Philosophy cannot resolve the question ‘How should we live?’

</p> <p>Medical workers in Wuhan embrace. 8 April 2020. <em>Photo by Hector Retamal/AFP/Getty</em></p> <p>by Dave Ellis – This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.

The question How should we live? is one that many ask in a crisis, jolted out of normal patterns of life. But that question is not always a simple request for a straightforward answer, as if we could somehow read off the ‘correct’ answer from the world.

This sort of question can be like a pain that requires a response that soothes as much as it resolves. It is not obvious that academic philosophy can address such a question adequately. As the Australian philosopher Raimond Gaita has suggested, such a question emerges from deep within us all, from our humanity, and, as such, we share a common calling in coming to an answer. Academia often misses the point here, ignoring the depth, and responding as if problems about the meaning of life were logical puzzles, to be dissolved or dismissed as not real problems, or solved in a single way for all time. True, at various times philosophers such as Gilbert Ryle and more recently Mikel Burley have called for a revision of academia’s approach towards these sorts of questions, for a ‘thickened’ or expanded conception. But, while improving our awareness of their complexity and diversity, such approaches still fail to address the depth that their human origin provides.

The presence of a humanness, or a depth, to these sorts of questions comes not just from the context in which they’re asked, but also from their origin, their speaker. They are real questions for real people, and shouldn’t be dismissed with a logical flourish or treated like an interesting topic for a seminar. I would laugh if I heard a computer ask How should we live? after beating it at chess, but I would cry to hear a wife ask her husband, on the death of their son, How should we live? Although the same words have been uttered, these questions have a different form: the mother’s question contains a qualitative depth, a humanness that isn’t there in the computer’s question. We must acknowledge this if we want to find an answer to the specific question she asked with such poignancy.

The computer is a thing that cannot meaningfully ask those sorts of questions; in contrast, it’s offensive to call a person a ‘thing’. Only a human can ask that sort of question within this sort of context. We would hear the mother’s words and say that they contain a depth that’s revealing something perhaps previously hidden about herself; the computer’s question isn’t even said to be shallow. It seems to have nothing of that sort to reveal about itself whatsoever, like a parrot repeating the words it has been taught without the complexity of the human context that gives them their usual meaning. This isn’t to say that computers won’t one day be intelligent, ‘conscious’ or ‘sentient’, or that human language is ‘private’; it’s closer to the Wittgensteinian remark that: ‘If a lion could talk, we could not understand him.’

This means that the form that a language takes reflects the complex social context of the life of the speaker, and the degree to which I share a similar form of life with the speaker is the same degree to which I can meaningfully understand the utterance. The ‘life’ of the computer, we suppose, is either one-dimensional due to it lacking depth or, even if it has depth, it would be uncommunicable through human language, because, simply put, we and they differ so much. The humanness that provides the depth to our language is simply inaccessible to silicon chips and copper wires, and vice versa.

This depth to the human condition is part of what we mean when we speak of our humanity, spirit or soul, and anyone who wishes to question or explore this aspect of the human condition must do so in a form of language that can access and replicate its depth. We call those sorts of languages spiritual. But this way of speaking shouldn’t be taken literally. It doesn’t mean that spirits, souls and God exist, or that we must believe in their literal existence in order to use this sort of language.

Questions about the meaning of life and others of a similar kind are often misconstrued by those too ready to think of them as straightforward requests for an objective true answer.

Consider, for example, what atheists mean by ‘soul’ when they refute the cognitive proposition that asserts the literal existence of souls, in comparison with what I mean when I describe slavery as soul-destroying. If atheists were to argue that slavery cannot be soul-destroying because souls don’t exist, then I would say that there’s a meaning here that’s lost on them by being overly literal. If the statement ‘Slavery is soul-destroying’ is forced into a purely cognitive form, then not only does it misrepresent what I mean to say, it actively prevents me from ever saying it. I want to express something that represents the depth of the sort of experience I’m having: this isn’t a matter of making an implied statement about whether or not souls exist – it’s not affected by the literal existence or non-existence of souls. This sort of meaning to spiritual language is found at a different dimension to where cognitivists look, irrespective of their atheism, and this is achieved through our capacity to embed a dimension of depth to the form of our language through the non-cognitive process of expressing, describing and evoking our sense of humanity within one another.

When considering how to answer the question How should we live?, we should first reflect on how it is being asked – is it a cognitive question looking for a literal matter-of-fact answer, or is it also in part a non-cognitive spiritual remark in answer to a particular human, and particularly human, situation? This question, so often asked by us in times of crisis and despair, or love and joy, expresses and indeed defines our sense of humanity.


by Dave Ellis – This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.

Liked it? Take a second to support Dr John Messerly on Patreon!
Become a patron at Patreon!

One thought on “Philosophy cannot resolve the question ‘How should we live?’

  1. Wow. So, Philosophy cannot resolve the question ‘How should we live?’

    Imagine a crime mystery (“whodunit”) television show that lasts 8 seasons (with a total of 160 hour-long episodes), during which the main detective searches and searches for the identity of the killer of multiple persons, and then the series comes to an end, and neither the detective nor we the viewers ever learn who the killer was. We aren’t even left with a strong suspect! That would be a very disappointing and unsatisfying TV series, would it not?

