Three Questions

by: Dave Robinson

I have never been comfortable with any of the philosophical/religious belief systems that other people have developed for mass consumption. Each of them have either something I strongly disagree with, or a lack of something that I think needs to be there. Because of this, I have felt the need to pick and choose pieces from them and cobble together something for myself. This essay outlines my efforts to do that, for the potential benefit of people who are trying to do the same thing.

Three Questions
As long as there have been people, people have wondered:

What is this world I'm in?
What in it is important?
What should I do in it?

These three questions are hard to approach. Looked at one way, they are dauntingly deep and profound. Looked at another way, they are obvious and boring. People who make a conscious effort to tackle these questions head-on usually come to one of these two conclusions and then go back to business as usual. No one can escape that easily, though. Everyone has had to answer these questions, consciously or unconsciously, because any action a person takes presupposes a set of answers.

Some obvious and boring examples:
We are willing to assume that the world has pattern and order. We go to bed at night assuming that the sun will rise the next day. We leave home assuming that it will be there when we return, barring a rare disaster.

We usually find our own lives worth preserving. We take care of ourselves by ensuring that we have food and shelter. We refrain from taking sharp right turns while driving across bridges and from swallowing razor blades.

Some deep and profound examples:
Every weekend, many millions of people file into large, sparse buildings with tall roofs and colored windows to offer respect to what they believe is a sentient being that will offer them a path to another form of existence after death. Millions of others place gifts in front of gilded statues on a regular basis, hoping that similar higher powers will grant them favors in return.

Everyone has to define his or her role in society. How do we balance our time between career, family, and community? Between working to help ourselves and working to help others? Different people put different amounts of thought into these questions, but we all define ourselves somehow.

All of these are examples of business as usual, and all of them require answers to these three questions. Anyone and anything that thinks and acts on its own must do this. So it's worthwhile to figure out how we do it, because that may allow us to do it better.

The Three Questions are Interrelated
Whether we are pondering the meaning of life or deciding when to brush our teeth, we always use the same process to answer the questions. Sometimes it's very difficult to do and sometimes it's almost automatic, and the process has variations and elaborations. This will become clear once we understand the relationship between the questions. Once we recognize the relationship, our answers to the questions become easier to understand, and it becomes easier to find the answers themselves - to both the boring and the profound aspects of the questions.
First, note the following relationship:

What we consider important depends on what we know about the world.

For example:
Because we know that broccoli contains vitamins and other nutrients, we will be more likely to consider it an important part of our diet.

When we hear that someone with a gun just robbed a bank, we may be more likely to favor restrictions on possession of guns. On the other hand, if we hear that a man saved his family from a rabid bear by shooting it, we may be more likely to oppose such restrictions.

The emotions we feel generally occur as a response to the knowledge we have and the events we experience. When something we know or learn generates a strong emotional response, it grabs our attention and becomes important to us.

So what we end up considering important is based on a reaction to what we know. If we knew a different set of facts and experiences, we might consider something else to be important. Of course, two hypothetical people who have had exactly the same experiences could conceivably have different emotional reactions and come to different conlusions about what is important; this is part of what makes each of us unique. But there is a clear dependence of our answer to question 2 to our answer to question 1.

Moving on to the second relationship:

What we choose to do depends on what we consider important.

For example:
If we know that broccoli is an important part of our diet, we are likely to eat more of it.

If we favor gun control, we are less likely to purchase a gun for ourselves. If we oppose it, we may want to take advantage of our freedom and buy a gun.

We only bother to do things if they seem worthwhile, valuable, or rewarding. When we do things, we are passing up the opportunity to do an infinite number of other things, so the one thing we choose to do must be something that we consider important. So the answer to question 3 depends on our answer to question 2.

Finally, the third relationship:

What we know about the world depends on what we do.

For example:
If we eat broccoli, we will find that it has a rather bland and bitter taste.

If we buy guns, we are more likely to learn details about how guns work and how to use them safely.

The actions we take guide the experiences we have and the knowledge we gain. So the answer to question 1 depends on our answer to question 3.

The answers to the three questions are circularly interrelated. This is what makes the questions so hard to approach, but it also makes them interesting.

The three questions and their circular relationship are the essence of conscious experience. Every moment, we learn new things; certain things catch our attention as important or relevant, and that leads us to react somehow (to do something - to interact with our environment - or not do anything at all). The action we perform leads us to learn something new, which we wouldn't have learned if we had done something different, and that leads to further changes in our attention and action.

