Sunday, August 8, 2010

Science and Happiness

If evolutionary theory is correct, it seems to me that if the overall environment remained relatively stable for an extended period of time - then regardless of how it ended up, humans would be at about same level of happiness.

A paradise or a hell, the species should evolve towards the same overall happiness level.

We can only be "excessively" happy, or excessively unhappy, in a world that we aren't well adapted to.

My reasoning is that happiness serves a motivates us to do things that enhance our reproductive success.

Unhappiness also serves a motivates us to avoid things that decrease our reproductive success.

Happiness is useless as a motivational tool if it's too hard *or* too easy to achieve.

Unhappiness is useless as a motivational tool if it's too hard *or* too easy to avoid.

There has to be some optimum "motivational" mix of happiness and unhappiness...and I'd think it's always approximately the same mix.

Even in a hellish world, humans would be about as happy as they would be in a paradise...once they (as a species) had adapted.

Which brings me to my next point. IF evolutionary theory is true, then scientific advancements only increase human happiness to the extent that it puts us into situations that we're not well adapted to.

AND, given enough time, we *will* adapt to all scientific advancements...and a key part of this adaptation will be to reduce the amount of happiness that they generate.

We can only be "happier" than cavemen when we are in a situation that we are not well adapted to.

For instance, food. Most people really like sweets and salty greasy foods. Much more than they like bland vegetables and whatnot.

The acquisition of junk food makes us happy BECAUSE those things were hard to acquire a few hundred years ago...and if you're living in resource-poor circumstances, then calories and salt are just what the doctor ordered.

BUT...we're now out of equilibrium. Junk food is at least as easy to get as vegetables, if not easier. So our evolved preferences push us to consume more than is good for us.

Given time, and if we allowed heart disease and diabetes to do their work, the human race would eventually lose their taste for such unhealthy fare, as those with genetic tendencies in that direction died off. Anticipating a greasy meal of pizza and consuming it would no longer make us as happy. Because that happiness is too easily satisfied to provide the optimal level of motivation.

In the future, I would think that our taste for junk food will decrease while our taste for vegetables and fruit will increase.

Further, this "adjustment process" isn't just true of food. It should be true of everything.

Even something that IS good for us will cause less happiness if its easily available, because there's no real harm in not being highly motivated to get it - since you'll get it even if you're relatively indifferent to it. Also, even good things can become detrimental if over-indulged in.


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Steve said...

Your main point makes sense to me, although my first thought is that biological adaptation might take a long time to catch up to cultural and technological change. And as you say, the environment would have to stabilize for an extended time for biology to catch up at all.

Allen said...


True enough. The whole chain of reasoning is premised on the unlikely condition that "all other things remain equal".

Though, if our technological prowess were to plateau at a level advanced enough that we could maintain a stable environment for ourselves, but short of any type of "Singularity"...then what?

Barring a Chinese-style birth control regime, eventually more fertile sub-groups would seem likely proliferate and eventually population levels would rise until we were back in the same situation that most of our ancestors lived in...with just enough resources to sustain the existing population.

There's a finite amount of energy and resources available on Earth, or even in the solar system, if we make it that far.

Once our technological prowess has plateaued and we've bumped up against those energy and resource limits...then what?

My guess is it doesn't really matter. The rate of change will slow from it's current breakneck speed (except for the occasional supervolcano/giant asteroid) and the species will adapt to whatever the situation is and people (or whatever) will be about as happy as they ever were.

Again, assuming that evolutionary theory is correct. But, as we've discussed, what is evolution in a deterministic universe? In a deterministic universe, isn't the structure of events over time purely a function of the universe's initial conditions and causal laws of physics? A la Laplace's Demon.

And with that in mind, how does evolution fare any better as an explanation for how things are in a probabilistic universe?