My wife pisses me off. She has made me feel stupid hundreds of times. She has this strange ability to make me cry those uber-pathetic hiccup sobs that just make me look like an idiot.
And she brings me joy. I adore her. She makes me smile and laugh more than anyone else. She loves me, expresses her affection effusively, and helps me engage in activities that make me feel alive. In fact, she brings me more joy than arguably all my other relationships combined.
Why am I talking about this?
In my last post, “Is the World Good, and Does it Matter?” I mentioned my opinion that the world is, in fact, good, and believing so can potentially lead to a better life. Since then, a number of blog readers, such as Eddie the Erudite, have written me with questions like, “what about sin?” and “what about suffering in the world?” and, my favorite, “what about immense suckiness?” Good questions!
Eddie, “The world is good” is one example of a type of judgement I call a “universal assessment” (UA), which are overall judgements we make about the universe. Example? My friend Dan Black is writing a dissertation on 19th century Hungarian composer Franz Liszt. Two days ago he told me about an assertion made by a music critic in 1987 while comparing Liszt to Wagner. “For Liszt,” the critic said, “the ‘reality’ is the divine vision; for Wagner the ‘reality’ is a cruel world.” (P. Merrick) This difference in their assessment of the world played out in the emotional valence of their musical compositions.
My idea is simple: our universal assessments like “the world is cruel” matter in a variety ways—even musical expression. In order to answer Eddie’s question, however, I must dive a little deeper into what UAs are exactly.
Universal assessments are not simply any belief one has about the universe. A few nights ago, I got out my logic textbook from college (logic class is sexy), and remembered that one can mean at least three different things when making a statement like the “the world is good.”
Option 1: I might be saying that the entire universe is characterized by goodness (and thus nothing is bad). This is the potential meaning Eddie the Erudite found concerning. The assertion can be represented by the category statement, “All X is Y.” In fact, since we are talking about the universe, the class of “X” consists of everything that exists—you, me, the box fan that is keeping me cool as I type this, and everything else. Thus we can simplify the category statement to “All is Y” or “All is good.”
Option 2: The second meaning of “the world is good” might be that there is some unknown measure of goodness in the world. This can be represented by the category statement, “Some is Y.” This means nearly nothing. In logic, “some” can mean hardly anything or almost everything.
Option 3: If one asserts “the universe is good” they might mean something like, “Most is Y.” This is closer.
When I say, “the world is good” I want to assert that the world’s moral valence, its gist, its core, its essence, its balance, its je ne sais quoi, is good. In doing so, we have to weigh all the world’s shittiness…
- 1.6 billion people lack a safe and healthy place to sleep at night (Habitat for Humanity Intl).
- 870 million people in the world do not get enough food to eat.
- The 2009 USA Reinvestment Act spent 831 billion dollars by printing money and taking out loans.
- The West Wing has been off the air for 7 years!
…against all the world’s awesomeness.
- 5.5 billion people slept last night in a safe and healthy place (see Jer’s crazy math skills).
- 6.2 billion people get plenty of food to eat (see Jer’s crazy math skills).
- For every dollar spent in the 2009 Reinvestment Act, there are nearly 100,000 trees. Seriously, according to NASA there are about 400 billion adult trees in the world. At about 200,000 leaves per tree, that is 80 thousand quadrillion leaves (real word—I looked it up—it goes billion, trillion, then quadrillion). I love leaves. They are beautiful. Each one would be mounted in places of honor if they weren’t so damn abundant.
- I have all seven seasons of The West Wing on my computer!
These stats barely scratch the surface of what is relevant to a universal assessment, but it’s clear enough that there is vast goodness and badness in the universe. Thus asserting the existence of some goodness or some badness (option 2) in the universe is boring because it’s obviously true, and asserting that existence is 100% good or 100% bad (option 1) is boring because it’s obviously false. The interesting question instead is which side wins (option 3). What side is bigger, more weighty, or more numerous?
Sidestepping the metaphors of size, kilograms, or quantity, at the heart of a universal assessment is some sort of balance point. There is a threshold which must be achieved before a given aspect of an object becomes characteristic of that object. In forming UAs, therefore, we treat existence as a single thing and assess its defining qualities.
So, in response to Eddie the Erudite: yes, sin, suffering and ugliness are huge. But just because they are huge, does not mean they are defining. Of course it is difficult to assess a data set that is so… large.
But we do it. We do it all the time. And it matters.
I met my wife 10 years ago the very first day of college. We were close for a year and a half, dated for three and a half years, and have now been married for almost five years! This decade has created a vast army of pros — the gross tonnage of awesomeness that I see in Alicia — and a monster force of opposing cons — all the shit-tastic things she does that piss me off. In other words, my wife is a large data set. Some is good, some is bad, but what is more defining? Is my wife good? Is she worthwhile? Do I like her?
Yes. I do. Thank God! The good radically outweighs the bad. In fact, the good outweighs the bad to such an enormous extent, that I am not afraid that the bad might outweigh the good any time soon. My wife is good. Whew!
And it matters. I have no data to support this, except a violently strong feeling in my gut that reaches from my jaw to my tailbone: my “wife assessment” has an enormous effect on my relationship to her. If I imagine, even for a second, a world in which I thought my wife was an ass, I quickly see relationship dynamics slipping into aggression, resignation, and divorce.
And just kidding! Psychologists actually do have data, lots of it, to support the notion that overall beliefs about one’s significant other affects one’s relationship. In one study, thinking your partner was “perfect” correlated with relationship health and longevity (Franiuk, R., Cohen, D., & Pomerantz, E. M., 2002). In another study (Showers, C. J., & Limke, A, 2006), researchers found that beliefs about a partner are related to breaking-up. And lots of work indicates that one’s overall disposition towards something affects one’s interactions with it — we make “school assessments,” “church assessments,” “friend assessments,” “job assessments,” etc., and they matter.
But I am especially excited about the comparison of “spouse assessments” for understanding UAs because: 1) Spouses are crazy personal. 2) They create an unfathomably large data set. 3) One has no idea how to “count” good and bad aspects. 4) Yet we make overall assessments of spouses all the time because we know its absolutely necessary for the health of our relationship. My own “spouse assessment,” my gut feeling about whether Alicia is in fact good or not, affects my life, and ultimately whether or not I choose to stay married. Likewise, perhaps my universal assessment affects my life, whether or not I choose to stay alive in it, and even add life to it.
There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide. — Albert Camus The Myth of Sisyphus
While our own existence is thrust upon us without our consent, we can choose whether or not to pass this existence on to our possible offspring. Presumably, this choice will reflect our judgment as to the worthwhileness of existence. — James Pawelski (my friend, professor, & thesis advisor)
Beyond suicide and procreation, perhaps my UAs also affect how I get busy living. Will I suffer through life like a depressed spouse in an abusive relationship (world), or is there another option? Can I be head over heels in love with the universe and thankful for this gift of life? (I got chills when I wrote this.) Is it possible to be passionately, meaningfully, and levelheadedly in love with life like I am, or try to be, with my wife? I am not sure.