Is pleasure as the natural goal of life falsifiable?

  • I have a nephew who tends towards stoicism. A lot of talk about virtue.


    As an alternative, I gradually introduce the Epicurean notions. The big hurdle for him is to accept that pleasure can be a valid natural goal.


    Many components of Epicurean thought are logically weaved into a consistent framework. But this framework has its axioms and unless I am mistaken, pleasure as a goal in life is a critical one.


    If I require my nephew to accept that "pleasure is the valid natural goal in life", I would need to provide a falsifiability test: is there a hypothetical argument that if proven correct, my statement would be false?


    I treat religion with the same approach: is there anything that I can demonstrate that would make you accept that your god does not exist? If there isn't, you are in the realm of blind faith and the discussion is pointless (the Popper approach).


    Is there such a test for an Epicurean assertion that pleasure is the goal? Should I look for such a critical approach to the philosophy that best defines me as a person?


    PS: I can't say that this question bothers me in terms of changing my own opinions. We are a product of evolution, which means by chance we have developed the pleasure/pain chemical reactions that guide us, so I accept it as a fact of evolutionary joke - same way as I have a nose. Still, this may not be enough.

  • Good to hear from you waterholic and this is a very interesting question that it would be good to see if others have suggestions. But first, it seems to me that if you are looking for an abstract syllogistic / logical proof that pleasure is the goal of life, Torquatus would tell you that while some Epicureans (including Torquatus himself) might accept that as a proper approach, that Epicurus himself did not:


    My view would be that Epicurus rather than Torquatus was right, and that we need to keep in mind strict limitations on what we can hope to accomplish by abstract logic. Any proofs that we are going to find convincing are going to be direct appeals to evidence that we ourselves can feel (rather than identify abstractly apart from feeling).

  • Edit--ok, clearly Cassius and I are of one mind! :S


    My answer is a hard no.


    There is no possible claim about what constitutes the proper end of life that meets a test of falsifiability, in part because of an observation made by David Hume.


    Quote


    The is–ought problem...is the thesis that, if a reasoner only has access to non-moral and non-evaluative factual premises, the reasoner cannot logically infer the truth of moral statements.


    Applying this to the pleasure principle, I might think I'm on solid ground by starting things out this way:


    "Every living thing, as soon as it is born, seeks after pleasure and recoils from pain." Starting with that, what would it take for us to get to this? "We ought to live our own lives like this, pursuing pleasure as the goal of our lives and avoiding pain as much as we can."


    What we're missing is at least one extra premise; something to go between those two statements to connect them in some logical way. But this doesn't give us an objective truth about the proper end of life--it just gives us another argument from logic. What Epicurus actually does with regard to the two statements above (adapted from the Torquatus material) is to offer a non-logical approach.


    Epicurus sets out to show this as follows: Every living thing, as soon as it is born, seeks after pleasure, and delights in it as its chief good. It also recoils from pain as its chief evil, and avoids pain so far as is possible. Nature’s own unbiased and honest judgment leads every living thing to do this from birth, and it continues to do this as long as it remains uncorrupted. Epicurus refuses to admit any need for discussion to prove that pleasure is to be desired and pain is to be avoided, because these facts, he thinks, are perceived by the senses, in the same way that fire is hot, snow is white, and honey is sweet. None of these things need be proved by elaborate argument — it is enough merely to draw attention to them. For there is a difference, he holds, between a formal logical proof of a thing, and a mere notice or reminder. Logical proofs are the method for discovering abstract and difficult truths, but on the other hand a mere notice is all that is required for indicating facts that are obvious and evident.

  • Just in case anyone is not aware of this section of Diogenes Laertius, this too would be relevant to the central question, which is lesser role that Epicurus gave to the use of abstract / dialectical logic in the determination of truth:


    Quote

    Logic they reject as misleading. For they say it is sufficient for physicists to be guided by what things say of themselves. Thus in The Canon Epicurus says that the tests of truth are the sensations and concepts [preconceptions / anticipations] and the feelings; the Epicureans add to these the intuitive apprehensions of the mind. And this he says himself too in the summary addressed to Herodotus and in the Principal Doctrines. For, he says, all sensation is irrational and does not admit of memory; for it is not set in motion by itself, nor when it is set in motion by something else, can it add to it or take from it. Nor is there anything which can refute the sensations. For a similar sensation cannot refute a similar because it is equivalent in validity, nor a dissimilar a dissimilar, for the objects of which they are the criteria are not the same; nor again can reason, for all reason is dependent upon sensations; nor can one sensation refute another, for we attend to them all alike. Again, the fact of apperception confirms the truth of the sensations. And seeing and hearing are as much facts as feeling pain. From this it follows that as regards the imperceptible we must draw inferences from phenomena. For all thoughts have their origin in sensations by means of coincidence and analogy and similarity and combination, reasoning too contributing something.

