Saturday, March 12, 2011

Paul Bloom's "How Pleasure Works"

This was a fun book to read with many interesting points, but halfway through the book a gnawing since that the book wasn't gelling overtook me. He makes many observations and in Bloom's mind he may have a thesis he is pushing, but I didn't find it. The one theme throughout the book is the human need for "essentialism". I can buy that, but so what? The book claims to look at "the new science of why we like what we like" but I didn't walk away with any deep insight to answer that question.

A Paul Bloom speciality is to use shock value to get your attention. He starts chapter two, entitled "Foodies", with the story of Armin Meiwes, a German who used the Internet to find a volunteer to let him kill and eat. In chapter 5, entitled "Performances", he writes:
Or consider the most famous work of Piero Manzoni: a series of 90 cans of the artist's feces. They sold well; in 2002, the Tate gallery paid $61,000 for one of the cans. This is interesting artwork in many ways and nicely connects to the theme of essentialism. It is the epitome of positive contagion, the idea that the pleasure we get from certain objects is due to the belief that they contain a residue of the creator or the user. As Manzoni puts it, "If collectors really want something intimate, really personal to the artist, there's the artist's own shit." Also, it comes with a wonderfully comic vision. Manzoni intentionally failed to properly autoclave the cans, and so at least half of these cans of feces, proudly on display in museums and private collections, later exploded.
I have a real problem accepting "essentialism". Sure, many people have magical thinking that owning something once touched by a Hollywood star has some "special magic" in it, but I think that is a minority. The number of people who actually put money down for "collectibles" is a minority of the population. Most of us are too busy living normal lives and most of us don't have the prerequisite magical thinking that is the basis of "essentialism".

Since I reject a key "idea" of the book, I find the book unpersuasive and consequently feel that the book has no integrity, nothing holding it together. It is full of wonderful stories and interesting observations, but nothing compelling and certainly no "science". I'm not impressed by the "essentialism" of Bloom's credentials -- his doctorate and position on the faculty at Yale -- to buy the swill he is selling. Sure he is a fun author to read, but this isn't science beyond quoting a number of experiments showing magical thinking in some people. There is no overarching theory that does what Bloom claims. It doesn't explain "how pleasure works".

I do think he makes some interesting points and they need to be incorporated in a serious and proper science, but they won't get the centre stage he is giving them. I find material like this unscientific and deeply unsatisfying:
The situation here is reminiscent of waht the psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott said about babnies' relations to transitional objects like teddy bears and soft blankets. He claimed -- plausibly, see Chapter 4 -- that these were substitutes for the mother, or perhaps just for her breast. But what do babies themselves think of them? Do they recognize that they are substitutes, or do they think that they are actually mothers/breasts? Winnicott has an odd remark about this: "Of the transitional object, it can be said that it is a matter of agreement between us and the baby that we will never ask the question:'Did you conceive of this or was it presented to you from without?' The important point is taht no decision on this point is expected. The question is not to be formulated."

In other words: don't ask. I think Winnicott's remark captures the ambiguity that many people feel with regard to their religious beliefs. They have an odd and fragile status. For science too, there are questions that arise about certain more theoretical constructs. Are quarks and superstrings real or convenient abstractions? Some would advise: don't ask.
I buy this statement from Bloom:
Many significant human pleasures are universal. But they are not biological adaptations. They are by-products of mental systems that have evolved for other purposes.
Yes, many of our pleasures are spandrels.

But I don't buy this:
In the chapters that follow, I will argue that the pleasure we get from many things and activities are based in part on what we see as their essences. Our essentialism is not just a cold-blooded way of making sense of reality; it underlies our passions, our appetites, and our desires.
He tries to provide many examples, but they leave me cold. For example, he argues that the cult of "viginity" is based on essentialism. I think it is a weird corruption caused by a mistranslation of "young woman" into a word for a woman with no sexual experience. I've never had a fetish for virginity and I can't claim to know anybody who either pants after the experience of "a virgin" or who wails and moans about lacking the experience of "having a virgin". This is just nutty. I don't deny that there is a segment of the population, I would guess maybe 10%, who are caught up in the fantasy. But I don't buy the "essentialism" argument. Nobody I know in the throes of sex are calculating "is this my partner's 'first time'?" I can buy that it is a fun topic for imaginative fun, but few in the real world pay it much heed.

Buying into essentialism means you buy into putting virginity on a pedestal, you buy into the kind of "art" popularized by Manzoni, and you buy into cannibalism as a way to integrate another person' "essence". Sorry, I don't buy into GM foods as "Frankenfood", and I certainly don't buy into cannibalism.

I expect a book that is introducing me to a science to start with a motivation, then go over the facts and the meanings of these facts, and to end by reviewing "what we learned" so that I get a complete "learning package". This book is very unsatisfying because it never presents "the science of pleasure". It is a hodgepodge of ideas, but nothing gelled for me.

I would recommend reading Paul Blooms' book, but don't expect to uncover some "new science" of pleasure. Instead, you will find delightful stories, some discussion of current psychological research, and some strange views about "essences" and how this is key to human nature. This is worth taking the time to read. But don't expect enlightenment or a coherent introduction to a "new science".

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