Friday, September 25, 2015

How Pleasure Works by Paul Bloom

Source of book: Borrowed from the library

This book has two central premises, one of which I think makes a lot of sense, and is pretty well supported by the author. The second premise is more tenuous, and I think ultimately comes across more as speculation than not.

The author’s goal is to explore and explain the way that humans experience pleasure, which is unique among the animals. While there are some things that we share - a love for food, sex, affection - there are many pleasures which are exclusively human. For example, there is a reason one does not train an animal by reading it poetry as a reward.

The first premise is fascinating, and does indeed explain some strange things about human behavior: Humans believe in “essentialism,” that is, in the hidden essence of things. This is why a clever forgery is worth less than the original. It may be every bit as beautiful as the original, but it doesn’t contain the “essence” of the artist, if you will. Likewise, an object owned by a celebrity can be worth far more than it would be otherwise. Sometimes, this seems to be superstitious; other times, it is just how we all tend to think. Otherwise, we would buy that forged Picasso for the same price.

Essentialism leads naturally to a belief in transcendence. If things have essences that go beyond their physical constituents, then transcendence is possible. Bloom proceeds to look at the uniquely human forms of pleasure, and connect them to essentialism and transcendence. As I mentioned above, this part of the book - which is most of it - is fascinating. Bloom is a professor of psychology, so he is able to speak the language of that discipline. I believe he does make a strong case for what is going on in our brains in many of these instances.

The second premise is that essentialism and transcendence came about as a result of evolutionary pressures. There are some links here that do kind of make sense, like essentialism as a heightened belief in individuals. However, at multiple points, Bloom has to assert that the trait or ability that he is discussing must have arisen, not as an adaptation, but as an accidental side effect of an adaptation. This is where the argument gets into the weeds a bit.

For a great deal of human traits and behavior, Darwin works pretty well as an explanation. For animal behavior and traits, it actually works exceedingly well. There is a reason that “behaving like an animal” is a logical statement. If one responds strictly to evolutionary pressures, one is indeed acting like an animal - and animals do.

It is when we cross the line into uniquely human psychology that we find this weird mix. Certainly, we do have a lot of the animal still in us. Those pressures have not gone away. However, we do find these essentialist and transcendent properties which either seem evolutionarily irrelevant, or in other cases seem to work against the biological pressures. Thus, Bloom is forced to look for ways that these would have been “unintended” side effects, which all arose and managed to come together in just the right way.

If you are sure that everything about human psychology results from evolution, you have to at least make this argument. If you believe - as I do - that there is a facet of our human nature which is not adequately explained by evolutionary pressures, but represents a created, spiritual side of our being; another explanation seems more plausible. I’m not arguing that my belief is the only possible conclusion. I find it to be less of a stretch, however. Your mileage may vary.

Enough about the grand scope of the philosophy in this book. The fun is also very much present in the details.

One alternate explanation to essentialism for certain pleasures is that of social signaling. I found this interesting, because I wrote a post as part of my Modesty Culture series in which I argued that social signaling was a crucial part of the culture. Bloom mentions another modern example of this phenomenon, which is - surprise! - also popular in some homeschool circles.

Once you start thinking about signaling, you see it everywhere. I’ve sometimes wondered if signaling can explain why expensive private schools teach Latin. The schools insist that it is an intellectually worthy pursuit, but the alternative is that it’s popular just because it hits the sweet spot of difficulty, association with power...and total uselessness, making it an ideal signal of status. If Latin turned out to help children learn other languages and improved their minds in certain ways, then public schools might start to teach it, and a proponent of signalling theory would predict that private schools would give it up, and have their students spend an hour a day on Sanskrit or calligraphy.

Nothing against knowledge of the Latin roots of English words, obviously. But those have been taught for years in public schools. Bloom does have it right, I believe. If Latin was associated with the unwashed masses, rather than stuffy British schools of the 1800s, then another pursuit would have been chosen.

I sometimes wonder if most of the Common Core goals would have been embraced had expensive private schools adopted them, rather than common public schools.

