Better Living Through…Philosophy

Better Living Through Philosophy

It is the nature of human cognition that experience doesn’t merely create memories or teach us lessons, it changes the wiring of our brain. The wiring in our brain determines how we think. And how we think defines who we are. Having different experiences creates a different person with different preferences, different values, and even different rational capabilities. The one thing we are always doing is changing, and it’s the one thing we cannot stop doing.

But if experience changes our preferences and values and capabilities, then we have some control over who and what we become. In the everyday world of decisions, we treat this as a matter of course. If you want to become a lawyer you go to law school. Naturally, this control isn’t absolute. Going to law school may not work out. We may fail. Or, and this is the most interesting case, going to law school may lead us to decide that we don’t want to be a lawyer. The experience of going to law school changed our values in ways that made us not want to go to law school!

Most decisions are simple. We like strawberry ice cream, so we choose strawberry at the ice cream shop. But big decisions (like enlistment, college, career, marriage or having a child) about what to experience are far more fraught. Those big experiences will change what we value in ways that we cannot predict. That makes it very difficult to evaluate them in traditional decision-theoretic terms (choose the option with the highest expected value to you given your preferences).

This is the problem of transformative experience. It’s a problem for philosophers thinking about decision-theory and rationality. But it’s also our problem. In some ways, it is uniquely our problem.

For most of human history the range of choices and options people had were limited. Born into farming life in a village, with a spouse chosen for you, and a culture of forms and rituals wrapped as tightly around you as a swaddled baby, your journey was (surprisingly!) not without important choices. Yet with so much structure and so little freedom, living an okay kind of life was possible without much transformational decision-making.

That’s not the world we live in.

We live in a society that feels remarkably unconstrained. You can be almost anything. Our society supports every sort of profession and every sort of interest. There are people who spend their lives playing online poker. There are travel models. Craft cheese makers. Quantum physicists. Drug dealers. Insurance salesmen. Triathletes. Professional video-gamers. Old musical instrument experts. There are a billion potential role models and almost as many life niches.

But having choices is not the same thing as lacking constraints. Our society is hyper-competitive, determinedly materialistic, and frequently overwhelming. Sure, anyone can be a travel model. Provided they happen to be young and strikingly beautiful as well as skilled in the outdoors and capable of a certain sort of congenial patter. Which means, of course, that almost no one can be a travel model. And the world of online poker is available to anyone with a little money. But unless you are remarkably skilled at it, your little money will soon be somebody else’s. And while we rightly pride ourselves on the choice our culture affords, we sometimes neglect to consider the kinds of lives it gives up.

It’s fashionable to sneer at the great engine of modern culture and the prosperity it’s created. As if providing material comfort, deep scientific knowledge, health, longer life, and exciting and enriching art and technology are little recompense for the shit we have to put up with.

But shit there undeniably is. Shit jobs. Grinding underpaid, gig-work clothed in self-help finery or hyper-competitive credential competitions that begin at the age of 4 and never really end. Entertainment providing mindless orgies of blood, sex, and pre-packaged titillation as healthy for the mind as a Caramel Frappuccino for the body – and often as hard to resist. Endless selling. Selling of everything and anything. From long life to self-help to beauty to wokeness, from sex and chocolate to charitable giving and fine art.

You can buy anything in our society except a good life.

As Capt. Willard in Apocalypse Now says of Vietnam: “Oh man, the bullshit piled up so fast, you needed wings to stay above it.”

We don’t have wings. And it turns out that a free society is a dangerous place to become a human. There are thousands, millions, maybe billions of people anxious to tell you what to value, how to live your life, what pleasures to indulge in, and, implicitly or explicitly, what sort of person to be. All in service of selling you something.

Start with the basic biologic desire for food. We need it. We want it. And our society has created a vast infrastructure of preference creation and satisfaction that spans everything from artists like Thomas Keller to purveyors of food barely more edible than the cardboard it comes in. Is it any wonder that 40% of adults in the U.S. are obese? But that’s just the beginning of the problem. Because while our culture is massively geared toward creating obesity, it is equally disdainful of it. So exercise is a 32 billion dollar industry. Roughly 15% of the people in the United States are actively trying to lose weight in any given year. And the industry catering to that weight loss is worth 72 billion dollars. That means that people in our society spend about 10%—15% of the total spent on food consumption trying to limit the effects of…food consumption.