    I think that the bulk of modern, professional, academic Ph.D philosophers are leaving we the students of philosophy in a roughly similar situation. Don’t you agree?

    I ask: Is it necessary for this to be case? And, it is right and best for this be the case? Should our university-based professional philosophers be proud of the fact that they are telling their students that Philosophy cannot resolve the question ‘How should we live?’

    I imagine that one of our university-based professional philosophers might answer me back, as per the following dialogue:

    Do you think that we should lie to our students about this matter? Is that what you want?

    Yes, that’s exactly what I want you to do. But a special kind of “lie.” Plato called them “noble lies.” Since the term “lie” has such ugly connotations, let’s translate Plato’s term as “myth” instead of “lie,” as some scholars have suggested. And I also wish to put a lot of emphasis on the adjective “noble” found in “noble lie” or “noble myth.” I am talking about myths that are deeply benevolent and humanitarian. Also, I think “golden legend” or “sacred truth” might be other ways to express the same, essential thing.

    So you want professional philosophers to develop and propagate useful or beneficial fictions. Aren’t you trying to convert us into fiction writers, or into religious writers, or into political ideologists? Don’t you understand that that simply is not our role. Our function is to investigate, interrogate, and then describe and explain reality in a systematic, comprehensive manner, insofar as is possible for human beings to do so at the present time, taking care to describe and explain the apparent limits of what the human mind can know.

    By refusing to give students a definite answer to the question of “How We Should Live,” by refusing to develop and disseminate noble myths (in the spirit of Plato), professional philosophers are ceding the control and the fate of the nations and of the whole earth to the worst sort of people, people like the Professor Jordan Peterson, Senator Ted Cruz, Senator Josh Hawley, Ayn Rand’s followers, L. Ron Hubbard’s followers, the Taliban, Jerry Falwell, Jr., Pat Robertson’s followers, Tucker Carlson, Laura Ingraham, Ben Shapiro, Rush Limbaugh (deceased, but still influential), Viktor Orbán (prime minister of Hungary), Rod Dreher, Hillsdale College professors, Justice Amy Coney Barrett, Justice Brett Kavanaugh, etc. Those people don’t hesitate to develop and disseminate myths (some would call them “ignoble lies”) and present them as objective, eternal Truth (reality).

    Again, you are simply trying to put us in a role that is not our role. Yes, we too are worried about developments in politics and culture, such as denial of anthropogenic climate change, and authoritarian populism, etc. But, as professional philosophers, we must “stay in our lane,” to use a popular phrase. Our job is not to save the world. We leave that to others. We hope for the best.

    What good will it be to have stayed in your lane if there likely won’t any longer be any lane to stand it? Bertrand Russell was once asked by a reporter whether he regarded his scholarly writing as a professional philosopher as most important, or if he viewed his political activism as more important. He answered that he engaged in political activism so that a world would exist in which people could read his scholarly books. An apt phrase from U.S. constitutional law, which has appeared in rulings of the Supreme Court, is: “The Constitution is not a suicide pact.” That phrase means that strict fidelity to a principle must be balanced against the need for civilizational survival. Ultimately, it means that human survival is the highest value.

    And I contend that professional philosophers are uniquely qualified to develop and propagate a noble myth that will help save the world, save the human race, save civilization, and save the planet. Fiction writers such as Margaret Atwood and Cormac McCarthy simply lack the training and knowledge to develop and spread a convincing, rational, noble, philosophical myth that can save the world. And, in my view, we have, in Plato’s book The Republic, an enormous mandate and justification for professional philosophers to be engaged in developing and spreading noble myths. Plato recognized that, by nature, the vast majority of the citizens were not suited to learning or knowing the higher-level philosophy that the Philosopher Kings were trained in. Plato did not propose that all the citizens be turned into Philosopher Citizens. Some people have speculated that Plato had too much knowledge of and experience with ordinary people to imagine that such a goal was tenable or desirable.

    Furthermore, I think that psychologists and sociologists have established that the vast majority of human beings have a non-negotiable and absolute need for a philosophical resolution to the question ‘How should we live?’ In modern times, the bulk of the professional philosophers have strongly asserted that Philosophy cannot resolve the question ‘How should we live?’ So what happens? They join the Jordan Peterson movement, or the Ayn Rand movement, or the Make America Great Again movement, or the Mormon Church, or like the 1970s pop singer Cat Stevens they become a fundamentalist Muslim who goes from singing “Peace Train” to endorsing the death fatwa on author Salman Rushdie! Aren’t we “modified monkeys” (to use Dr. John G. Messerly’s phrase for human beings) worth saving? If the vast majority of modified monkeys have a non-negotiable and absolute need for a philosophical resolution to the question ‘How should we live?’, shouldn’t the most intellectually honest and the most intellectually competent among us be the ones providing that resolution? We don’t let a five-year old child pilot a Boeing 747 passenger jet, and yet, in politics and culture, are we not doing exactly that?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.