At first glance, this may seem obvious and boring, but upon a closer look, profound patterns, or at least some connections worth appreciation, become apparent.

A dynamic relationship
The circular relationship leads to continuous change in an individual's identity and experience. Answering the questions is an iterative process, where our current answers depend on our past answers. Choosing only a slightly different path at one moment could result in a drastic change in a person's experience and identity later on. This process happens over and over again, compounding the change. What we know, what we value, and what we do are continuously changing, and would be very different if even minor choices we made in the past were different. Everyone follows a unique path of change using this iterative process.

On the other hand, not everything changes. Much of our knowledge and values are reinforced as we iteratively answer the questions. If a belief has been useful to us for a long time, we are less likely to discard it. All people have similar experiences in life, so we have many similarities in our viewpoints.

A similar process occurs in the evolution of living species. A species changes with every generation, and there is a mechanism that selects which changes will persist. The process repeats itself. As a result, species as a whole change over time, often transforming into completely different species. There is a broad diversity of different types of species, but they all have things in common, including this transforming process.

In fact, one of the greatest successes of this evolutionary process has been an organ that has developed to answer the three questions: the brain. Once one recognizes the relationship between the three questions, one can easily recognize the process in one's own mind.
A mind has the ability to store information and make logical connections among that information. All of this information comes from experiences dependent upon one's actions.

A mind has the ability to judge the value (the importance and desirability) of its knowledge and experiences, and focus on what it identifies as important, through an emotional reaction.

A mind has the ability to cause action, and that action is directed toward an issue identified as important.

Furthermore, a mind has an additional power: it can imagine an outcome of an action without having to perform it. An imagined outcome can be judged and can lead to other real or imaginary actions. This substantially augments the range of experiences that a mind can have, but it still follows the same iterative process.

The iterative process makes a mind complex and dynamic, leading to familiar forms of behavior. Moods, attitudes, and opinions change as one is exposed to new experiences and information. At the same time, many aspects of our minds' behavior can be lasting or stabilizing. Some experiences can be quick to grab our attention, causing us to dwell, to hold grudges, or develop habits. If any of these behaviors seem to drift out of control or become useless or counterproductive, we become self-conscious; the behavior starts to bother us, and we change it. If we have knowledge or experience that we want to reinforce, we take an action to do that: we write notes to ourselves, or make resolutions, for example. All of these behaviors show the work of a process that iteratively answers the three questions.

The process can range in complexity from conditioned reflexes and habits to difficult chess moves and legal decisions. Somewhere in that range, self-awareness emerges - an ability to know, feel, and control one's own thought process.

Of course, how a mind does this is a deep mystery, certainly very complicated, but somehow it does. The process works slightly differently for different people - some are better than others at remembering some things or seeing certain relationships, and emotions can be stirred more or less easily in different people - but we all share this ability.

The three questions and society
The iterative process is augmented when we interact with other people. Other people serve as a new source of knowledge, experiences, values, and behavioral expectations. From this perspective, a society serves as a reservoir of these resources. Every individual draws heavily upon this reservoir, and contributes to it.

The common pool of knowledge and values shared by societies and groups can also be transformed by the iterative process. It is complicated by the fact that people don't agree on everything and don't all have access to the same sets of shared ideas. However, many social institutions clearly show the iterative process in action.

So this iterative answering of the three questions is ubiquitous in our society.

The utility of the circular relationship
What does knowledge of this process bring us? Understanding the relationship between the three questions helps us understand its answers. It can allow us to look at our answers, from the profound to the mundane, with a more educated perspective.

Many deep philosophical questions have been framed in terms of dualisms: competition between two opposing factors. For example, what behaviors are good and what behaviors are evil? What makes some statements about the world true and others false? Many of these questions can be viewed more clearly within the context of the circular relationship.

Objective vs. subjective
Philosophers debate endlessly whether or not an absolute truth exists. An understanding of the circular relationship shows that the concept of absolute truth is only a convenient approximation. A mind can create its own conceptualization of the world based on its experience. As part of this process, it makes convenient assumptions about how the world works. There is no way to be certain that the sun will not turn green in three weeks, but this is just not an important or relevant thing to think, so no one does. Any concept we hold is derived only from our experience and our iterative reflection upon it. No concept can come closer to being absolute than that. However, many concepts are so blatantly clear and robust that it is a waste of our time to question them, and it is perfectly legitimate to assume that they are absolutely true.

