Delight Springs

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

When the volcano blows

Enjoy ourselves while we can sounds so simple, and so it should. Over-thinking everything, happiness included, is the philosopher's biggest occupational hazard. Why not just let everyone discover what makes them smile, and get out of their way so they can do it? So long as we and they are doing no harm, what's the problem?

People find all kinds of ways to complicate the pursuit of happiness, of course. Philosophers tend to get hung up on questions of meaning. We want to be meaningfully happy. Or sad. Or indifferent. We want there to be a point, an enduring purpose and resonance to our acts and our days.

Call it the Alvy Singer problem. I've been calling it that for a long time, in fact. Last night I discovered that Samuel Scheffler has too. He's the latest Philosophy Bites interviewee, and it was surprising to hear him mention Alvy on the podcast right after I'd written of Woody's young alter ego yesterday morning. Scheffler asks: If all sentient life were to end a few minutes after my death, how would that affect the meaning of what I'm doing now?

Young Alvy's problem was less hypothetically urgent. Having become aware of our universe's finitude, he now saw no point in doing anything. Especially homework. It didn't matter to him that billions of years would elapse before the End. The sudden winding down of our ticking clock does seem to alter the scenario in important ways.

But either way, the solution proposed by Dr. Flicker, is to put annihilation and oblivion out of mind and get on with today. That was Bertrand Russell's solution too.
Nobody really worries much about what is going to happen millions of years hence. Even if they think they are worrying much about that, they are really deceiving themselves. They are worried about something much more mundane, or it may merely be a bad digestion; but nobody is really seriously rendered unhappy by the thought of something that is going to happen to this world millions and millions of years hence. Therefore, although it is of course a gloomy view to suppose that life will die out -- at least I suppose we may say so, although sometimes when I contemplate the things that people do with their lives I think it is almost a consolation -- it is not such as to render life miserable. It merely makes you turn your attention to other things. 
 They're right, right? Get on with living and doing and making and being. Stop fretting and worrying and philosophizing. Try and  enjoy your life. Sound and satisfactory advice, for most of us most of the time.

But Scheffler makes a point about the long historical context of attending to the day at hand that's not easily shrugged away. We can enjoy ourselves today because today is presumably not doomsday, nor will the final curtain fall tomorrow, or tomorrow. That day will eventually, inevitably come for us all, one by one and, in the long run, collectively.

But meantime, we can try to build happy lives whose meaning may endure and resonate. Or not. But the bare possibility of meaningful happiness counts for a lot. The withdrawal of that possibility would be devastating, for all except those who really do live entirely in the moment. The thought that our personal expiration date will coincide with the extinction of all life on Earth seems to suck the meaning right out of the marrow of existence.

Happy days set against a backdrop of an enduring species and planet make reassuring sense. This is the meaningful happiness of John Dewey's "continuous human community."

Dancing on the rim of the volcano just before it blows, or even millions or billions of years before, seems (to continue speaking Dewey's language) too precarious and unstable. "Build your cities on the slopes of Vesuvius!" How'd that work out for you, Nietzsche? Or you, "Carlos Danger"?

On the other hand... remember how Arthur and Ford prepared for Earth's immanent demise? They headed for the pub, for a couple of last-minute rounds of "muscle relaxant." Made the barkeep happy with a fat tip, too. Sounds like a plan.

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