August 4, 2010

An Admission of False Beliefs: The Start of an Examined Life

Many people have heard Socrates famous assertion that the unexamined life isn't worth living, and while I believe that to come close to the truth, it is produced in a vague fashion. What does it mean to examine life? It doesn't mean to simply know who you are, this would be a good first step, but it would only be superficial as an actual examination. As for what it truly means no one was able to put it in better or more eloquent terms than Friedrich Nietzsche did in The Gay Science.

In the lead up to the quotes that follow there is a question of why someone would think that an action would be correct, and a response is given that it is that the 'never immoral conscious' that tells a person what is right and it alone determines what is moral. To this answer Nietzsche responds,

"But why do you listen to the voice of your conscience? And what gives you the right to consider such a judgment true and infallible? For this faith--is there no conscience for that? Have you never heard of an intellectual conscience? A conscience behind your 'conscience'? Your judgment 'this is right' has a pre-history in your instincts, likes, dislikes, experiences, and lack of experiences. 'How did it originate there?' you must ask, and then also: 'What is it that impels me to listen to it?' You can listen to its commands like a good soldier who hears his officer's command. Or like a woman who loves the man who commands. Or like a flatterer and coward afraid of the commander: Or like a dunderhead who obeys because no objection occurs to him. In short, there are a hundred ways in which you can listen to you conscience. But that you take this or that judgment for the voice of conscience--in other words, that you feel something to be right--may be due to the fact that you have never thought much about yourself and simply have accepted blindly that what you had been told ever since your childhood was right; or it may be due to the fact that what you call your duty has up to this point brought you sustenance and honors--and you consider it 'right' because it appears to you as your own 'condition of existence' (and that you have a right to existence seems irrefutable to you)."

And this is only half of the explanation and right after Nietzsche goes on to say,

"For all that, the firmness of your moral judgment could be evidence of your personal abjectness, or impersonality; your 'moral strength' might have its source in your stubbornness--or in your inability to envisage new ideals. And, briefly, if you had though more subtly, observed better; and learned more, you certainly would not go on calling this 'duty' of yours and this 'conscience' of yours duty and conscious. Your understanding of the manner in which moral judgments have originated would spoil these grand words for you, like 'sin', and 'salvation of the soul' and 'redemption' have been spoiled for you...Let us therefore limit ourselves to the purification of our opinions and valuations and to the creation of our own new tables of what is good, and let us stop brooding about the 'moral value of our actions'! We, however, want to become those we are--human beings who are new, unique, incomparable, who give themselves laws, who create themselves."

Through those to quotes Nietzsche has explained the essence of the examined life. Yet this is to monumental of a task to happen all at once, and also a task that requires constant maintenance. Although it might be fair to then criticize the 'examined life' as being unobtainable, a standard of perfection to great to reach, it wouldn't displace any of its meaning. It would still be a great standard to strive for even if it was always out of reach.

So what can be done to examine values and beliefs. The answer is a healthy skepticism inwards and outwards. To have everything you know to only be contingent on new evidence that may or may not be forthcoming and to examine core values so that you are the one making your values instead of being a reaction to them. Which brings up the question, why is there a picture of a spider at the top of the blog?

Well, while I know it isn't like admitting that a core value I had was wrong, I am now aware of a few beliefs about spiders that I held before were false and admitting that simple things you know were mistaken is a great way to build up to questioning bigger, more firmly held beliefs.

So here it is, I used to be one of those people who sleep covering there mouth for fear that the one of the average of six to eight spiders a year were going to crawl into my mouth that night. My greatest fret was that of the deadly daddy long legs, which I could only hope I wouldn't wander and wade into my mouth (It was known to me than that the daddy long legs was extremely poisonous, but that it couldn't open its mouth enough to bite people). I know how silly this sounds now ( I really didn't try to cover my mouth when I slept), but those were beliefs floating around around and I didn't question them, just believed them. I still hear them repeated from time to time now as pure fact, which they aren't as Snopes points out for both (Myth1 & Myth2)

I found away to change some of those obviously flawed beliefs thought. The answer was a system to work on those beliefs. It involved my roommate and I making small bets on opinions we differed on and then doing the research to find out which one of us was correct (The spider bet was one I obviously lost). We were both honest enough to accept credible information about the subjects we bet on and losing the bet was fine with me because it was better than carrying around a thought that was demonstrably wrong. It was a beginning to openly questioning many of the beliefs I've held, and while it may not be feasible for it to work with core values, it still remains a viable starting line to work out facts leading to being able to be honest about different beliefs; the start of an examined life.

Thanks for reading,
-the moral skeptic


  1. I saw "Daddy Long Legs" in your label. That is how I found this post. It made me think of an article I recently wrote that discussed Daddy Long Legs. Then I saw the title of the post: "An Admission of False Beliefs: The Start of an Examined Life," which further reminded me of my article, which discussed the fact that the my "pet" Daddy Long Legs probably sees me as God, but he is mistaken, as I cannot secrete silk. He has never heard of the real God, my God, who also cannot secrete silk. Hmm.

    One more thing! O My God! You mean my Daddy Long Legs is going to crawl into my mouth?! I will kill him tonight. Thank you, sir. I did not know.

  2. Yeah, I thought I'd put the word out on the Dady long legs. I'm sure this post will inspire as much fear as Jaws inspired agianst the Great White.