The Epistemology of Happiness

How do we know something to be true? This question has preoccupied philosophy for as long as we can remember. Many answers are offered to solve the problem, but each one suffers from a different problem. For example, reason is a useful method of knowing, but reason only compares a claim with the axioms or assumptions; how do you know that your assumptions are indeed correct? Sense perception too doesn’t certify our assumptions because the same perception can be explained by alternative assumptions. This post offers an introspective view of knowledge under which what convinces us of the truth is not reason or perception, but the happiness that we experience as a consequence of that knowing. Under that happiness, all doubts are destroyed, and certainty is established. Table of ContentsThe Failure of the Socratic MethodThe Judgments of Truth and GoodThe Brain and the HeartDesires Create HappinessThe Knowledge-Happiness RelationThe Epistemology of HappinessSuperior and Inferior TruthsThe Cleansing of ConsciousnessThe Shackles of Material DesireCooperation vs. CompetitionThe Shackles of Spiritual DesireThe Knot in the HeartHumility – The Path to Perfect KnowledgeDiverse Interpretations of Reality The Failure of the Socratic Method Western philosophy was born in the Socratic method of hypothesis elimination. In this method, you trust a claim tentatively and then test out its consequences, with the aim to produce a contradiction. If a contradiction is found, then the hypothesis is naturally refuted. The problem is that if you haven’t found a contradiction, you don’t know for sure that you won’t find it in the future. Typically, most assumptions will seem to correctly explain certain things, but they have limitations. If you step outside the bounds of these limitations, you can produce an inner contradiction. If you don’t step outside these bounds, then your system is consistent but clearly limited by its bounds. This pattern was conclusively demonstrated by Gödel in his incompleteness theorem. Assumptions are good within bounds. If we step outside the bounds, then we get a contradiction. If we remain within the bounds, then the system is incomplete because it doesn’t explain what lies outside those bounds. Socrates started by saying that an “unexamined life is not worth living” and he ended by saying that “the only thing I know is that I know nothing”. But he needn’t have despaired if he had realized that reason is limited by assumptions, and assumptions are good within certain bounds. If you describe those bounds as the goal or the problem you are trying to solve, then reasoning can be employed to serve the purposes of the goal. In short, reasoning is a slave to our desires. The desires create the bounds; then we formulate assumptions using which we can test the truth. The truth is simply contextualized against the goal—i.e. some assumptions are useful for fulfilling some goals but not others. The Judgments of Truth and Good The lesson from the failure of the Socratic method—and Gödel’s incompleteness—is that reasoning only helps us determine the truths relative to some assumptions, but those assumptions are not true or false in themselves; they are instead useful or useless relative to a goal, problem, or purpose to be fulfilled. Good assumptions are those that help us solve a problem—i.e. find an answer that addresses the question. Bad assumptions are those that limit us in finding the answer to a problem. Now our quest for truth is limited by our desires. If you choose a goal, you will naturally make assumptions that are fit for fulfilling that goal, and all claims will be certified either true or false relative to those assumptions. But if you want to know something that might seem not provable (or disprovable) based on your current assumptions, you have to change your goals, and, consequently, revise your assumptions. The Brain and the Heart There is hence a difference between truth and good; all truth is relative to the good. In fact, the dichotomy between truth and good is present in our body as the difference between the brain and the heart. The heart is the seat of desire, which determines the good. The brain is the seat of reasoning which determines the truth after the good has been decided. The brain has a creative side and a cognitive side corresponding to the senses of perception and action. But these are different from the judgment of good which is produced in the heart due to desire. The judgment of truth is based on the choice of axioms, but the choice of axioms is based on the desires that make us happy. The latter constitutes the judgment of good. The heart is involved in judging if something is good, and the brain in judging if it is true. The brain can die and but the heart will keep working. However, if the heart is dead then the brain will be dead automatically. Desires Create Happiness Beliefs are held so long as they help us fulfill our desires. If I’m frustrated in my goals, then I will seek to revise my assumptions. Most people, for instance, believe in the miracles of modern medicine until they get a disease which the medicine cannot cure, and the doctors have no clue why. When faced with suffering, one is automatically led to question the idea that modern medicine operates on correct assumptions. If you have always been cured by modern medicine, you will be loath to reject its assumptions. Again, the assumptions are accepted only relative to the goals or desires one wants to fulfill. Some people may consider lies to be true, because it makes them happy and fulfills their goals. Similarly, others will find them false because it makes them unhappy. The question of truth can be completely subordinated to the question of happiness, and now the issue is: How do we find a better happiness? Because only by that judgment will we determine a better desire, a better assumption, and then a better truth. The Knowledge-Happiness Relation To know the truth we must know the good, but to pick the good, we must