A Reasoned Happiness

This article is part of a series called The Scientist Theist. See also:
1. The View From High; 2. The Science of Religions; 3. A Reasoned Happiness

In the first post of the series, we stressed the fact that religious thought is engendered by feeling alone, and thus isn’t vulnerable to logical detractors. In the second, we concluded that religion, though produced by feeling, can be interpreted and communicated by reason. Here, we make the claim that religious thought can actually be produced by reason alone.


Follow me into a strange, disorienting world, where many a scientist might feel uncomfortable.

Religion frequently emphasizes the importance of a positive, faithful mindset as a means for attaining happiness. It doesn’t matter whether or not the contents of this mindset are particularly logical or accurate. The important part is that the mindset leads to the welfare of whoever adopts it. From the Dhammapada:

Now, Kalamas, don’t go by reports, by legends, by traditions, by scripture, by logical conjecture, by inference, by analogies, by agreement through pondering views, by probability, or by the thought, ‘This contemplative is our teacher.’ When you know for yourselves that, ‘These qualities are skillful; these qualities are blameless; these qualities are praised by the wise; these qualities, when adopted & carried out, lead to welfare & to happiness’ — then you should enter & remain in them. [Kalama Sutta, AN 3.65] (1)

Gautama Buddha suggests that members of the Kalamas clan should not necessarily act based on the results of reports or logical conjecture. Instead, they ought to determine empirically which qualities lead to happiness, and they ought to adopt these qualities.

Happy people aren’t necessarily accurate, claims Buddha. In fact, it seems that, often, they’re inaccurate.

The inverse certainly seems to be true: unhappy people are accurate. In a landmark 1979 paper, Abramson and Alloy showed that depressed participants were able to complete a simple task with considerably more accuracy than non-depressed participants. From the abstract:

In 4 experiments, 144 depressed and 144 non-depressed undergraduates (Beck Depression Inventory) were presented with one of a series of problems varying in the degree of contingency. In each problem, subjects estimated the degree of contingency between their responses (pressing or not pressing a button) and an environmental outcome (onset of a green light). Depressed subjects’ judgments of contingency were surprisingly accurate in all 4 experiments. Non-depressed subjects overestimated the degree of contingency between their responses and outcomes when noncontingent outcomes were frequent and/or desired and underestimated the degree of contingency when contingent outcomes were undesired. (2)

We’re presented with two rival values: accuracy and happiness. And our evidence shows that they may be, at least to some degree, mutually exclusive. Accuracy seems to impair happiness, and vice versa.

So which value should a scientist choose to uphold?

The answer, according to the previous posts in the series, would seem to be accuracy. A scientist ought to think within the confines of reason, and reason acts to produce accuracy alone. He might certainly experience happiness at times, if his feelings allow it. But he should never seek to gain happiness artificially, that is, at the expense of accuracy.

Today, though, I argue otherwise. We’ve always held that one should strive to think in a reasoned manner. My argument, though, is that accuracy isn’t the only way to act reasonable. Acting in such a way that happiness is achieved is also reasonable, even if accuracy is not achieved.

Accuracy and happiness, our two competing values, can both be said to be reasonable. And so a scientist has no compelling reason to choose to uphold one over the other.

This finding that accuracy and happiness are on equal footing can be used for far-reaching purposes. For example, it could be used as a proof of God. Belief in God can’t be definitively described as accurate. But it could certainly provide the believer happiness. And both accuracy and happiness are reasonable. Thus one could believe in God and still claim that his belief is a reasoned one.

Logical detractors, by now, must be rolling their eyes—or pulling out their hair. They should have plenty to say.

Logical detractor: But accuracy is the keystone of science! An account of one’s happiness could never be published in Nature.
Scientist theist: Some texts pursue accuracy, and others pursue the attainment of happiness, like the Dhammapada. What makes one pursuit more valuable than the other, in an absolute sense? What makes one pursuit more scientific?
Logical detractor: How could you put accuracy and happiness on equal footing, and still even consider calling yourself a scientist? Pursuit of happiness at the expense of accuracy is by no means scientific, no matter how you choose to define science.
Scientist theist: But who selected you as the decider of science’s definition? You choose to define science as the reasoned pursuit of accuracy. But why can’t I define it as the reasoned pursuit of happiness and welfare?
Logical detractor: Are you suggesting that you can define any word however you want? Why not call science the reasoned pursuit of the unreasonable, or the false? Why not call it the reasoned pursuit of unhappiness? Why not define up as down?
Scientist theist: I agree—why not? If I define up as down, but I’m happier for it, then who’s the real winner?

Once we accept that there are multiple ways one might act reasonably, we’re tossed into a strange world where up is down, faith is science, and clocks hang from the branches like wet rags.

For now, though, we can end our series with the claim that feelings produce the religious impulse; and that reason can make sense of this impulse; and that reason, perhaps, can produce its own impulse. And whether it can or not isn’t just a matter of semantics. It’s a matter of theology.


  1. Kalama Sutta, AN 3.65
  2. Judgment of contingency in depressed and nondepressed students: Sadder but wiser?

5 comments on “A Reasoned Happiness

  1. Ben says:

    Reason doesn’t constitute an end, but rather a means by which we can pursue other ends. “Be reasonable,” someone might say. “But to which starting premises should we apply our reason?”

    It’s also true that, as you say, we can’t easily select between the values of accuracy and happiness — that “a scientist has no compelling reason to choose to uphold one over the other.” The explanation for this fact, though, is more fine-grained than that provided by the arguments you’ve given. Indeed, while I agree with the claim that you’ve made, the arguments you’ve used to make it are too general, and they apply to too broad a class of situations. It’s hard to see why your reasoning wouldn’t put, say, hurting others and helping them on the same footing! Your arguments must be pared into a more careful form. They should remain valid, yet apply only where we’d like them to.

