A lot of people have expressed an interest in my personal philosophy, what positions I hold on various things and so on, so I decided to write up a pair of posts to go over the topic. This first post will go over my basic philosophy on life and brief explanations of why I hold those positions. I don’t think philosophy is worth anything until you put it into practice though, so the second post will detail how my personal philosophy dictates my actions in trying to lead as good a life as possible. If you don’t care about my rationalizations and just want to get right to the practical stuff, feel free to skip right to that post.
This is in no way an extensive outline on my philosophy, that would take more time and space than I want to give to the topic and is fluid enough that I’d have to revise it too often. Instead, these are just the foundational principles of my personal philosophy – or at least the ones that I can pin down concretely.
I’m beginning with this not because it’s a particularly divisive and contentious issue (though it is) but rather because for most people including myself one’s position on this particular point directly influences and informs their opinion on nearly every other point. As such it’s best to deal with it first.
I am an agnostic atheist. What that means is that while I don’t claim no gods exist no claims for the existence of deities has met a sufficient burden of truth for me to accept them as true. In other words, I’m technically open to the possibility that gods may exist due to the impossibility of proving a negative. However, because there are none with enough evidence to show their existence my default position is that none exist and will remain so until I’m proven wrong.
There are certainly some gods which I would argue can be essentially disproven, for example we can fly to the top of Mount Olympus and check for Zeus and family. Most however fall into a non-disprovable area, much in the same way you can’t prove I don’t have an invisible, non-corporeal, multi-dimensional unicorn in my office.
Thankfully the burden of proof is on those making the positive claim – since the ones positing the existence of one or many deities has yet to meet that burden I have no impetus to accept those claims as true.
This position ties in closely with my position on the question of theism above because the same basic principles lead to the conclusion of both.
I am a methodological naturalist, although technically you could probably call me a weak or agnostic philosophical/metaphysical naturalist as well. So what does that mean?
A philosophical or metaphysical naturalist holds the position that nothing exists outside of the nature. In other words, there are no supernatural things in existence. Now while I agree with that position in general, it falls into the same issue of being unable to prove a negative. I can’t prove without a shadow of a doubt that nothing supernatural exists, which is why I could consider myself an agnostic metaphysical naturalist – I can’t claim I know for sure supernatural things don’t exist, but currently there’s no good reason to accept that they do so I stick to the null hypothesis.
Methodological naturalism means that, regardless of your position on whether supernatural things can or cannot exist at all, you interact with the world as though they do not. For example, a methodological naturalist might not claim absolutely that a magic spell doesn’t exist somewhere that will cure their infection – but they’re going to take the penicillin anyway.
This has some influence on other positions I hold that don’t necessarily merit their own section. Since I don’t currently accept the existence of anything supernatural it means I don’t accept the existence of a soul or spirits, nor do I accept the existence of any kind of afterlife. To a point it also influences my next position, a lack of the acceptance of the claim that we possess free will.
Compatibilism / Soft Determinism
My absolute position on free will is a bit hard to pin down since it can be kind of an amorphous topic. To start I obviously reject the notion of absolute free will. I don’t have the ‘free will’ to travel back in time, to make a square circle exist or to zap gold into being out of nowhere with my mind. This should be the position most people hold already I would hope but it’s good to clarify.
My position of compatibilism, or maybe weak determinism if you prefer that term, means that I hold that while we have some semblance of ‘choice’ that most lay people would consider a form of free will our general actions are overall determined entirely or almost entirely by previous events.
When you ‘decide’ to do something consciously neurons began firing before you made that conscious decision. In other words the parts of your brain that you don’t control had already directed you to do something before you knew you were going to do it.
I’m not going to go into much detail on why I hold this position since it really deserves more something book length than a couple paragraphs to do it justice. Regardless it entails that I hold people to be generally irrational beings who are not in full agency of the decisions they make.
Weak Moral Subjectivism
My position of weak moral subjectivism means that I hold that morality is a purely human construct and we don’t receive our morality from any ‘higher’ place or being. Obviously if I did it would conflict with my position as a naturalist.
