I’m still brooding over the pros and cons of facing truth, or reality. My last post notes that in some situations--when we’re languishing in a nursing home, say, or agonizing over climate change--reality might be distressing, hence the temptation to avoid it.
In this post, I’d like to dig deeper into the link between knowledge and mood. When we see reality, assuming that’s possible, how should we feel? And when I say reality I mean Reality, the way things really are. The Truth. Below I’ll consider three possibilities.
1: Reality Should Make You Glad
Buddha and other sages have assured us that Reality should make us happy, no matter what the circumstances of our lives at any particular moment. And not just happy but serene, blissful, immune to the pains that afflict ordinary folk.
This is the state known as enlightenment, nirvana, awakening. You plunge into the timeless cosmic consciousness underlying the flux of ordinary mortal existence, and you feel fantastic. (The catch is that, according to Buddha, when you are in this state you realize that “you” don't really exist.)
Plato agreed that Truth is sublime, and perceiving it should make you feel good (and be good, but let’s leave that aside). You escape the cave of delusion, step into the incandescent realm of eternal forms and are overcome with rapture. Things might get tricky when you go back inside the cave and tell your benighted buddies what you’ve seen. They might think you're nuts and kill you, but you’ll die happy, as Plato’s mentor Socrates supposedly did.
Israeli psychologist Benny Shanon offered a dramatic example of spiritual gladness in The Antipodes of the Mind: Charting the Phenomenology of the Ayahuasca Experience. During an ayahuasca trip, Shanon had a vision of the Biblical king Zedekiah. After overthrowing Zedekiah, a rival king burned his sons to death in front of him and gouged out his eyes. Zedekiah’s faith was so strong that, chained and blinded, he still sang praises to God.
Spinoza aspired to this sort of transcendent happiness. He once wrote: “After experience had taught me that all the usual surroundings of social life are vain and futile; seeing that none of the objects of my fears contained in themselves anything either good or bad, except in so far as the mind is affected by them, I finally resolved to inquire . . . whether, in fact, there might be anything of which the discovery and attainment would enable me to enjoy continuous, supreme, and unending happiness.”
This sort of happiness, Spinoza concluded, comes from contemplating God. But unlike Zedekiah, Spinoza equated God not with the emotional, judgmental, personal deity of the Bible but with the impersonal, rational order of nature. Happiness, you might say, results from worshipping quantum mechanics, relativity, the theory of evolution and the second law of thermodynamics, which will never let you down.
2: Reality Should Make You Sad
From another perspective, which strikes me as more rational, all happiness is delusional, because we are mortal and hence doomed to lose everything we love. Dwelling on the second law of thermodynamics, far from filling you with joy, should make you despair. In an expanding cosmos, we’re headed for heat death, an eternity of cold, dark nothing, which renders everything that we do now meaningless and absurd.
The existential philosopher Albert Camus compared us to the mythological figure Sisyphus, whom the Gods doom to roll a rock to the top of a mountain, only to have it roll to the bottom again, over and over. At least Sisyphus lives forever. We, in a Godless cosmos, have no such assurance.
A hard-core materialist could object that mystical bliss, like that reported by Buddha, Wittgenstein and others, is a quirk of biochemistry with no revelatory power. In The Varieties of Religious Experience William James pointed out that many mystical experiences are “diabolical” and “pessimistic.” James explained that “instead of consolations we have desolations; the meanings are dreadful; and the powers are enemies to life.”
These dark epiphanies are usually dismissed as products of insanity. But why, James asked, should we give credence only to heavenly visions and not hellish ones? Good question. I once emerged from a drug trip convinced that there is a God, and He is freaked out by the improbability and fragility of existence, including His own existence. He created this flawed, fractured world as a distraction. I no longer believe in this revelation, but it makes me doubt more upbeat mystical metaphysics.
Novelist/philosopher Rebecca Goldstein, a subject of my book Mind-Body Problems, was raised as an Orthodox Jew. Her reason led her to become an atheist, but she misses the consolation of faith in a loving God. When I asked if knowledge brings happiness Goldstein replied, “It hasn’t been my personal experience.”
Another subject, mind-theorist Douglas Hofstadter, refuted the claim of Plato and others that reality is sublime. He noted that over the course of evolution “trillions of creatures have suffered at the hands and claws of others.” He described the world as “horrendous,” “ruthless,” “violent” and “filled with anguish.” Hofstadter has struggled with melancholy induced by his knowledge of others’ pain.
3: Reality Should Make You Glad and Sad
Maybe options one and two are both true. Maybe when we see things as they really are, we should somehow feel glad and sad, grateful and despondent, ecstatic and terrified at the same time. Ann Shulgin pointed out this possibility to me.
Shulgin was married to the late psychedelic chemist Alexander “Sasha” Shulgin, and she joined him in his epic exploration of psychedelics’ effects. When I interviewed the Shulgins in 1999, I told them that psychedelics had tugged me in two directions, toward ecstatic connectedness and terrifying alienation. Which view is true?
“The place I think the Buddhists try and get you to,” Ann responded, “is right on the knife edge between the two. That's where the truth is… The laughing Buddha is your best guide. What the heck is he laughing about? You can't explain that logically, but you can get into that state. And the final answer you're looking for is the knife edge, because both exist: that terrible darkness, and that absolute life.”
I have good and bad moments. Maybe some day, like a flipped penny that lands on its edge, I’ll end up, through sheer luck, on the knife edge. Or maybe I’ll just become more content with flopping from one side of the blade to the other, the way I have been all my life. Things could be worse. Look at poor Zedekiah.
For more philosophical conundrums, see my free online book Mind-Body Problems: Science, Subjectivity & Who We Really Are (now available as a paperback).