Rational Essays

This website is a collection of essays about reason or which use reason to analyze something. Find them in the sidebar, and the first one is below. More to come.

Dialog: Non-Consumption of Philosophy

This fictional dialog attempts semi-realism. John is a regular guy, not a philosopher or skilled debater. However, he’s unusually clear, honest, and willing to answer questions.

Elliot: What’s something you do lots of, which you think you do well, and care about?

John: Art.

Elliot: Do you think there are artistic standards, according to which some art is good and some is bad? (Note that everything I say would be the same with another topic such as football, architecture, engineering, carpentry, science, plumbing, archeology, medicine, algebra, investing or cooking. My arguments are generic. You should think of something you do and consider the same issues.)

John: Yes. I try to make good art.

Elliot: Do you think there’s only one logically possible set of artistic standards by which art can be judged, or are there different standards which could be considered?

John: There’s different ones.

Elliot: And they give significantly different judgements about which art is good or bad?

John: Yeah.

Elliot: Do you think every set of artistic standards is reasonable and equally correct, or are some mistaken?

John: Some standards, like “the more green paint, the better” are silly.

Elliot: Do you have one complete set of artistic standards that you decided on, and use to judge all art, including your own?

John: I don’t know, I hadn’t thought about that.

Elliot: How can you do any art without some artistic standards to guide you in deciding how to do it? You must have some sense of what you think is good art.

John: Yeah I have some ideas about which art I like and see value in.

Elliot: Do you think anyone else shares your artistic standards, or are they unique to you?

John: My customers must share some of my standards.

Elliot: Did you tell your customers what your artistic standards are?

John: No.

Elliot: Have you written down your artistic standards?

John: No.

Elliot: Did you get your artistic standards from a book? Did someone else write them down?

John: No.

Elliot: Could you even put them into words, right now?

John: No.

Elliot: Do you think you invented your own artistic standards, by yourself, and that your customers also created their own standards, independently?

John: No, I don’t think my art is totally original, and I don’t think their judgement is totally original.

Elliot: Do you know how some of the same ideas about artistic standards ended up in their heads and in your head?

John: Not really. Maybe they took similar art classes to me. Or one of their friends took an art class and told them a few things.

Elliot: So you make art which is good according to a standard you couldn’t write down – you don’t really understand it or know how you it got into your head – for an audience who like it for some reason that you aren’t very clear on.

John: I guess so.

Elliot: Does that concern you?

John: What concerns me is mixing paint better. I have some ideas to make a really beautiful painting and I’ve got to get the colors right.

Elliot: If your standards of beauty are incorrect, then you’re wasting your time. Right?

John: I guess so.

Elliot: So don’t you want to investigate their correctness before spending a lot of time on art?

John: How long will that take?

Elliot: That depends and it’s hard to predict. It might be a long time.

John: Could it take five years to do it well enough?

Elliot: It could.

John: Well I kinda see the point of what you’re saying but I don’t want to spare five years, so I guess I’ll just have to risk being wrong.

Elliot: Essentially you’re using other people’s ideas, which they thought about, and you’re trusting their judgement. And you’re basing all your art activities on that. Is that a fair statement?

John: I think about lots of art stuff myself, like that paint mixing, and what would be a great scene.

Elliot: Sure, but you’re relying on some underlying artistic standards, which someone else thought of and which got into your head somehow, and if they’re badly incorrect then you’re wasting your time. Right?

John: That sounds pretty harsh.

Elliot: Does that stop it from being true?

John: Other people don’t think about art that way?

Elliot: Indeed. Isn’t that a sign that you should be more careful relying on other people’s judgement?

John: I’m not a good debater. Maybe you’re wrong and I just don’t know how to argue with you.

Elliot: If you’re saying you’re vulnerable to bad ideas, I agree with you – and I’m proposing that this vulnerability is important.

John: Well what do you want me to do about it?

Elliot: You want to do art, and you don’t have time to think for yourself about everything. So you’re trusting some other people’s ideas to save time. But there’s a risk you choose the wrong ideas from the wrong people. Is that a fair statement?

John: I guess so. The risk doesn’t feel very big to me.

Elliot: Have you studied the philosophical methods for judging the sizes of risks like these?

John: No.

Elliot: Do you have carefully considered reasoning (preferably written down) for how you know the risk is small?

John: No.

Elliot: You don’t know the size of the risk. Can you try to set aside your intuitions about it for the moment? Those intuitions are other people’s ideas that got in your head somehow and which you’re trusting.

