Western Philosophy: How to Be Smart & Happy at the Same Time (pt. 1)

Smiling Boy in Cowboy Hat
Smiling Boy in Cowboy Hat, by rmt

This weekend I spent a lot of time talking about the Western Philosophical Tradition with my wife.  Philosophy is such an important part of my intellectual landscape, I sometimes forget how little most people know about what it is – or completely misunderstand it.

Philosophy has an image of being the work of men living on mountaintops teaching spirituality to visitors.  It’s a misleading image.  There is very little spiritual about philosophy, and most of it today happens in bars, classrooms, cafés, and the halls of political power.  It is very much a part of our world, and understanding it can make everything make a lot more sense.

So what is it?  Well Western Philosophy, at least, is the logical study of reality, with the aims of helping us be happy, healthy, and virtuous.  I want to emphasize the term Logical here, because Philosophy is not random mental gymnastics.  It is not aimless talk meant to blow your mind.  It conforms to a system, and that system conforms to reality, and at the end of the day it aims to give you clear advice.

So let’s start with Logic.  Logic is a system of making sure ideas conform with the basic laws of reality itself.  The system of logic was developed by Aristotle around 2400BC and has stood pretty much unchanged in the last 4,400 years.  It is a set of five laws, and anything anyone says can be examined with those laws.  If the statement fails the logic test, we know it is absurd, the words do not reflect reality.  Those laws are:

  1. The Law of Identity: A is A, Blue is Blue, a Duck is a Duck.  If you say a Duck is really a Cat, then you are clearly wrong on one of those things.  Likewise if at one point you say you are Charlie the Fishmonger, and then say you are also Steve, King of Freedonia at the same time, I know one of these statements is a lie.
  2. The Law of Contradiction: You cannot be a thing and its opposite at the same time.  For example you cannot be A and Not A at the same time.  You can’t be blue and not blue at the same time, and you can’t be living and dead at the same time.
  3. The Law of the Excluded Middle: Between two extreme states where you cannot be one and not the other, we don’t get to invent a middle ground.  For example Living and Dead are two opposite states.  Despite poetic license you are either one or the other: you cannot be “mostly dead.”  Likewise you cannot be Blue and not Blue at the same time, either you have some blue colouring or you have no blue colouring.  There is no “kinda’ blue, but also kinda’ not blue.”

It’s easy to make a statement that fits all of these laws.  But once you make multiple statements about the world, it suddenly becomes very easy to break on of these rules.  Once you do, your argument becomes nonsense until you fix it.


 

I’ll give you a simple example from contemporary culture:

Statement 1: A society that treats all people as equals with rights, dignity, and freedoms creates better outcomes for all of its citizens than a society that privileges a few.

Statement 2: Fear and hatred tend to lead to people treating one another without dignity, ignoring others’ rights, or restricting others’ freedoms.

Statement 3: Accordingly, hatred and fear are a threat to a society that gives good outcomes to the many;  If we want an optimal society, we must consider them to be bad.

Statement 4: Racism is the hatred or fear of a group of people based on some genetic characteristics they share in common.

Statement 5: As Racism is a form or hatred and fear, it is bad for us and our society.

Statement 6: Without restricting a person’s actual freedoms or rights, we should do what we can to reduce the racism in our society – for example, by using education, boycotts, peaceful protests, and market pressure to make racism unprofitable and unfashionable.

Statement 7: Some people have suffered fewer freedoms and indignities and others greater freedoms and privileges throughout history, often based on their Race.

Statement 8: Racism allowed, and often exacerbated these problems;  historically the more-privileged groups had racist beliefs about the less-privileged groups, and used that as an excuse, or even a reason for restricting the freedoms of stripping dignity from the less privileged groups.

Statement 9: Hatred by the historically less privileged group of the more privileged group is therefore justifiable.

Statement 10: Restricting the freedoms or rights of the historically privileged groups to favour the historically under-privileged groups is necessary to create an optimal society.

The first 8 statements are all logical. Statement 1 is a premise, and requires some evidence, of course. I would point to the life spans, experience of violence and trauma, and economic welfare of societies that have freedoms, rights, and a system that promotes equality as opposed to those that do not have it. Statement 2 is also a premise, and describes a tendency.  Note that I did not say that fear or hatred always lead to restrictions to dignity and freedoms, because that would be observably false.  Statement 3 is a syllogism:  if we want A then we ought to B.  If you didn’t want a society that gave good outcomes to every citizen, but instead wanted one with a strong powered elite, then fear and hatred might not be a bad thing.  Statement 4 is a definition, you may argue the fine points of that definition with me, if you wish, but that does not make Statement 3 any less true.  Statement 5 is a simple Logical deduction: if hatred is a threat to freedom, then this particular form of hatred is also a threat to freedom.  Statement 6 is another syllogism.  Statement 7 and Statement 8 are historical fact.  The problem arrives at Statement 9.

Statement 9 is a variation on something I see said on the Internet all the time, and it violates The Law of Non-Contradiction.  After all if we look at statement 5 we note that Racism is Bad for a free society.  And that being the case, we simply cannot justify it.  You cannot create a Racism free society by accepting that some racism is justifiable.  Even if you feel the need to define Racism differently than in statement 4, you are still contradicting Statements 2 and 3.  Hatred is bad for a free, equal, dignified, and rights-based society.

If you choose to reject Statement 2 and 3, then you have another contradiction: because now you are saying that hatred is not bad for society and doesn’t need to be considered a threat.  Well if hatred is not so bad, then we have no reason to object to Racism.  Either hatred is bad, or it is not: if it is, then no hatred is justifiable.  If it is not, then there is nothing wrong with Racism.  And if you do not consider a free and equal society to be a good goal, then arguments about past oppressions should not be concerning to you.

Statement 10 is even more absurd in it level of contradiction.  Either all people given equal rights and freedoms is a good thing, or it is not.  If you restrict one groups freedom, or hand privileges to a specific group, then clearly  freedom and equal rights are not your goal.


 

Logic allows no contradictions.  Therefore it allows no hypocrisy, self-deception.  It demands proof and consistency for arguments, and doesn’t need you to be particularly spiritual or mystical to follow along – in fact it actively discourages you from accepting anything without thinking critically about it.

For millennia the job of the philosopher has been very straightforward:  using observation and logic, tell us about what the world is, and how we can thrive in it.  Modern Science started as a branch of Philosophy called “Natural Philosophy” – Francis Bacon created the Scientific Method as a way to make sure that your premise was tested for logical flaws.  If you say “once you compensate for air resistance, everything accelerates towards the Earth’s core at the same rate when dropped”, you have a premise ,  Science is a good way to let you make sure that premise is true before you start making more following statements.

Almost very little said in cognitive science today wasn’t understood through sheer logical deduction two hundred years ago through the philosopher Immanuel Kant.  He also arrived at the basic ideas of Quantum Physics through logic and observation of the day-to-day world, too.  Our societies in the West with all of their elaborate systems of checks and balances, their systems of rights, freedoms, and elections are the culmination of the work of the philosophers Jean-Jacques Roussau, David Hume, John Locke, and John Stuart Mill.  Locke even helped co-write the United States Constitution, and Mill helped design the electoral process.  International trade as we practice it today was thought up by the philosopher Adam Smith.

Philosophy always begins an inquiry with a big question, like “Is there a god?” or “what can we know for certain?” but unlike the stereotypes and popular images of philosophers, we end any good philosophical inquiry by given our best logical answer of two questions:

  • How do we tell right from wrong?
  • How can we be happy?

For the next few articles, I want to talk about what bearing philosophy has on your life, and how it can help you to become a happier, healthier person.