Philosophical Soft Serve

One of the fundamental claims this author takes as self-evident is that understanding a thing is to overcome it. It is important to stress here that Locke's "Essay Concerning Human Understanding" gives language to this idea in my mind as I became conscious of it. So why is understanding central to the meaning of life?

Perhaps it is crucial to distinguish between knowledge and understanding. Well, we say one has knowledge of a thing when they know of that thing, and they are said to understand that thing when they know the intended meaning or cause of the thing. In other words, knowledge answers the "what" question, but understanding answers the "why" question. In this way, it is not folly to claim that understanding is more principal than knowledge. This claim is at odds with the instinct to say that whatever comes first is more important. Knowledge does indeed come first, but it is also simultaneously a by-product of understanding in the most fundamental sense.

After understanding this distinction, let us apply it to life. In a way, we are all empiricists in the way we navigate life. This is because we know life by living and experiencing it through our senses. Life is embodied. Thus, let's ask the question this way: what does it mean to understand oneself? Well, firstly, we have to truly know we (i.e., ourselves) exist. The intellectual heavy-lifting on this question has been done by giants like Descartes. Still, I propose two simple exercises that should convince you of your existence.

  1. When you hype (or berate) the person you see in the mirror, you believe you exist. In other words, you act as if there is a "you" worth hyping up or berating. To act in this way is to be conscious of two things. One is the "you" being hyped up or criticized, and two is the "you" doing the hyping (or berating). You are a composite of both people. In more fancy speak, you exist in the intersection of both "you's."

  2. Try forcing yourself to do something you don't want to do. The "you" that protests show that there is a "you" there to protest. In other words, the "you" telling yourself what to do and the "you" doing the opposition shows that there is a "you," and like exercise 1, that is the average of both you's.

These exercises, sophisticated or not, show something. There are two versions of yourself. That which does the expedient and that which does (or aspires to do) the meaningful. Perhaps it helps to understand these selves in religious terms. Christians call the former the flesh and the latter the spirit. Psychologists call the former the id and the latter the super-ego. We will refer to the former as the bad and the latter as the good. We are quick to identify with the forward-looking or good versions of ourselves (primarily for status reasons). We identify too readily with the "us" that gets up at 5 am to workout and reads and takes care of themselves and never procrastinates and is on time all the time and also never eats pizza or ice cream because they are bad for us and never spends hours watching Youtube videos and only does things that are meaningful all the time. When the truth is that we are seldom like that.

On the contrary, we are the sum total of that which manifests from that tension each and every time. I don't slyly mean this. The parts of you that win out in certain situations where the expedient and meaningful come to interact has a fingerprint that shows on your character is truly what makes a human. So, what is the meaning of life? The meaning of life, according to Eric Weinstein, and I fully agree with this, is to imbue life with meaning. Concretely, it is to understand oneself purely to overcome it with the eye towards a better existence, whether religiously or on earth. I believe growing up is learning to understand that tension and, hopefully, let the better parts win out more than the more self-gratifying parts. This conclusion follows the Lockean tradition that relates to the psychological practice of associating ideas with our experience. At the very least, it has been so in my case. As I grow older, I learn and actively try to not eat four boxes of fruit snacks for breakfast (it is quite difficult not to) and sit around watching movies all day. And through existential generalization, I believe we all do so as well. Scientists confirm this through the study of the growth of our prefrontal cortex.

To make the fundamental claim here, i.e., when you understand who you truly are, you overcome yourself, more concrete, let us use observations. We see this in how we handle our sexual desires. When we, as men, understand that our biology motivates us to procreate with as many people as possible, we get the opportunity and insight to decide to not do so. Despite the desire to do the opposite, selecting one partner makes the decision more meaningful. This is also clearly seen with those people who, once they understand the way their brain and body works, figure out a way to overcome it. Head nod to people like David Goggins. That said, I don't know how to square this view with people who choose to lean into the bad aspects of themselves. In some sense, it is both a cop-out and not a cop-out to say that, in their case, something is misordered.

Certainty Rating: 90%


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