The Importance of Philosophy in Human Life

Stone statue of The Thinker with black background

At the very mention of the word “philosophy,” most people tune out and head for the intellectual and psychological equivalent of the hills. But philosophy involves our most fundamental thinking about literally everything: our minds, our purpose in life, how and why we should do what we do. There’s no escaping it. And philosophy is not the same thing as religion.

Some years back, a loyal reader (a journalist and writer himself), Joseph Kellard, did this interview with me. Many Daily Dose of Reason fans have never seen it. Enjoy!

Mr. Kellard: Since modern philosophers have made a mockery of philosophy and thus destroyed its connection and importance to life, do you think that most people are ignorant of the fact that a healthier mind is rooted in understanding and correcting their fundamental philosophic ideas; that one’s psychology is a derivative of one’s philosophy?

Dr. Hurd: Absolutely. Most people think philosophy is a bunch of nonsense—and, given what they are offered by modern philosophers (from Immanuel Kant onward) as well as conventional religion—who can blame them?

Some people do understand, or at least sense, that their emotional states have something to do with their underlying ideas, but such people are, in my experience, few and far between.

The great majority of people I encounter, as a mental health professional, approach therapy with the assumption that therapy is a passive process in which something is “done to” them (like surgery, or medical treatment) as opposed to an active process of identifying mistaken ideas and behaviors. They often react with surprise and even resentment when they learn that they are responsible for their emotional states, and that they have to work on changing their emotions by changing their underlying premises and their behaviors. Some recover from this realization quickly, and are subsequently able to make progress in therapy.

Mr. Kellard: Philosopher Leonard Peikoff has said that psychology is in a pre-scientific state. He compares Sigmund Freud to Plato, in that Plato raised all the right questions in philosophy but gave all the wrong answers. Aristotle, Plato’s student, provided the right answers. Similarly, Freud raised the right questions in psychology but gave the wrong answers; however, there has been no Aristotle in psychology yet. What do you think of this analogy? And do you think Objectivism, Ayn Rand’s philosophy, has contributed to any valid ideas in psychology, or developed any better or new rational paths for it?

Dr. Hurd: I agree with the analogy between Freud and Plato. Freud’s main contribution is that he established a scientific basis for emotions and consciousness which had previously been the domain of religion and mysticism. Unfortunately, he also advanced the idea that man is nothing more than an instinctual beast torn by essentially incurable internal conflicts. In some respects, this is worse than religion, because it eliminates all possibility of man developing a moral code, including a rational one. If man is a hopeless animal, after all, then what’s the point of identifying a proper morality?

Objectivism provides the base for a rational psychology. First of all, it provides a rational moral code, a code which (unlike that offered by religion) actually works, is actually life-enhancing rather than life-destroying.

A multitude of psychological problems are caused by the dominant Judeo-Christian ethic that sacrifice is the good, rather than rational self-interest, productivity, and happiness. Secondly, Objectivism provides a rational epistemology, reason, and identifies the fact that emotions are simply automatic consequences of one’s underlying ideas, values, and premises. Studying Objectivism and—more importantly, psychologically speaking—internalizing, automatizing, and integrating Objectivism into day-to-day life represents an enormous step forward into psychological health.

Of course, the specific methods of resolving emotional problems are to be found in the fields of psychology and psychotherapy, rather than philosophy. For instance, cognitive-behavioral therapy (which I practice) helps a person identify the premises implicit in his emotions/behaviors and to correct and challenge them, where necessary.

To the best of my knowledge, the innovators of cognitive-behavioral therapy (such as Aaron Beck and David Burns, both psychiatrists) were not students of Objectivism, nor were they influenced by it, but Objectivism nevertheless provides the philosophical basis for this technique. By “philosophical basis” I mean the idea that emotional states are a consequence of one’s underlying ideas, thoughts, and premises.

Mr. Kellard: What advantage does an individual who generally understands and consistently practices Objectivism have in overcoming psychological problems, such as unearned guilt or unwarranted fears, compared to a person who just passively follows a hodgepodge of contradictory fundamental ideas, such as those offered by religion, skepticism, pragmatism?

