Philosophical Multicore

Sometimes controversial, sometimes fallacious, sometimes thought-provoking, and always fun.

John Stuart Mill and Richard Feynman on Pleasure

Posted by Michael Dickens on June 12, 2011

It is indisputable that the being whose capacities of enjoyment are low, has the greatest chance of having them fully satisfied; and a highly endowed being will always feel that any happiness which he can look for, as the world is constituted, is imperfect. But he can learn to bear its imperfections, if they are at all bearable; and they will not make him envy the being who is indeed unconscious of the imperfections, but only because he feels not at all the good which those imperfections qualify. It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. And if the fool, or the pig, are a different opinion, it is because they only know their own side of the question. The other party to the comparison knows both sides.

-John Stuart Mill

I have a friend who’s an artist and has sometimes taken a view which I don’t agree with very well. He’ll hold up a flower and say “look how beautiful it is,” and I’ll agree. Then he says “I as an artist can see how beautiful this is but you as a scientist take this all apart and it becomes a dull thing,” and I think that he’s kind of nutty. First of all, the beauty that he sees is available to other people and to me too, I believe. Although I may not be quite as refined aesthetically as he is … I can appreciate the beauty of a flower. At the same time, I see much more about the flower than he sees. I could imagine the cells in there, the complicated actions inside, which also have a beauty. I mean it’s not just beauty at this dimension, at one centimeter; there’s also beauty at smaller dimensions, the inner structure, also the processes. The fact that the colors in the flower evolved in order to attract insects to pollinate it is interesting; it means that insects can see the color. It adds a question: does this aesthetic sense also exist in the lower forms? Why is it aesthetic? All kinds of interesting questions which the science knowledge only adds to the excitement, the mystery and the awe of a flower. It only adds. I don’t understand how it subtracts.

-Richard Feynman

These two quotes, while they come from very different points of view, are remarkably similar. Mill discusses the distinction between higher and lower pleasures, and explains how it is better to experience higher pleasures such as art and philosophy than lower pleasures like eating and sex. (His quote above doesn’t cover his whole argument, of course; he explains in detail in chapter 2 of Utilitarianism.) Feynman addresses the all-too-common opinion that analyzing something subtracts from its beauty. Although one of these quotes is about Utilitarianism and the other is about science and beauty, they have a lot in common.

Mill’s key claim is that higher pleasures are more desirable. In his last sentence he acknowledges that people who do not understand higher pleasures often think they are better off than people who do, and asserts that such people are mistaken. Feynman provides a perfect example of this. The artist sees a scientific mindset as a burden that gets in the way of appreciating beauty. He does not see how a scientist could find pleasure in the aesthetics of a flower while at the same time analyzing its inner workings. The scientist, however, is able to appreciate the beauty of the flower as well as examine the more hidden beauty that requires scientific analysis.

Not all artists are “nutty” in this way, of course; but people like the artist Feynman describes are missing out on the pleasure and the beauty that scientific understanding can unlock. A deeper understanding can always lead to more pleasure, not less.

Feynman’s quote is from The Pleasure of Finding Things Out, which is available online. I recommend it.


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