Thursday, June 14, 2007

The Pleasure Principle

I was watching David Letterman once when he had Jerry Seinfeld as a guest. Seinfeld then riffed on a little comedy routine, talking about deferred payment plans that say “buy now, pay in June”. He said that it was like a person was treating their self today and their self in June as two different people, as “Today guy” and “June guy”, and saying, “I’m Today guy and I’m going to enjoy this purchase. As for paying for it, that’s June guy’s problem”. Seinfeld was making a funny commentary on a serious issue in a society wherein many people have allowed themselves to be fleeced of the idea that there is any continuity of their selves through time, and thereby give themselves permission to act on impulses without regard to the future. It is the consequence of people who do not have a sense of meaning and purpose in their lives that is constructed enough to give shape to their sense of self as it moves through time.

Daniel Robinson is a philosophy teacher featured on the Teaching Series on the great Ideas in Philosophy” was discussing the goals of philosophy to find the “good life” and offered up a metaphor that was clearly not the “good life”. Robinson described a person who allowed their brain to be removed from their body and placed in a vat with electrodes hooked up to it so that the brain could receive constant streams of stimulated pleasure.

While the "brain in the vat" has been used as a thought experiment for various philosophical ends to examine the question of real and perceived knowledge, I want to examine is the visceral reason why the “brain in the vat” is a ghastly image. For one to choose to place one's brain in a vat is to choose after a series of experiences that not contextualized into a whole. Choosing to place one’s brain in a vat can offer one no joy in how one has affected the stage of history. It can offer no joy in the thread of continuity in life experiences that one can discover via one’s conscious effort to explore one’s nature and develop one’s character.

In the context of a discussion of pleasure, putting one’s “brain in the vat” is a metaphor for those who seek continual pleasure highs in the moment but who reject any effort to contextualize their pleasure and hold it accountable to a larger purpose. Jerry Seinfeld's “Today guy” and “June Guy” dichotomy is a consequence of “brain in the vat” living. For one who wants to divorce "Today Guy" from "June Guy", having one's brain in a vat would actually be a way for one to save oneself the consequences of living in the real world The only alternative to attempting to put one's “brain in the vat”, and therefore living properly in the real world, is to realize that there is a self inside of us that is being continually made better or worse toward an end that is larger than ourselves.

In The Picture of Dorian Grey, Dorian Grey is a man who was given the opportunity to live forever and appear young and beautiful as long as he did not look at the painting of himself in the attic of his house. As Dorian Grey did good deeds, his picture was made beautiful and as he did bad deeds, his picture was made scarred and ugly. In the context of our purpose for being, the self is like a Dorian Grey painting that is either becoming increasingly beautiful or increasingly ugly, and that will presented to us, to God and to the stage of history for all to see.

Our purpose is to elevate the world, to give the world a new experience of moral beauty through the unique contours of our own individual personhoods. It is our conscience that holds us accountable to this end. It is our conscience, as the Dorian Grey painting, that reflects the self that we are developing back to our self-consciousness according to whether the self is being developed according to our purpose. In is in the rejection of our conscience and the rejection of looking at our true selves and in the rejection of seeking our purpose that we place our "brain in the vat" and live as Dorian Grey did, who chose cruel pleasures until he was compelled to look at his ugly, scarred picture.

Our conscience is the membrane between our self-consciousness and our soul’s inner knowing of the larger purpose that each of us are endowed with. Our conscience informs our self-consciousness of whether we are rising to that purpose, and our conscience gives us joy or misery. It is with this understanding that Meaning is that form of knowledge and truth that reveals the contours of ourselves inside and out in the context of our purpose and elaborates on our purpose. It is meaning that takes other forms of truth and makes it beautiful within our lives.

It is in this context of a soul’s journey to achieve its meaning and purpose that one can begin to deal with each experience in life as an opportunity to discover Meaning. It is on a “journey of meaning” that one discovers the landscape of one’s soul and the purpose for which it was created, and is able to better lead others to find their purpose. With this understanding of purpose, life is both a construction and a journey leading somewhere, and the journey is not merely the destination.

It is from the vantage point of our purpose and our conscience that there is a hierarchy of pleasures within a moral order. There are pleasure pursuits that are connected to truth and to our purpose. It is these pleasures that are consistent with our purpose and that are validated by our conscience that constitute Joy, which is the union of truth and pleasure.

And then there are pleasures are not Joy, which replace, or even subvert our purpose. There are pleasures that can be wedded to our purpose in the right context and pleasures that are perverse and are inherently destructive. There are pleasures of beautiful accomplishments, the pleasures of blessing another person, which are joyful pleasures. There is the pleasure of winning the chess game, the pursuit of which can either be a joyful experience or an escape from the pursuit of higher pleasures. And there is the pleasure of crack cocaine, which demands everything of body and mind and gives nothing in return except for ruined health and addiction. There are pleasures that are virtues; the feelings of peace, patience, kindness, goodness and self-control. And that are pleasures that are vices; the feelings of lust, greed and the satiating of envy and revenge.

It is in the context of a moral hierarchy of pleasure that pleasure has gravitas, that pleasure is the power of gravity to lead us to blessings or to curses. Not all pleasure “rushes” are created equal, and each pleasure must be taken captive to purpose. All pleasures must be taken captive to the journey, and that meaning must be extracted from it, and every experience is taken captive to the whole endeavor of ones development. This is why Christian teaching holds us accountable for being aware of the moral and spiritual value of the things that please us.

In regard to the "brain in the vat" and the cruel pleasures of Dorian Grey, seeking mediocre and ephemeral pleasures is not unrelated to seeking destructive and cruel pleasures. When we seek momentary and banal comfort, we abandon the search for Meaning and leave the deep and heaving needs that we possess in a state of restlessness. It is these needs that will warp us, leading us down destructive paths, if they are not brought in line with our purpose. (As I wrote about in my discussion on vapidity, it is a consequence of being vapid that peoples' need for a sense of purpose is warped into a need to be the "fashion police" who hold themselves and others accountable to being excellent within the realm of banal pleasures)

In the context of pleasure and the moral order of pleasure that runs from vices to virtues, Character is the stoic ability of the self to persevere in the absence of lesser pleasures in order to secure a greater pleasure. It is our responsibility to exercise our Character to harness the power of pleasure so that it leads us to the joy and truth. It is when we experience pleasure that we are transformed, and are bonded to the source of our pleasure and become better or worse, becoming more or less in line with our purpose for being.

In regard to the question of pleasure, it is Christianity that that asserts that there is a moral order and spiritual order to the realm of pleasure, based on whether the pleasure is connected to our purpose for being; that the pleasure of virtues, peace patience kindness goodness and self-control are morally superior to the pleasures of vices. It is our purpose defined by Christianity that we are to enjoy God, to glorify God and to advance His Kingdom. It is this purpose gives us the shape and context for our journeys of meaning, and gives us benchmarks for how we are doing on that journey. It is Christianity that empowers us for the journey, wherein the Holy Spirit interacts with our conscience, empowering us to discover the contours of our created being and succeed in operate according to God’s purpose for us so that we can find joy in the virtues and grow out of the vices. And it is all of the benefits and consequences of God's promises for now and for eternity that call us to have the Character to keep life in perspective as the cord that saves us from being bonded to lesser pleasures.

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