    The real task is not just to realize that reason can be applied to arbitrary aims, but also to begin carefully comparing, weighing, and evaluating these aims. Only then will we appropriately narrow our conclusions. Both accuracy and happiness (and many other things) could be valuable a priori. The task of philosophy, experience, and judgment is to make this decision firm.

    I think this judgment will produce the very conclusion you reach — that a positive mind is just as good as an accurate one. But won’t have come for free.

  2. Nancy says:

    Many people derive comfort from the conviction that a higher being cares for all of us and is orchestrating the movement of mankind in the direction of progress. There is no doubt that belief in God could lead to a certain sort of happiness. The same could be said for the belief that nobody in your family could ever get cancer, or that there is no place in the world where kids go hungry. The old saying for this phenomenon is “ignorance is bliss.”

    It is possible to live one’s life accepting theories based on their ability to eliminate discomfort. As Josh said, this is not an unreasonable strategy. This approach not only promotes health (chronic stress damages the body) but also increases the likelihood of positive outcomes (a negative prediction can be a self-fulfilling prophecy, as the pessimistic person is more likely to give up, and is more likely to alienate others along the way, which in turn leads to more bad outcomes). Why then, doesn’t everybody choose to reject all evidence, other than what makes them happy?

    One reason is that people who deny unpleasant truths may come crashing down when reality hits; the fall can hurt worse than it would have if their expectations had been more, may I say it?…. reasonable.

    Another reason is that preparing for the unhappy, but inevitable, contingency turns out to be useful. It might be fun to believe that we will never die, but, unfortunately, we will, and in the meantime, we need to take measures to prepare for our own eventual death and to stave off premature death; for example, by getting medical screening tests.

    A final reason is more subtle. There is a certain amount of self-help literature that addresses the following question: “Assuming you are having an affair, should you tell your spouse?” http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/05/22/marriage-affair-should-yo_n_3309581.html According to one school of thought, there are circumstances under which honesty is NOT the best policy. A cheating husband may be advised that, if his affair is long over, he should keep it to himself. And yet, I wager that if you asked a group of newlyweds “assume you will be married for the next 40 years. If, during that 40-year period, your spouse has an affair, will you want to be told?” very few of them would answer in the negative. Even when knowledge (Josh calls it “accuracy”) is presumed to be painful, and even if they know, in advance, that it will be painful, most people would choose not to be kept ignorant. We should figure out why this is! Nobody wants to be kept in the dark, even with the certainty that darkness is less painful. Maybe the cheating spouse scenario can be distinguished from the belief in God scenario, on the grounds that what’s repugnant about not being told is that another person is controlling the flow of information?

    • Josh says:

      Let’s think of it this way. We should seek to act in such a way that will give us the best life possible.

      So, right off the bat, that rules out skipping your medical screening tests. Ignorance is not bliss if ignorance leads to colon cancer.

      However, as you mention, certain strains of ignorance might lead to better outcomes, not worse ones. For example, a pessimist might find that his prophecies are self-fulfilling. An optimist might find the same to be true. So, maybe we should choose to remain ignorant only when better outcomes are fostered by that ignorance. Of course, the hard part might then be choosing which things to remain ignorant of.

      The question of knowing whether or not your spouse has cheated on you is an interesting one. It’s true that a husband might be happier if he remains ignorant of a past affair. So why would he choose to hear about it rather than remain ignorant? Well, for one, it’s possible he’s misguided in this choice, and the best outcomes would in fact be achieved by remaining ignorant. Another possibility, though, is that we said we are seeking “the best life possible”, but not necessarily one that is always happy. The best life might contain disappointments and setbacks, but eventually turns into one with texture, depth of experience, wisdom, and so on. The best life might be achieved by experiencing setbacks and recovering from them, not by not having setbacks.

      In general, though, it seems safe to say that the best life is achieved by maintaining some degree of ignorance regarding some things. This might entail believing in God, or believing that nature is benevolent, or believing something else. We should be able to make educated decisions so as to be ignorant about the right things, and achieve better outcomes, without missing next week’s colonoscopy.

      • Ben says:

        This exhibits a problem typical of utilitarianism: it’s self-effacing. “We should seek to act in such a way that will give us the best life possible.” If interpreted explicitly and narrowly, this is false. (“Ignorance is not bliss if ignorance leads to colon cancer.”) Yet if we expand the scope, it becomes so general as to be trivially true. (“Of course, the hard part might then be choosing which things to remain ignorant of.”)

        This comes out in full force in the paragraph beginning “Another possibility, though, is that we said we are seeking ‘the best life possible’, but not necessarily one that is always happy.” Of course. Here begins the hard work of empirical analysis which I mentioned in the first comment — as well as utilitarianism’s retreat into trivial generality.

        “In general, though, it seems safe to say that the best life is achieved by maintaining some degree of ignorance regarding some things.” Here you make your first empirical claim. Again, here’s where the hard work begins.

        At this point most of this work, unfortunately, remains undone.

  3. Ben says:

    I’ll mention another point. You claim that religious belief can be grounded by reason alone, as long as reason shifts its target from accuracy to happiness. You could make this claim stronger.

    Others (Aristotle, Kant, Godel, etc.) have seriously argued that religious belief can be grounded in accuracy alone. They claim God’s existence even in the scientific sense. This would be a tougher tack. But others have attempted it. You could even investigate their attempts.

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