Hints to Help Live a Successful and Worthwhile Life
1. Introduction -- Navigating Life’s Problems …
This is a book about problems and some basic hints on how best to cope with them. But let’s make it clear from the outset: there are no guarantees. There is no recipe or algorithm that we can give such that, if you follow it, it will make it a “sure thing” that you will solve all your problems and live an earthly life that is happy and worthwhile. Even the best attempts at problem solving can be undermined by “bad luck.” Bad luck aside, however, we think that if you follow the hints we give here, you will have a “better shot” at solving problems and living a life that you yourself consider to be happy and worthwhile. We’ll say more about this below, but, for now, back to “problems.”
We all have problems. Some are faced by every living thing: getting enough nourishment, adjusting to surroundings, keeping physically intact … Such problems are problems of living. They are universal in that they are faced by all earthly organisms. Moreover, coping with such problems is of utmost importance. Indeed, if organisms are unable to cope with problems of living, they go out of existence.
But problems of living bring others in their wake -- at least they do for higher organisms such as ourselves, who can think, feel and desire. We humans (and likely other “higher” animals as well) have both cognitive & feeling capacities that allow us to:
(i) desire such things as food and shelter;
(ii) reason and make judgments about the actions we perform aimed at fulfilling those desires;
(iii) feel content (happy, sad …) when those desires are (or are not) fulfilled.
In turn, these cognitive & feeling capacities allow us to experience “new problems.” We desire food, but must discover what things are good to eat. We want shelter and safe haven but must learn how to find it. Thus, humans (and higher animals) face problems of action, problems of figuring out how to act in a manner that will allow them to fulfill their respective desires. More generally, we might say that coping with problems of action entails coping with the problems of discerning what there is and figuring out how to use what we discover to fulfill our desires.
But, for humans at least, things are even more complex. I not only desire that hot, new Harley, but I reflect on why I desire it and whether I should spend money to buy it or save to pay my rent. I don’t want to be bothered recycling my cans and bottles but when I think about it I see that I should desire it since I also desire that my descendants will be able to enjoy a bountiful Earth. I not only think about what I see on the TV screen but also I think about whether my desire to watch was a free choice or whether the advertisers had produced programming that tapped into my feelings/emotions in a way that I found too difficult to ignore.
We complicated humans deal not only with problems of living and action but also we face problems of reflection – the problems generated when humans employ their capacity to reflect back on various aspects of themselves including their desires, their applications of reasoning, their judgments, the actions they perform and feelings they experience. Nor is it the case that, for humans, it is clear in all cases where the line is to be drawn between problems of action and problems of reflection. Perhaps human action is so bound up with reflection that we cannot separate the two. That is, perhaps for humans we should speak of problems of action-reflection and, for our purposes, this does in fact seem best.
So here is a brief cataloging of the hierarchy of kinds of problems faced by earthly organisms in general and humans in particular. In what follows, however, since we are mainly concerned with human problem solving, we will look most closely at our human responses to these problem kinds. How do we humans cope? What are the principles of successful coping?
Again, unfortunately there is no “magic formula.” Successful (and unsuccessful) ways of coping with problems of living/ action-reflection are as many and various as the people who employ them. Moreover, the question of what counts as “successful coping” is a difficult one for which there is no agreed upon response. Nor will our own answer, though we think it illuminating, prove thoroughly satisfactory.
What is our answer? We think that, in general, successful coping with life’s problems is coping that is most likely to promote the living of a worthwhile life. But of course this raises the question, “What counts as the living of a worthwhile life?” To shed light on this requires that we more fully explain what we call Critical Wisdom – a combination of thinking, desiring, feeling and judging that is both logically coherent and wise. Our contention is that if “the living of a worthwhile life” is one’s goal, then practicing critical wisdom gives one the best chance of achieving that goal. That is, a “rule of thumb” that one should follow if one hopes to live a worthwhile life is, “live in accord with the principles of critical wisdom.”
In what follows then, we lay out these principles of critical wisdom. In Part I we look at the “critical thinking” aspect of critical wisdom and briefly outline some principles that are traditionally associated with “good thinking” along with some common mistakes that lead to “bad thinking.” We move in Part II to a discussion of features of what we take to be wise reasoning/judging/action /feeling that we believe are bound up with problem solving that is “good in the fullest sense.” We conclude in Part III with a return to the discussion of the nature of a worthwhile life and how such a life is most likely attained by one who lives in accord with the principles of critical wisdom.