Why develop a philosophy of life

meaning of lifeI recently published a three-part essay over at The Philosophers’ Magazine online, on what is the point of developing a philosophy of life.

Part I begins by noting that the very idea of philosophy as a guidance to how to live one’s life is rather alien to the modern academic establishment. If you take an undergraduate course in philosophy these days you will definitely not encounter that topic. Which would have been rather puzzling to almost every philosopher before the 20th century, and certainly to the ancient Greeks who started this whole philosophy.

I then recount my own personal philosophical journey, which brought me from the abandonment of my Catholic religion to atheism, through the exploration of alternatives such as secular humanism, ethical culture and related views.

Part II explores where I landed after literally decades of (initially only occasional) searching: virtue ethics, i.e., the Greco-Roman idea that ethics is not — as we conceive it today — the study of right and wrong actions, but rather the study of what sort of life one ought to live.

I started my exploration of virtue ethics where people usually start it: with Aristotle. But I found his approach to be a bit too aristocratic (a common feeling about his version of virtue ethics), and moved on to explore other ancient philosophies as possible models, in particular Epicureanism (which, contra popular misunderstanding, isn’t a counsel for pure hedonism a la sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll). Eventually, I landed onto Stoicism, which is what I am exploring (in some depth) right now.

Finally, part III gets to the underlying point: why search for a life’s philosophy to begin with? Why not just wing it? And how is this different — ironically for a former believer — from religion anyway?

Here I rely heavily on William Irvine, who in his A Guide to the Good Life, asked himself the very same questions. and answered that, in a nutshell, developing a philosophy of life does three things: (i) it makes clear to us (and reminds us of) what we value; (ii) it gives us a sense of how to pursue what we value; and (iii) it saves us a lot of time by reminding us to avoid, or not to waste time, seeking what we don’t actually value.

Give it a try, see if it works for you.


43 thoughts on “Why develop a philosophy of life

  1. Well, Labnut, I’ve said what I wanted to say, about why I develop a philosophy of life, as well as questioning certain aspects in the framing of others, including yours. As for that thread on Dan’s site, I thought it was inquiring. I know I posed several questions.


  2. Hi brodix,

    Thanks for the acknowledgement that actual good/bad is a critical engineering feature of what we are that mustn’t be ignored. I see that you’ve brought up computers, and fortunately in Massimo’s next topic I’ll be able to demonstrate the nature of my theory in this regard somewhat. (For the moment I’ll not delve into economics.)

    To all,

    It seems to me that in a sense labnut a I are trying to pull Massimo in opposite directions. As an outsider I must be careful not to say that there’s anything inherently wrong with morality, though perhaps we should also explore instrumental ideas as well? Thus it may be helpful for me to address why morality, which labnut always details so eloquently, seems to naturally displace my own instrumental concerns. In a word, I attribute this to our empathy.

    Imagine what it would be like to be biologically identical to what we now are, but without any empathy at all. Here you would be quite able to take a happy, cute, and defenseless young child, and do utterly horrible things to him/her without any ill sensations felt personally about it. Observe that you would be intelligent enough to understand the suffering you cause this child, though the biological mechanism from which to make you suffer as well given your understanding, would simply not exist.

    Such though experiments do cause many to protest — surely the sensation of empathy is not THIS important! Here I shall be told that the above circumstance would not simply require a lack of empathy, but also a good measure of “evil.” Nevertheless I do believe that empathy is exactly this important, naturally joining our individual sensation based interests. In fact I’d say that empathy is so strong in us, that today we have thousands of years of moral theory at our disposal, though science is still not permitted to address instrumental good/bad theory — our empathy dissuades it from getting into repugnant acknowledgements of our apparently selfish nature.

    Yes Massimo, my own rebellion does happen to go far beyond yours, though a kindred spirit you do remain! Thus I hope you will entertain the notion that in the end, science will need a formal understanding of instrumental good/bad in order to help it generally explore our nature.

