Foundations of a Life Philosophy (1.3)

Note: This article is one part of a series, "How to Rethink Your Entire Life | Foundations of a Life Philosophy"

A life philosophy is pretty important.

And yes, that's understating it. If it really "governs everything we think, feel, and do," it's like saying "oxygen is important to our physical health." That's putting it mildly. Everything else depends on it.

A bad life philosophy can harm us more than our worst enemy, and an effective one can help us more than our best friend.

For something this important, making sure that it’s in the best shape possible isn't a bad idea.

But what does it mean to be “in the best shape possible?” Is it really possible for a life philosophy to be “out of shape”?

To answer this, we’d need to measure it in some way.

But how?

We could describe a life philosophy as flawed, defective, or buggy. But what would a “flawed, defective or buggy” philosophy even look like? Or the opposite: what could it mean to have a life philosophy that’s healthy, highly functional, and effective?

But before we even get too far down that road, we need to stop and ask a different question.

Should we even go there?

Is “measuring” a life philosophy a good idea to start with?

Isn’t that being “judgmental”? Could this translate into people comparing and contrasting each others’ life philosophies?

Yes, that could happen.

But there are risks in crossing the street. Anything we do can go south or be misused by others.

And besides, we already do this. This just makes the process conscious. The idea that we “shouldn’t judge” is part of a life philosophy, and that’s what we’re trying to evaluate. And even further: what's the alternative? Avoiding the topic wouldn't suddenly make everyone’s thoughts on someone else's philosophy disappear. It would mean everyone only  pretending not to have them. It would all still happen, but it would only happen underground.

The focus here isn't on bothering others, but on getting ourselves in shape. (Know Thyself!) This isn’t about rearranging anyone else’s life, or fixing the world, or other people in it. The point is to fix ourselves. Unless we do that first, the rest can go south quickly.

At this point, we can assume that we want to have the best philosophy possible to help us navigate life.

Yet the idea of "evaluating" a life philosophy might still seem less than comfortable. Why?

Some might say that a life philosophy is like art.

Art, some say, is subjective, personal, and unique.

According to this perspective, there’s no “right” or “wrong” in art. There’s not even “effective” versus “ineffective,” “functional” versus “dysfunctional,” or “accurate” versus “inaccurate.” It’s just everyone doing their own thing. Everybody “does their own thing” when it comes to art, the thinking goes, and therefore, no one should criticize anyone else. Art is too personal, too sensitive, too raw. Art is merely – and completely – self-expression. This means criticizing someone else’s art equates to attacking a person. And attacking a person – well, that’s just mean.

To be clear, our objective here isn’t to be mean.

But before rushing into accusations of meanness, let’s stop and check a few things.

Let’s also be honest.

Is all art equally as good as all other art?

Is the Mona Lisa equal to the scribbles of a three-year-old?

Harshly criticizing a three-year-old’s painting seems like a pretty bad idea. But on the other hand, declaring that “all art is great” can miss the mark in the opposite direction.

Imagine someone who is brilliant and talented and who studies, works, and sacrifices tirelessly for decades, eventually creating a single masterpiece. After years of toil and sweat and problem-solving, when they finally unveil their work, should someone say,

“Ah, that’s nice. That paint-by-number I cranked out yesterday? That was nice, too. That drawing my three-year-old scribbled out yesterday? Also nice.”

If all art is equal, all compliments are nullified.

Praise becomes pointless. Even to compliment the efforts of a three-year-old becomes mere formality, theater, or manipulation. It’s mere encouragement, the way a parent encourages a child. When everything is “great,” nothing isn’t great, so the word “great” becomes meaningless. By this thinking, every piece of art is just as “great” as every  other.

But we can appeal to common sense here.

All art isn’t equal. There is a difference between a masterpiece and the scribbles of a three-year-old. Those who claim that “you can’t judge art” can easily be spotted ranting about how terrible a movie or novel was, or how sour a soufflé tastes. No one actually lives this way consistently.

This doesn’t mean we should walk around criticizing three-year-olds. But it also doesn’t mean we have to blind ourselves to masterpieces, either. Somewhere between total judgmentalism and total permissiveness is a “sweet spot” of intelligent examination.

Even if a life philosophy is like a piece of art, it doesn’t mean that all life philosophies are equally valuable.

