my philosophy, part 1

For some time I’ve wanted to write a post about philosophy, but I’ve found it hard to think of a way to begin. So I’ll just jump in and see where I get to.

I believe that everyone has a philosophy, even though very few of us have a coherent or consistent philosophy, in the sense that all of our beliefs hang together and support each other. I suppose you could say then that we all have a number of different philosophies (plural), but I think it’s more useful to stick with the singular, let it mean “the set of beliefs, explicit or implicit, on which I base my actions.”

For we all take action continuously, and those actions are always based on what we think is true, or at least most probable. Life is short, time is precious, and deep down we don’t like wasting it. (Incidentally, this universal human desire to economize on time is known in economics as “the disutility of labor”.) When we do something, whatever it is, we want it to work; we want to be effective. And what makes us effective is mostly our knowledge. If I want to power up my computer I have to go through a certain sequence of steps, and now I know what that sequence of steps is. Doing things other than that sequence won’t work, won’t achieve the desired result, namely my computer being up and running. So I don’t bother with those other, nonworking sequences.

But knowledge isn’t the same thing as belief—is it? No, but I suspect the difference between them is very fuzzy if you examine them closely. I believe, for example, that the Taj Mahal exists; but do I know that it exists? I’ve never been there or seen it with my own eyes, so I’m accepting its existence based on indirect evidence. Also, I don’t particularly have any reason to doubt its existence, other than the fact that I haven’t personally seen it. In fact, such doubt would pretty much have to be based on a paranoid belief that the world is conspiring to make me believe falsely in the existence of the Taj Mahal, and if I’m not paranoid then such a scheme is just too far-fetched to be credible. In short, all the signs available to me point to the actual existence of the Taj Mahal, and no signs available to me point away from it. So far.

But is that the same thing as knowledge?

It’s a matter of definition. For my part, I’m inclined to think that actual, true, conceptual knowledge is possible only in the realm of mathematics; every other type of conceptual knowing only approaches that more or less closely.

That’s why belief is a safer term: it’s what we treat as true for the purpose of our actions. So I’m saying that our philosophy is just the total set of beliefs that we use as the bases for our actions, no matter how miscellaneous, unconscious, and inconsistent it may be. It’s like the toy-box that we throw all the toys in, whether they really belong together or not.

One excellent thing about being human is that we are able to work intentionally to improve our belief systems: to make them more complete, explicit, and consistent. We can think our way to a more adequate understanding of our world, and we have the best of reasons for doing so, namely, to become more effective in it. And we all want to do that because death approaches and time is precious.

This idea that the measure of truth is effectiveness is known in philosophy as pragmatism. The idea and the term were the creations of the 19th-century American philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce, and the idea was taken up and developed by other thinkers such as William James and John Dewey. I find pragmatism very appealing and convincing because I arrived there by my own separate path, and only later learned that it had a name and had been worked out by others before me.

So now you know one thing about my philosophy: it is pragmatic. Truth is what works, and what works most fully and most consistently and most reliably is what is most true. A belief is something that we think most likely to be true. We invariably base our actions on our beliefs.

So if your own actions sometimes puzzle you or surprise you or frustrate you, you need to open the hood on your beliefs and start finding out what they really are. The clues are always in your actions.

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