desire that good. Ultimately, our cognition of truth depends on our desire. If that desire is modified, then the truths are modified. Similarly, happiness is produced only when the desires are fulfilled. Therefore, if you find the thing that you desire, then you have the double satisfaction of finding truth and goodness. Your brain tells you that you have found the truth, and your heart tells you that you have fulfilled your desire. If you tell a happy person that his ideas about the world are false, he will  most likely ignore you, because he knows that since he is happy he must be doing something correctly, and consequently his beliefs must also be true. On the other hand, if you tell an unhappy person that he is suffering because of his false beliefs, and that he must change his beliefs in order to find happiness, he is more likely to listen to your arguments. In short, new knowledge doesn’t come when you are happy, because there is complacency whereby one’s current beliefs are accepted as true just because one is already happy and contented. New knowledge comes when one is unhappy and discontented; that’s when you are prepared to change goals and revise assumptions. The greater the suffering, the greater is the preparedness to change one’s assumptions. The Epistemology of Happiness This is a completely subjective criterion for judging the truth, as opposed to modern objective criteria which seek to validate the assumptions against innumerable facts, and you can never be sure if you have checked you assumptions against all possible facts (past, present, and future; here, there, and everywhere). Since such verification is impossible, the irrefutable criterion for finding the truth is not external but internal. I find the inner happiness, which then convinces me of the truth. This is a common problem for many people who like to challenge the ideas of others: How do you know this idea is true? Have you validated it against the worldly facts, the statements of authorities, or the prescriptions of recognized texts? The short answer is that you can never know the truth through such corroboration because before you can judge the truth, you must first know its meaning, and that meaning is subject to your interpretation. Thus, if you believe that X and Y are true, you will try to reconcile them; you will interpret X in terms of Y or Y in terms of X to maintain your belief in both X and Y. If one of them happens to be incorrect, the real meaning may be disregarded, just in order to maintain internal consistency about all the current beliefs. In short, our desires change our assumptions, and our assumptions change the meanings we see in the world. To see new meaning, to find new truths, and to achieve new goals, we have to only alter one thing in our life—our desires. It is impossible to judge the meaning because it is subject to interpretation. It is impossible to judge the truth because it is relative to the goals. And it is impossible to judge the goals because they are relative to desires. External verification is not solid ground for truth. The criterion is completely internal: If some belief makes me happy, then it must be true. Now, if you are frustrated or unhappy, you must change the beliefs. Superior and Inferior Truths Now we can also talk about superior and inferior truths, not because we validated them against external facts, or corroborated them against the statements of authorities, but simply because it gives me greater happiness. The inferior and superior truths correspond to lesser and greater happiness. If you desire greater happiness, then you will have to change your beliefs, which will change the meaning, (and then in turn sensations and sense objects), and the new set of beliefs will be considered true because they enhance happiness. Unless your knowledge leads to a far superior level of happiness, your commitment to your beliefs and these desires will remain tentative. You may argue vociferously citing formulae, facts, texts, and authorities, but you will remain doubtful. All doubts are destroyed when you find a superior happiness; then you don’t need others to accept your claims. They are self-evident to you because their acceptance leads to superior happiness. The Cleansing of Consciousness Since happiness comes from desire, to find that superior happiness we must change our desires. This change in desire is called the ‘cleansing’ of consciousness. In the material world different people have different desires, and, accordingly, they enjoy different kinds of happiness. To elevate our happiness we have to elevate the desires. Once we change the desires, the knowledge is changed automatically. Which means that to fulfill the desire, I must find that object which makes me happy. Spiritual progress is about changing the desire, which changes the assumptions, which changes the meanings, sensations, and objects. The process is non-material because it doesn’t begin in changing the objects, which could then change sensations, meanings, truths, and desires. Of course, nobody stops us from doing those outside-in things to modify our desires. But the measure of change is the inside-out change in desires followed by the change in beliefs, meanings, sensations, and objects. The spiritual path is said to be free of all material impediments, because you change your desires regardless of whether the world fulfills them or not. The change in beliefs is jnana-yoga or the cultivation of knowledge. The subsequent changes to meaning in the mind are dhyāna-yoga or meditation. Finally, the resulting changes to sensual activities constitute karma-yoga. However, the genesis of all change lies in bhakti-yoga, which involves the changes to a person’s desires. The Shackles of Material Desire In the beginning of this post I noted that our truths are limited by the bounds of desire; if we remain within the bounds, then our truths are incomplete; if we cross those bounds then we get inconsistency. Therefore, unless … Continue reading The Epistemology of Happiness