Thursday, August 2, 2012

How My Philosophy of Life is Similar to and Differs from Aristotle’s View of Life

“Happiness is the meaning and the purpose of life, the whole aim and end of human existence.”
- Aristotle

In previous articles, I’ve discussed the problems with the philosophy of life of those people who value happiness and intelligence over the application of that intelligence on growing life. Since the scientific and utilitarian world view of most today's intellectuals can be traced back to Aristotle’s writings in the 300’s B.C, the focus of this post is on pointing out the problems with Aristotle’s philosophy of life.
In large part, we can trace the philosophy of the Scientific Revolution (as put forward by Bacon, Descartes, Newton, and others) to the revival of Aristotle’s philosophy starting after the 12th century. Philosophers like Thomas Aquinas started refocusing intellectual debates onto concerns of this world (as per Aristotle) rather than onto preparing the soul for the next world (as per Plato, Socrates, Jesus, St. Augustine of Hippo, and Mohamed.) For this, we must be thankful both to Aristotle’s original works and Aquinas’ revival of Aristotle’s love of the study of nature.
However, we now live in a world in which a form of Aristotle’s philosophy of life is dominant, especially our misconstruction of his belief that the goal of life is to live a "happy" life. For quite awhile, his view of life (when combined with other philosophies of life…such as Puritanism) yielded technological growth, population growth, intellectual growth, and economic growth. However, recently in the U.S., Canada, Japan, and E.U., economic growth rates have been mild or slumping for quite awhile. And in many countries, population growth is stagnant or declining.
I think that a major reason for the lack of real economic growth is due to the misapplication of Aristotle’s philosophy that the goal of life is to achieve eudaimonia (i.e. human happiness achieved through the use of rationality and virtue.) In today’s Western world, individuality and happiness are the state goals of many countries rather than real growth. In fact, France is currently debating whether to stop measuring economic growth and to instead measure happiness. But before we all jump on the happiness bandwagon, it’s important to highlight some major problems with our current understanding of Aristotle’s ideas.
Problems: (1) Marriage and raising kids is difficult. If you were trying to maximize your personal happiness, you probably wouldn’t get married and have kids. (2) Working for cutting edge companies and conducting cutting edge research is difficult. If you were trying to maximize your personal happiness, you probably wouldn’t compete to become a CEO, a doctor or a tenured professor. (3) Simply put, it is difficult to achieve intellectual, economic, technological and population growth because it takes a lot of work. For example, making nuclear fusion a commercial reality is not easy. One could spend their entire life devoted to this subject and never see the hard work pay off. If you were trying to maximize your personal happiness, you could just become a video game programmer and user, spending all your money on computers and never investing your money into projects that grow life, such as having kids or building power plants.
Many of us live in a world in which happiness is easy to achieve. This was not the case back in Aristotle’s day. We now could live in virtual worlds for most of the day, and only come out of our virtual worlds in order to make the minimum amount of money required to buy food, to pay for housing, to pay for computer upgrades, and to pay for electricity.
If we wanted to, we probably could go into a virtual world for nearly 100% of the time, while not having children, and still we could be quite happy. Would Aristotle consider that such a person to have achieved eudaimonia and would he consider that style of life to be called the “good life”? Aristotle was not a relativist. He believed that there was such thing as the “good life,” though he recognized that achieving the “good life” depending a lot of your surroundings, luck and your starting conditions. But would Aristotle have considered life to be called “good” if it did not lead to the growth of more humans?
Aristotle valued the use of reason, and he thought that one part of the goal of human life was to reason well. According to Aristotle, reason was a unique quality of humans. (Note that biologists today do not believe that reason is unique to humans. Many animal species use high level reasoning skills, including other primates, dolphins, and whales. I personally think that philosophies of life should not be human-centered because it’s important to not separate humans from the rest of the animal kingdom or to separate humans from the rest of the different types of life forms. If your philosophy of life is somehow focused solely on humans, then I think that you need to step back and question a few of your assumptions regarding life.)
Aristotle thought that the point of developing reasoning skills was to help people develop the skills and habits required to live a virtuous life and a happy life in the long-term. Rationality would be needed to distinguish between short-term and long-term happiness. A virtuous life would be one in which humans find the middle ground between the extremes, i.e. both avoiding arrogance and avoiding excessive humility. Reason would be required to anticipate the consequences of actions so as to determine if some action would have long-term pain, even though it might bring short-term happiness. The virtuous life would be a life that consisted of intellectual or moral actions that yielded personal happiness in the long-run as well as in the short-run. The development of intellectual or moral virtues requires time and experience, and for Aristotle , he also believed that virtue is defined with respect to ‘action,’ not just ‘thought.’ Virtue is not a thought; virtue is thought placed into action. It is the thought of a conscious person, free to make a decision, acting in a virtuous way. Here, I agree to some extent even though I have a different philosophy of life. You must be free to choose to grow life. If somebody puts a gun to head and is forcing you to grow life, then that is not virtuous. In my opinion, the virtuous life is freely choosing to grow life.