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  3. Socratic I’ve been enjoying your first Electric Agora piece, and then now you interrupt me here about something that “will certainly stimulate” me? I’ll have you know that I’m a happily married, heterosexual man… who yes, is stimulated. Ah, but can you also help? Can you demonstrate that there are others just itching for this revolution that I deem so necessary? I don’t actually hold you to such a standard (beggars can’t be choosers!) but will most certainly have a look…


  4. Eric,

    View this, for want of a better concept, from an elementally spiritual foundation. Not to be theistic rather than atheistic, but it provides a useful jump start to explaining biology.

    Say there is some nebulous sense of being with the most basic physical presence. Necessarily it is not inert, because there would be nothing to express, so this sense will piggyback on physical force, possibly electro static. Given the physical environment, there are two ways to expand, either quantity, or complexity. Also physics tends to be abusive to order, so an initial step is to develop a reset process. Then given the individual units are therefore expendable, a logical step becomes to bootstrap through consuming prior forms. This leads to a hierarchy of complexity over quantity.
    The base entities would be stable just turning physical energy and matter into organic matter. Mobility would be an energy expenditure and so avoided whenever possible. This would negate any propelling or navigation functions and the organism would be mostly effective firmly rooted into its environment and develop non-linear offensive and defensive abilities, i.e. chemistry.
    The next step is to become mobile and this entails a much different strategy. For one thing, it can’t be directly rooted to a spot, though still evolved for a broader context. It will develop linearity of both propulsion and navigation to maximize the effectiveness of this mobility.
    Now this sense of being is then encased in specific forms, yet is still the same sense, expressed through different individuals. This will consequently cause a number of psychological effects, from extreme narcissism, to the most programed herd behavior, which often is a form of group narcissism, such as nationalism and fundamentalist religiosity. This is because that sense of being will bond into a larger sense of self, much as complex organisms are built up from simpler structures, that have specialized their functions.
    If you were to consider a society as a biological expression, the state would be the form, government would equate to the central nervous system, while finance would be the circulatory system.
    Now in order to function as a singular entity, it needs a common framework, such as the state and this has a cultural sense of ethics to direct it. While different organs might have varied functions and priorities, there still needs to be a joint sense of positive and negative, in order to survive.
    Though the bodily function can break down through lack of communication and attention. For example, it doesn’t work to have the circulatory system storing fat cells, even though there is a tendency to do so and that might well describe our current monetary bubble, with poor circulation as the effect and high blood pressure/quantitive easing as the reaction.
    The problem with money, as with religion, is that while our needs tend to be specific, our impulses are generalized. The positive and negative associate with a broad range of factors, so the emotional responses seem to be distinct from their causes. Thus good and bad are easily overgeneralized.

    Hopefully this is a understandable thumbnail description of the instrumental foundations of ethics, as I better leave it here for the moment.


  5. Culture as the personality.
    That something like 60% of the cells in our body that are not genetically us, as the private sector.


  6. Gadfly,
    ALL systems of morals, no matter their metaphysical base or anti-metaphysical base, are existential in nature.

    What could that mean?

    moral terms like “guilt” and “justice,” without specifically referencing Wittgenstein, Kaufmann’s argument appears to be that they are part of the language games we play.

    Here I think you are over using the phrase ‘language games’ in a way that adds no meaning. You seem to be trying to discount the reality of our moral feelings.

    I assure you our moral feelings are very real indeed and calling them a ‘language game’ completely ignores this reality.

    Park, Peterson and Seligman showed this with a large, international study where they measured character(virtue) strengths in fifty-four nations and the fifty US states (http://bit.ly/1Li1MB2). The measurements were done using a 5 point Likert scale(from 1 ‘‘very much unlike me’’ to 5 ‘‘very much like me’’).

    They measured agreement with six core virtues. Dahlsgaard, Peterson and Seligman – Shared Virtue: The Convergence of Valued Human Strengths Across Culture and History Across Culture and History (http://bit.ly/1VL8mHJ) surveyed the main schools of thought in China, South Asia and the West.