Dr. Hurd: A serious Objectivist will usually approach therapy with more realistic and accurate expectations. He understands the nature of man and the proper code by which a man should live. He is at an enormous advantage compared to, say, the religious altruist, who thinks he is a bad person if he does not sacrifice, or the cynical pragmatist, who does not think anything and usually just wants a quick-fix to get rid of his problems with little or no work.

The mistake many Objectivists make, in my experience, is that they feel guilty for their mistaken emotions, as if they somehow had a mistaken emotion on purpose. For example, an individual might feel morally guilty or bad simply because he had an altruistic or mystical emotion. He needs to understand that emotions do not have the metaphysical status of actions. Emotions can be mistaken, or illogical, and in need of correction. But emotions, as such, cannot be “bad” or “good” the way actions can. Internalizing and automatizing rational ideas, in the context of a society where the dominant philosophic ideas are overwhelmingly irrational, is no easy task.

Psychological health, like liberty, requires eternal vigilance.

Mr. Kellard: In an article entitled “Self-Esteem Requires Work Not Words,” in your Living Resources Newsletter, you wrote that the political conservatives’ alternative for greater self-esteem is generally embodied in the following premise: “We need to stop being so selfish, and return to obedience to God, family and nation.”

Your reply was: “We all know what that means: a return to the good old days which never existed; a return to a state of widespread denial of self.”

With the rise over the past thirty years in illiteracy, drug use and crime, to name just a few American ills, one could assert with plausibility that the “good old days” were better in these respects. Are these ills caused primarily by the erosion of the better elements that people once practiced more consistently, such as rationality and self-interest—which develop authentic self-esteem—and that the elements conservatives now uphold as remedial, namely religion and family values, actually contributed to these and similar ills?

Dr. Hurd: For the most part, the ideas of the good old days rested on the same premises as the modern ideas. The old days necessarily had to lead to today’s mess. For instance, people used to be taught that selfishness is evil, that sacrifice is good, and that therefore you should always give to others without expecting to receive. This is such a stupid, foolish idea that sooner or later people have to rebel against it. And today that is exactly what is happening. Going on the same identical premise, that sacrifice is the good, people today simply have turned the tables: instead of sacrificing for others, they demand that others sacrifice for them. Notice that in both cases sacrifice is the rationalization and alleged justification. It’s as if the majority of people are now saying to themselves, “It’s my turn. I’m not going to sacrifice myself to others, like my parents did. I’m going to make others sacrifice for me.” Of course, nobody is this explicit about it, but this premise nevertheless underlies many of today’s cultural trends.

Superficially, the good old days were certainly better, in that there was less crime and drug abuse and so forth. However, once you understand that the premise of sacrifice, grounded in anti-reason and anti-reality, had to lead to today’s mess, you’re not so inclined to turn back the clock.

Mr. Kellard: Since the person who mistreats or “uses” people, or who cheats, defrauds or lies to them to gain his values is generally called “selfish,” can you explain in psychological terms why such a person is actually not acting selfishly but is instead sacrificing others to himself and therefore acting with profound self-disregard?

Dr. Hurd: Such a person is at war with reality. By definition, he is living short-range. He has no long-range goals and as a consequence his life has no purpose, no direction, and he will never feel the natural “high” that comes from achieving one’s long term goals and values over time. It is no accident that many people with these psychological/moral problems are also drug or alcohol abusers. Since they will never attain the natural “highs,” they desperately reach out for anything they can find.

Have you ever achieved a long-term goal of value to you? A college degree? The successful completion of a business or artistic project? A happy relationship which actually works? If you have, then imagine your life without any of these things, or the potential of any of these things (at least based on your current psychological and moral course). Imagine the emptiness, the desperation, the unspeakable boredom you would feel. This will give you an inkling of what it is like for the irrational, range-of-the-moment person, who may feel he’s acting in his self-interest, but is actually making his life miserable both in the short-run and the long-run.

