The Most Important Thing In Life

Dialogue about what the most important thing in life is

Disclaimer: This is a writing exercise for someone trying to learn and is not something that should be relied upon as an accurate summary of philosophical ideas. Any errors are my own and nobody other than myself approved of or edited this writing. The following dialogue is inspired by/draws upon my reading of Paths Forward and this post about morality - both by Elliot Temple - and also references ideas from Ayn Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism and Karl Popper’s Critical Rationalism.

Bob (B): Here’s a question from How to Think Like a Roman Emperor:

What’s ultimately the most important thing in life to you?

Adam (A): Big question!

B: Yeah. Any response?

A: Well, I think I want a few different things. Like, I want to be a good person, and I want to be productive, and I want to learn interesting things. I’m not sure I can easily reduce it to a single thing.

B: Okay. Let’s talk about that. What do you need to know to be a good person?

A: Morality is the field that deals with being good. So you would need knowledge about morality.

B: OK. Where would you find such knowledge?

A: Ayn Rand knew a lot about the topic! Though there are other sources as well. I’ve been reading about Stoic ideas recently and they had some important ideas about being good too! Elliot Temple has written things on morality too, like here and here.

B: Okay, so you’d read certain philosophy books and articles and try to figure out how to apply them to your own life?

A: That’s the idea!

B: Okay. What about productivity?

A: Well, I think you’d need knowledge about what activities are productive. Some people waste their lives/careers on unproductive activities.

B: What sort of unproductive activities?

A: Maybe they spend time trying to elaborate an economic theory that’s already been refuted, without addressing the refutation. Or maybe they spend time sucking up to other people rather than learning things. Or maybe they spend time scamming other people, like TV psychics.

B: That’s an interesting set of examples. Scamming people sounds immoral. So it sounds like part of figuring out what sort of action is productive involves figuring out morality.

A: Yes, I agree!

B: I have a similar observation for sucking up to other people. That sounds like a second-handed activity, which Ayn Rand criticized on moral grounds.

A: Yes.

B: “Trying to elaborate an economic theory that’s already been refuted” is a bit of a trickier example. But one thing I would note is - I think someone trying to do that would typically be an academic or operating in an academic context, yes?

A: Yeah that seems like a reasonable assumption.

B: Okay. Academics typically hold themselves out as specialists or experts in some field. If you’re advocating a theory and you’re in a position where you’re regarded as an expert, shouldn’t you be familiar with and be able to address refutations of your theory?

A: I could see somebody saying that maybe it’d be hard for a physicist to address every alleged perpetual motion machine or something like that.

B: Well the physicist could say, “this seems to be a perpetual motion machine. Can you explain why it isn’t? Or, if it is, what is your criticism of the laws of thermodynamics?” or something like that. That would be good enough to count as addressing the alleged perpetual motion machines, in my book. And certainly, the physicist would be familiar with the idea of perpetual motion machines.

A: Yeah okay.

B: So you agree that if someone is holding themselves out as an expert in some field, they should be familiar with and able to address alleged refutations of their ideas

A: Yes!

B: And if they either lack the familiarity with alleged refutations or don’t address them, what would that imply?

A: Well, regarding not addressing them, maybe they’d think that somebody else addressed the issue.

B: So suppose Charlie is an academic advocating some economic theory. Suppose Donald says he has a refutation of Charlie’s theory. Suppose Charlie thinks Evan has written stuff which addresses Donald’s alleged refutation. If Charlie agrees with Evan’s ideas and takes them on board - including being willing to treat it as a serious issue if someone says they’ve refuted Evan’s ideas - then I think that would count as Charlie having ideas which address Donald’s alleged refutations.

A: Okay. I think that would have been confusing to follow without using the names so good call on using them. Anyways I think that makes sense.

B: Okay. So suppose an academic, Charlie, holds himself out as an expert in some field. And suppose there is some alleged refutation of important ideas within his field, on which Charlie takes a position, like a refutation of some economic theory he advocates. Suppose Charlie hasn’t addressed the alleged refutation himself and doesn’t know of any material that does.

A: So it sounds like Charlie’s economic theory has an unaddressed criticism that Charlie is aware of.

B: Yes. So suppose Charlie continues to strongly advocate his theory, and doesn’t acknowledge that the unaddressed alleged refutation exists or otherwise treats it as insignificant.

