Friday, April 30, 2010

How I’ve Changed – Part III Philosophy

[Author’s note: This is the third in a series of musings on a few of the fundamental ways I’ve matured over the last two decades. Part I of this series is here. Specifically I chose to focus on three aspects:

  1. The use of philosophy as a practical science for determining how to live one’s life, and more specifically a framework to understand what role value plays in one’s life. i.e. this is the science of ethics, what should man value, and how should he go about pursuing those values.
  2. The development of a useful framework to be able to deal with and integrate my emotional responses.
  3. The development of a useful framework to characterize and deal with my relations with other people.

This post will focus on the third, philosophy.

Ideas matter…

That’s the short answer of course. But it’s also the bottom line, and it’s a more profound statement than I realized twenty years ago. I’ve always been the intellectual sort, but in many ways I’ve only fully internalized and operationalized that principle in the last few years. So what does it mean? What does it really mean?

The first question one might be tempted to ask is “why?” “Why do ideas matter?” The answer is simple, but not always obvious: ideas are the way that you, as a human being, figure out how to make your way in the world. You cannot escape your need, nor your use of them.

Consider your average day. You get up and go to work. Consider how you arrived in that state. How did you choose your education? On what basis did you choose your career? On what basis should one choose a career? What are your career plans? Are you achieving them?Do you like your job? Should you like your job?

You go out to lunch. What do you eat? Is it good for you? Do you enjoy it? Who do you eat with? Do you pay for your meal? Should you pay for your meal? Why?

And finally you go home. Do you have a family? Do you love your wife or husband? Why? How should you treat someone you love? What do you do in your free time? Why? Is it rewarding? Are you happy?

To make these choices; to think about and act on your life on any basis that is more than simply what do I feel like doing now, you have to use ideas.

Maybe you’re a little skeptical of this statement. You think to yourself, “yeah, but what if I don’t actually live by ideas? What if I simply do what I feel and don’t think about it?” Putting aside that most people who say this don’t actually follow that principle consistently, consider the fact that unlike an animal you choose this course of action. And your basis for choosing it is the principle that people shouldn’t live by ideas. Except that this is itself an idea.

Philosophy then is simply the science that provides a framework for how one uses ideas in their life. It is a guide for living. Philosophy doesn’t answer every single question about life or the world around us; however, it does answer the fundamental ones. By fundamental I mean the ones upon which all the rest of knowledge is built. Philosophy properly conceived answers a few fundamental questions:

  1. What is the nature of the world around us?
  2. Can I know this world, and if so by what methods do I know that I understand it?
  3. What should I do as a result of this knowledge? What goals should I pursue, and how?
  4. How should I treat other people in my dealings with them?

I have trouble thinking of a more profoundly practical set of questions, ones that in various ways you and I have to consider daily. In fact, most religions make attempts, however primitive, to answer these questions, because the questions themselves are ones that we all seek answers to. We do this, because we need the answers, i.e. the ideas they provide, in order to live.

Of course philosophy is a little circular in a way. My statement above that ideas matter is itself a philosophical statement from a particular viewpoint. It is a particular answer to one of the questions above, “by what methods does one know reality?” This seeming circularity makes some people prone to claim that ideas are all relative, i.e. that the questions above can never be answered definitively, but that we can only express our opinions about them. Others claim that there are absolute answers to them, but ones that we can’t develop ourselves. Rather have to have given to us by God or by society.

So rather than get stuck as one is wont to do having to start explaining every single idea within a philosophy, I want to highlight a few ideas about the importance and pervasiveness of the need for philosophy, as such. In other words, what are some of the ways that one understands the concept that ideas do matter.

Ideas Matter - All the Time

The fundamental of life is choice; the choices we make, large and small. We choose a career. We choose to have a family. We choose where to live, and what to eat. Unlike animals who act instinctively, humans choose almost everything they act toward. it is the conceptual content of our minds, i.e. our ideas, which inform our choices. Our fundamental option then as regards our choices is to make them, informed by consciously held ideas or uninformed by such ideas. We can make choices because of a reason or we can make choices “just because.” One of the key concepts philosophy has added to my life is the realization that our ideas should be consciously, deliberately brought to bear on all of our choices.

Now one might argue that there are certain choices that don’t require ideas. Do I really need a reason to choose between vanilla or chocolate ice cream for dessert tonight? Can’t I choose it “just because?” In a sense this choice is quite arbitrary and philosophy certainly won’t tell you that vanilla or chocolate is the “right” choice. However, on a completely different level, there is an idea that is crucial to this choice; namely the idea that certain choices are arbitrary and certain choices are not. That is, you have to have a reason to put the choice of ice cream flavor into the class of arbitrary choices. Although we can probably think of many sorts of these choices, there are very few truly arbitrary choices. (I chose chocolate, by the way.)

