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The Science of Happiness: Comfortably Numb?

The cyber-yenta is thriving:

Once upon a time, finding a mate was considered too important to be entrusted to people under the influence of raging hormones. Their parents, sometimes assisted by astrologers and matchmakers, supervised courtship until customs changed in the West because of what was called the Romeo and Juliet revolution. Grown-ups, leave the kids alone.

But now some social scientists have rediscovered the appeal of adult supervision — provided the adults have doctorates and vast caches of psychometric data. Online matchmaking has become a boom industry as rival scientists test their algorithms for finding love.

Recall that Eric Schmidt once said that Google aspired to be able to tell its users what job they should go out and seek if they felt bored or unappreciated at a current employer. Imagine the possibilities if they managed to mine eHarmony data.

Tech may provide an unlimited upside for connubial contentment. Consider this “experience machine“-evoking example posited by David Owens (and related by Ronald Bailey):

You have developed some nagging doubts about your partner’s fidelity. Although you sometimes think your doubts are irrational, you remember certain lingering looks at parties, and your happiness is spoiled. You’re not the sort to hire a private detective, but you have heard of a new pharmaceutical, the anti-doubt pill, Credon. Credon lulls your suspicious nature, but doesn’t make you gullible to car sales people. It works only in the context of intimate relationships. The manufacturer does warn that Credon has sometimes generated excessive trust between lovers. So off you go to “The Pharmacy of the Future” for Credon.

. . . [And] why not take the new anti-possessiveness pill Libermine? Patients using Libermine don’t care if their partners have an occasional fling. Or why be a couple at all? Solox, the emotional independence pill, enables patients to have a wide and emotionally satisfying circle of friends but liberates them from the tedium of having only one intimate partner.

Owens raises some very interesting questions:

For Trotsky, the better we understand how human beings work, the freer we shall be. But The Pharmacy of the Future suggests that the more we learn about ourselves, the less free we will be. A scientific understanding of man is a threat to our freedom because it undermines our capacity to govern our own lives by making decisions. If man is just a bag of chemicals, once we know what these chemicals are, we can re-mix them at will. And by re-mixing them at will, we can give ourselves whatever character we like. But if we can choose a character at random, our current needs and interests lose their authority as grounds for making any decision. And what other grounds for making decisions are there?

Bailey is quite sanguine about the possibilities here, reassuring us that “Just as humanity is still learning how to use the contraceptive pill and to handle divorce, so too will we engage in a process of trial-and-error social learning about how to use (or not) new psycho-pharmaceuticals.” I am not so optimistic, and I’m frankly a little surprised that Bailey didn’t propose the answer his magazine (Reason) gives to virtually every other problem: the market. The evolutionary dynamics of the market can be quite effective at selecting for people who aren’t terribly distracted by problems outside the sphere of commerce.

PS: Just to be clear: I’m certainly not equating eHarmony and Credon. I’m just speculating on some unintended consequences of mechanistic worldviews when they shift from being ways of understanding the world to being ways of understanding ourselves.