Who Can Lead an Examined Life?

How do you know what to believe?  Do you arrive rationally at your own conclusions? Or do you take your cues from a trusted person or group?

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How do you know what to believe?  Do you arrive at your own conclusions after an independent review of all the relevant facts? Or do you take your cues from a trusted person or likeminded group?

Most people (and their egos) probably want the answer to be the former.  However, I think if we are honest, we would admit that—at best—we use a mix of independent and outsourced thinking.

Many people want to be reasonable, but is that achievable for most people? Recently, I have heard a lot about the stridency of political discourse. Some people are worried that independents are becoming an endangered species and that moderate politicians who don’t appease their base are sure losers.

In a conversation with a friend recently, we were discussing that question of how people know what to believe, say, or do.  While the discussion began in the context of politics, the answer applies to every realm of life.

My friend’s concern was about the time required to arrive at independent beliefs.  A single parent with several kids and two jobs might find it challenging to make the time to arrive at his or her own conclusion about what constitutes a fair labor law or whether life begins at conception.  Even wealthy people with loads of leisure time place confidence in a variety of experts –from the clichéd rocket scientists and brain surgeons to the lowly meteorologists.

So it is reasonable to expect all people— regardless of intelligence, means, or other factors—to be able to arrive at their own conclusions about right and wrong and its corollaries (i.e. identifying good public policies)?

I would argue that the answer hinges on whether or not you believe that objective truth exists.  If capital T truth does exist, then you could entertain the notion that we should seek it out.  If you believe there are many truths, then you might be less concerned about how people arrive at their conclusions; perhaps with the stipulation that we should try to remain peaceable.

So given that you believe truth exists and therefore everyone has an obligation to pursue it, what does that obligation look like?  Does everyone have the same obligation?

If you consider how long it can take to answer some important questions and how relatively brief each human life is in the long run, then I believe we can rule out the Cartesian approach of tearing it all down and rebuilding it from scratch (some might call that true philosophy).

Let’s move from the extremely broad to the more mundane, what is required of a spouse to answer the question upon arriving home, “How was your day?” Anyone can reply with a pleasantry, but to truly answer that question, it requires some degree of self-reflection.  Perhaps just 5 or 10 minutes in the car on the way home, but reflection is required to achieve conscious knowledge. That fact might imply that the aforementioned hard working single parent should be forgiven for not developing their own beliefs.  However, I would argue that it instead shows that discernment and knowledge is actually available to all.

Rich and poor alike can have moments of time like that.  Even 20 minutes a week might be doable for every person.  I bet we can agree that you don’t necessarily need years of specialized training to identify truth.  To address the other end of the spectrum, I would also question the degree of independence even the most gifted thinker can obtain.  There is tremendous value in borrowing from the history and tradition of those who have studied and examined questions in the past.

This long-winded post has a simple point: every person has a responsibility to examine life’s important questions for themselves and are endowed with the tools to do so.  I would add that taking direction from a trusted person or groups does not undermine that process of examination.  Our greatest danger is to pretend that there is no truth to be sought after or that only a specialized few can make headway on that quest.

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  • September 12, 2011


    Scary but true. It’s unsettling to think how many of my conversations contain appeals to authority, especially when it comes to scientific ‘fact’. When we cite the findings of studies, how sure can we be of their validity? Do we check to see which institutions sanctioned them? Do we inspect the credentials of the study’s authors? Do we consider which axes they might be attempting to grind? Or do we invest the enormous time and effort required to recreate the study ourselves? (The latter is possible, I suppose, but exceedingly uncommon.)

    And then, as you mention, there’s Descartes’ way of doing things–entertaining the possibility that our senses deceive us. And then there are those who find fault with even the cogito–who say there is no logical reason to assume thinking implies existence.

    I take a probabilistic approach. I act on what I judge likely to be true, and also on my memory of which actions tend to product which results. I guess that’s true of a lot of people–maybe all people.

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