Emotional mathematics

Last week I finished reading Douglas Hofstadter's book The Mind's I. Now that is absolutely the most interesting book I've read for the past year, and yes, I admit that I don't read that many books. It's such a 'mindstarter' though. It makes you think about thinking. And it also made me realize my own interests in cognitive science, which deals with the nature of intelligence and how the human brain works (psychologically, biologically). It's really a fascinating book that I can recommend to anyone who knows what kind of interests I have ;)

One of the themes present in the book deals with how people should quantify things that they could not possibly comprehend directly. With this I mean things such as other people's feelings or emotional states. You know (by deduction) that they have them, but you could never prove it, because you would have to become that other person in order to prove it. The book talks about how humans find it easy to attribute things such as feelings, emotions and consciousness to their fellow humans but are not or less able to do so to, for example, computers, or bats (PDF). A clear conclusion is never really presented in the book, rather several options are explored, although in the end the authors of course cleverly steer you towards what they believe.

After finishing I ended up playing with the ideas in my head, and I ended up performing a strange thought experiment. Imagine if you will this situation. Two people are in a relationship with each other. If the girl was asked how she felt about her relationship, she would answer "I'm very very happy". If they broke up, she 'would be very very unhappy'. The guy, on the other hand, is fed up with the relationship and answers: "I am not very happy and not very unhappy with our relationship, and I would be a bit happy if we broke up". What here would be the best course of action? Stay together or break up? If they stay together their combined 'happiness rate' is higher than if they break up, but would the guy care about that?

That was ((un)forunately) not a situation from my life, rather just an abstract example that's hopefully fairly quick to understand for most people. When thinking about my own life, I have perhaps a similar dilemma in regards to whether or not I should go back to the Netherlands. I know that my parents would much rather have me back in the Netherlands than here in Japan, and I am actually kind of indifferent about it (where I will go from here all depends on a lot of different factors, of course). So, in a way, a future choice that could make me, say, 10% happier, could potentially make my parents 50% happier. Or 50% unhappier. So is this situation any different from the previous example? And why?

I can't quite reach an answer for myself on this matter yet. One thing I found is that we should not try to objectively compare other people's happiness/feelings/emotions with our own. There's a famous cliché that some poor children in Africa are happy only to receive water and rice, but some children in the western world are fed McDonalds and are still unhappy. I was going to write that down here as a good example of why we shouldn't objectively compare emotions, but it is in fact exactly an example of that.

So, to summarize my point in a generic question: in a given situation, what would, objectively speaking, generate the most subjective happiness for everyone involved? And should this be balanced for everyone or should we only consider the 'sum of everyone's happiness'? It might be interesting to think about what solutions modern-day political systems have thought of already, but that is perhaps a topic for another time.

Posted in Thoughts