Bloom also spends some time on the psychology of sexual pleasure - and this section is quite good. One point he makes is that from time immemorial, “bed tricks” have been a theme of literature. (From Leah and Rachel on down.) Shakespeare utilized it in a number of plays, including Measure for Measure and All’s Well That Ends Well. 

Another facet of essentialism comes into play when we select mates. While we are looking for certain traits, we are attracted to specific people with them. We fall in love, not with the trait, but with the individual. That is why my wife won’t leave me the minute she finds someone who rates slightly higher in her desired traits. Bloom quotes Steven Pinker here:

How can you be so sure that a prospective partner won’t leave you the minute it is rational to do so - say, when a 10-out-of-10 moves in next door. One answer is, don’t accept a partner who wanted you for rational reasons to begin with; look for a partner who is committed to staying with you because you are you.

This fundamental irrationality of love is what makes human love what it is. The darwinistic animal seeks to be the fittest and to mate with the fittest. The transcendent human seeks “true love,” that is, irrational love in a sense.

I won’t quote all the poetry which comes to mind, but suggest my post on Elizabeth Barrett Browning.

Bloom also quotes Helena, from A Midsummer Night’s Dream:

Things base and vile, holding no quantity,
Love can transpose to form and dignity.
Love looks not with the eyes but with the mind.
And therefore is winged Cupid painted blind.
Nor hath Love’s mind of any judgment taste—
Wings and no eyes figure unheedy haste.
And therefore is Love said to be a child,
Because in choice he is so oft beguiled.
As waggish boys in game themselves forswear,
So the boy Love is perjured everywhere.

It is the essence a person is believed to contain which determines the value, not the objective qualities.

Essentialism also proves to be an explanation for a phenomenon which has puzzled economists. Humans (rationally) value cash more than they do the items in can buy in many cases. I have no love for most Nissan vehicles, for example, so I would rather have the cash value of one than the actual vehicle. If you ask people, they will typically respond this way.

However, we psychologically value gifts of items over gifts of cash. This is economically irrational, but makes sense if we believe that the gift of an item contains an essence of the gift-giver. There is a lot more that is outstanding in this section which I won’t quote. If you want to understand the parallel psychological economy that runs parallel to the economic one, this whole chapter is excellent.

The chapter that probably resonated with me the most was the one on the arts. That the arts are a uniquely human endeavor is indisputable. No other species engages in artistic endeavors for their own sake and satisfaction. For what it’s worth, the human appreciation of transcendent art is one reason I am a theist. As Bloom notes in the book when discussing religion, “[T]here is more to religion than belief and ritual and society...This is the notion that there is more to the world than what strikes our senses. There is a deeper reality that has personal and moral significance.” There is something that transcends, and our own souls and psyches reach toward that.

There are some amusing anecdotes about the peculiarities of the human response to art. One, naturally, is the story of Joshua Bell in the Subway station. 

A world class player wasn’t recognized, and thus, most people failed to appreciate what they were hearing.

We do this with all the arts, however. The pleasure is in what we believe we are hearing, seeing, and so on. A forgery will never be as good as the original. The same piece, written by an obscure artist, will be believed to have less merit than if Beethoven were the composer.

For us violinists, we have the case of some rather famous “forgeries.” Fritz Kreisler was one of the great violinists of the first half of the 20th Century. Early in his career, he wrote a number of encore pieces which are now considered part of the standard repertoire of any concert violinist. However, at the time, he did not dare to attach his name to them. Instead, he attributed them to relatively obscure composers of the past. Eventually, the truth came out, and some of the critics who had enjoyed the compositions were appalled. They claimed that “anyone” could write a piece “in the style of” another composer. Kreisler allegedly dared them to try.

Just for fun, here is one of the best of Kreisler’s works. He claimed it had been written by 18th Century composer Gaetano Pugnani. 

