Figments of Ultimate Satisfaction: Our high ideals may be our downfall

Life is a game, though not because it’s casual, unimportant fun, which is what’s implied most often by that cliché. Indeed, that’s the greatest dissimilarity between games and life. Life is very much a big deal. How we do at it defines us personally. It shapes those who depend upon us, even people we don’t know, like the millions who will suffer the long-term consequences of our losing moves or enjoy the long-term benefits of our winning ones.

No, life is like a game in that we make moves on the game board of life in hopes of winning. I have argued elsewhere (Mother of all Questions) that the question behind all questions in life is “What can I do with what I’m dealt to get to the good?” “What can I do” refers to my moves in the game of life. “What I’m dealt” refers to the game board. “To get to the good,” refers to winning the game.

The word “winning” bothers some of us. We’re not so sure what it means anymore. We see people behave badly when they’re trying to win, and when they have won by popular standards. Still, excluding the irrational--specifically, people with mental illnesses that prevent them from working with ratios, comparing one option to another--every one of us prefers some outcomes to others. Winning simply means attaining preferred outcomes, whatever they may be.

We say “Life is just a game” most often when we’re feeling like it’s anything but--when we worry about winning so much that it makes us play worse. Here the word “just” means “merely,” as though life is less serious than you think it is. “It’s only a game, nothing to get worked up about.” “Just” whispers, “Ignore the possibility that life is anything more serious.”

Or “just a game” suggests that it’s not serious in contrast to something else that is more serious. We say “Life is just a game” sometimes to mean, “The game you’re worrying about is irrelevant in the big scheme of things. The real action is elsewhere, so don’t get so worked up.”

For about two-thirds of Americans, the real action is the afterlife, which is generally made out to be a winner-takes-all, loser-loses-all proposition. Heaven, the realm of eternal bliss; hell, the realm of eternal suffering.

I, of course, don’t believe in heaven or hell, but I do believe I know why people would intuit the existence of these realms regardless of whether they really exist.

All organisms have preferences--bacteria move toward energy sources, plants reach for the sun. Like all organisms, humans have preferences. But we’ve also got this unprecedented capacity to imagine what isn’t present to our senses. We perceive through our senses and we perceive through our imaginations. We’re the first known bi-mundial organisms--living simultaneously in the real world and the world of our fantasies (Your RV).

What do you get when you cross preference with imagination? The capacity to imagine the thing that would satisfy all of your preferences. We humans can imagine the perfect mate, the perfect job, the perfect retirement, the perfect afterlife.
Formulating these figments of ultimate satisfaction is a bit like playing 20 questions with an amnesiac. I’ll give you an example: Go ahead, ask me about my perfect mate.

Is she wonderful?
Yes.
Is she gorgeous?
Yes.
Is she popular?
Yes.
Is she very desirable?
Yes.
Are you free from worry that someone will win her away from you?
Yes.
Is she always there when you want her?
Yes.
Does she disappear when you want to be alone?
Yes.
Is she completely independent so you don’t have to worry about her?
Yes.
Is she completely devoted to you?
Yes.
Are you excited by her always?
Yes.
Are you relaxed about her always?
Yes.

Never mind the incoherence, the incompatible qualities. On any question, I answer, “Yes, she’s perfect”--regardless of whether my answers are consistent with each other. If I were to try to make my dream partner a reality, I would discover that the devil’s in the very details my imagination allows me to ignore.

That’s how we come to our visions of heaven, and in reverse--a figment of ultimate dissatisfaction--of hell. Both are envisioned as places where you’re constantly (eternally) wowed, even though constant wow is an oxymoron (Loving Ingratitude).

Figments of ultimate satisfaction fill our childhood make-believe play. In our youthful fantasies, it’s not enough to do the best possible, we want to do the best imaginable, which is way beyond the best possible.

Even though our expectations get more realistic as we mature, figments of ultimate satisfaction still beckon. Hoax springs eternal. Sales and advertising play on these figments, as do religions.

Spreading the Good News

Since we all have preferences and imaginations, we can each come up with our own figments of ultimate satisfaction. And since our core preferences are so similar, it’s not surprising that many figments of ultimate satisfaction have a lot in common. My perfect partner and yours have a lot in common. My dream vacation home is similar to yours.

A Muslim heaven is not that different from a Christian heaven. In basic contours, even the routes for getting in to heaven are similar from sect to sect. Of course, the devil is in the details.

For fun and profit, people try to sell you on their figments of ultimate satisfaction and the specific routes into them. Yes, one dream vacation home is similar to the next--but that doesn’t make the vacation home salesmen indifferent to whether you buy theirs or their competitors’. The same goes for religious proselytizers selling you on their heaven and the route to it.

