Sunday, June 18, 2017

Of Hedonism and McGuffins


Hedonism, as the pursuit of pleasure is often critiqued as an impossible goal. Happiness cannot be pursued for happiness’s sake and whatever pleasure obtained is often fleeting. The hedonic treadmill makes us quickly adjust to our new circumstances so that whatever pleasure obtained becomes the new status quo and is no longer appreciated, or even felt.

This has lead some to posit that happiness in-itself fails as an objective. Rather happiness can only be a by-product of pursuing other things. The challenge then of course, is if “happiness” cannot be an objective in-itself, then what should we pursue in its stead? Virtue, the service of God, the service of man, 42?

The existentialist seemed to think life’s purpose was inherently meaningless. The only meaning was that which we create ourselves. The existentialist goal became one of authenticity – that or decision and pursuits reflected the person we wanted to be or become. That approach resonates with. Our purpose is our own manufacture. And while that may leave us at certain times with a sense of dread or despair, it at least is a dread and despair of our own making.

But I’m also a hedonist and I started thinking about the literary plot device known as the McGuffin.


Made famous and perhaps even coined by Alfred Hitchcock, a McGuffin is essentially an object or person, important to the protagonist and sometimes other characters, but not necessarily to the story – it is the secret documents that must be found/protected/destroyed, the Maltese Falcon, the shaggy dog. What is important about a McGuffin is that it propels the characters to do the things they do, to meet, interact, have adventures and conflicts – they are storytelling fuel.

So, why shouldn’t we use them to tell our own stories? Perhaps the pursuit of happiness can be driven by a McGuffin? Perhaps it already is? An interest or hobby that motivates, a fandom, a commitment, a secret pleasure – in the big scheme of things, the particulars really don’t matter. Their existence though, drives us into having our own adventures, connecting us with others, and actually giving us a life that’s a worthy story to tell. Thus a McGuffin might just be a key to our happiness. Paradoxically, a McGuffin might also be the thing that makes us authentic.

A McGuffin may even be superior to a “goal” or “objective.” While at first glance they might seem to be synonyms, but so much judgment is loaded into those other terms. Are they worthy? Should we actually be pursuing them? We can agonize too much about what our goals ought to be. Whether our objectives meet some standard as we trot out the usual stuff of resolutions: loose weight, get healthy, help people – blah blah blah.

But a McGuffin, doesn’t have to have some intrinsic or moral importance. It’s just there to move the story along. And maybe that’s true of our goals and objectives too. The journey is more important than the destination, yet the destination is still necessary to undertake the journey.

In as much as our lives can be aesthetic projects, why not embrace a literary device to craft our own stories? We should embrace our McGuffins, no matter how silly, self-indulgent, or absurd. Revisit those goals and resolutions and see them for what they are, clever plot devices to tell a better story. They introduce us to the characters in our life, our conflicts to overcome, and perhaps are the very things that ensure our ongoing happiness.


Here’s to the Existential McGuffin.


Saturday, May 6, 2017

Our Truths are Fiction

I recently read this article, Sometimes ‘Introspection’ Is You Just Making Stuff Up, and it both fascinates and disturbs me. The article delves into the “introspection bias” and shared some experiments whereby the subjects formulated clear reasons and explanations of choices they made all contrary to the facts. It reveals that we tend to make things up to explain or justify our actions, even when the facts behind our own experiences are demonstrably false. 

As someone who already spends too much time in my head, I have to wonder how often I fall prey to my introspection bias.

Reading this, I cannot help but think of the discipline of philosophy, and its cannon of introspective thinkers – I mean, Descartes, “I think therefore I am” – where does that leave us if even our fundamental existence comes into doubt?

Existentialists start with a premise that life is inherently meaningless, therefore you must create your own meaning. This however, takes existential angst to a whole new level. The meaning one carefully crafts and creates is potentially based on criteria that also is without meaning – my angst may not even really be angst, but a fabrication or at best some sort of meta-angst.

