HOW TO MEASURE A LIFE PHILOSOPHY
Foundations of a Life Philosophy (1.5)
Note: This article is one part of a series, "How to Rethink Your Entire Life | Foundations of a Life Philosophy"
Here are nine ways to measure a life philosophy.
We can ask nine questions.
Is it coherent?
This is “The Coherency Test.”
It means asking, “Does it make sense?”
If something doesn’t pass the coherency test, it simply strikes us as incoherent or absurd. It just doesn’t make sense.
A coherent life philosophy is better than an incoherent one.
Is it arbitrary?
This is “The Arbitrariness Test.”
It means asking, “Is that true?” or “Why do you say that?” or simply, “Why?”
Is an idea just some kind of random, wayward opinion, backed by nothing, floating mid-air? Or is it supported by something else – facts, logic, experience, self-evident truths, and so on?
Anyone can declare anything. Anyone can have a mere opinion. Any two-year-old can declare something. We can all simply assume an idea to be true, and act accordingly.
But none of that necessarily means too much. We can assume that a bear is a chicken, that gravity won’t affect us, or that fire won’t burn us, but find out pretty quickly that we can be "right" about some things and "wrong" about others.
That said, it’s also possible to go too far in the opposite direction. This doesn’t necessarily mean that every single thought or idea must be proven under intense scrutiny in a court of law or risk being declared null and void. Sometimes, as the saying goes, “what is essential is invisible to the eye.” (St. Exupery) Not everything important can necessarily be proven. Some things might be beyond the reach of logic.
But there are key differences between that and simply declaring things. (“I think it so because I think it so.”) Some ideas are subrational. Others are post-rational. It’s one thing to pass through some tests of truth, and another to avoid them entirely, and never be subjected to them in the first place.
A life philosophy that isn’t arbitrary is better than one that is.
Is it comprehensive?
This is “The Comprehensiveness Test”
Does it 1) explain all available data, and 2) not ignore or exclude any available data whatsoever?
Good ideas and theories make sense of data. If a philosophy explains all available data, that’s good. If it excludes, shuns, silences, unfairly discredits, unfairly undermines, or in any way abolishes any data – that’s bad.
To be clear: this doesn’t mean that all data are equally valid, or valuable. All data are welcome, but not necessarily equal. Data can be “bad,” inaccurate, or corrupted. But every piece of data should be allowed a day in court. But a day in court doesn’t guarantee a particular verdict. A scientist might lie about data in order create the appearance of a certain result. Someone can declare that a certain animal is a horse, but if it swims, waddles, and quacks like a duck, that declaration might well be considered, and then tossed.
Some philosophies make sense of tiny bits of data. Others make sense of bigger bits. But a comprehensive life philosophy accounts for all of it.
A comprehensive life philosophy is better than one that isn’t.
Is it consistent?
This is “The Consistency Test.”
Here are a few examples.
“Nobody should ever kill animals. I also love hamburgers and eat them all the time. I’m eating one right now, in fact.”
“I’m a very kind and loving person. I love everyone! But let’s be honest here. I really hate that guy.”
“Everybody should be allowed to do whatever they want. But nobody should do X. That’s just wrong.”
“Everyone is equal, but some are more equal than others.” (Orwell)
Each of these examples contains two contradictory positions.
When two things don’t fit, they contradict. If they contradict, it’s a problem. They’re incompatible. You can have either one or the other, but not both at the same time. This lies at the foundation of logic, and is so basic that it’s described as a “law” -“The Law of Contradiction.”
We usually describe someone who knowingly, consciously, and deliberately does this, in a single word, as “phony.”
A more fancy way of saying this is “performative contradiction.” That is, they “perform” in ways that “contradict” themselves.
An even older term for it – one that’s been used for thousands of years – is “hypocrite.”
All of these point toward positions that discredit themselves. They’re often the result of someone trying to have things both ways when they really can’t.
Having unconscious contradictions is a normal part of life. We discover various contradictions in ourselves and in our thinking as we go through life. That’s natural. We can work to resolve them, or try our best to, one way or another. That’s part of life.
But if someone has a life philosophy full of contradictions, and they don’t care – and even embrace them – they’re disqualifying themselves by not taking themselves seriously. They’re consciously embracing hypocrisy. This might be entertaining as art, but it probably isn’t want someone like this piloting your plane, or your life.
The challenge is for a person’s life philosophy to be consistent with their actions, and for their actions to be consistent with their life philosophy. We often hear about “wholeness.” Wholeness is lack of contradiction.
If there’s a contradiction, it means something’s wrong.
Philosopher Roy Clouser (drawing from Herman Dooyeweerd and others) describes three different ways an idea (or in our case, a life philosophy) can be inconsistent (or contradictory, hypocritical, phony, etc.)