Nor am I suggesting that one must have fully formed ideas before acting. Thinking, experience, reasoning all take energy and resources, and we have a limited amount of time to deal with the choices in our lives. This morning I had to make a decision about the price I was going to charge a customer on a particular product that I have marketing responsibility for. Ideally, one could imagine that I make this choice with complete knowledge. What are the customer’s other options? How unique is my product compared to those options? Does my customer value certain features of my product? What application will he uses this product for? What is his financial state? Practically, however, I don’t have all of this information, and I cannot expend the effort to obtain all of it before I run out of time and must make my decision. This happens to us on a daily basis. However it is not being frivolous with ideas to go ahead and make this decision.

So what would taking ideas seriously all the time imply about partially informed decisions?First, one ought to consider their choices in terms of relative importance, and expend more effort to inform the more important ideas. It is treating ideas frivolously to spend days and days researching the choice of a make of television to buy, but then spend a few minutes to make a career choice. Second, when making partially informed choices, one must recognize the fact that it is a partially informed choice and this means that one is taking risk. It is treating ideas seriously to revisit partially informed choices as more information becomes available and evaluate them again.

Ideas are Interrelated

What do sex, an iPhone and political theory have in common? Do they have anything in common? Do you know someone who is terribly brilliant in a particular field of endeavor in their lives, and a complete idiot in another? Why is the phenomena of a “Renaissance Man” particular to, well, ages like the Renaissance? Like the first question, this set of questions might appear themselves to be very unrelated, but at their essence they are related by a crucial element, the idea that all ideas are interrelated.

What is meant by this statement? Our ideas are based on our descriptions of the world around us. And in the world around us things are related by the nature of the various entities that make it up. For instance, take the 3 items mentioned previously: sex, and iPhone, and U.S.foreign policy. While seemingly disparate, these things are related. How? One key aspect is that they are all products of men’s choices. As such, ideas relating to each can be informed by a common account of human nature. For instance if you think that man has free will this can and should influence your views of each of the above. A man is responsible for his sexual choices and they inform on his character. The innovative creations of entrepreneurs like Steve Jobs are seen as an inspirational accomplishment because of the force of will that they take. And finally, countries should be founded on the basis that men are able to govern themselves. If however you hold that man is a walking bag of water and chemicals and his free will is an illusion, you may hold that his sexual choices say nothing about him. The accomplishments of Steve Jobs are nothing special, and men’s desires, being randomly generated always pit them against each other and government’s role should be as parent to its population in order to control these conflicts. So because things may have commonality in reality, our ideas about them should be congruent.

To take ideas seriously then is to check your ideas against each other; to assure that where they interrelate, that they are compatible with each other. In fact, it is more than simply checking ideas against each other, but it means actively seeking out ideas from various fields and working to discover their interrelations. One cannot have a complete and error free account of human nature, for instance, without understanding philosophy, biology, psychology, economics, etc.

This is why, in eras where societies take ideas seriously, one finds the particular phenomena of the Renaissance Man. When one understands that fields of endeavor are all informed by information from other fields, one is motivated to study multiple fields and indeed the best men in a society are the ones who become knowledgeable in multiple fields of endeavor. The compartmentalized genius, the man who is an expert in one field while being ignorant in all others ignores the fact that ideas are interrelated.

How One Arrives at their Ideas is as Important as the Ideas Themselves

The truth of the ideas that drive your choices depends on how well the ideas correspond to reality. Man is not given truths; he must determine what is true and what it not. He must have a method for validating that he has formed his ideas properly and that they do in fact correspond to reality. The method one chooses is therefore as important as the conclusions one arrives at.

Let’s suppose that two persons are studying physics. One dutifully comes to class, takes notes, accepts what the professor says as truth without question. He goes through laboratory exercises by rote. The second on the other hand asks questions, attempts to understand how the ideas were arrived at originally. He integrates his observations of the world around him into those scientific ideas and sees the ideas as accurately describing his world. He uses labs to work through the basics of each principle he’s being taught.

At the end both may score well on exams, but what the first person can be said to have is hardly knowledge. Not having understood how conclusions were arrived at, he may be able to parrot the one’s he’s taught, but it’s dubious whether or not new conclusions he arrives at would be valid.

It is very possible that one may hold ideas that are true, but having arrived at them via invalid methods is as dangerous as operating with untrue ideas. Method speaks to your ability to develop new ideas of your own, to integrate new knowledge into your existing knowledge. Without it you’re stuck with what you have, and what you have may not even be that good.

This are some of perspectives I hold on the role that philosophy plays. With that perspective however, one can begin to answer basic questions about life: What is the good? What is virtue? What is the purpose of life? One simply need not take them as given, either by a higher power, nor by some social authority. Nor does one need think that the questions are unanswerable. One can develop clear, objective answers to questions like these. And when one does, they are able to have clear, consistent principles to guide their actions on a daily basis. And that is one of the most practical, valuable endeavors one can pursue. That clarity is refreshing. The confidence and ability to know that you’ve got a set of well developed principles for living, and that they work; well that’s enabling. It’s exhilarating.

And that has made all the difference since…