“The significant problems we face cannot be solved at the same level of thinking we were at when we created them.” ~Einstein
Questions are like can-openers for the brain; or box-flatteners for the mind. They help us slip between the prison bars of our conclusions. They prevent circular logic and tautological reasoning. They get is out of our own way.
Self-inflicted questions are next-level questions—questions on steroids. They are ruthless. They dig deep. They strike roots. They clip yokes. They are usually uncomfortable. They are questions we would rather not answer, because they pierce the heart of the human condition.
We ask self-inflicted questions with the intent of striking existential blood. We ask them in search for higher questions, for better questions, from which arise more interesting “answers” that we are free to crucify on the cross of our self-infliction.
1.) Live or die?
“There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide.” ~Albert Camus
This is the first question of philosophy. Nothing else matters if your answer is “die.” All meaning, all purpose, all values are nothing if you don’t have the desire to live. The desire to live precedes survival, which precedes living healthy.
But if survival (life) is your answer, then being healthy matters and taking care of your mind, body, and soul is a priority. It stands to reason that if you choose life, you might as well be healthy. Because living unhealthy is antithetical to life. Bad health leads to unnecessary suffering and disease. So, it follows that if you choose life as the answer to the ultimate question, then your motive ought to be good health so as to avoid unnecessary suffering.
If survival is not your goal, then all other goals don’t matter. Dying is easier than living. Being healthy is harder than being unhealthy. That will always be the case. You can kill yourself with almost anything. You could easily climb up to a roof top of a thirty-story building and jump off. You could even burn yourself alive while meditating Thich Quang Duc style.
Fortunately, most of us have a desire to live. So, naturally, we might as well live healthy by living well. Unfortunately, most of us do not know how to live healthy lifestyles and we choose the slow death of not living well. We live unhealthy lifestyles typically due to willful ignorance. Which leads us to another self-inflicted question: how do we live well? But let’s save that question for the end.
2.) Existence or Illusion?
“Life is meaningless, but worth living, provided you recognize it is meaningless.” ~Albert Camus
If you care about living and you want to go deeper down the rabbit hole of what it means to exist, then you ask this ontological question: do I exist or is it all an illusion?
If, as Descartes suggested, “I think therefore I am,” is true, then it stands to reason that the answer is “existence.” But, and here’s the rub, what if it’s not true? This is the self-inflicted question.
What if we’re trapped in Plato’s Cave? What if we are a brain in a vat? What if we are Neo from The Matrix floating in a tub of pink goop, batteries for robots while we are being fed the illusion of existence? What if reality is a hologram of a hologram of a hologram, ad infinitum? What then? And does it matter?
This question is a lesson in belief, thought, and probability. We assume that we exist. We assume gravity keeps us from floating off into space. We assume that our thoughts are our own. And it is a good strategy to think such things are “true.” Because the probability is high that they are true.
But possibly not. When we think something could be true, we leave room for error. But when we believe something is true, we don’t leave room for error. Certitude becomes a tripwire, tripping our intellect into ontological brambles.
The problem is belief. When we believe something is true, without thought, without the use of probability, and without taking things into consideration, then we make the grievous error of being dogmatic. Which leads us to the next question…
3.) Truth or Delusion?
“Seek not the paths of the ancients; seek that which the ancients sought.” ~Matsuo Basho
Out of all the slippery slopes that human beings experience, delusion is the slipperiest. No other animal is delusional. We are the delusional species. This is because no other species has the deep self-awareness of past-present-future coupled with imagination that ours has.
If we can imagine it, we can believe it. And we will believe some things with such zeal and such fervor that we become downright hardheaded, closeminded, and dogmatic. Nothing is off limits. From Flying Spaghetti Monsters to Jewish Zombies. From Big Foot to virgins impregnated by God. From unicorns to magical underwear. The list goes on with facepalms galore.
Truth or delusion is both a tripwire and a balancing wire. Either way we go, it is precarious. One man’s truth is another man’s delusion. Fortunately, there is validity and probability that we can use as a benchmark, as a way to measure what is more likely to be true. A good rule of thumb, when faced with potential invalidity, is to ask: “Sure, it’s possible, but is it probable?”
The only way to guard against delusion is to drop belief altogether. Just think rather than believe. That way, you stay ahead of the curve. As it turns out, you are more likely to be right by admitting that you are more likely wrong than by declaring that you are absolutely right.
4.) Comfort or Courage?
“A desperate disease requires a dangerous remedy.” ~Guy Fawks
Comfort zones are overrated. Adventure is underrated. A big reason why we live in a profoundly sick society (again, any society that poisons its air, water, food, and minds is profoundly sick) is that we’ve grown too comfortable. We live easy, unchallenged, lazy, low-risk lifestyles with little to no adventure. Even worse, we live fear-based rather than courage-based lifestyles which exacerbates the sick society.