John: I’ll try it for the sake of this conversation.

Elliot: So your art work – and other parts of your life too – depend on how well you deal with this problem. How much do you trust other people’s ideas, and how do you make that less risky (what sorts of things should you know about the ideas before trusting them?), and what do you need to think about for yourself?

John: I guess so.

Elliot: This is a philosophical problem, and if you get it wrong then your art will be ruined. If you get this wrong, you’ll believe the wrong ideas about art, make art that is good according to incorrect standards, and waste your time. Right?

John: Even if I have the wrong standards, my art might turn out good anyway. Even if I chose ideas to trust at random, they might happen to be right.

Elliot: Yeah. So either you can do what I’m saying, or you can hope to get lucky. You either need to get this philosophy right, or get lucky – or else you will fail artistically. Right?

John: I guess so. I don’t like what you’re saying.

Elliot: So you’ll either have to think about philosophy yourself, or trust some ideas about it, thought of by someone else, which get into your head somehow. Right?

John: I guess so. You seem mean.

Elliot: Aren’t I trying to help save you from wasting your time?

John: You’re pressuring me into your field – philosophy – when I want to be doing art.

Elliot: In what way have I pressured you?

John: You’ve pointed out negative things about my current approach to life.

Elliot: I didn’t cause the problems you face. I’m not the source of the danger you’re in. I’m just a messenger giving you a warning. I don’t have to help you. I need nothing from you. Shall I leave?

John: They’re still pressuring things.

Elliot: You’d rather not hear unpleasant truths?

John: Well, I don’t know. Couldn’t you say them in a less pressuring way?

Elliot: You’d rather I make the point less clear to you, so you’ll understand it less, and find it easier to ignore?

John: Couldn’t you be more sympathetic?

Elliot: What do you think I’m trying to do? I’m a philosopher. This is not my problem, it’s a problem other people have. I sympathize with how they’ve been betrayed by various men who’s ideas they trusted – which is why I’m trying to help. I especially sympathize with how they’ve been misled by bad philosophers – and I wish to protect the victims of my colleagues.

John: But you’re so demanding.

Elliot: What have I demanded? I asked you questions, and didn’t even get to the point of suggesting what you should do about it.

John: You demanded five years of my time to do philosophy instead of art!

Elliot: I have here a transcript of our conversation. Reread it. I made no such demand. When you realize the misunderstanding is your own, I hope you’ll learn a lesson: that you have difficulty dealing correctly with ideas. You have difficulty with precise thinking, carefully tracking what idea is what, understanding what an idea or statement does or doesn’t say, and so on. Your lack of skill in this area is common – and also is a danger to you: it makes you more gullible, more easily led, more at risk of being a victim of some sort of influential person who puts some ideas in your head somehow that you aren’t too clear on.

John: So I should believe your ideas?

Elliot: You must think for yourself, and use your own mind and judgement, for the most fundamental issues. I’m trying to help you understand some things for yourself.

John: Fine. What do you want me to understand?

Elliot: That you can’t stick entirely to art, and trust more foundational, underlying ideas to other people – without being too sure who those other people are, what their goals were, how they chose ideas, how the ideas got into your head, etc. Your artistic success depends entirely on the correctness of some ideas about how to think and reason. Don’t bet your life on trusting someone else’s judgement – you have a mind, use it for more than art, and think for yourself.

John: How?

Elliot: Your education let you down. Your parents and teachers let you down. They filled your head with a bunch of ideas, which aren’t very clear. Lots of things feel intuitive to you – but you couldn’t write out or debate your reasoning. Lots of things feel like they make sense to you – but you don’t quite know why. Somewhere along the way you got such a jumble of other people’s ideas into you that you lost track of yourself, and lost control over your life. Everything you value is at risk because of this.

John: What do I do about it?

Elliot: It’s hard to challenge the errors, which other people made, which ended up in your head – because the idea doesn’t honestly and clearly say what it is, and why you believe it. But in this situation, your art is pointless, more or less everything you’re doing with your life is pointless – you have bigger problems.

John: Are you going to answer me? You’re just rubbing it in.

Elliot: It’s necessary to understand the situation you’re in. You must clearly see, for yourself, its gravity, its immensity, it’s overriding importance in your life. But OK, here is what I advise you do: stop overreaching.

John: Two words? That’s it?

