The Examined Life

Socrates famously said that "the unexamined life is not worth living.”  For decades I assumed the point of any real education is to teach and motivate people to lead examined lives. 

Now, I wonder, these many years later, if this viewpoint is chimerical.  There is so much in the nature of humans and society that seems to go against it.

How we feel, think, and act is largely the product of forces of which we are unaware and which are not much under our control. 

90% of the cells in our bodies are not “our” cells.  They belong to microorganisms that reside all over and inside our bodies.  Many of them are in our guts.  These microorganisms interact chemically with our brains and bodies to profoundly affect how we feel, think, and act.  They also deeply affect our mental health.  How we live (e.g., diet, stress, poverty) and where we live (e.g., pollution) determines the composition of our biotic zoo.

The human brain is more complex than the universe.  But the vast majority of this complex system is utterly unopen to conscious awareness.  Different modules (systems) in the brain process sensory inputs to reach decisions about how we think, feel, and act.  The conscious part of the brain is aware of the decision—it knows what it feels, thinks, and is doing—but is unaware of how or why these decisions were made.  This information is not passed on from the unconscious (“encapsulated”) modules of the brain to the conscious part. 

The conscious part of our brain, in the absence of veridical evidence of why we feel, think, or behave as we do, makes up a good story (“confabulates”) based on whatever limited evidence we have and our deep desire for meaning and comfort.  These stories are often wrong and, in any case, we have no real way to know when they are right, if they are.

The mix of our genes, epigenetic events, cells, chemicals, microorganisms, and unconscious brain processes is a complex interacting system beyond our direct control and awareness.  This system, by and large, determines what we feel, think, and do, and our bodily and mental health. 

By the way, the brain and the body are not really separate or separable, since the brain is spread throughout the body and we have a “second brain” in our guts listening to our microorganisms and communicating constantly with our head-brain, most of whose workings are unopen to conscious awareness.

How can our puny conscious brain—the only part that can examine our life—counteract this massively complex mix of forces we cannot see or know consciously?  Who is the “I” we examiners of life would examine?  

But things are yet worse. 

The conscious brain—and our reasoning powers—are quite fragile.  We humans are prone to a great many “brain bugs” that infect our conscious brain and its processing. 

One good example is confirmation bias.  We are all prone to confirmation bias, which means we look for and consider only evidence for what we already believe and ignore or even disdain evidence that goes against what we already believe.  Interestingly enough, this bias is as bad or worse for highly educated people than it is for less educated people.  Ironically, we are often quite unaware that we are engaging in confirmation bias when we use our conscious reasoning processes.  There are so many other brain bugs that we could not begin to list them all here.

If all this is not bad enough, it gets yet worse again. 

Humans have a mental super-power.  That power is pattern-recognition.  Unfortunately, humans readily find patterns anywhere and everywhere even when they are quite spurious.  And they are quite happy to believe them and run with them.  They find patterns that they think are significant in the stars and in everyday chance events.  This effect is compounded by the deep primordial need humans have to find meaning and causes where none exist, believing things like “everything happens for a good reason” or “it was meant to be” when faced with a probabilistic universe based on chance, randomness, or complex unseen causes well beyond our ken.  Again, educated people are not less prone to seeking comfort, rather than facing reality, than less educated people.

So microorganisms, unconscious brain processes, brain bugs in the conscious brain, and our drive for meaning and not “truth” render us pretty helpless and hapless creatures.  Little room, indeed, is left for free will, real choice, or blame and responsibility.

When we add in society, even less room is left for free will, choice, blame and responsibility.  What we ARE in society is largely determined by other people and by historical and institutional forces usually well beyond our control.  The values, norms, and practices of teachers, students, academics, lawyers, doctors, gang members, carpenters, gamers, or anything else we can be, are largely set by groups of people working within institutions or socially and historically formed frameworks. As individuals we can change these forces in only quite small ways, if at all, unless major changes and fractures are already in force, and this is not in our control. 

Now you might say this mess that is the human condition is exactly why people need to lead an examined life, however hard it might be.  But, in reality, life for most humans is hard enough that they do not wish to examine it too closely, lest they get even more to worry about and feel bad about.  Furthermore, if given a choice, I suspect most people would choose not to lead an examined life.  They would ask: What good will it do?  Is meditating on philosophical “truths” at all likely to have any real impact on my life or the mess of the human condition?

Humans today face massive inequality; the deterioration of jobs and wages; a possibly jobless future; a global economy largely based on numbers in computers and on high risk bets taken by financial people with other people’s money; terrible environmental degradation; global warming; grave dangers from hacking into over-centralized digitized systems; massive flows of migrants fleeing poverty, environmental collapse, and violence; broken business and political systems based on short-term interest and greed; ideological silos and echo chambers on social media; and the list goes on and on, but it is too disheartening to continue.  What will an examined life do in the face of THIS?  What will it do for the mass of people crushed by poverty, debt, racism and classism, bleak environments, poor health care, the scams and “legal crime” regularly visited on them by the powerful, and downward social mobility for their children? 

Better to hope for the best and to believe that “things are meant to be” and “work out for the best.”  If those beliefs don’t work, then sex, drugs, and alcohol often bring more peace than does an examined life. 

Today racism is still virulent and has been brought to a boiling point by the election of a half-black, half-white President.  Nonetheless, the white working-class—told by liberals, who have their own kids in private schools, how whitely privileged they are—are jobless, fat, dying earlier and earlier, committing suicide at epic rates, and fueling a drug crisis that would make any so-called ghetto blanch.  

These futureless whites are privileged, of course, which just means they will fall into hell five seconds later than someone darker than them.  Small comfort.  The rest of us—black, white, rich, and poor—are all on our way to hell as well.  The most privileged of us will see everyone else fall into the pits of fire before them.  But small comfort, since the deepest parts of hell are reserved for them.

How much does leading an examined life move you up or down the ramp to hell?  Not much either way, I suspect.

Socrates believed in the examined life because he believed in an afterlife in which he could go on engaging in dialogue with other departed life-examiners.  That’s why he chose the death penalty over ending this dialogue.  Most human beings weak enough to believe in an afterlife led by an all-good god (the evidence would suggest that, if there is a god, he is male and bad) are smart enough to know that the afterlife must offer better things to do than examine a life already gone and done with.  

Walking into the abyss stupid is probably smarter than walking in smart.

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