  • Also so as to be clear for others reading, what it seems Epicurus would reject is this question in itself -

    If I require my nephew to accept that "pleasure is the valid natural goal in life", I would need to provide a falsifiability test: is there a hypothetical argument that if proven correct, my statement would be false?

    As best I can determine Epicurus would say that you indeed "would not need" to provide any abstract logical proof at all, because logical proof tests are not the tests of human reality. The tests applicable to human reality are the perceptions we receive from the sensations, anticipations, and feelings, which we accept as the basis for all our reasoning. All validation tests are judged using those, not using "logical" word proofs. Words are tools just like virtue or hammers are tools, and they are very useful but limited, and they are not truth in themselves.

  • Also I think this is one area where later Epicureans went wrong in deviating from Epicurus. They should have stuck to Epicurrus' original insight and contention that logical word games are not the proper test of truth.


    Or, at the very least, if they decided to engage in those logical word games they should have been rigorously clear that those word games were just that - word games with strictly limited usefulness.


    And in fact perhaps they did make that distinction, but in relaying them through later years the limitations and qualifications were dropped from the discussion by later carriers who did not appreciate the importance of those limitations. Given Cicero's hostility to Epicurus he might well have been an example of someone who would cherrypick from the discussions to leave the logical debates while deleting the limitations in which they were framed. In Cicero's case it seems that he at least preserved that Epicurus had objected to logical proofs in this area, but he had to add in his own editorial commentary that he himself (speaking through Torquatus) agreed with the need for logical proofs.

  • My view would be that Epicurus rather than Torquatus was right, and that we need to keep in mind strict limitations on what we can hope to accomplish by abstract logic.

    Thank you Cassius, very handy summary of the views on this question. Without knowing the background, I was indeed tending towards accepting this as just observation (same as "I have a nose" - no need to give logical arguments). So one part of the question is: should we need logical argumentation, the other - what that argumentation should be.

  • As best I can determine Epicurus would say that you indeed "would not need" to provide any abstract logical proof at all, because logical proof tests are not the tests of human reality. The tests applicable to human reality are the perceptions we receive from the sensations, anticipations, and feelings, which we accept as the basis for all our reasoning.

    But couldnt the same approach be applied to Gods? I don't see or touch pleasure, in the same way I don't see or touch Gods. Yet, I feel it. Who is to say that someone doesn't feel God, ergo she is as right as I am?

  • Nature’s own unbiased and honest judgment leads every living thing to do this from birth, and it continues to do this as long as it remains uncorrupted. Epicurus refuses to admit any need for discussion to prove that pleasure is to be desired and pain is to be avoided, because these facts, he thinks, are perceived by the senses, in the same way that fire is hot, snow is white, and honey is sweet. None of these things need be proved by elaborate argument — it is enough merely to draw attention to them.

    Thank you Joshua , a very interesting paragraph. The part "Nature's own ...judgement" from my vantage point refers to evolution, meaning we are just naturally built that way. But we are also naturally built to care for children, family, animals, and often at detriment to ourselves.


    Trying to unpack (and please correct my thinking here) - in the process of evolution my species (as it is now) survived out of all possible random variations due to the balance it strikes in its design between caring for others and caring for self. This is not a devine intervention or a sign of superiority of humans. It's just a fact of evolution that our particular balance between selfishness and altruism happens to produce a more survivable species.


    What this implies is that I am designed in a way that this balance is a natural state for me. In a simple example, if I am about to die, have only 3 minutes left and have an option for a great pleasure at the cost of great pain (possibly life) of another, it would be consistent with the Epicurean pleasure/pain calculus to forego the pleasure, because in those minutes the knowledge of harm to another would cause us pain. Why? Because we are built that way and we don't need virtue, belief in afterlife punishment or diety to act that way.


    Any thoughts?

  • But couldnt the same approach be applied to Gods? I don't see or touch pleasure, in the same way I don't see or touch Gods. Yet, I feel it. Who is to say that someone doesn't feel God, ergo she is as right as I am?

    Who is to say? That answer I think would be just like any other question, and only you can answer it by evaluating the evidence that is available to you and making the best decision that is possible to you.


    If someone tells me that they have direct evidence of God then I tell them I am from Missouri and I ask them to "show me." If they can't, then I place their claim in the category of many other claims that are made without evidence that I can verify or have good reason to accept, and which I therefore reject.