    Across China, South Asia and the West it was agreed that courage, justice, humanity, temperance, wisdom, and transcendence were the primary virtues, independent of culture.

    The Park, Peterson and Seligman study showed that across 54 nations there were high levels of agreement that the six core virtues mattered.

    The differences between nations are small with it mainly being a question of differing emphases.

    One can conclude, from these studies across 54 nations, that moral feelings are universally felt, they are real, they are important, we universally aspire to these virtues, and there is good agreement about the nature of our moral feelings.

    In the face of these facts I find it hard to believe that “moral terms … are part of the language games we play.“. Your statement seems to be an expression of moral relativism. The Peterson/Seligman studies show that our morality is not relative but real and universal.


  7. Okay brodix, I’ve now had a sober reading of what you’ve written me above, and can see that biology is indeed what you’re trying to explain. In a sense I’d say that we take very different approaches, and with different goals. Your starting position was “…some nebulous sense of being with the most basic physical presence.” Thus it sounds like you’re beginning with a consciousness, or at least a spirit type of thing, and then working out how life and humanity might have developed around it? Regardless, I begin with “life,” who’s mechanics are utterly inconsequential to my ideas themselves, and then build up various definitions and models in order to help answer questions that still confound science. Here is my own basic sketch:

    From the great wonders of chemistry, life does emerge and begins its replication and evolution. At some point “mind” evolves, which I define quite broadly as something which “processes information.” Observe that while my digital watch does process information in order to do its job, a mechanical watch does not. For another example, I suspect that plants are purely mechanical, though an ant functions both mechanically, as well as through its central processor, or “mind.” (My biologist wife has mentioned that from my definitions, DNA might be considered “mind” for a cell. Do you agree Massimo?)

    From here we have millions of years of evolving non-conscious minds going about their businesses, essentially like a world full of biological computers. I believe that evolution found the more advance forms to be constrained by their programming demands however, but did find a work around that effectively brought autonomy. Instead of purely inconsequential function, evolution somehow added “qualia” as punish/reward for subjejects (“self”), and thus consciousness developed. Observe that unlike the rest of existence, these subjects thus had incentive to “personally” figure out what to do — apparently a successful bit of engineering!

    That’s all just a prelude for what I’d truly like to do however. Apparently modern mental and behavioral scientists are trying to function at a very high level, though without first developing a solid foundation from which to support their ideas. I mean to either found these sciences myself through my theory, or at least to help propagate the notion that these sciences do still require founding ideas from which to build. And what most essentially must they acknowledge in order to get moving in my opinion? This would be that “qualia” represents instrumental good/bad throughout existence.


  8. Eric,

    Leaving aside the foundations of consciousness for a moment, consider Complexity Theory, with its dichotomy of order and chaos.

    How I would see amending it is to consider the relationship of energy to form; In that energy is, by definition, dynamic, as form is static. So rather than try separating them in physical terms, such as mass and radiation, consider this as a completely yin/yang dichotomy. In that all energy will be expressing form, even if it is just frequency and amplitude of the wave. As all form must be manifest by some degree of energy, in order not to be purely platonic.

    Obviously such forms as frequency and amplitude are not individually stable, but en masse are.

    Now As I’ve argued previously, I see time as an effect of, emergent from, a measure of action, much as temperature, pressure, kinetic energy, etc. Just that our perception is of cognitive flashes, so we think of it as the point of the present moving from past to future, when the evident reality is a changing configuration turning future into past, i.e. tomorrow becomes yesterday because the earth turns. What we measure is basically frequency.

    So this does break down along the lines of the relationship between energy and form. In that energy is dynamically creating and dissolving those forms, much like the frequency and amplitude of individual waves coming and going. So that there is physically only this dynamic present and the effect of time arises from its changing configuration.

    Now how this ties back into Complexity Theory is that order arises as it stabilizes out of the energy. Such as the particular wave cresting and receding, as prior to that point, it is energy that is still not fully formed, unless we were to test its kinetic energy, which would extract another measure from it.