It can be:
“Self-referentially incoherent” means a theory is incompatible with itself. (Eg, “Nothing can be said of the Tao” involves saying something about the Tao.)
“Self-assumptively incoherent” means a theory is incompatible with any belief we have to assume for the theory to be true. (Eg: The idea that “Everything is physical” isn’t physical itself.)
“Self-performatively incoherent” means that a theory is incompatible with conditions that are necessary to formulate the theory. (Eg: “All language is wrong” makes that point using language.)
Contradictions like these can destroy a philosophy. Eg, Positivism fell apart because of reasons like these.
When this happens to a life philosophy, the result can be an existential crisis.
When a life philosophy gets destroyed and there’s nothing there to replace it, the conditions are ripe for a potential fall into nihilism. Nihilism (spoiler alert) isn’t a good life philosophy.
A good life philosophy is free of contradictions.
A consistent life philosophy is better than one that isn’t.
Is it unified?
This is “The Unity Test.”
This might seem similar to consistency, but it also goes further.
It’s one thing for a life philosophy to avoid contradictions.
That said, merely avoiding contradictions isn’t really enough. Being “not contradictory” is playing defense. It’s like saying, “I didn’t not eat the ice cream. It’s another thing to say, “I ate it.”
It’s easy to imagine someone with a life philosophy that isn’t unified.
Someone might be a Stoic on Wednesday, an Epicurean on Friday, an anarchist on Saturday, a theist on Sunday, a nihilist on Monday, and then start a new week all over again. There might be two or ten or fifty different incompatible philosophies that an individual flirts with at different times. Each can be adopted when it’s convenient and discarded when it isn’t.
The alternative is to be unified.
That means more than being “not self-contradictory.” It means adopting one life philosophy that carries someone through all of it.
Is a life philosophy unified? Does it have “unity”?
Does it encompass aspects that “fit together” in some kind of greater whole?
Beyond merely resolving contradictions, does it explain and incorporate the interconnections between seemingly separate parts of the world?
Does it go beyond merely studying separate pieces of the world (“facts,” or fragments that are completely isolated from other fragments) – and instead, explain how and why they all fit together to form a larger picture?
It’s one thing to say that a steering wheel, an engine, and an exhaust pipe “aren’t inconsistent with each other.” It’s another to say that these different pieces all work together and interconnect in ways that lead to something more: a car.
That said, there’s a potential hazard in this. It consists of trying to force-fit things into some sort of imagined “whole” that don’t really belong together. The risk lies in suppressing contradictions instead of genuinely resolving them. The goal isn’t a false unity, but a real one.
A unified life philosophy is better than one that isn’t.
Is it illuminating?
This is “The Illumination Test.”
Some ideas are illuminating. Some aren’t.
Some ideas have “explanatory power.” They actually explain things. Others don’t.
The worst of these seem to illuminate, but actually don’t.
Some insights genuinely help us understand a situation much more clearly. Others don’t. Bad ideas aren’t just ineffective. They actively – and sometimes deliberately – create confusion and dissonance.
Some ideas explain the universe better than others. They make things click. They offer an “aha,” an insight, and create understanding.
Ideas that do that are better than ones that don’t. These ideas tend to agree with all known facts, unify the data, identify causes that account for data, predict future events, are relatively simple, are demonstrable in some ways, unify other ideas by bringing them together within a single framework, and so on.
Einstein’s relativity theory, for example, by these standards, is pretty darn good.
Others aren’t so good.
Philosopher Karl Popper criticized both Freudian psychoanalysis and Marxism for being unfalsifiable. They’re so slippery, vague, malleable and unmeasurable that they can be shaped and re-interpreted to explain anything. (This usually happens retroactively, after the fact, ala the Captain Hindsight approach.)
For example, someone could suggest the idea that all of our lives are controlled by invisible, undetectable, all-powerful, purple Martians that control the world. This could be that person’s explanation for everything. “The Martians did it.”
But is that true? Well, it hasn’t been disproven!
But some ideas can’t be disproven.
But they don’t really explain anything. They aren’t illuminating.
An illuminating life philosophy is better than one that isn’t.
Is it livable?
This is “The Experience Test.”
Some philosophies might sound great in theory.
But sooner or later, it has to pass “the test of experience” of real life.
As the saying goes, in theory, there’s no difference between theory and practice. But in practice, there’s a huge difference between theory and practice.
Healthy life philosophies aren’t fragile systems that can only survive in narrow, highly insulated, rigidly controlled environments. That is to say, they aren’t restricted merely to college campuses.
They take in everything - the whole of life.