Several of the most important women in my life have struggled with eating disorders. This is not statistically surprising. Our culture provides constant reinforcement not only of a highly stylized body image, but of the idea that it’s good to eat healthy and reject fat and sugar. And every time that message is positively reinforced, it gets easier and easier to reject food. So, while most people struggle terribly to keep from getting fat and diabetic (this is me), another group of people are gradually trained to starve themselves. This is the ultimate triumph of culture over evolutionary biology. We have discovered how to get people to starve themselves amidst not just plenty but the most enticing array of food and tastes imaginable.

Take any human need and we’ve created markets to exploit it. And, of course, markets to fight that exploitation. Markets to fix the problems created when we go too far in filling the need or in fighting it. Even markets to explain to us why it’s good or bad to do so. We have restaurants and diet clinics, fast food and slow food, personal chefs and frozen food aisles, cookbooks, and diet books, 7-11s and Pelotons, video games and triathlons, Krispy Kreme’s and Diabetic Clinics, online communities, and self-help books.

“Life is pain,” says Westley in The Princess Bride, “and anyone who says differently is selling you something.” I’m not convinced life is pain, but I am sure that most people are selling you something.

Those sellers don’t care about your life.  They are quite happy to take advantage of the flaws in your thinking, the desires you have a hard time controlling, and the needs you expose to the world to enrich their own lives even as billions of others are doing the same to them. This is not a zero-sum game. There are, literally, no winners. In a society of consumers, everyone is a salesperson and everyone is a sucker. Yes, some people make more money that others, but their lives all suck.

For people who find the endless pursuit of status and stuff demoralizing or repugnant or just plain scary, the idea of changing the system has a profound appeal. Good on you. Modern culture is scary and demoralizing and repugnant. Most often, though, this desire for change translates into the desire for a different political and economic system. 

But all modern history (and literally every interaction we have with government in any country) strongly suggests that the answer to this problem is not a political “ism”. We do not make better people by grinding the choice out of society and replacing religion with some prim, dour, liberal bureaucrat who “knows” exactly who and what everyone should be and who – in turn – is utterly lacking in any notion of a good life. If we don’t want to be governed by philosopher kings, we certainly don’t want to be ruled by Bureauocrates. Modern history has repeatedly shown that it is easy to give up all the benefits of a free society and solve none of the problems.

Worse, we have created another kind of market specially designed to take advantage of people who aren’t happy or content with material plenty. For these people, there is a vast ideological marketplace fueled by the same incentives and frictionless marketing that drive our economic markets. It’s called democracy and it is not a solution. It’s the same problem all over again.

The market of ideas in our political economy is an exact corollary to the market for goods. It is filled, stuffed, overflowing with options to appeal to any taste, age, race, demographic or level-of-education. There are offerings tailored for the agrarian redneck and offerings just as micro-targeted for the earnest Stanford educated SF hipster. And if you think any of these off-the-shelf political ideologies is somehow better, deeper, or more interesting than another you are delusional. They are all the intellectual equivalent of cotton-candy. Spun out of air and sugar and colored red or blue to suit your taste. Political ideology today is nothing more than the selling of cheap, convenient ideas to fulfill the need be something more than consumers. Not only is it a sham, it’s a bad one. In the world of material goods, we get legitimately great products. Our Tesla’s and Apple Watches and French Laundry dinners are fine craft. There is no mass market equivalent in our political economy. In the world of political ideas, it’s all two-buck chuck.

You don’t live in a swaddling agrarian culture that defines twenty ways to live a life. Such a world is both a luxury and a profound waste. Our world confronts us with an endless series of demands. It entreats us with a luxuriant buffet of exotic and enticing products. It seduces us with all the things that biology and evolution and culture have caused us to desire. Our world is baffling, thrilling, befuddling, and alluring.

That’s why there has never been a more dangerous society in which to ignore transformational choice. When you have a billion people competing to sell you something, there is nothing more fraught than NOT deciding for yourself who to be. If you don’t choose, other people are doing it for you.

So yes, thinking about who to be, and what experiences will make you that person really does matter. And it matters uniquely to us.

But what kind of thinking is that?

Mostly it’s not academic thinking – philosophical or otherwise. We learn far more from our family, our friends, even from novels and movies, than we ever do from the academy. Yet there is a place and a role for careful thought built on serious philosophical reflection, and that role, too, is grounded in the nature of our society.

We shouldn’t overstate that role or expect too much from it. As Bernard Williams, one of the best philosophers of the last hundred years put it, “Think how surprising it would be if an academic discipline could somehow make people live better lives.”  Surprising indeed. Yet serious philosophical reflection has at least this virtue – it is very difficult to sell.