On top of these problems, he has alienated spouses, friends, children, and potential allies. He is never on a secure footing with anybody, even if initially the people he meets (not knowing him) give him the benefit of the doubt. They may not know, but he knows, that sooner or later they will be adversaries. Imagine the amount of effort it would take to carry on such evasion on such a massive scale, day-in and day-out. Think of the times you, yourself, might have repressed, evaded, or rationalized until you later quickly corrected yourself. By definition, the conventionally “selfish” person you mention is in this kind of mental state all of the time. By no stretch of the imagination can he be said to be living a self-serving life. In sacrificing others, through lying and so forth, he is not making his life better; he is simply trying to bring everyone else down with him, on his already sinking ship.

Mr. Kellard: Religion does teach certain rational virtues, such as honesty, which people practice and rightfully claim are morally and spiritually uplifting and which contribute to their success and happiness. In so far as this is true, how do the irrational basis for these virtues and values, i.e., faith in and obedience to God, and how do corrupt religious virtues and doctrines, such as humility and Original Sin, undercut and weaken the degree to which a person can possess happiness?

Dr. Hurd: Some religions do teach rational virtues, such as productivity and honesty; this is true. But they also teach selflessness and mystical faith: the exact opposite of what a rational and virtuous life requires. If an earnest religious person tries to practice both, he will inevitably develop some form of psychological conflict because a person cannot sustain such massive contradictions without consequences to his mental health.

Increasingly, today, people sense the contradiction within religious doctrines and opt to throw the whole thing out in favor of amoral subjectivism. Hence the well-known false alternative: to be selfless and “good” or to be selfish and “bad.” Few, if any, recognize that to be good is also, by definition, to be practical and to act in one’s objective, life-serving interest.

Is it any wonder so many suffer from psychological conflicts?

Mr. Kellard: Since religion has a virtual monopoly on moral values, it is obvious why many people who don’t opt for amoral subjectivism turn to religion for moral guidance. But what are the fundamental psychological reasons why certain people feel the need for a Superior Being that they believe lovingly protects them and commands their moral choices? What causes many people to generally feel life is empty without God?

Dr. Hurd: I think the fundamental reason some people yearn for a God is that they want someone else to do the work of judgment for them. Just as a subjectivist uses his feelings as an easy substitute for responsible, conscious, rational judgment, a religionist will use his faith in a particular God or God’s Commandments as a substitute for having to think. It is more than just laziness, however, which motivates such a person. It is a profound terror of having to accept responsibility for making judgments, for using reason, for using his own mind to ascertain reality, make a living, choose a marital partner, and all the decisions required throughout life. If he uses his own mind, then he must accept full responsibility for his choices, good ones and bad ones. A rational person welcomes this opportunity. But the religious person is terrified of this responsibility.

Of course, there are many other reasons why one is motivated to believe in God which can vary from individual to individual. For example, a person may believe in God out of fear of going to hell. Or simply because his parents did, and he sees no reason to question. Or because everybody else does, so how can it be wrong (social metaphysics). The possibilities are many. But I think that all of them will have one underlying motive in common: the fear of responsibility.

Mr. Kellard: I’ve heard religious people criticize cultists as being misguided since their faith lies in other men, whereas they have faith in an all-knowing Superior Being. In reality, what are the fundamental differences and correlations between people who belong to major religions, such as Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and those who belong to various cults?

Dr. Hurd: All share the same fundamental premises about the afterlife, belief in some kind of God, and mysticism in general. They merely differ in degree, despite the claims by mainstream religious authorities that there is a fundamental distinction between themselves and cults.

Psychologically, followers of cults versus more mainstream religions often differ in many of their motives. Followers of the cults generally have no interest in this life and want to be rid of the responsibility for rational thought and action as soon as possible. Many followers of mainstream religion, however, usually attach some degree of value to this life (sometimes a considerable degree, depending on the religion and the individual in question), and are attempting to use the better moral principles of religion to be productive and honest.

Unfortunately, as I said, the contradiction between these better principles, on the one hand, and the irrational belief in mystical entities and the alleged virtue of selflessness, on the other, has to lead to some degree of psychological conflict. Among the mainstream religious types, the psychological conflict may be tempered by the more rational aspects of their thinking and psychology. Among the cultist authority-worshippers, however, the bad premises have driven out the good ones entirely and the consequence—suicide—is the only “logical” choice left given their psychologies.




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