And now I’ll start pointing out some of the problems with Aristotle’s views of life. Aristotle thought that there were many people who could not achieve eudaimonia or live the “good life.” This included women, slaves, and most of the lower classes. According to Aristotle, a middle-aged male had to be born into particular family, class, and be of a certain age. This means that achieving eudaimonia is completely outside of one’s control. Further, Aristotle did not believe that animals could live the good life because he did believe that they could exercise rationality.
To me, Aristotle’s idea that 'the good life is limit to certain wealthy men' is absolutely absurd. The idea that women, slaves and the lower classes were unable to lead the good life is just silly. I believe that the goal of life is for life to grow. Any life form that helps spread life is living the good life. This means that dolphins can be living the good life just as much as humans can be living the good life if they help to spread life to other planets or help life grow on this planet. In my opinion, examples of living the good life are figuring out ways to grow crops in seemingly arid deserts, building self-replicating solar robots on Mars, and building power plants that help life grow (i.e. power plants that don’t destroy more life than they help sustain.)
While it’s probably absurd to say that “a bacteria lived a good life because it reproduced well” because a bacteria is not conscious of its actions, I don’t think that it’s absurd to say that “a chimpanzee or dolphin lived a good life because it reproduced well” because chimpanzees and dolphins make conscious decisions, i.e. they are free to chose their actions and they can decide whether to grow life or to waste their time and effort on silly pursuits. While the chimpanzee or dolphin probably killed a lot of life forms throughout its life and in the end eventually died, the question to ask is: did the life of the chimpanzee or dolphin increase the capability to generate useful work? Did the chimpanzee or dolphin use its rational mind to help grow the capability to generate useful work? Or did it feed off of the work generated by its fellow chimpanzees or dolphins? For humans that build electrical power plants, it’s easy to see how it's possible to grow the capability to generate useful work, but remember that a human is a self-replicating power plant just as much as a chimpanzee or dolphin is a self-replicating power plant.
After pointing out the often over-looked fact that Aristotle philosophy of life was only really applicable to mid-aged Greek males from wealthy families, I’d now like switch gears and discuss Aristotle’s religious views because Aristotle's religious beliefs clearly effected his view of the goal of life. Aristotle believed to some extent in a perfect God (the unmoved mover) who did not affect Creation. This God was not a creator God. This God was too perfect to become involved in the imperfections of creationism.  This might be somewhat like Isaac Newton’s belief in a God who created the universe but can do nothing to effect day-to-operations. This is quite different from the God of Jewish, Christian and Muslim faiths…a Creator God who plays an active role in people’s day-to-day lives. Aristotle didn’t believe that God guided natural processes. He instead believed that rationality guided human purposes and natural laws guided animal behavior. Aristotle also believed in an eternal universe. He believed that time would continue in the future infinitely and time existed in the past infinitely. Aristotle did not believe that there was some other world. Plato believed in a perfect world of ideal shapes and forms, and Jesus believed in a heavenly world with God, but Aristotle did not believe that there could be an afterlife because this world would last forever and already has lasted forever. If there is no afterlife (as believed in many ancient traditions, such as Egyptians and Hebrews), then it’s easy to see why Aristotle thought that people should focus so much effort on happiness in this world.
Aristotle’s philosophy has had an enormous impact on the world we live in today, but it’s also clear that Aristotle's philosophy has some major problems that have needed to be fixed over time. One major problem is that his philosophy was focused on mid-aged Greek males from wealthy families, but this is pretty easy to fix by widening the scope of his philosophy. The harder problem to fix, and the one that we are still dealing with today is that happiness does not imply growth. The challenge for us today is to continue intellectual, economic, scientific, and population growth in a world in which short-term happiness is so easy to achieve. To do so, we need to keep some Aristotle’s important contributions to jurisprudence, his focus on this world, and his love of studying biological systems while remembering that the goal of life is to grow life (not to use rationality to achieve to achieve long-term happiness), and that humans share the goal of life with all other life forms.