A: That seems … bad to me.

B: Why?

A: Because the unaddressed criticism is part of the state of the world. You shouldn’t just ignore that, but it sounds like Charlie is proceeding in a manner consistent with ignoring the criticism.

B: So if Charlie strongly advocates his theory while this alleged refutation is hanging out there, unaddressed, would you say that he is being dishonest?

A: Yes.

B: What if Charlie just wasn’t familiar with some alleged refutations of his theory?

A: Then he’d be being dishonest about his level of expertise. His position implies that he is an expert, but he’s not actually familiar with important stuff.

B: Okay. And is dishonesty a moral issue?

A: Yes.

B: Why?

A: Morality is about how to live in the world effectively. Being moral requires being oriented to reality. You can’t act effectively in the world if you don’t understand the world and know what it’s like. That’s why clearing up a misconception can be so powerful - because the process of clearing up a misconception orients you to reality more. E.g. if you thought the world had an edge you might fall off, you might be afraid to travel a certain distance in a particular direction. But if you cleared up that misconception, you’d have a clearer picture of the world and be able to travel further.

Dishonesty severs a tie to reality in some way (for yourself or others) by presenting facts in a way one knows or reasonably ought to know is contrary to reality.

B: So we got on this point discussing examples of being unproductive. It seems that assessing whether an activity is productive takes us into questions of morality. It also seems that assessing whether an activity is productive can take us into epistemological issues. In the case of the discussion of the academic, the issue of what method or approach or process the academic had in place to address criticisms of his economic theory, and correct potential errors in that theory, is an epistemological one. How he chose to act under a given set of conditions (i.e. whether he was honest or dishonest) is a moral one.

A: So it seems like some philosophy fields are entangled with one another and you need to think about multiple big areas (morality, epistemology) when trying to pursue some big value like being good or productive.

B: There was another thing you mentioned, which was wanting to learn interesting things.

A: Yes.

B: Can you see how that might involve a bunch of big areas?

A: Well, you’d have to figure out stuff like what kind of things are worth learning about and what you should consider interesting, along with actually figuring out how to learn stuff effectively.

B: Let’s take one point there. You say that you need to figure out “what you should consider interesting”. A lot of people would say you should just learn about whatever seems fun to you.

A: That seems like whim-worship to me! I’m not against doing stuff you consider fun according to your current values, but you should also question and think about them.

B: Right and I agree, but my point is that even in formulating how to go about learning interesting things, and what’s involved in that, you’re bringing in various moral ideas. Like you have the moral idea “one should seek objective truth about what’s interesting and worthwhile, instead of just doing whatever seems fun at the time” as a background idea.

A: Ah, right.

B: There is a similar issue with “what kind of things are worth learning about”. You imply that there is some standard that you’re referencing outside of whatever seems the most fun or interesting to you in the moment.

A: Right.

B: Having objective standards for action instead of subjective ones is a moral idea.

A: Right.

B: And then you talk about “actually figuring out how to learn stuff effectively.” So suppose you were under the misconception that you could just read books and watch videos and have the knowledge from them dumped into your brain somehow.

A: I think your learning efforts would not be very effective if you were operating under such a misconception.

B: I agree. So in what field might you find the knowledge needed to correct such a misconception?

A: I think the field that deals with that kinda stuff is called epistemology.

B: Right. So again, in trying to take some goal seriously and think about what it involves, we find various links to philosophy fields.

A: Does this mean that the most important thing in life is to pursue philosophy?

B: As a general statement, that might seem to imply that everyone should be philosophers.

A: Hmm. Well maybe they should be?

B: Maybe! I don’t think we should dismiss the possibility out of hand.

A: At the very least, it seems like you need a bunch of knowledge of philosophy in order to be able to think effectively about a bunch of important issues.

B: Yes, I agree. If you pursue a field besides philosophy as your primary vocation, you will need field-specific knowledge as well - in law or medicine or programming or whatever. But you will still need philosophical knowledge for guiding your actions effectively, being moral, being productive, learning effectively.

A: So perhaps a good answer to the question “What’s ultimately the most important thing in life to you?” is “Effectively pursuing the knowledge - particularly the philosophical knowledge - that helps me improve and achieve my goals.”

B: That seems like a reasonable answer to me.