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Can we see happiness?


If one has not studied philosophy and/or psychology, line diagram of eyeball anatomy that question is ridiculous.

I now agree.

But it was a conundrum for me until today precisely because in the 1960s, I was majoring in philosophy. I got a BA from what was then San Francisco State College and then moved to the PhD program at the University of Davis, California, with an emphasis that didn't yet have a name, but others called it philosophy of mind or philosophy of psychology. I kept trying to integrate the impact of computers and artificial intelligence, philosophy and psychology, but there really wasn't a place yet to do it.

Thirty years later, I learned it had acquired a name: cognitive science. One could even get a degree in it.

Back in the 1960s, we were still struggling with the impact of an empirical behaviorism that sought to break down the human condition into measurable factors, from which it could be reconstructed in measurable amounts, devoid of any interpretation.

One argument was that we cannot see (in another) emotions like happiness. We were told what we really see are behaviors, such as a lifting of the corners of the mouth, which we call a smile. We call that (along with other behavioral manifestations) happiness but we really can't see it.

And then today, I was sitting on my Bodhi front porch, watching my cat Jack. He was sitting at the top of the stairs and then he walked down them, turned and walked away in a manner that I would have called deliberate or purposeful, as if he knew where he was going.

That was the exact moment when I recalled the old behaviorist argument. In my situation, they would have said I can't see his being deliberate or purposeful. I would be convinced that all I really see is the manner of his walk, the rhythm of his gait, the way his head and ears are positioned.

And that was when I realized, no, their argument used a linguistic sleight-of-hand by insisting on a particular definition of see. Once that restricted definition was accepted, there was no way out and their argument.

Take a word that is written out, like CAT and run the same argument. What do you see?

I see the word cat, you might reply.

No, the behaviorist would say, all you see are some black lines and you infer the word.


Sorry, behaviorists, but thank you for playing.

The difference between seeing black lines and the word cat is what distinguishes reading.

If the word were written out in a language that doesn't even use the same alphabet (such as Arabic), then we see black lines because we can't read Arabic. In, say, French (and we assume we can't read or speak it), we would have le chat. While we perhaps can't read the word, we can read the letters.

So however we define or describe reading, that is what it is: we can grasp the meaning of the word.

And that was exactly what the behaviorists were trying to strip from the world of human experience: meaning.

So there is a definition of see that includes or overlaps with read, as in, I see your point or seen as a leader that is apart from see as perception, e.g., I can't see red.

I could see Jack walking deliberately. If one doesn't know Jack or cats (in the way one doesn't know Arabic), one might not be able to see that.

And so we can see happiness.

And it took me only 45 years to solve this, not that I ever doubted it. I just never saw the flaw in the argument until now.

Better late than never.

I am sure there is a reply and I can even conjure up one, but I'm no longer interested. I scratched an old philosophical "itch" and that is all I really wanted to do. I don't have time for new arguments. I'm more interested in catch-up. (smile)

Best of all, it brings me back to something I have come to appreciate. It is our search for meaning that distinguishes our species, which is why I so enjoyed Viktor Frankl's book by that title, which also changed my life, well into my cancer.

To strip us of meaning is to strip us of life.


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This information is provided for educational purposes only and does not replace or amend professional medical advice. Unless otherwise stated and credited, the content of Phoenix5 (P5) is by and the opinion of and copyright © 2000 Robert Vaughn Young. All Rights Reserved. P5 is at <>. P5's policy regarding privacy and right to reprint are at <>.