That’s why philosophy can do something that self-help books cannot. Self-help books specialize in practical advice, inspiration, and metaphor. That’s fine. We all need good practical advice. Inspiration and metaphor can be useful too. Who doesn’t need encouragement from time to time? The problem with practical advice, though, echoes the problem of transformational choice. Before you can judge whether it’s any good or not, you need to have your own conception of what you want. If you can’t frame the problem, you can’t judge the advice. Metaphor and inspiration are too squishy to serve this need. The political and economic machinery of the world we live in is too clever by half and it will find ways to use those maxims against you and own who you are. You can’t “just do it”.

Philosophy, on the other hand, strives for precision in both argument and language. That’s not easy to write, especially for a non-professional. It’s not always easy to read (though I do my best to make it so). And it’s damn near impossible to live.

It is also much, much harder to exploit.

The difference isn’t just one of precision, it’s also one of intent. There are plenty of books dedicated to telling you how to live. What’s good and what’s bad. What the right answer is. Philosophers, too, have sometimes striven to provide THE answer to the good life. Such attempts are a forlorn exercise. There is no answer appropriate for every person in every time in every situation. There is no answer perfect for any two people. God has not spoken. Morality is not immanent in the world. The answers are not carved in stone.

We all ought to know this by now.

Getting to something better is not easy.

If philosophy cannot hand you the finished product, though, it can provide you better tools for fashioning your own kind of answer. That’s not nothing.

Mendelssohn said this about his Songs Without Words: “So much is spoken about music and so little is said. For my part, I do not believe that words suffice for such a task, and if they did, I would no longer make music…the thoughts…are not too vague to put into words but, on the contrary, are too precise.”

Philosophy is the art of pushing words to the limits of their precision (where perhaps great music takes over) to build better tools for thinking. It isn’t going to make you feel good. It isn’t going to make you successful. And it’s not going to give you instructions for becoming a better person or living a better life. That’s all too much ask. Yet philosophy can help you to think about your life and the choices that create it in a new and more useful way. It can give you a better understanding of what kind of decisions matter, provide a better model of what’s involved in making those decisions, and supply better tools for thinking about the choices you will have to make.

Society is often viewed by individualists as a kind of chessboard to navigate as successfully as possible. Everyone is just a piece on a board occupying positions more or less strategic, to be used or avoided as the game dictates. In the opposite camp, individuals are treated as clay models to be molded (or cured of their molds) with rules created by some privileged caste with properly pedigreed opinions and just enough compassion to be ruthlessly condescending.

Neither view is helpful. We live a paradox. We must make decisions about OUR own self. And only we can make those decisions.  At the same time, those decisions can only play out in social contexts that make us dependent on others to be who we choose. This paradox lies at the heart of human experience. It creates a barrier between us and others even as it forces us to rely on those others – not merely for subsistence – but for the very essence of who we are. This is the true and obvious condition of our lives. It is not ideology. It is fact.

A paradox it is, but as a problem it is not intractable. People do fashion coherent lives. Make deep decisions. And if we all routinely screw them up, some people do manage to keep their heads out of the mire even if few of us fly above it.

Staying out of the mire. Maybe flying above it. That is what’s at stake. And if there is a role for philosophy it is not in telling you what to think about your life, but in helping you realize that you must think about your life and giving you clarity about what’s involved in those choices.

Our society doesn’t come with any blueprints on what kind of person to be or what kind of life is worth living. Not only don’t we provide the blueprint, so much of our intellectual culture is convinced that such questions aren’t real or can’t be discussed. We have reduced the idea of a good life to a laughable cliché.

We need an intellectually acceptable way to think about how to live. Some way to decide what kind of person to be, which parts of a free culture to value and which to spurn. We need a set of tools to help us resist and ignore the endless torrent of marketing and ideological trash a free society aims at us. We need a way to shape that society at its foundation to be more worthwhile – not under the lash of Form 1044 but because we are choosing valuable lives.

We live in difficult times despite – and partly because of – our ease, affluence, luxury, and opportunity. The same forces that have helped provide those remarkable benefits make it vastly more difficult to decide who you want to be and to become that kind of person. Better intellectual tools can help you resist and control those forces; better tools can help you make the countless decisions that shape who you are. Better tools can help you capture some of the tremendous advantages of living in our world without falling victim to its many predations. Better tools can help make better decisions.

What those decisions are will, of course, be entirely up to you.

After all, it isn’t the philosophy that matters. It’s the life. To quote Bernard Williams again, “The only serious enterprise is living.”

To go deeper into the philosophy around transformational experience, read Mind the Gap.

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