Elliot: There is a whole philosophical theory of overreach. Learn that and act accordingly. I’ve linked the word to an essay about it. You need to get some basic, core things right about how to think, reason and live. You need to think for yourself about those instead of trusting someone else’s ideas. Only after that can you move on to other matters like art. You don’t have to learn all about philosophy. Most philosophy books are irrelevant to you. But you do need to deal with a few core issues to help you manage your life and mind well.

John: What’s overreaching about?

Elliot: Don’t be more ambitious than you have the skill for. Stop making mistakes all the time. People live lives overwhelmed by mistakes. They make dozens of mistakes every day. Stop trying to do so much right away and you’ll get more done. You’ll be more productive if you do something right and then build on there, making only a few mistakes. And correct most of your mistakes as you go instead of finding the mistakes so numerous you give up on correcting them. If you want to do more, get better at finding and correcting mistakes first. You must never accept tons of mistakes as a natural part of your life, to put up with. The essence of reason is figuring out your mistakes and doing something about them. Go slow enough, and do little enough, that few enough mistakes come up that you can deal with them. Then expand from there without ever overreaching so that you have too much to manage. Build up your skill correctly, step by step, towards bigger goals, instead of skipping ahead to them and failing.

John: I already did that. I started with easier paintings and worked my way up.

Elliot: You went into art without knowing how to think – and without thinking that art depends on your reasoning. Your general education was full of mistakes, and you tried to do art on top of it without fixing it or starting over at the beginning.

John: It sounds so limiting. Don’t do anything I’m not already good at?

Elliot: Think of it more like, “Don’t buy things you can’t afford.” And don’t spend your whole life busy dealing with your debts instead of figuring out how to afford more.

John: So you want me to go back to basics?

Elliot: Yes. Not the basics of art, but the basics of life and mind, which are a crucial foundation for art – or for any other profession, hobby, interest, field.

John: But I like art.

Elliot: Then learn how to think better, so you can think about art well.

John: I mean, I like doing art. I want to spend my time on that, not on this philosophy stuff. And what if I learn more about rational methods of thinking? You want me to use those all the time when I’m painting? I like to just get in the flow, and shut my mind off. I don’t think while I’m painting. If I did art a totally different way, which is more thoughtful, I might not even enjoy it anymore. That wouldn’t be the same type of painting that I do now and like.

Elliot: If you do art to get away from thinking, and don’t care too much about whether your paintings are actually good, then I guess I should be talking to someone else who respects reason.

John: I respect reason.

Elliot: Shutting off your mind means not using reason.

John: I use reason in an intuitive way, by feel. Not everything has to be conscious.

Elliot: How good is your intuition at identifying and correcting mistakes?

John: Maybe it doesn’t make too many mistakes in the first place.

Elliot: We all make a lot of mistakes, about everything – unless we carefully, conscientiously work up to being able to do something well. We can only get things right with an organized process with many steps – without skipping steps like figuring out how to use your conscious mind.

John: If other people like my art, doesn’t that prove it’s good?

Elliot: Popularity isn’t truth.

John: Isn’t popularity a good guide to truth?

Elliot: No.

John: At least a hint, a pretty safe bet?

Elliot: No.

John: How could so many people be wrong?

Elliot: Everyone thought the earth was flat.

John: That’s the past.

Elliot: You think humanity has outgrown big mistakes?

John: No, but got an example?

Elliot: Whatever you think religiously, you’ll have to agree that the majority of people are mistaken about religion (because big groups disagree with each other and can’t all be right).

John: That’s a controversy. What is everyone wrong about today, which isn’t even a controversy?

Elliot: The importance of philosophy. Whether childhood is an extended psychological torture designed to destroy children’s rationality. The urgency of anti-aging medical research. There are many more I could name – but you’d just think I was uncontroversially wrong and dismiss what I said.

John: And you want me to take up your causes?

Elliot: These are some of the things which matter in a big way to the fate of our civilization. But all I’ve suggested is that you should think for yourself about some basic issues instead of betting your artwork on some other people’s ideas which you don’t know much about.

John: I just want to be left alone to paint. I finally found something I don’t entirely hate, and you’re trying to take it away from me. You’re so pushy.

Elliot: Shall I stop right now? Shall I leave you alone? Just say the word.

John: This is all so stressful. Give me a break. I’ll think it over. Maybe we’ll talk about it again later.

[Three years later, John hadn’t talked about it again.]


If you’re interested in how to learn philosophy, unlike John, read the Learning Philosophy article.