But is a life philosophy even “art” at all?

For our purposes here: no.

A life philosophy is different from pure “art.” A life philosophy isn’t purely subjective, personal, and unique.

This doesn’t mean that a life philosophy – like “art” – can’t be subjective, personal, and unique in some respects. But other aspects are just the opposite. Some parts of life philosophies are objective, impersonal, and universal.

Some examples might help here.

Is an airplane “art”?

Is a bridge “art”?

Airplanes and bridges might be created artfully or not. Engineers and architects can design them in ways that are unique, innovative, and beautiful.

But this doesn’t make them entirely “art.”

The purpose here is central.

There’s form and function, style and substance.

We generally want planes to fly. We generally want bridges that don’t collapse when you drive on them.

For a plane to fly or a bridge to not collapse, some science is involved.

In other words, there are hard, impersonal, objective, "uncaring, "insensitive" principles of math, physics, mechanical engineering, and so on. That isn’t “art.”

It’s the same with a life philosophy.

It's both an art and a science.

A philosophy can either “work,” or not. It can “fly” like an airplane, so to speak. It can “hold weight,” like a bridge. Or, it can collapse, and crash. (More on this later.) A map can accurately describe a landscape, or describe it in a way that’s wildly mistaken. So can a life philosophy.

It might seem “nice” at first to refrain from criticizing someone’s plane, or bridge design, or map. But if the result of that "kindness" is injury, death, or someone getting lost in the wilderness, a bit of constructive criticism early on – in the right spirit, in good faith, for benevolent reasons – can be a lot “nicer” in the long run, even if it seems “mean” at first.

The above ideas describe a few defensive reasons why it can be OK to “measure” a life philosophy.

But it seems possible to go much further. Measuring a life philosophy isn't just "not bad." It's good.

Why spend precious time and energy on this instead of a thousand other things? Because time and energy are precious.

Imagine a powerful supercomputer.

Let’s imagine that this supercomputer assigns us our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.

Everything we think, feel, and do gets decided by that computer.

(creepy robot voice)
“Feel anger now. This is because of X. As a result of this, you will do Y.”

(creepy robot voice)
“Now feel joy. This is due to A. As a result of this, you will do B.”

…and so on. The computer spits out orders – what to think, what to feel, what to do – and we obey.

If this was our actual situation, we probably wouldn’t like it.

Or, more accurately: we wouldn’t like it if we became aware of our actual situation and understood it.

(The computer might not allow this to happen. It would probably lose control, and eventually be fired.)

If this was our situation, we’d probably ask some questions.

Who built this computer? Who programmed it? Does this computer have my best interests in mind? Do I have to obey it, or can I break free of it? Are we able to program it ourselves? Is there a way to upgrade it? Is there a way to check it? If I figure out that the computer isn’t taking me where I want to go, can I change it?

August Turak came up with the above thought experiment. As he stated, if our lives were at the mercy of this computer, we’d probably want to take a pretty hard look at that particular computer.

In fact, we’d probably investigate it pretty darn thoroughly.

But our life philosophy might be like that supercomputer.

Our life philosophy governs everything we think, feel, and do. And yet, it’s sometimes unconscious, at least to some degree. This would mean that everything we think, feel, and do is unconscious to the degree that we aren’t conscious of our life philosophy.

This can mean that we can think, feel, and do things without asking why, or without asking where these feelings, thoughts, or actions come from.

We can live according to a life philosophy that’s never been thoroughly examined.

We sometimes make arbitrary assumptions, and then proceed from that point without ever examining those initial starting points that form the basis for everything that follows. We can dedicate our entire lives to certain ideas we’ve never really thought much about.

“The child is father to the man” is an old saying from psychoanalysis. A grown adult can sometimes spend his adulthood carrying out certain ideas that began when he was a young child.

Would you put a five-year-old in charge of your major life decisions?

Few of us would. Yet sometimes, five-year-olds commit themselves to certain ideas, and those ideas form the premises they base the rest of their lives on. Smalls errors early in the process can lead to major errors later. It could translate into finding yourself immersed in a war without ever having thought seriously about which side you should be fighting for.

In some ways, all of this is understandable.

