Those who habitually engage their intellect are notorious for becoming obsessed with abstract ideas that are of little relevance in an actual human life. Or rather, they set out to ponder an issue of critical importance and invariably end up stuck somewhere in the intricate machinery of assumptions and arguments that underpin the most basic ideas. To the layman, nothing seems more absurd than pondering whether or not we actually exist.
Going through such exercises is important; it teaches one to use the mind in new ways, to think deeply of things we take for granted. These exercises disrupt and challenge the mind’s habitual complacency.
However, these are exercises. Many thinkers make the error of treating such questions as an end unto themselves.
Philosophy at the academic level in particular seems to have receded into the endless consideration of irrelevant minutia.
Let’s take a classic question:
Do our senses lie to us?
Well, it’s clear our senses don’t give us a completely accurate representation, but most of us are confident that we’re given a representation of something real. What choice do we have? What good can we possibly do by asking whether the feedback from our senses could be counterfeit? What reason do we have to seriously suppose that the universe we perceive is counterfeit? Who or what would create the counterfeit? If counterfeit, why does acting on our perception generally seem to work? If it works, does it matter whether our senses lie or not?
Generally, we live life without asking such questions at every turn. By default, we eliminate such ideas and questions from our stream of thought. These are types of thoughts that will not only cause distraction, they will lead nowhere. When it comes to the veracity of our senses, we can speculate, but we really can’t get anywhere.
A thinker is generally on a quest for truth. Yet just what truth are they looking for? Often, it is truth in the most logical sense. An idea that is logically reasoned to be true must be embraced even should it means one’s own potential destruction. To do so is touted as being intellectually honest and logical.
Let us look at a person who embraces nihilism because it seems to be the most likely truth. What are the results of seriously adopting nihilism? There is no purpose, no point, nothing to life. There is no reason why a nihilist shouldn’t immediately shoot and then eat their own family members.
Indeed, plenty of academics and philosophers have gotten caught in the trap of meaninglessness and ennui. So much so, that a fashionably depressed academic/playwright/poet/author with suicidal tendencies has become little more than a cliché.
The intellect is very like money.
The more one has,
The more rope to hang oneself with.
The more one has,
The greater the potential for wellbeing
How do we know if we’re doing well with the gifts life has given us? The answer I suppose lies in watching a dog excitedly wag its tail as it greets its master. It is simple minded in comparison to a human and lives in the present.
The critical question is to look at a contented animal and ask: “Has my intellect made me better off?”
For one who has reason to believe they are of above average intelligence, they may look at the layman and ask themselves, “Am I truly better off?”
Judging by this standard, I would suppose your stereotypical depressed professor is someone very deep in debt. They have used their gifts poorly and would be better off as a happy dog, unable to comprehend the crushing pointlessness of the universe.
Thus in a way, the idea of nihilism self eliminates.
To judge the veracity of an idea solely on its formal logical truth is a mistake.
What fruit does it bear in actual implementation?
Like a lot of bibliophilic young people I spent hours pondering classic questions of philosophy and debating them with my friends at our favorite Chinese buffet. It got my cranial juices flowing and encouraged me to think critically.
Yet once one has been through a lot of the issues and gotten nowhere, one starts seeing the critical weaknesses in every idea and ideology out there. Nothing seems to really hold up any more against deep examination. The most brilliant of apologetics seem mere rationalizations. There are shadows of doubt in every aspect of life. Reason begins to show its ability to become a suffocating, crippling influence.
I think the depressed poet/professor is someone who gets sucked into this and never again gets out.
In my case, I spent enough time wrestling with the big issues eventually to realize there was no definite answer, that I could spend a lifetime at it. Relative(nihilism, determinism) and Absolute(theodicy, lack of evidence) morality for instance were both riddled with gaping holes. Most of the writers on the subject seemed like apologists on a technical level looking always for clever loopholes no one’s ever thought of before to justify their respective side.
Thus one must find a way to bypass the problem and move on to inquiries that have the potential to yield results.
In other words: What works?
One can become lost in formal method and start to move from philosophy into mathematics.
If one predicates one’s chain of reasoning from actual results, there is something to anchor to and prevent oneself from drifting into irrelevancy.
Let’s take a monotheistic religion: Christianity because it’s going to be familiar to most English speakers.
Using pure reason, there doesn’t seem to be any particularly compelling argument to believe in it. There are no youtube videos of (the original)Christ’s death and resurrection. There seems to have been several different schools of Christianity that arose from the first followers. The school that’s been passed down to us is just the victor that wrote all the history books. Which school would have been closest to Christ’s actual teachings?
The strictly rational response is to look at all the lack of substantial evidence for the entire religion and the violent squabbles and power politics of early Christians. Far from being sacred, they behaved like any other group in their struggles for dominance.
Yet millions of faithful Christians recoil from these justifications. The strict reasoner quickly dismisses them as gullible fools.
Now, lets look at the physical truth of a religion. It hasn’t done much to prevent bad behavior in humans towards groups of outsiders, but it does seem like it has a great effect on internal social cohesion. Faith provides a sense of purpose to believers, churches are important communal meeting places where anyone can go and find a group of people to associate with. Christianity has no flawless justification; faith is required. But for many people it manifests in their lives in a good way. A way that has the potential to put them above the simple contentedness of an animal. Even the aspect of faith and uncertainty has a way of helping one face all of life’s uncertainties. Thus it feels right and rings true for them.
To an exhaustive reasoner, nothing is so odious as to accept something because it has the right feel.
To do so is to sell out and succumb to our illogical instincts and delusional wishful thinking.
Yet how does reasoned skepticism towards everything manifest in our lives? Too often, as another depressed professor deep in intellectual debt.
I do not consider myself Christian, but by reasoning from the universe rather than from the immaterial, I can much better understand why even most critically minded people have historically chosen religion despite its obvious shortcomings.
By judging an idea first by its results rather than becoming stuck in technicalities, one can allow irrelevant or unprofitable concerns to self-eliminate, leaving one free to deal rationally and decisively with the most important matters: matters with the potential for meaningful resolution, the potential to move forward.