Plato through Socrates admonished us to “know thyself” but reading this, what can we really know? Worse yet, our continued contemplation may take us further and further from our truth as we craft better stories to explain ourselves to ourselves.

On a more positive take, this article reveals just what incredible story tellers we are. We have a knack for finding connections even when none exist. Pattern recognition and creativity are our super powers. We constantly can write and rewrite our narrative.  Our inner voice is a con man.

This can be freeing in a way.  We get to reinvent our back story by finding significance in formerly insignificant past events through a sort of self-deluded epiphany. Perhaps in a world of alternative facts this is a perfect model for being and becoming. To be more authentic, you tell a more compelling story.

So what does this mean for “Enlightened Hedonism?” Is the truly enlightened hedonist one who focuses more on the hedonism than the enlightenment? Granted, there is always the danger of the paralysis of analysis, something I often suffer from. Sometimes it is just better not to think, but do.  Still there must be some way to calculate what are the choices that lead to a more fulfilling life.

 “Know thyself,” Plato’s words echo. Can we? Perhaps the answer lies in invoking the scientific method. We can still contemplate and navel gaze as we spin out hypotheses of why certain things fulfill us, give us pleasure, or reduce our pain. But until we test those hypotheses, we’ll never know if they are really true.

Do I not like spinach because my parents forced me to eat it? Perhaps I can find someone to force me to eat strawberries and see if I start not liking them too? Maybe my dislike stems from the way the spinach was prepared? I can experiment and try different preparations to see if changes my way of thinking. Then again maybe I just have to accept that my not liking spinach is just one of those things that remain unknowable.

I suppose the test is to ask ourselves in our internal speculations, can I verify my explanations? Or even further, does the explanation even matter? Will it cause me to lead my life differently?


Perhaps it makes no difference whether our explanations are truth or fiction. Leaning on the existentialists, perhaps it is always a fiction – our decisions based on our aesthetics as much as our ethics. In the end, we are just left to tell the best story with the life we are given.

Saturday, March 4, 2017

Return to Philosophy

As a former philosophy major who once entertained the idea of pursuing an academic career in the subject you’d think I’d continually be spotting and monitoring  how philosophy emerges in our culture. To be sure, along the way I’ve caught things like : how “ethics” continues to merge as technologies advance, or the occasional sci-fi thought experiments that trigger existential crises.

But lately, I keep encountering these gentle nudges that remind me of my former passion - not just as a wink and a nod, but as full on celebrations of the discipline.

The first came from a friend, intrigued by my own hypothesizing of the hedonism, who asked me about Michel Onfray. I was clueless. I had to look him up. Here was a man, my contemporary, writing manifestos on Atheism and Hedonism that really had resonance. Suddenly I saw myself and what I might have been if I had continued down the academic path – and been born in France (a place more sympathetic to both such studies and conclusions). I ate it up – (along with a few regrets) and actually hope to dive deeper into his works.

Next up, The Partially Examined Life, a podcast from a collection of former philosophy students who have moved on but still enjoy discussing philosophy. This is a bit of a niche to be expected in the way the Internet celebrates all subgroups no matter how small. I actually discovered this through another Internet niche, Existential Comics. But through these niches comes Richard Rorty and Achieving Our Country, a collection of 15 year-old essays that have risen to prominence as people try to make sense of the Trump election victory.

The latest comes from Vancouver based philosophy professor, Carrie Jenkins, with her recently published book, What Love Is And What It Could Be. Carrie Jenkins earlier works concerned the philosophy of mathematics, not something to grab headlines, but she has now turned her philosophic inquiry on the nature of romantic love in an effort to explore such topics as polyamory as she herself is in a polyamorous relationship with two men. I’m eager to delve into this one.


So suddenly, philosophy is relevant again – or perhaps its suddenly relevant to me again? Whichever it is, It’s conjured both regret and renewed interest in the profession and discipline of Philosophy.