This doesn’t necessarily mean that anyone has necessarily done anything wrong or bad. “Examining a life philosophy” is rarely something we’ve been encouraged to do.

Just the opposite, in fact. We’re often kept too busy or distracted even to consider it. Some might even prefer that we don’t think or ask questions along these lines, that we just “go along” with things and not rock the boat.

Without tools, or a plan, or hearing a single word along these lines, this entire project might never even show up on our radar.

But much of this can point us in a certain direction.

It points us toward a need to take a look at our life philosophy, now.

Turak also described the formation of a life philosophy as similar to programming a computer.

This particular programming, however, usually has several different authors. Our parents hop on the keyboard and write a few lines of code. Then teachers hop on and write a few more lines. Then friends, television, movies, and various media influencers jump on and code even more, and so on.

This can often result in existential indigestion.

It often translates into a patchwork quilt in our heads made up of different scraps of incompatible code coming in piecemeal, isolated fragments from all over the place. Some lines of code conflict with others. Some are buggy. Some might even contain viruses that can bring the whole system down.

This is what influences much of what we think, feel, and do.

Our life philosophies today are often determined by family, friends, teachers, entertainers, or corporate marketing departments.

This can mean that our deepest beliefs and values are sometimes formed by people who hardly have our best interests in mind, or rank amateurs. Sometimes they’re oblivious. Other times they might be hostile. And sometimes, they had access to our source code, back when we were vulnerable.

Given this, it’s often a pretty good idea to take a good look at our life philosophy.

It’s probably even a good idea to “judge” it a little – like a helpful coach or parent or teacher – to try to get it in the best shape possible.

Of course, maybe we’re lucky.

Maybe our parents, family, friends, teachers, community-at-large, and the entertainers and marketing departments who create the media we all consume, all in one concerted and coordinated effort, sagely and selflessly helped us create and shape a life philosophy that is leading us toward everything good and wholesome and true – toward that will ultimately make us happy, healthy, and wise, and will ultimately result in the “life well lived.” Maybe we’ve never encountered anyone who is deliberately trying to use, manipulate, or exploit us. Maybe we live in quite a perfect, perfectly constructed, and perfectly sealed bubble.

Maybe someone out there is that lucky. For the rest of us, though, we probably have some work to do.

Plenty of people spend loads of money to remodel their house or apartment.

Far fewer spend any effort at all to remodel themselves. Few people sign on for an “inner remodeling.”

But the benefits of this might be worth a lot more than a new wall or bathroom. This can affect our happiness, our psychological health, our meaning in life, and more.

That said, all of this might seem a little scary. We might think that tinkering around with this could provoke an existential crisis of some sort, which doesn’t seem like an entirely pleasant way to spend an afternoon.

And it might.

In fact, in some ways, that’s kind of the point.

Sometimes, an existential crisis might make us much better in the long run.

After all, an existential crisis can hit us whether we think about our life philosophy or not. In fact, we can go even further: not thinking about our life philosophy likely makes an existential crisis much more likely, not less. Avoiding the topic might postpone it for a while. But that might just allow time for small problems to grow into bigger ones.

The alternative is to get ahead of the process, and do it ourselves, deliberately. This means doing it consciously, with us in control. It’s not unlike choosing to go to the gym to get stronger and prevent physical deterioration. This can be much more efficient – and less painful – than waiting for life to come around and do it for us, like wondering when the big bad wolf is going to waltz by and try to blow our inner house down.

Lifting weights breaks muscles down, which allows them to rebuild stronger. This can be about rebuilding stronger on the inside. It’s about inner strength.

“A very popular error: having the courage of one’s convictions.
Rather, it’s a matter of having the courage for an attack on one’s convictions.”
- Friedrich Nietzsche

It means getting more existentially fit.

And becoming more existentially fit is a good thing.

So, if we want to move forward along these lines, the question can become, “OK, what do we do? And how do we do it? Where do we start?”

If our life philosophy brings us closer to either misery and failure or love, success, and happiness, how do we make sure we’re moving in one direction and not the other?

To know where we are and where we’re going, we have to orient ourselves, like finding the “you are here” spot on a map.

This means, one way or another, finding a way to measure this.

So, how do you “measure” a life philosophy?

> Next: Why Measuring a Life Philosophy is Pretty Tricky

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