“The unexamined life is not worth living” Words supposedly spoken by Socrates at his trial, where he chose death over exile. For Socrates philosophy was very important, he is famous for his questioning of people’s beliefs, where he tries to guide a participant on to a path of doubt in his own reasoning and assumptions. There is a lot more to it but for now I want to focus on the “unexamined life”. I think that everybody “examines” their life, more or less. Of course, I cannot speak for everybody but it’s hard to imagine a person that has not once in their life looked in the mirror and thought…?
But Socrates is off course not thinking of the general questioning and doubt we all have as proof that we “examine our lives”. Most people answer their questions in the most economical way, by using the answers that are easily accessible to them. There are your parents, family, teachers, villagers, society, culture, church and more. All these entities have readymade answers, your parents don’t see it like that, but they give you what they got from their parents and the same goes for the teachers you have or the church you go to. Most of the time it is all in good faith, but if you look to a society controlled by a dictatorship for instance, you can find literal guidelines in how to behave and what to teach your children, something that is not so easy to find in a Democracy where there are other, harder to unravel, forces to control society.
Our brain is evolved in such a way that it doesn’t like to doubt. Our brain protects our consciousness from the conflicting information it receives by giving our consciousness the idea that all its ideas and world views are coherent. That makes sense when for instance you’re an ape, jumping from branch to branch unable to inspect every leaf that moves and every sound there is. The ape brain had to filter the information that was important and discard the rest. We humans do that still on a lower level with the input from our senses. This is called selective attention. But it also happens with more evolved brain processes like our capability to reason. A well know example of that is cognitive dissonance wherein conflicting ideas get resolved by suppression and avoidance.
As human being it’s difficult to be sure what is right and wrong within your own mind. In the world of inventions and speculations about the universe they came up with the scientific method. In this method the scientist not only have to prove their theory, they also must try to disapprove it, and let others try to replicate the theory and method of testing. It’s a little bit more complicated but the more refined this system became over the years the more fantastical wonderers the scientist came up with. In other words: the more they tried to circumvent their own bias mind, the better the result.
But for the silent chaos in our head the scientific method doesn’t work, we cannot be judge, jury and prosecutor at the same time in our own head. But we can start with something. What I just wrote about is not unique, it’s not common knowledge but with a little effort you might except that the things you know have a reason that you know them. That doesn’t say much about the validity of those ideas, but the fact is that you have those ideas and they could have been different. And that is a good starting point in the world of philosophy. You don’t have to kick out all your values, but start wondering why you have them and the way they are.
Philosophy is not an easy path if you want peace of mind. There are many ways you can dull the senses enough to go on living in reasonable happiness, most people do, the numbers don’t lie. But progress has brought us a lot and it’s in a great part because of some remarkable individuals that started “thinking outside the box”. If you want to make the world a better place for all of us, then a good start would be to start questioning yourself. Imagine if everybody did exactly that.
“He who would learn to fly one day must first learn to stand and walk and run and climb and dance; one cannot fly into flying.” Friedrich Nietzsche