most people, fatalism – accepting that your whole life is decided by fate – seems a defeat, a sign of personal weakness, or worse, a corrosive cynicism, like that of Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin, Lermontov’s Pechorin and even Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

Yet philosophers have long had a problem with the concept of fate. It’s not so easy to dismiss with logic as it first seems. If you accept that the world runs by cause and effect, if one movement causes a predictable effect, as Newton’s Laws of Motion bear out, then the future of the world is mechanically predetermined, right down to the movement of atoms; the events of the past inevitably determine the future. So the future can be changed only by changing the very laws of physics. Since we humans are part of this deterministic universe, then our future, too, must likewise be entirely predetermined. If so, that’s not so very different from saying that our lives are controlled by fate, except that
it’s mechanical laws and not heavenly hands that guide our fate, and our oracles are scientific prediction.

Where, then, is the scope for human free will in this deterministic world? We might believe that we are independently making the decision at this very moment to carry on reading here, or go for a drink, to agree with the ideas expressed or dismiss them as nonsense. Yet is this an illusion? Are we, in fact, trapped in the predetermined course of our lives as surely as Oedipus, blithely thinking that we are heading on our own path, but likewise mechanically fated to end up in our own personal Thebes? Schopenhauer thought we were, suggesting that water might say to itself, ‘I could behave as a breaking wave, or a gushing waterfall, or a calm pond, but today I’ll choose to be a raindrop’, while all the time it’s controlled entirely by mechanical forces. Wittgenstein put it even more simply, imagining a leaf in autumn saying, ‘Now I’ll go this way; now I’ll go that’.

Dualists who, like Descartes, think that the mind and body are separate, suggest that we can escape our mechanical fate because the mind is independent of the mechanism of the body and its constraint by physical laws. But then if the mind is independent, and disconnected from the body, how can it affect the mechanism at all? If it’s not disconnected, then it cannot be independent. The Greek philosopher Epicurus wondered if the mind could alter
the deterministic nature of the universe by making atoms swerve. But just thinking about such improbable mechanisms seems to make the dualist escape from fate less plausible.

So most philosophers are divided between compatibilists, who believe that it’s possible to reconcile free will with a mechanical fate, and incompatibilists, who believe that it isn’t. The incompatibilists make this kind of argument: the past determines the present and future; you can’t control the past; you can’t alter how the past determines the future; so you have no control over the present or future. So free will is an illusion. Some philosophers have seen quantum mechanics as a way in which the predictable mechanics of the universe can be subverted. Yet this seems to make us victims of randomness – we are the playthings of luck rather than fate, which seems little better.

To me, though, the impression that I do have some free will and at least some control over the direction of my life is so powerful that I cannot believe it’s an illusion. I am convinced in my own mind that I was not fated to write this sentence exactly at this moment … with a slight pause for thought here. And if it
is
an illusion, which I can never know one way or the other, then it still makes sense to behave as if it’s not. I will go along with Shakespeare’s Cassius, who accepted Caesar’s elevation to superstardom far above himself and Brutus with the explanation that if all else is equal:

Men at some time are masters of their fates:
The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,
But in ourselves, that we are underlings.

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