    So the present is this Complex state, of both the chaos of the undefined, yet dynamic energy pushing outward, as the order develops and settles out, into what becomes past, Therefore the arrow of time for energy is from past to future form, while the arrow of time for form is from being in the future to being in the past.

    Now to get back to consciousness; Essentially it functions as an energy, in that it is always and only present, while the forms it manifests, thoughts, perceptions, flashes of cognition, are the forms that come and go. As highly evolved beings, much of what we perceive has been extensively digested and processed by our subconscious functions. Otherwise sight, for instance, would be just flashes of indistinct light, etc. This processing is extensively reductionistic, in that as with any such process, much is discarded as unnecessary. Then even much of what we perceive is also discarded and doesn’t make it into long, or even short term memory.

    Now when we attempt to examine our sense of awareness, this reductionistic process also kicks in and we tend to focus on the most evident features and discard much of the processing as sub or even non-consciousness. But is that logical? For instance, would it be evolutionarily useful to compartmentalize consciousness within the mind? It is certainly useful to do so within species and their societies. That other person who is trying to get your attention is presumably as conscious as you are, so how much different is it, than that thought in the back of your mind, that you can’t quite remember? Our sense of consciousness is often described as the executive function, but as any organization knows, often the executive is as much just a useful focal point, as the actual “decider.” Just as much of the information is highly processed within the organizational structure, often to the point of having made the important decisions, so too is the mind made up of many layers of processing that precede and often predetermine a decision being made at the consciousness level.

    So given it would be hard to argue that some underling in an organization is somehow less conscious than the CEO, might it be there are levels of awareness within both the mind and within less evolved organisms, that possess some weak sense of being, which would be drowned out under any attempt to scientifically examine it, but that multiplied through multiples of input, is hard to fully dismiss. Much as one photon of light is easily missed but multitudes are blinding.

    Consider how human societies do function, in that it isn’t necessarily the most considered opinions that reach the broadest attention, but those riding the most energy of media attention, or attract the broadest appeal.

    So while I am certainly willing to consider that consciousness is a relatively late development in biology, I think an argument can be made that it could also run through it from the start, as a most elemental condition and it is only our more complex expressions of it that we are able to recognize on our own terms.


  9. PS,

    “would it be evolutionarily useful to compartmentalize consciousness within the mind? It is certainly useful to do so within species and their societies.”

    Keeping in mind that distinction and articulation are the basis of complexity in the first place.


  10. Eric,

    “Instead of purely inconsequential function, evolution somehow added “qualia” as punish/reward for subjejects (“self”), and thus consciousness developed. Observe that unlike the rest of existence, these subjects thus had incentive to “personally” figure out what to do”

    I can see how a conscious state might give rise to a survival instinct, but it would seem the opposite is more farfetched. How would a survival instinct arise before consciousness?
    What impulse would be its basis?


  11. Brodix:

    Well I see that we do have competing models regarding the origins of consciousness. Mine is a purely naturalistic model that evolved late through a non-conscious mind, while yours is a more spiritual version (and perhaps also naturalistic) where it already existed in at least some capacity. Regardless of what’s right in this regard however, it seems to me that this whole thing doesn’t really matter very much. More important should instead be the nature of human consciousness as it actually functions today. I believe you know that I’ve developed my own such model, as well as how to contact me with questions and comments, given that we’ve probably discussed this quite sufficiently here.


  12. Eric,

    I do think it fits into the subject at hand. If we are to develop a philosophy of life, it helps to first develop a concept of life and consciousness.

    It does seem to me there are two somewhat mutually exclusive historical approaches to the issue of consciousness. Either to deny any such facility exists beyond the level of self examination, or to anthropomorphize everything. As I’m arguing, we need to really try to follow the roots out as far as possible and then even try to place them in some larger context, if we are to peel away the layers.

    As I’ve argued in other subjects, to define is to reduce a subject to its barest essentials, but to explain is to place it in its broadest context.

    As for a philosophy of life, what gives life meaning is the extent of our connectedness with all it has to offer and all we have to give and sorting out what this entails. That can be somewhat different for everyone.


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