    That's something I think Epicurus was trying to be clear about: There ultimately is no "final arbiter" of right and wrong. There is no center of the universe to stand in and say that this perspective alone is the "right" perspective. There is no divine god or anyone else who knows everything and can say "this alone" is right. There is no realm of forms or essences -- no "true world" outside of our own to which to look to as authority. This is not reason for despair but reason to saddle up and get back on the horse and ride life as aggressively as you can to manage all the evidence and all the decisions available to you.


    What this implies is that I am designed in a way that this balance is a natural state for me. In a simple example, if I am about to die, have only 3 minutes left and have an option for a great pleasure at the cost of great pain (possibly life) of another, it would be consistent with the Epicurean pleasure/pain calculus to forego the pleasure, because in those minutes the knowledge of harm to another would cause us pain. Why? Because we are built that way and we don't need virtue, belief in afterlife punishment or diety to act that way.

    I think I am agreeing with your example, but only because ultimately it comes down to "you have to determine yourself what is the most pleasurable course for you given all your mental and physical reactions." When you say "because we are built that way" I sense that you are wanting to look for an absolute answer that says for everyone that "altruism" or "the interests of others" are always to be chosen over "selfishness" or "your own interests." I don't think the facts or Epicurus lead in that direction and I would urge people away from that conclusion, or any other conclusion that implies that there is a "universal good" other than the fact that living beings have faculties of pleasure and pain.


    And to carry that last point to a conclusion, I don't think Epicurus was a Benthamite and suggested that pleasure is out there floating in the air and that we should try to maximize "pleasure in general" or "the pleasure of everyone" no matter who is feeling it.


    I think Epicurus is clear that each individual has to make that decision for themselves and decide what pleasure and pain is relevant to them. We can choose to be "Mother Theresa" and say that the pleasure of everyone in the world, or any stranger, is every bit as important to god (and to me) as the pleasure of my own spouse and children. Or we can choose to be much more limited and say that in the end the pleasure of our families and friends and ourselves is paramount. But either way, neither god nor platonic forms nor essences nor absolute justice nor anything else exists to justify the conclusion that one "must" or even "should" be selected one over the other. In the end most people seem to end up looking to what nature puts in them - which I gather to be stronger feelings for that which is close and less strong feelings for that which is distant.

  • because we are built that way" I sense that you are wanting to look for an absolute answer that says for everyone that "altruism" or "the interests of others" are always to be chosen over "selfishness" or "your own interests."

    To clarify my thought here, what I mean is if you collect a set of humans, on the average, they would show certain average balance between being Mother Theresa and being selfish. Of course, there is no absolute correct/incorrect or a moral judgement that altruism is better than selfishness. But we tend to cluster in an area (central limit in stats), which is an outcome of evolution. That balance is an evolutionary random outcome and is subject to constant change as well.

  • That's something I think Epicurus was trying to be clear about: There ultimately is no "final arbiter" of right and wrong. There is no center of the universe to stand in and say that this perspective alone is the "right" perspective. There is no divine god or anyone else who knows everything and can say "this alone" is right. There is no realm of forms or essences -- no "true world" outside of our own to which to look to as authority. This is not reason for despair but reason to saddle up and get back on the horse and ride life as aggressively as you can to manage all the evidence and all the decisions available to you.

    Spot on!


    I want to add that, in modern terms, deductive (“abstract”?) logic does not yield empirical truth – only coherency. (The opposite of “logical” in the deductive sense is not “false” but incoherent.)


    Inductive logic (to my mind) yields no absolute empirical truths – but reliable probabilities (some of which may veer toward certainty in a subjective sense, even if not in terms of some strict objective “absolutism”).


    We live in the empirical (experiential) world, and we have to rely on the evidence of our senses and reasoned induction therefrom – even informally, which is how we mostly go about it. That’s not a “problem” – certainly not one that can be “solved” by unquestioning “faith”. Or abstract logic.


    In more metaphorical terms: we lay our bets as best we can. And keep going – as Cassius said: “saddle up and get back on the horse and ride life as aggressively as you can to manage all the evidence and all the decisions available to you.”


    And that is my basis for agreeing with Joshua 's “hard no” (with his reference to Hume) as well. And is the only way I use that word “faith” – the best effective confidence I can muster in order to act in a real world where “abstract certainty” is not forthcoming. But absence of “abstract absolute certainty” is not the same as absence of reliable evidence.


    And if someone thinks their evidence is more reliable than what now have, then “Show me.” I'll look.