Reason vs. emotion
Sometimes people speak of reason and emotion as if they were separate, independent parts of our minds. This may sometimes be a convenient approximation, but because these two are circularly related, it is very difficult to untangle them. Some philosophers suggest that assertions "based on reason" are superior, but one can always dig into the assertions and find something that was identified as important, based on a certain emotional feeling: a postulate or assumption with an attractive simplicity, or one that leads to a desirable conclusion.

Good vs. evil, right vs. wrong
How do individuals and societies decide what actions are morally right and wrong? Those seeking an objective morality will never have more success than those seeking an absolute truth. Moral decisions are generally based on a weighing of conflicting values, and these values are derived from emotional reactions to a specific situation, which in turn depend on one's knowledge and prior experience. Answers to moral questions that can obviously be approximated as absolute are harder to find. However, it can be done.

When a court of law decides the morality of an action, it appeals to arguments based on both abstract knowledge and experience, including previous cases. Future decisions may then refer to the present case. When we judge a bank robber, we consider the integrity of a bank and the property rights of depositors to be more important than the robber's need for the money. Furthermore, we can point to the law and to previous prosecutions to show that a socially established answer exists - that it is worthwhile and fair to forcibly incarcerate bank robbers.

An understanding of the circular relationship between the three questions can help identify and weigh the values relevant to a moral issue, allowing moral choices to be easier and more worthy of confidence. It can also help one understand why different people may come to different conclusions.

More general uses
An understanding the iterative process offers insight into the traditional abstract controversies in philosophy, but it also applies more generally. It gives us a clearer understanding of the world - especially of ourselves and of other people. This understanding can help us identify important aspects of life that we might otherwise miss, and help us act to take fuller advantage of life.

By observing the iterative process at work in our own minds, we can gain understanding and control of it. We can see more clearly how our knowledge is affecting our emotions, values, and actions; how our emotions and values are affecting our actions and knowledge; and how our actions are affecting our knowledge, emotions, and values. When faced by challenging situations and profound questions, we can use self-reflection - explicitly and consciously walking ourselves through the iterative process - to ensure that our thoughts and lives follow a wise and fruitful path.

For example, when one feels a very strong emotion, one tends to focus attention on whatever provoked that feeling. That focusing of attention can further reinforce the emotion. Often, this is a good thing - it can solidify love and friendship. Sometimes, though, the loss of perspective that it brings can be damaging. When one is in an angry dispute, there may be simple and desirable resolutions that are missed. More generally, it is very easy for us to develop an imbalanced emphasis on the importance of ourselves, or to focus excessively on immediate concerns at the expense of more important long-term needs and goals. With some self-reflection, we can step back, identify the experiences, feelings or actions that reinforce a dispute and try to steer ourselves toward different, more desirable outcomes. In that way, we can use knowledge of the iterative process to gain perspective and solve problems more effectively.

The iterative process involves continuous change in our experiences and our lives. By recognizing the transient nature of our experiences, we can appreciate them more.

By observing the same iterative process at work in others, we can empathize with them and understand them better. Furthermore, we can appreciate and understand the source of differences in people's knowledge and opinions.

The circular relationship between the three questions can grant us insight into the way society functions, because it is subject to a similar iterative process, and depends on the process at work in the individuals that compose it. It highlights the value of the freedom of expression, education, scientific research, and other social institutions that advance and facilitate the iterative process for society.

It is clear, then, that the circular relationship is part of an answer to the questions themselves. It describes the way we see the world, and it is an important relationship that sheds insight on all aspects of our experience. One can use knowledge of the circular relationship and apply this iterative process to develop answers to other aspects of the questions. Of course, there is no one final, absolute answer to any aspect of the questions; the circular relationship necessitates that all answers be dynamic and subject to improvement - including our understanding of the interrelationship itself. An essay like this one can only capture a snapshot of the process of answering the questions. Its contents may be elaborated, criticized, ignored, repeated and reinforced, or transformed. In any case, the concept of the circular relationship between the three questions offers a valuable reference point for development of an understanding and appreciation of the world, and for determining one's course in it.

Further reading

There are several lifetimes' worth of reading on topics that are discussed here. I haven't done a good job of documenting the genealogy of the ideas presented. However, I do recommend the relevant books on my book list, which have been particularly influential.