July 23, 2015

Horse 1944 - Science & Happiness

Yes, this is an excuse to post a pretty picture and thus bring some softness to an otherwise sharp and pointed blog. Even though I am colourblind, I can still appreciate the way that the light catches the underside of the clouds and the way that deft shades of colour paint the sky. Words can not hope to convey either the beauty of mornings like this; nor can they express the amount of joy that I feel at looking up and being lucky enough to witness it.

This leads me to a question which was posed of me:
"Does the knowledge of science and how things work diminish the amount of happiness that you get in the world?"
- Thorog85

The short answer to this is 'no' and the long answer to this is below.

If this question is specifically directed at me and trying to extract my own feelings on the subject (where 'you' is in the singular) then logically I'd assume that for this to work, that knowledge and happiness must operate according to some hitherto unknown set of opportunity cost function. That is, that for every unit of knowledge increased, there must be an equivalent amount of happiness decreased. I don't know if that's personally true because I do know that I really like to find out stuff and that I generally derive more entertainment from learning something than I do from a lot of other sources.

I can look up at a rainbow and although I know a fair bit about how the light refracts around the inside of water droplets (even down to the angles of incidence and reflection therein), that does not diminish my appreciation of rainbows. I know for instance that sodium street lamps produce light at pretty discrete wavelengths around 580nm but that does not diminish my fascination with the tobacco stained jaundice that they project and impose upon the world around them. I like the fact that I understand the mechanics of how a note is produced, the mathematics needed to generate a key, how the interaction between various harmonics either sounds joyful or discordant and I certainly enjoy listening to a piece of really complex and seemingly hideous music if the keys to enjoyment of it are understanding how the various themes, phrases and motifs fit together.
If this question is applied to a collective and theoretical 'you', then I'd suggest that the answer is far more complex because I've equally met people who find sciencey type things as boring as bat guano and I've met people who practically live for nowt else.

This question could be asking some broad philosophical question to do with the advancement of science and the general amount of happiness that it has created in the world. If this is the case then I'd argue that many discoveries in science have made people immeasurably happier. It was science that led to the installation of sewer systems and potable water being plumbed directly into people's homes in cities and you mostly don't get people dying of cholera  any more. It was science which led to many cures for diseases such as smallpox and polio and treatments for thousands of ailments; in fact, medicine is probably one of the greatest contributors to people's happiness than anything else. It is quite difficult to be all that happy if you are plagued by illness and death is constantly knocking at the door. Particularly in the twentieth and now twenty-first century, science has given us entertainment devices such as radio, television and now the Internet; all of this riding upon the majestic wings of the printed circuit board, the transistor and even control and domination of electricity itself.

I don't think that we should necessarily be blaming science for people's apparent diminishing returns of happiness. I also don't think that either learning about science, diminishes anyone's individual enjoyment of the world. I think that maybe people would like to conceive of a grinning dumb idiot but I suspect that's because we're more amused by the concept of such a person and if you were to ask anyone if they would actually like to be said person, I suspect that the answer would be 'no'.

What I think definitely does diminish people's happiness is other people. This is something that I need to be mindful of because I'm one of those people who gets excited about something and then wants to tell you about the how and why the thing works. It is people like me who give credence to the stereotypical nerd voice (and the mere fact that I'm even bothering to answer this question in these terms also does the same). But then there's the sort of person who wants to tell you that you are wrong, that this is why you are wrong and that therefore you should feel bad because you are wrong. Immediately I think of the contrast between people like Brian Cox whose love of science is infectious but who doesn't necessarily rag on people and someone like Richard Dawkins who even in biology discussions has a way of making people feel bad for not knowing what he does and that they should immediately die in a hole as a result.

I personally think that knowing about how and why stuff works is cool; I find that entertaining and condusive to my enjoyment and therefore happiness. I also think that you can appreciate things simply and purely for the way they look, sound, smell, touch and taste but I'd argue that even then you're doing science on stuff (albeit simple science).
So Thorog, I don't think that the knowledge of science and how things work diminishes the amount of happiness that you get in the world, either on a personal or societal level.

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