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090 - On Philosophy's Dividends - Moral Letters for Modern Times

Philosophy’s domain is in guiding decisions about what we do with what we have, and how we respond to the circumstances we face.
Purple colored sky in the aftermath of a sunset over a large lake
Photo by James Bellerjeau

If there was a time when people lived in abundance and without any cares, perhaps it was when the first humans cavorted in the Garden of Eden. From the time we ate of the Tree of Knowledge people have possessed reason. Since then we were cast out of our period of easy plenty and have had to make our way in the world in lives of toil and struggle. This has given many cause to ask the question “Is there any way for us to regain our carefree lives of abundance?”

The question I want to address today is whether and to what extent philosophy has contributed to the betterment of humankind in our wanderings through hard times. If we have seen our lot improve over time, how much of it has come from philosophy and how much from other sources, including humankind itself through application of science?

You could argue that intelligence is humankind’s greatest gift, for all that it led to our losing paradise. Like all great things intelligence is not one-dimensional. Its application can also be our greatest curse. We have conquered the planet and have dominion over everything on it. But we have not conquered our desires. Further, by virtue of our nature to seek dominance over all things we cannot avoid seeing hierarchy in everything. Thus, having overcome the natural world our eyes turn to our fellow citizens. The result is that we are subject to a wealth of harmful emotions, such as greed, fear, jealousy, and anger.

Having “more,” as in more wealth, beauty, possessions, or power, affords us greater stature in the hierarchy. This inclines us to always seek more. But no matter how much we have, we cannot make ourselves happy. This is because in every hierarchy there are better off and worse off. Thus everyone who sees someone above them is inclined to feel worse off than they otherwise might if they understood that peace of mind is the greatest possession of all. In consequence, rather than being closer to regaining our carefree lives, the more abundance we acquire the farther we find ourselves from happiness and satisfaction. The pursuit of more thoroughly blinds most of us to seeing and understanding that to live a happy life one only needs that which is enough.

The aim of philosophy is to ensure we make proper use of our greatest gift, which is reasoning intelligently. Humans alone are not forced to live as mere animals, subject to ungoverned emotions and physical urges. We can use reason not with the purpose of reigning in and extinguishing our ambitions, but to give them purposeful direction. We should accept what we are given by nature and work to improve upon it. We should strive to theorize, invent, and explain but let it be in directions of our choosing after measured reason. If we seek to excel, to create, and to explore, let us do it knowingly, not blindly, and certainly not just because we can.

Do you honor someone who says they climbed a mountain just because it is there? That is as much of a reason as Cain saying he killed Abel because he was there. “I could, so I did” is not reasoned thinking. Of course there is motive behind the climber and the killer, though they may not be able to articulate it aloud. Is it the place of philosophy to curb these impulses, to tame all humankind’s passions? Just as intelligence is both blessing and curse, let us not consign reckless ambition to being entirely useless.

Who else but the ambitious would undertake dangerous missions that occasionally advance the human race by great leaps and bounds? Who else but the reckless would leap to the defense of their fellow persons at great cost to their own safety? We should revel in our prowess as material creatures, not because physical prowess is virtuous in and of itself, but because it is part of our nature that allows us to overcome all obstacles.

So intelligence and ambition are both fundamental parts of human nature. Philosophy can take no credit for our natures and everything that springs from them. Philosophy’s domain is in guiding decisions about what we do with what we have, and how we respond to the circumstances we face. It takes work to become wise, because we need to learn to trust neither the surface appearance of things nor the opinions of the majority on most things.

All the greatest human accomplishments were achieved by intelligent people but not necessarily wise people. The participants in the Manhattan Project understood in theory how to split the atom and they found a way to put their theories into practice. How often does humankind need to repeat the lesson that knowledge once gained is scarcely to be contained. So we suffered yet another fall from grace, again at our own hands. The fruit of that discovery has meant humankind living in fear not just of being yet further from a carefree life, but of life’s very existence being extinguished from the earth.

I have written separately of the unchecked enthusiasm among artificial intelligence researchers. I see in them the similar bravado of the mountain climber facing a peak not yet summited. We will do it because it can be done! Do you doubt for a moment that the joy researchers feel upon the first human-created intelligence emerging will be outdone many times over with bitter remorse at what we once again unleashed unwittingly on ourselves and the world?

Philosophy’s dividends are this Deuteros: to first identify the right questions for humankind to be asking, and then to apply the very same reasoning the scientist uses in answering them. These questions include “What is of true value and how can we go about achieving it?” Not the question what are all the things we can do, but “Why should we do what we do?” We do not question whether we can live in a world that is both easy and fair. It is clear we cannot remake the world fully to our liking. Rather we ask and answer the question “How can I conduct myself in every circumstance including, and even especially, hard and unfair circumstances?”

We do not lack for clever scientists in the world. Intelligence has been fruitful and multiplied along with humanity and our ambition knows no bounds. The world is overflowing with theories, inventions, and ideas. How many of them have made life better? I don’t mean convenient, or easier, or more productive. How many of our modern wonders have made us happier? No I tell you we do not need more intelligent scientists, we need more wise scientists.

We need the philosopher scientist to stop and think before acting. “But,” the scientific community will say, “if we do not pursue this line of inquiry, someone else will.” They will continue, “You cannot hold back progress by refusing to study and to learn.” It is not all progress that we should be seeking to forestall, but progress in harmful directions. We know there is pain and danger and risk in the world. Must we truly open every door that is closed and walk down every path that is shaded to relearn again and again that not every development is beneficial?

Philosophy would teach us that the ultimate power we can wield is not over nature but over ourselves. Do you know what we will find when we set aside our lust for power, our greed for possessions, and our endless jealousy? The realization that we never left the Garden of Eden and that we can return to it at any time if we simply open our eyes to see it.

Be well.

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