Talking to the occasional troubled friend lately, I’ve had the urge to recommend getting philosophical about the trouble. But I’ve held my tongue, largely because getting philosophical has a bad reputation. It evokes images of indifferent or glib people saying, “Hey, shit happens, what’re ya gonna do? Life ain’t a bowl of cherries.”

Or maybe it’s because getting philosophical is taken to mean grabbing any old abstract argument out of thin air to support whatever our guts tell us. “Get philosophical, guy, don’t you know it’s always darkest before dawn? You should persevere.” Or conversely, “Get philosophical, guy, don’t you know it’s no good to flog a dead horse? You should just quit.”

Or maybe getting philosophical has a bad reputation because it only helps with mild trouble, and offering philosophy to people who are in severe trouble implies that their burden is lighter than it really is. It’s insensitive to offer philosophy to people who are in serious pain. “Yeah,” they’ll say, “tell me to get philosophical when you’ve hobbled a thousand miles in my shoes.”

Mind Readers Dictionary: The Podfast : Play in Popup

Mind Readers Dictionary : Play in Popup

At an academic conference a few years ago, some people I was lunching with asked me what my presentation would be about. I was excited about my topic and gave them an expanded abstract. About five minutes into it, one guy interrupted: “Yes, but what does your theory say about backache? I have been in excruciating pain for five years and I can’t do anything about it.” The conversation turned to his backache.

He wasn’t so much asking a question as jumping at any opportunity to elicit empathy for his excruciating pain, to connect with people about what was truest to him. Still, his broader question stuck with me: What can getting philosophical do for human suffering?

Though I’ve found the consolations of philosophy substantial for all the mental and emotional pain I’ve encountered, for severe physical pain I prefer anesthesia. Physical pain is a biological adaptation that serves us best by being a thoroughly convincing and unmistakable sign that something is amiss. Physical pain misfires sometimes, as it did for my lunchmate, howling for his attention when there was nothing he could do to deal with the situation. But severe pain wouldn’t be very adaptive if at its onset, you thought, “Hmmm, maybe this hurts, I can’t tell.” It’s meant to hurt so much that you take direct action, rather than consoling yourself by thinking about it.

And perhaps mental and emotional pain can grow so bad that getting philosophical won’t help. I don’t know. I’ve had my ups and downs, and getting philosophical has helped with all of them, but on the whole my life has been visited by less pain than most.

From my relatively cushy vantage point and at the risk of being insensitive, I’d like to make an argument in favor of a particular form of getting philosophical.
The word “philosophy” comes from the Greek for love of knowledge or wisdom. Loving the truth, maybe, but since that’s hackneyed, inflated, and everybody claims they do that, the definition needs refreshing.

I’d say that at its best, getting philosophical means “learning to love what is likely to be true.” There’s a lot packed into this phrase, so if you’ll bear with me, I’m going to do a little dissecting. Just a little. Unpacking it completely is more than a lifetime’s work.

“Learning” is a kind of adaptation, increasing the snugness of your fit with your environment. Biological adaptation, Pavlovian learning, intellectual learning—they’re all ways of increasing fittedness to one’s environment.

“Love” means, I think, two different things. Human love encompasses interactions that feel good: Being nice to me, accepting me, accommodating me, appreciating me, holding me, encouraging me. I’m all for human love and for mutual human love in which two of us can provide human love to each other.

Universal love is the effect of all of us wanting, and to some extent providing, human love, and for those living things that are not human, all of us wanting ours, whatever it may be. Universal love includes human love, but it also includes all the other permutations of give-and-take in the interaction of life forms with each other. Universal love encompasses parasitism and mutualism, balanced and unbalanced give-and-take, competition and cooperation. It includes our struggles against one another as well as our merging into one another.

“Likely” has to be included because we can’t know the absolute truth, but we also can’t help but treat some interpretations as more probable than others. A few weeks back I distinguished between the pursuit of the likable and the likely story and said that in the pursuit of the likely story, evidentiary standards matter. Evidentiary standards are changing these days. Just listen to a 1940s radio ad, or think back to life before the Enlightenment. Our standards for truth are getting tighter, not that we can’t still find ways to embrace the likable story instead. Paradoxically, science’s higher truth standards have given us technology that raises our standard of living to include more ways to keep likely but unpleasant truths like death, poverty, and disease out of sight and out of mind.

“Truth” is the likely story. But here another paradox generates two meanings. We could talk about rational assessments of what’s true as either a scientific or a practical matter. The scientific assessment of truth pursues the likely story only. The practical assessment puts rationality in its natural context, a real person’s mind weighing personal costs and benefits along with facts. This pragmatic assessment of truth pursues whatever story, likable or likely, will benefit us personally most over our long run.

To me therefore, learning to love what is likely to be true means adapting to the tension between human love and universal love, and the tension between an objective or scientific treatment of truth and a practical treatment of truth. It comes down to a living heart-and-head grappling with hope and honesty, and an appreciation for the grappling itself.

Learning to love what is likely to be true is itself a form of adapting to one’s environment. We generally think of adapting as accommodating, fitting in, but it’s both accommodating and asserting. We surrender to the weather, accommodating it with warm-bloodedness, for example—but we also resist it from boots to buildings, shaping the weather that reaches our skin to suit ourselves. And there are other parts of our environment that we cut down, mash up, and eat, asserting ourselves to change it, while largely accommodating other parts that shape—and even eat—us.

I guess what I like about this kind of getting philosophical is that it breeds in me compassion for the living tension between resisting and accepting, it focuses me on the bets about when and how to do which, and above all it is the game of lifelong learning, finding the ways to fit with whatever life brings me.