Most of us are familiar with the biblical story of creation.
You know, the one where God creates the first man, Adam, and then from his rib the first woman, Eve.
At first, Adam and Eve find themselves in the garden of paradise: an ideal place here on Earth where they experience joy and abundance.
But one day, a serpent has a private word with Eve. The serpent is Satan, who in the Old Testament is not generally depicted as the evil bad guy working against God, but is made to represent that which keeps us humble by having doubt and skepticism about the world (another bible story, Job, has Satan even keeping God honest by attributing Job’s faith to the good fortune God bestows upon him, and in the end Satan winds up being right!).
So Satan puts doubt and skepticism into Eve, and convinces her to eat of the tree which bears the knowledge of good and evil. From there it’s an easy sell for Eve to convince Adam to do the same, getting both thrown out of paradise on Earth.
What a great story! In symbolic form it perfectly describes what I’m about to explain. The only part that’s missing is the part where Adam and Eve figure out how to handle their knowledge of good and evil and return to the garden.
Yes, we can return to paradise. I bet no one told you that growing up.
What is Paradise?
As in, what defines paradise as being what it is and not something else?
Perhaps the most common answer, not necessarily in words but in the actual things people pursue, is the presence of pleasure/absence of pain. This view is called hedonism, and the paradisaical version would be having a life of nothing but pure, intense pleasure coupled with the utter absence of pain. The utilitarians such as Jeremy Bentham have additionally pointed out that pleasure comes in many forms, and is not just limited to the base physical pleasures of food, sex, and the like, but extends to the pleasures of the mind too.
But I think this is easily dismissed, both on pragmatic grounds and the argument from the obscenely wealthy.
The pragmatic argument against 24/7 pleasure is that it’s not possible. The world is never fully under one man’s control, and so at best (and in reality really) pleasures will always come and go, as will pains. Buddhists call this the “mark of impermanence,” which is simply saying that everything under the sun comes and goes…none of it ever really stays.
The argument from the obscenely wealthy is just that: even the wealthiest men on Earth do not live in paradise on account of their fortune alone. The classical archetype of the “pantalone” demonstrates this well: the rich old man who is miserable and miserly, and makes everyone else around him the same (Mr. Burns from the Simpsons is an excellent example).
I propose that paradise is simply a state of perfection: where life is absolutely perfect.
Or perhaps more precisely: the state where one wishes nothing to be different from what it is.
One is not in paradise if they wish for life to be perfect, expect it to become perfect at some later date, or believe it was perfect at some past date. To be in paradise, one has to feel it right now…in the present.
But if pleasure can’t be had all the time (odds are that you’re not in intense pleasure at this very moment), then when is life perfect?
The Philosophical Argument: Life Already is a Perfect Paradise
I want to propose to you that right now, at this very moment, your life is absolutely perfect the way it is, regardless of what is happening. Your life can’t be anything BUT perfect.
Most people will balk at this and find some reason why it can’t be perfect. I mean, maybe it’s GOOD right now, but not perfect.
The problem with even trying to argue against the conviction “My life is absolutely perfect” is that you have to already assume that this statement itself is imperfect in order to come up with a reason against it. I call this an “argument from required self-assumption.”
Whoa! Think about that. Let it settle in. What it means is that you cannot reason your way to saying that life is perfect or not without circular reasoning.
You have to assume the statement, “Life is absolutely perfect” to be wrong or imperfect in some way (and thus already assume there is a problem) in order to formulate an honest answer against it (and by honest I mean a counterargument with conviction, not merely playing devil’s advocate or the like).
In other words, contentment can’t be rationally reasoned into, but only arbitrarily chosen. You either start with the assumption that life is perfect and build from there, or you start with the assumption that it’s imperfect and build from that. The only third option is those moments where moral judgments (“good” and “bad”) don’t come into play at all, but that’s not really an option so much as a situation.
“Well, I Could Start Out Suspending Belief On The Matter”
Indeed! You could start out not denying or confirming perfection, but suspending belief.
If you suspend belief in this matter, either you will make a decision at some point in the future, or you will not make a decision some point in the future.
If you never do make a decision, then you, by definition, will never make a moral claim ever again. To say something is “bad” is to say it to be undesirable (via David Hume) and hence imperfect, except in the driest academic context where a moral judgment isn’t being made so much as it is being evaluated as conforming to a system or not. Denying one’s self all moral judgments is pragmatically absurd and I’d contend, impossible to do.
If that wasn’t enough though, it’s arguable that even taking the position of such neutrality is a moral claim for suspending belief! In other words, you’ve assumed that something is wrong (not suspending belief) and something else is right (cautious thinking) in order to suspend belief on whether anything is wrong or not. It’s self defeating.
If you do make a decision, then you either have to decide on that everything is perfect or that there is at least some imperfection, and the argument from required self-assumption applies.
Not About Denying Reality
The point here is not the typical wishful thinking or positive thinking exercise. I propose nothing of the sort because our thoughts can’t be controlled now and forever (there’s the impermanence deal I was talking about again). This is only a matter of what thoughts you want to attach to.
It’s just a choice: do you want to attach to the belief that something is wrong in the world, or do you want to attach to the belief that everything is perfect? When you believe everything is perfect, there’s no reason for denial because you’re completely open to all experience.
If I Thought Everything Was Perfect, I Wouldn’t Take Action To Improve The World
A lot of people have this concern: “If I thought everything was perfect, then I would let bad things happen and wouldn’t care about improving the world. I have to believe something is not right or I wouldn’t be motivated.”
In my experience, nothing could be further from the truth. To help others and solve problems just feels good…we’re wired to be social and to provide benefit/avert pain for our fellow man. This urge toward humanity is just as perfect as anything else.
In fact, when everything is perfect, there’s little reason to fear the world. It’s my experience that people with this assumption tend to be MORE humanitarian, MORE courageous, and MORE willing to get involved.
My Own Experiences
I’ve made my choice, and that’s that no matter what happens, my life is perfect. It may sound silly, but simply making this choice has put me into paradise. My knowledge of good and evil has become so lopsided that even being stabbed would be a perfect experience. Yes, it would hurt like hell, and at the time of being stabbed I’d probably be acting and thinking as if something is very wrong indeed, but it would still be perfect, just as would my attempts to avoid getting stabbed and my attempts to get help.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s much easier to have this gratitude for everything at certain times than others. There’s even plenty of times that I assume something is wrong. The body has a strong impact on the mind and its discomfort has a heavy influence. It’s when I see the my thoughts for what they are (just thoughts) that I’m reminded that none are essentially true, and that my contentment is a choice.