May 24, 2024

Understanding and Loving Life

If we want to live and love our lives, we need to keep our minds connected to reality. We must commit ourselves to accepting ideas only when they are rational—which means: supported by perceptual observation, conceptual integration, and logic.

Think about what it means to understand an idea. It means to grasp what stands under it, what supports it, what connects it to reality. If we know what stands under an idea, if we know the observations and integrations that give rise to it, then we understand it; in which case, we can use it to think clearly about the world and our needs. If we don’t, we can’t.

For instance, we know that a good friendship depends on shared interests, mutual respect, and enjoyment of each other’s company; thus, we have an understanding of the idea and can use that understanding in our efforts to establish and maintain good friendships. If we didn’t have that understanding, we couldn’t use it.

By contrast, if someone says “social justice is a moral imperative,” and if I don’t know the actual referents of “social justice”—that is, the concrete instances of this (alleged) thing that give rise to the need of the abstraction—then I don’t know what social justice is, much less whether it’s a moral imperative. My lack of understanding makes the idea meaningless in my mind and useless in my thinking.

Similarly, if someone says “you should serve something greater than yourself,” and if you don’t know what supports the claim, then you don’t know it’s true. To know a claim is true is precisely to know the ideas and evidence that stand under it and connect it to reality.

Even if others’ claims happen to be true, if we don’t understand why they are true, then we don’t know they are. If someone says “the fossil record supports the theory of evolution,” and if I don’t have sufficient understanding of the fossil record and how it supports evolution, then I don’t know that it does. As John Locke observed:

[W]e may as rationally hope to see with other men’s eyes, as to know by other men’s understandings. So much as we ourselves consider and comprehend of truth and reason, so much we possess of real and true knowledge. The floating of other men’s opinions in our brains makes us not one jot the more knowing, though they happen to be true.

In this same vein, think about what it means for an idea to make sense. It means that the idea makes it to the sensory level—that it’s supported by sensory evidence. If we don’t know the evidence that underlies and supports an idea, ultimately connecting it to perceptual reality, then the idea doesn’t make sense to us. And if we accept ideas that don’t make sense, we’ve accepted “the floating of other men’s opinions in our brains.”

Understanding ideas—making sense of ideas—is vitally important. It is essential to thinking clearly, living fully, and supporting liberty.

Take any important area of life. Career, for instance. What makes for a wonderful, soul-fueling career? Are there any truths or principles that can help us answer this question? If so, what are they? What facts give rise to them? What undergirds and connects them to reality? If we know the answers to such questions, we have significant understanding and thus can use it in our thinking about our options and efforts to develop a career we will love. If we have no such understanding, we can’t.

Consider romance. Are there any principles that can help us create and maintain a deeply meaningful and rewarding romantic relationship? If so, what are they? And what deeper ideas support those principles? And so on—all the way down to the perceptual level, the base of all knowledge. If our ideas about romantic love are grounded in perceptual reality—including our experiences of smiles, touches, desires, kisses, and the integrated meanings and significance of such things in relation to our deepest personal values—then our ideas about romance can help us think clearly about this crucial aspect of life. If our ideas about love are not grounded in reality, our efforts at romance will be frustrating at best.

The same analysis applies to every area of life and every question we face:

  • How can I get and stay physically fit? Are there evidence-based principles that can guide me here? If so, what are they? How can I understand and apply them?
  • What kind of government should I advocate? Do we need a government at all? If so, why? What facts about human beings and social relationships give rise to the need for a government?
  • What is spirituality? Do I need it? If so, why? What facts give rise to the need for it? And what do those facts say about the source and nature of spirituality?

“Understanding” is one of my favorite ideas because it’s one of the most helpful for thinking clearly and living fully. It’s about keeping our minds connected to reality so we can succeed and thrive in reality.

Here, on this blog, and in my new OSI podcast, Under Standing, I’ll be focusing on the nature and importance of understanding, including the principles that foster it and how to apply those principles in the grand project of loving life.

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