  1. Note that if you translate "eudaimonia" as "flourishing", then Aristotle's view and my own view are a lot more similar.
    What I'm trying to do with this blog is to show that "eudaimonia" is quantifiable when you translate it as "growth" and is therefore also applicable to all life forms.

    The literal translation of "eudaimonia" would be "eu" = good and "daimon" = spirit, "ia" = state of, but what Aristotle means is closer to "the use of human rationality to create long-term happiness, long-term excellent, long-term virtue and/or long-term flourishing."

  2. I did not get any solid results for when I searched "life extension" in this blog. I think the answers to reconcile your growth philosophy and utilitarianism lie partly in there.

    If humans regularly lived upto 300 years, maintaining health till then, setting aside 25 years to bring up children and mentor them into adulthood would not be as much of a burden as it is today. The rest of life could be spent having fun without compromising a growth imperative in any way.

    I believe you could look into CEV utilitarianism, which espouses a much more complex view of utilitarianism than you think.

  3. Prakash,
    Thanks for the links. I had not heard of CEV utilitarianism before.
    Can you expanded on how CEV utilitarianism is different from 18th century utilitarianism (greatest happiness for the greater number) and different from consitutionally based individualism (do whatever makes you happy as long as it doesn't interfer with the happiness of others)?
    My basic argument is that there is a difference between that we want (growth) and what we think we want (happiness.) Sometimes the two are aligned and sometimes that are not aligned.
    Living a healthy lifestyle that leads to a long and productive life is one of those things that can help grow and long-term happiness.
    I'd put it this way: Aim for growth and you might get happiness; if you aim for happiness, you are likely to get neither happiness or growth.
    Thoughts on that statement?

  4. The thought of Coherent Extrapolated Volition is one of the main ideas on what utility function to provide to a friendly AI, so that the future is something that is valuable.

    Did you read Eliezer's explanation on why he would not pop the happy pills? We have many terminal values. Reducing them all to one word, happiness or even growth is not the correct thing to do. CEV utilitarianism is the acknowledgement of that.

    It takes us through the many layers of

    What humans want?
    What humans might have wanted if they had a lot of time to reflect on their choices?
    What humans might want if they had been given better information about what their choices lead to?
    Where these wants cohere with the wants of other humans and where do they clash?

    Human desires are manifold and complex. Coherent extrapolated volition acknowledges this and tries to work from there.

    I think similarly. Human desires are not reducible to one word. If growth is all that a person says he is interested in, then creating Eric Drexler's "Grey Goo" is all that they should be striving for. That will self replicate for eternity. But that future will have no laughter or happiness or love. That is not a future that looks good to me.

  5. Prakash,
    You mentioned "what utility function do we provide to a friendly AI?" This seems to imply that you believe that utility can be reduced to a single thing: an equation. Maximize f(x,y,z,...) where x,y,z,... are measurable quantities such as laughter, happiness, love, etc...
    That's not too different from Maximize x, where x is happiness.
    Here's my basic philosophy: we should try to grow life as fast as possible. The problem of course is that there is no equation or function we can write that can accurately tell us how to grow life the fastest. It was proved in the 1960s that for systems far-from-equilibrium, there is no maximization or minimization principle. In other words, what we want is growth, but we have no means of figuring out how best to grow.
    The wide range of human desires that you talk about are all different attempts to grow life. There is no right answer, just as there is no right human desire because we have no way to prove what is the best way to grow.
    Also, a belief in growing life does not imply a desire to see Grey Goo take over the world. If nano-scale forms of life were so great, there would have been no driving force for creating higher-order forms of life. Don't get me wrong...I love bacteria...but bacteria alone are not going to help us terra-form and grow life on Mars. We need human creativity to figure out how to design cost effective means of transporting equipment and life to Mars.