It would be interesting to have a few lifelong university types volunteer to work for a few weeks or so as farmers, landscapers, or construction workers. Those experiences might be revealing. Under certain conditions, certain pie-in-the-sky ideas can just suddenly sound absurd. This doesn’t necessarily happen as the result of intellectual argument. It can happen from becoming more grounded in common sense.
Certain philosophies might sound great in theory. But in the real world, they’re disasters.
Nihilism is a near-perfect example of a philosophy that’s not livable. (It might even be better described more as an “anti-philosophy.”) If there is no truth, and nothing matters, and everything is meaningless, this leaves an individual at a total loss in regards to what someone should do with themselves. Should I go left, or right, up or down? It doesn’t matter, because nothing matters. As a life philosophy, nihilism is unlivable.
A livable life philosophy is better than one that isn’t.
What are the consequences?
This is “The Consequence Test.”
Some ideas might pass all of the above tests. They might be coherent, comprehensive, consistent, illuminating, and livable.
The final test is to look at the consequences of adopting a certain life philosophy.
What are the effects on the person who adopts it, the people around them, and the world at large?
Does it result in more love, harmony, wisdom, beauty, justice, fun, joy? Does it result in misery, violence, suffering, destruction, death?
Does it transform a person into someone who is kinder, more intelligent, more competent, or angry, dumb, and incompetent? Does it result in more human thriving, success, and life, or corruption, failure, and disintegration into chaos? Does it result in the realization of certain ideals (truth, goodness, dignity, beauty, etc.), or does it result in the surrender of ideals (and so, leading to falsehood, malice, ugliness, shame, and injustice, etc.)?
A life philosophy that leads to good consequences is better than a life philosophy that doesn’t.
How does it compare?
This is “The Comparison Test.”
What are the most wise, profound, intelligent time-tested ideas known to humanity?
The answers to this question will vary widely. Some would answer The Bible, the Upanishads, the Dhammapada, the Tao te Ching, or other sources of inspiration or revelation. Others would answer various great thinkers, scientists, artists, leaders, saints, or visionaries throughout history. Some might answer a little closer to home, such as a parent, friend, or teacher who actually seemed to know a few things.
The answer depends on one’s life philosophy.
This hearkens back to the difficulties of a life philosophy. It means we’re back in a pickle of becoming circular: our life philosophy governs who we think is “wise, profound, and intelligent” (a good “exemplar,” or model to emulate) – and who isn’t. But our exemplar also shapes our life philosophy.
This can seem like a problem. But for the purposes here, it’s not a major stumbling block. Broad circularity is ultimately unavoidable. Perfect, infinite, non-circularity is impossible. Intellectually, this may seem to tie things in knots. But this is more of a limit of the intellect, not of reality. Practically, in the course of everyday life, we cut Gordian Knots like this all the time. It’s a job for common sense instead of the intellect. We pick good exemplars, and ideally, those make our life philosophy better, which makes us more able to understand and apply the lessons of those exemplars, and so on. This leads to a self-reinforcing loop where, if all goes well, we keep getting better.
(That said, this can work in reverse as well. If we pick bad exemplars to follow, they’ll make us dumber and more miserable, which can lead us to pick even worse exemplars, which can make us even dumber and more miserable, and so on – until we eventually have an existential crisis and reset our entire strategy.)
Whatever the answer here might be, a life philosophy can either be compatible with our exemplars, or incompatible. (Using one of the tests above, it might contradict, or not.) Our life philosophy can either make full use of insights from others, or ignore them.
We’re often encouraged today to “Find your own way!” “Believe in yourself!” “Follow your heart!” and so on.
It’s one thing to “believe in yourself.” It’s another to assume that you’re smarter than Jesus, Buddha, Confucius, or Einstein, or anyone and everyone else who has lived throughout the entire course of humanity. To ignore everyone else from the entire span of human history – and solely follow yourself – assumes this.
For many of us, that can mean neglecting the greatest geniuses across thousands of years in favor of, well, us. Not that we don’t all have our virtues, but at the same time, this strategy also runs the risk of putting the toughest problems human beings can face into the hands of rank amateurs.
All to say, there’s some room for humility here. To ignore insights from history is to ignore nuggets that were discovered after decades of sweat and labor. This can task us with starting from scratch on problems that were already solved long ago, or even working on the wrong problems to start with.
Building on those insights, on the other hand, can in some ways be like hiring a hand-picked, All-Star team of geniuses, with centuries of trial and error under their belts – and then, armed with what they’ve already discovered and accomplished, working from there. It can be quite an advantage.
A life philosophy that makes use of the most profound wisdom available is better than a life philosophy that doesn’t.
So, those are a few ways to measure a life philosophy.
If a life philosophy passes these tests, it’s probably pretty sturdy. It should be relatively trustworthy when it comes to navigating life.
But what happens in the opposite case?
How can a life philosophy fail, or collapse?