The essentialism governs this case as well. The “essence” of Pugnani, and the creativity and effort he was believed to have put into it was a key part of the appeal of the piece. For some, that appeal was greatly reduced when it was revealed that a young performer was the author. For us now, recognizing that Kreisler was a great violinist, his “essence” in the pieces now raises their value in our esteem.

As Bloom puts it, “Much of the pleasure that we get from art is rooted in an appreciation of the human history underlying its creation. This is its essence.”

Another fascinating chapter is devoted to the exploration of the human tendency toward imaginary worlds. A study Bloom cites seems to indicate that the default state of our brains is toward daydreaming. (It isn’t just me!) When we direct our brains toward a task, we focus, but when we stop, our minds wander where they will.

This does not apply just to adults either. While cultures differ in the specifics, all children, universally around the world and across all known times, play make-believe. And these are not just practice at skills that will be needed, as in the way kittens practice fighting. These are genuine flights of imagination that may or may not ever have a practical application. (These are probably related to our empathetic ability, so imagination isn’t exactly useless. But it does appear to be unique to humans.) Furthermore, Bloom points out what I have known for a long time: children - even infants - are remarkably good at telling the difference between reality and imagination, between real and make-believe.

This fact seems to have been lost on the most restrictive Christian Fundamentalists, including the group my wife spent time in. Many parents didn’t let their children read any fiction at all - but particularly not ones with magic or talking animals or other “unrealistic” elements. They were worried that their children wouldn’t be able to tell fiction from reality. This fear is so removed from any reality of child development (or human nature) that one wonders if the parents themselves were having difficulty distinguishing reality from the utopia in their minds.

Not only do humans spend time daydreaming, we often spend our leisure hours in imaginary worlds created by others. Most people watch a lot of television. I prefer books in most cases, but both are often imaginary worlds. Likewise for video games, movies, theater, and so on. In part, we enjoy these versions because, as Clive James  (quoted in the book) puts if, “Fiction is life with the dull bits left out.”

This book cites a lot of other books and authors. A few authors that I reviewed are listed below.

There is plenty to think about in this book. Essentialism can be problematic for mankind when we essentialize others (as in racism), but an understanding of how essentialism works can also help us avoid superstition and make better judgments. If we recognize when we are basing our values on a belief about what something “really” is, we can discern whether this judgment is truly justified, or whether it is a false valuation.


  1. Fundamentalists' aversion to fantasy and imagination is a big red flag. I remember one speaker who told a story where he asked his daughter to describe what she saw out the window. When she started describing what she was imagining outside the window, he told her she was "lying" and made her start over. Ugh. If this person was consistent, then Jesus would have been "lying" when He told parables to the disciples. Worse, some people take the view that the book of Job is fiction (i.e, also a parable), so all that would be a "lie" too if that view is correct.

    In spite of all that, though, fundamentalists actually invent their own fantasy worlds all the time. You can see them in books like Elsie Dinsmore. I think it's actually some kind of parallel dimension named something like Saccharinopia.

    Personally, I love it when fantasy authors build complex worlds. This is why I've always found Middle Earth far more satisfying than Narnia - it's clear that Tolkien was creating a world for the world's sake, whereas Lewis was going for the allegory first and the world was only a vehicle to get there. It's also why I like A Song of Ice and Fire (= Game of Thrones, the books, not the TV show, which is a different ball of wax and deserves a lot of the criticism it gets) despite how graphic it is in places. George R. R. Martin is a worldbuilding genius on the level of Tolkien. He just chose to build a much, much darker world than some people are comfortable with. In fact I think the main reason many people don't like it is because there's some uncomfortable truths about history and human nature in there that they'd rather not look at. Actually, come to think of it, it's a bit like the epic fantasy version of that Steven Pinker book you reviewed last month.

  2. I've tried to start GoT, and just haven't gotten into it. (The book, not the show - I'm not much of a tube watcher.)

    I'm with you that Fundamentalism really is its own big fantasy world. That's why books are such a threat. If one can imagine an alternative - and some kids do - people might leave the Fundie world...