    In addition, I read the article about not wanting to pop pills that gave you virtual happiness, but the person seemed to miss the whole reason why we don't want to pop virtual happiness pills. Here's why: inevitably some group of people won't pop the pills, and their society will grow in the real world. Eventually, they will take over the society who focuses on virtual reality, and will pull the plug on the virtual world...because somebody has to pay for the electricity or somebody has to pay for the pills. So, as I stated before, if you aim for growth, you might be happiness as a by-product, but if you aim for happiness, you are not likely to get growth and long-term happiness.

  6. Hi Eddie,

    I don't think there is teleology in evolution. Human desires may have begun for the purpose of survival, but they are our desires now. Even if they have no survival value, they are of value to us. I love sex even if I know that my wife is on the pill.

    My point is that it is very possible that someday humans discover the last unifying principles of physics. A human society having something like CEV as a guiding principle will try to create beautiful experiences with whatever energy/negentropy is left in the universe. A society purely based on growth will replicate whatever is there in present civilization till the ends of the universe.

    I agree with a lot on this blog, including the idea of the energy currency being a superior monetary organization principle for present day humanity. But I have to disagree with the ultimate goals.

  7. Prakash,
    Thanks for the comments. I'd love to hear your thoughts on energy currencies.

    You should disagree with my ultimate goals, and I wouldn't want anything less. I don't want uniformity as far as having everybody believe the same exact thing.
    What I'm arguing is we should let individuals decide how to act...those who decide to focus on growth will outnumber those who decide to focus on "beautiful experiences." If you don't want to grow, that's your choice. My problem is mostly with those environmentalists who actively are trying to stop us from growing and with those countries like China that limit people's reproductive choices by forcing sterilization.

    You make an interesting comment about the disconnect between human desires (sex) and the underlying goal (reproduction). As Aristotle would put it, "We don't know what we want. We think we want the new car, the supermodel wife, and the high-ranking job. But what we really want is eudaimonia." I think that we can both agree with Aristotle's statement and I think that we have differing opinions on what "eudaimonia" really is. And that's okay as long as we can agree on shared respect for individual rights to chose how to live.

  8. Hi Eddie,

    You might like this link.

    Carl suggests that there would be very little difference between a replicate civilization payload and a eudaimonic payload.

    I am a georgist libertarian and I agree that people should be essentially allowed to live their lives as they want to.

    What I see in the world however is that the people doing good scientific work are not working to replace their numbers with equal enthusiasm. The population growth of the world is coming from the poorer people who are not able to contribute to the development of science. I see the possibility of humanity easily slipping into another dark age if a pure growth mentality is adopted without thinking of quality of life.

  9. Prakash,
    Thanks for sharing your thoughts and the link to the Reflective Disequilibrium post.
    I'm glad to see that there are other people thinking about how we should be colonizing other planets. It's good to know that some utilitarians recognize that we need to spread life to other planets.
    Though, I think that you are worrying the wrong things. You mentioned that you are afraid that "humanity will slip into another dark age if a pure growth mentality is adopted."
    The "Dark Age" (let's say from some time during the fall of the Roman Empire to the Renaissance) was not caused by a "pure growth mentality." If anything, it was caused by the opposite: a focus on the afterlife rather than growth in this world.
    One of our main problems in the Western world right now is that large portions of academia has adopted an anti-growth philosophy of life. This shows up sometimes in the physical sciences when physicists spend their entire careers studying String Theory and/or Supersymmetry, and never attempt to apply it to the real world. It also shows up sometimes in the social sciences with the blog post you sent me: a focus on happiness rather than growing life. The social sciences have made up an un-measurable quantity (the Qualy...a quality-adjusted life year.) This is really trap door into a human-focused meaningless.
    In the environmental science, it shows up sometimes as an anti-human focus on keeping the planet exactly as it was before 1800 and controlling the population of humans.

    Ultimately, we have to recognize that our current philosophies of utilitarianism, pluralism, deep conservationism, and nihilism (i.e. the nihilism of some in the physics community that there is no purpose in life...we are just particles colliding) are incorrect and don't actually represent how the world really is. When you step back and see the sea of incorrect philosophies that our culture is swimming in, you'll hopefully realize that a philosophy of growing life is exactly the type of mindset we need to populate other planets and to prevent a dark age brought on by a combination of (1) a religious focus only on the next world, (2) a focus on happiness over growth, (3) a focus on returning the world to a prior level of human population, and (4) a spreading nihilism in the physics community.

    Keep sending me links to useful websites.