Courage is the bedrock of human excellence. Without the initial leap of courage there is no freedom. Hence, there can be no excellence. Without courage, one is merely restricted to the conventional, imprisoned inside the box of the status quo, and hampered by outdated reasoning.
With the leap of courage, however, one is emancipated. One is delivered into liberation. The world unlocks. The mind unbolts. The soul unfastens. Serendipity, adaptability and improvisation manifest. Boundaries transform into horizons. Comfort zones stretch into adventure.
Asking ourselves this self-inflicted question keeps us on our toes and gets us out of our own way. There’s nothing wrong with comfort. But there is something wrong with too much comfort. Especially if you’ve grown comfortable living in a profoundly sick society.
5.) Safety or Freedom?
“Man needs difficulties; they are necessary for health.” ~Carl Jung
This one is a classic. A modern version of it appears in the movie Avengers: Civil War. Are you with Iron Man and registering all superpowers with the state, or are you with Captain America and living by a code of freedom and individual discretion despite the overreaching state? Are you for safety at the expense of freedom, or freedom at the expense of safety? Big Brother or anarchy? Everyone is a potential terrorist, or everyone should decide for themselves?
These may seem like difficult questions to answer. That is, until you realize that the world will always be a dangerous place. Life is a risk. The universe will never be safe. There are hazards and precarious obstacles at every turn. Of course, we should seek safety when we can, but we force it at our own great peril. All things in moderation. To include safety and security. Otherwise, we are on a slippery slope toward tyranny.
Perhaps there is a middle ground. Or maybe a three-quarter ground: a lot of freedom with a little bit of safety/security.
I should be free to carry a spoon, a fork, or a knife, even though these are all potentially deadly weapons. I should even be free to carry a pistol or a rifle. But should I be free to carry a nuclear backpack or a missile launcher? Shouldn’t these at least be regulated since they have the potential for mass casualties?
And what if you’re the Incredible Hulk? What then?
6.) Self-preservation or self-improvement?
“Continuous improvement is better than delayed perfection.” ~Mark Twain
You might assume that the obvious answer to this question is “self-improvement,” but most people tend to default to self-preservation, and usually because they are clinging to a belief, security, or comfort. People might talk a big game about improving themselves, but actions speak louder than words, and there’s not a lot of action out there.
Usually, in order to improve, we must step outside our comfort zone. We must sacrifice a little preservation to gain a little improvement. Sticking to our unhealthy habits just keeps us stuck. Stagnation and contentment can prevent us from improving, from learning something new, and from being creative.
This happens to everyone. From the uneducated to the PhD. There must come a point of self-overcoming. We either overcome our urge to remain in our comfort zone or we remain stuck. There is always a way to improve. Self-overcoming prevents the unhealthy stagnation that comes from too much self-preservation.
7.) How do we live well and why don’t we?
“We are here to laugh at the odds and live our lives so well that Death will tremble to take us.” ~Bukowski
Socratic wisdom reveals that the never-ending search for the best way to live is itself the best way to live. The truth quest is the sumum bonum, the core practice of the good life we seek. The quest for truth is itself living well. Constantly questioning the best way to live is the best way to live. Especially when we go even further and use the Socratic dialectic as a social leveling mechanism that checks and balances the status quo.
Living well is living healthy. And living healthy is questioning a profoundly sick society. We choose health because the alternative is unnecessary suffering or a slow death (half-lived life). By constantly questioning what it means to be healthy, we are more likely to become healthier and live fuller lives. With enough questioning, we create healthier principles that eventually replace outdated principles.
Remember: Constantly questioning the best way to live is the best way to live.
So why don’t we live well? The short answer is: it’s more difficult to live well. The long answer is: we tend to be lazy, ignorant, fearful, and spoiled by comfort to the extent that we cling to our comfort zones, worldviews, and beliefs for dear life.
We’d rather not go through the trouble and discomfort of challenging our cultural conditioning and hardwired beliefs. Even when we know they lead to a profoundly sick society. It’s just too scary. What else can we do? Question existence? Question ourselves? Question our delusions? Question our comfort, our safety, our security? Yes! Because that’s where survival, courage, freedom, and self-improvement lie. And it is precisely because it “lies” that we must continue to question.
About the Author:
Gary Z McGee, a former Navy Intelligence Specialist turned philosopher, is the author of Birthday Suit of God and The Looking Glass Man. His works are inspired by the great philosophers of the ages and his wide-awake view of the modern world.
This article (The Seven Perennial Questions of Self-inflicted Philosophy) was originally created and published by Self-inflicted Philosophy and is printed here under a Creative Commons license with attribution to Gary Z McGee and self-inflictedphilosophy.com. It may be re-posted freely with proper attribution, author bio, and this statement of copyright.