That being said, the reason I consider myself a weak moral subjectivist instead of a strong one is that I do feel that as an intelligent species we can come to agreements on moral precepts that should be at least in a de facto manner objective. A strong moral subjectivist may hold the position that all opinions on morality are equal and all bets are off as to what anyone should do, whereas I think we can (and must to thrive) all agree on some standards that are essentially objective if not truly so.
As an example, we can all hopefully agree that shooting a nail gun in your own eye causes harm and is a bad idea. There may be some extremely rare individual where doing so causes them a ton of pleasure, but as a general rule most of the population is better off not doing it. In a similar vein we can hopefully all agree that causing harm to others is bad and should be avoided.
Not causing harm to others then is an example of a moral precept which, while not technically objective because it is constructed via societal agreement and may hold extremely rare exceptions (harming one person to save 10,000 for example), it works as if it were objective.
Sartre-ish existentialism may be a better term for my views as there are some points I disagree with Sartre on but it’s close enough.
This position – standing firmly on that foundation of naturalism and atheism – holds that existence, life and everything else hold no innate or inherent meaning or purpose. In other words your meaning in life is determined after you exist, not before, and hopefully by you. There is no plan to the universe, no reason behind everything except the cold fact that the laws of physics are such that things are as they are. Any concept of meaning in life is entirely the invention of sentient beings.
Now if you’re coming from a theist position originally this may seem bleak. After all, most theists are brought up consistently told their deity of choice has a plan and purpose for them. Losing that can feel a bit disorienting.
Personally though I much prefer knowing that my purpose in life is mine to determine. After all, there’s no guarantee you’d actually like the plan your deity had for you. I find it substantially more comforting knowing I’m the architect of my own destiny – within the bounds of determinism of course.
Epicurean Hedonism / Buddho-Daoist Hedonism
This last one can get a bit complicated, but I’m going to try to boil it down to its essence as best as possible.
I am technically a hedonist in that I consider the pursuit of pleasure the primary goal in life. Given my prior positions I have no expectation of an afterlife or anything beyond my relatively short existence. As such, I feel it reasonable to make the most of it.
However, I am an Epicurean hedonist, or maybe a Buddho-Daoist hedonist in that I think the pursuit of pleasure via excess actually causes more harm than direct pleasure.
In other words, endless pursuit of your desires and physical pleasures causes a diminishing returns problem. You always need more and more and more to reach the same baseline of happiness and, inevitably, you’re either going to cause harm to yourself as a result of your pursuit of those desires or reach a point where attaining them is essentially an impossibility and you cause yourself excess suffering through unfulfillable desires.
A much better way to pursue lasting, maximized happiness then is to eliminate as much of your desire for things as you possibly can in order to be happy with what you have. You can achieve much more happiness if the simple things, the easy things to get and achieve, are what make you most happy.
To that end, this flavor of hedonism entails a strong focus on minimalism and self-improvement over materialism and immediate physical pleasures. In the way a heroin addict may reach excessively high volumes of happiness but overall ends up miserable, Epicurean hedonism also tries to avoid a self-destructive false happiness for one that’s more sustainable.
So in an easy, bullet point summarized format for the tl;dr crowd:
I don’t currently accept the existence of any gods.
I don’t currently accept the existence of the supernatural.
I hold that while we have some agency over our actions that the average person would call ‘free will’ or ‘choice’ the majority of our actions are determined previously by events and circumstances beyond our control.
I hold that moral systems are a construct of sentient minds and have no inherent meaning beyond that, however there are standards we as a species can agree upon as de facto ‘objective’ moral standards.
I don’t currently accept the concept that life, the universe or anything has any kind of inherent meaning or purpose. I hold that meaning and purpose are the creation of sentient minds.
I hold that pursuit of happiness and pleasure are an ideal goal, however the best way to achieve it is by minimizing desires and needs until a lasting state of happiness is easy to achieve.
If you’re curious how these positions actually inform my actions and decisions on a day to day basis in a practical way you can read my follow up article that I will be posting tomorrow.
I’d like to hear what you think too! Do yo hold any of the same positions? Do you completely disagree with any of them? Have you thought at all about your own personal philosophies? Share in the comments!
Photo Credit: Jared Dunn