If you agree that everybody has a philosophy, and that the better thought out a person’s philosophy is, the better he will be at making decisions and basically getting the most out of his life, then the next logical question, I think, is “How do you arrive at a personal philosophy?”
It hadn’t occurred to me right away that this was the next question. Then I started thinking about how there are so many people looking for philosophy in all the wrong places, places that aren’t really going to help them develop their own set of values and criteria for advancing themselves through their lives. I say “advancing” because that’s what we, as human beings, do. We are driven to improve our lot in life and that’s just the way it is. We ate berries and wanted meat. We ate meat raw and wanted it cooked. We lived in caves and wanted dryer, warmer shelters. We discovered tools but wanted better ones. We discovered drawing and turned it into art. We created language and turned it into literature, philosophy and law. We discovered math and created physics, economics, music, and technology. In short, humans advance. We improve our lot in life, in general terms as a race, and in specific terms as individuals. It’s who we are. And even if for some odd reason a person argued that he isn’t interested in improving his own lot, he would be hard-pressed for a reason he didn’t want to leave a better legacy for his children.
But even though our will to survive is indelibly linked with our will to thrive, we have taken a number of wrong turns throughout history, and have thus left ourselves with some less-than-stellar options for figuring certain things out. These options are mostly the philosophical ones, since science, being objective, sorts itself out pretty well: if the math is wrong, the rocket won’t make it to the moon, and it’s back to the drawing board. Philosophy, however (and I use the term philosophy in the most general of ways, to mean all the studies that pertain to the subjective human experience, e.g., religion, psychology, literature, philosophy, politics, and to some extent, economics) is based on subjective ideas, which makes it much more susceptible to flawed thinking, errors in judgment, and personal biases. Philosophy is also much more difficult to prove “right” or “wrong” than a math-based science, as it is usually some of each.
Yet it is these flawed philosophies that man must turn to in his effort to determine his values and sets of criteria for advancing himself through his life. How, among all the philosophies available to the modern, literate human being, each one full of promise yet incomplete, does a person decide just what is the best path to follow in the development of a personal philosophy? The choices are truly overwhelming, with each one claiming to offer the most wisdom, the most happiness, the most solace. When you consider the amazing plethora of options, it is not surprising that most people tend to fall back on a few tried and true choices for their guiding principles, despite obvious shortcomings, or ignore the issue altogether as best they can.
Religion is probably the most common fall-back for the modern person who seeks guiding principles. It is the oldest and the most established option. It offers an instant community of like-minded people. And if you choose one within your cultural norms, it comes with a full set of values that you can comfortably adopt as your own and feel okay about.
But the drawbacks are many. Just because something is well-established does not necessarily mean it’s the best option. The three major Western religions–Islam, Judaism, and Christianity–are all thousands of years old, each with millions of believers. Which one is right? They are vastly different theologies, yet each claims to have the absolute truth, and each promises all sorts of horrifying consequences for not believing in it. Upon objective examination, these claims become more akin to Santa Claus and the tooth fairy than any divine wisdom. Yes, each religion contains kernels of truth, is based on universal truths of the human condition, but these kernels have become so buried under human agendas and political and economic motivations over the centuries that it is virtually impossible to know the true doctrines without a great deal of theological study and research. Thus, whatever the kernels of truth might be, they are best gotten at through intellectual understanding–theological study–than dogmatic belief.
But religion, by definition, requires dogmatic belief–that is, acceptance of its authority without question, merely because it is the authority. And dogmatic belief is the very antithesis of a guiding philosophy. Its appeal is also its downfall: an established set of principles for how a person should live his life. But if a set of principles has not been arrived at through a person’s own process of critical thinking and analysis, then they aren’t really his own principles. Rather, they are a list of rules with little more meaning than those a child would follow in school to avoid punishment. They might provide some guidance and comfort, but they will never be fully your own.
And not being your own, and being mostly a set of rules about how to avoid punishment and conform to externally imposed beliefs, they can’t really be considered values. Conforming out of fear is the lowest, basest, least meaningful “principle” a human being can have. Alleviation of anxiety is not a sound foundation for a personal philosophy.
Furthermore, dogmatic beliefs are meant to squelch critical thinking rather than encourage it. And without critical thinking, man is only a shadow of what he can and should be.
For all of these reasons, religion has lost its once powerful grip. As the “common” man has become increasingly more educated and able to think for himself, modern society has become increasingly secular. How could it not, when dogmatic beliefs are now so easy to challenge and refute?
This is mostly a good thing. People are freer and less guilt-ridden in their decision-making processes than ever before. And instead of obligatory conforming to the faith of one’s culture, people are now free to follow the spiritual pursuits of their choice. But there is a big drawback, too: religion provided a solid foundation upon which a person could live his life, and however limited it may have been, nothing has really replaced it. The opportunities to develop a personal philosophy are greater and more exciting than they have ever been, but they are also much more amorphous. Without religion to decree the right and wrong of things, we are each left to decide on our own. And while this is a very, very good thing, it has, as the dialectic of progress declares that it must, also ushered in a whole new set of problems. Where does one turn to find guiding principles and a personal philosophy?
In many cases, I’m sad to say, all the wrong places. The vacuum created by the downfall of dogmatic beliefs has been largely filled by secular equivalents, such as the law. While initially designed to allow people the dignity to pursue their own happiness in their own way (and the Founding Fathers took for granted that a person knew this involved having moral agency, or at least understood the futility of trying to legislate it), the law has deteriorated into a paternalistic entity people have become dependent on to provide rules for living and care in their hour of need. We now have laws for nearly every area of personal choice imaginable: matrimony, sex, education, income, smoking, gambling, and drug use, just to name a few. The legislation of morality is so ubiquitous that most people reading this accept such laws as moral and good, and believe that people need such laws to “help” them do the right thing. In fact, the government has become the new church, providing rules to live by for people who don’t want to do the work of figuring it out for themselves, as well as providing viable punishment for nonconformity–even if that nonconformity harms no one. The extent to which this situation has gotten out of hand is evidence of just how many people prefer to let an authority figure do their thinking for them rather than determining their own personal philosophy, which was probably the greatest gift a government has ever offered its citizens.
It would be nice to think that education was the answer. But formal education does little more than teach children how to conform. I’m not sure how critical thinking has been so successfully ignored by educational institutions; I just know that it has.
Our society is largely set up, I think, to bring people to a minimal level of conformity. If we want to progress beyond that, we are largely on our own. We have to seek out books and friends and teachers who are willing to discuss topics like freedom, critical thinking, and philosophy. We have to want to know more, understand more, see more. We have to undertake this journey on our own volition. In short, we have to use our minds.
This is the only answer, I think. We cannot find a personal philosophy in any pre-packaged morality or legislation. Guidance and principles, yes. But it is only through the awareness that our minds are our greatest tool for surviving and thus thriving, and that such thriving can only happen through a sustained effort to rely on and trust our own ability to think and understand the world, that we can develop a personal philosophy, a set of principles, a moral compass, to guide us on our journey. Anything less than this is borrowed, finite, fragile knowledge that leaves our confidence weak and our soul thirsty. Our minds: this is how we find our philosophy, and thus, our confidence, our self-esteem, and our dignity.
Mankind has struggled since his very beginnings between the desire for security and the need for growth: he wants to feel safe, but he also wants to thrive, and thriving requires risk. Today, this dichotomy plays out largely as the struggle to trust that we know what’s right for ourselves versus the seductive security of believing external authorities know better. They don’t. Ever. And believing that they do is a deal with the devil that destroys the very essence of our humanity: our ability to think.