You would think that these days, proselytizing would be tough work. People have acquired resistance to the hard sell. As with selling door to door or asking your friends to buy Tupperware or Mary Kay, there’s a lot of risk of rejection. Proselytizing is word-of-mouth advertising, which is never easy if your pitch sits on the uneasy border between business, charity, and friendship (Feedback).

Is there a better pitch than “Hey friend, buy this thing so I can make a profit”? Of course: downplay the benefit to you the seller; concentrate on the benefit to the buyer. Say, “Sure, I’ll profit by selling you this Mary Kay makeup, but you’ll be happier too, because Mary Kay is a high-quality cosmetic.”

Pump up the pitch further with more benefits to the customer: “You’ll love the products, and what’s more, you to can make money selling them too. I’m doing you a favor by introducing you to them.”

But your profiting at all from the transaction will always make the buyer suspicious. So try: “I get nothing out of this. I’m doing you a very big favor in introducing you to these products because selling Mary Kay is the key to ultimate satisfaction.”

Skeptical buyers may still wonder why you’re bothering to do them the favor. But not if the pitch is really about saving them from a fate worse than death. “In pitching you Mary Kay, I’m doing you the ultimate favor. I’m saving your life, because life without Mary Kay is the ultimate dissatisfaction.”

In the religious proselytizer’s hands a parallel pitch is both sellable and buyable. The true believer believes the pitch is doing you the ultimate favor—saving you from a fate worse than death. The receptive buyer gets directions to the attainment of a plausible figment of ultimate satisfaction. And buyers there are. Two-thirds of adult Americans believe in hell, but only 1 percent expect to go there. And 13.3 million Americans participate in multi-level marketing programs like Mary Kay.

Recipes for Salvation

I can imagine a world free from suffering. But then again I can imagine spinning the universe on the tip of my baby finger. I’d do both like the amnesiac playing 20 questions, ignoring the inconsistencies in my mental model.

In the real world not everyone can be helped. Realists therefore must ask themselves, “How should I allocate my finite generosity in a world of infinite need?’ Prioritizing is best done with an eye to efficiency--performing triage, trying to help where you’ll make the greatest difference. Like winning, the concepts of leverage and efficiency are met with skepticism these days because of the ways the juggernaut corporations and tyrants employ them without regard for the subtle values in life. But if evil is to be thwarted and suffering reduced it pays to keep one eye on maximizing efficiencies, maybe keeping the other focused on whatever suffering is closest at hand.

For efficiency’s sake, it pays to help those who would help themselves if they could. It’s very inefficient to try to help those who don’t share your interest in improving their situation. As a rule, the more your aspiration to improve their circumstances exceeds theirs, the less efficiently your help will be used.

At a global scale the least efficient people to try to help are the psychopaths and the sociopaths. Psychopaths don’t care about the worldly consequences of their actions. They’re neurologically devoid of the socializing currencies of guilt, shame, remorse, pride, honor, and sense of fairness.

Sociopaths are the manmade equivalents of psychopaths, people who have slipped into a sub-culture that trains away those socializing currencies, tribes that teach that the way to heaven is through ignoring earthly concerns. Suicide bombers, for example.

Sociopaths aren’t irrational. They work with ratios--weighing benefits, comparing options (Misdenominational). But the options that seem winning to them aren’t about life on earth, so in an earthly context, they are as irrational as it gets.

And actually helping a tribe of sociopaths isn’t as hard as helping a nation, like Iraq, embroiled in a civil war between sociopathic factions.

I know good reasons to be there--from protecting the innocent victims of the civil war to protecting the oil, which for people as dependent on oil as we are is no trivial matter.

Still, at face value, our tough-guy president’s choice to win in Iraq amounts to a very New Age, flower-childy figment of ultimate satisfaction. Only if you believe you can help everyone would you ignore the inefficiency of starting with those who are hardest to help just because they’re in trouble. A lot of people are in trouble these days, and some would benefit much more from our attentions just now.

Of course it’s naïve to think the president’s declared motives have anything to do with the matter. It’s not about helping the Iraqis. The declared motives are a ruse to woo us. The wooing works because it plays on our figments of ultimate satisfaction. Our admirable preference to help and save everyone coupled with our powerful capacity to imagine a perfect world makes us receptive to the implication that we don’t have to prioritize. A leader can lull us into any fool-hardy campaign by playing on our irrationality, specifically the ratio-free way that, if you believe your dream of helping everyone, you don’t have to weigh one priority against another.

Click here for a very funny, if irreverent (to some, offensive) old timey gospel tune parody.

Click here for a wonderful one hour NPR "This American Life" show about Carlton Pearson, a Pentacostal mega-preacher who became a heretic when he declared that he no longer believed in hell.

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