To my friends from 仰山學堂 in 宜蘭:
I was honored to be invited and delighted to participate in your classes.
If I were possessed of wisdom and virtue, I would have tried to convey both to you on that day. But I have neither. At most, at best, I can only indicate some places where you are not likely to find either, and some places where you might find one of the two.
The shelves in bright, fancy, urban bookstores are filled with books that concern such topics as astrology, the relationship between blood type and personality, alleged proof that earth has been visited by aliens, simplistic ways of curing serious diseases, and so forth. I recommend that you not waste even one second of your time on these things.
The shelves of many old, dusty bookstores have an assortment of books, some written by Plato, some by Descartes, some by Russell, and some by philosophers of more recent vintage, like Patricia Churchland, Daniel Dennett, Andy Clark, Robert Nozick, and so forth. These I recommend. Not because these authors are infallible. Instead, I recommend them because they are intelligent people who attempt to address important issues in a way that is serious, careful, well-informed, and closely argued. I believe these can be guides to wisdom.
But always remember, none of these texts should be treated as examples of doctrine. For those of us who try to do analytic philosophy, indeed for anyone who does serious scholarship or science, there is no such thing as doctrine. We always begin by assuming something, but this is merely because no serious thought can even get started if we try to consider too many things at once. The assumptions we make might well be wrong, indeed that is usually what turns out to be the case when revolutions in science or other ways of thinking occur. But good thinking needs a starting point—in place, in time, and in belief.
In advising that you try to become thinkers, I am not recommending that you distance yourselves from the world. Quite the contrary, for I want people to be actively engaged in the world around them. If thinking people are not engaged, those who don’t think, very much or very clearly, will be. And then the world becomes worse than it already is.
I’m not here suggesting that we need a world filled with Ph.D.’s. My experience has been that Ph.D.’s can be as blind, as doctrinaire, and as cruel as anyone else. And my father, who had very limited education, was one of the two wisest, most caring of men that I’ve ever known.
A starting point for all who care about thinking is the need to frequently remind ourselves that we might be wrong in our beliefs. This might lead you to wonder whether I should be more open-minded as regards astrology, and other such belief systems. The answer is no. We have excellent reason to believe that astrology is nonsense. Is it conceivable that we are wrong? Yes, but very unlikely. And we live in a probabilistic world. To be very unlikely means that there is no reason to believe, unless someone comes up with a new and startling discovery. And in the case of astrology and the other examples mentioned above no new or startling discovery has been made.
Beyond the starting point though, much hard work is required. The differences between thinking clearly and thinking unclearly are sharp. I recommend Plato and the others because one can learn how to think clearly by reading and reflecting on what they write.
As to virtue? I want thinkers to be engaged in this world, but I want them to be engaged in the right way. What is the right way? As with so many things, it is far easier to say what it isn’t than to say what it is.
What it is not, is to use one’s knowledge to exploit others. The world is filled with smart people who have used their intellect to create wealth, power, and influence for themselves, at the cost of exploiting our planet and other people. These people then proceed to hire public relations experts who create an image of goodness that is communicated through the media.
I hope that as good thinkers you will all be able to distinguish the content from the packaging.
The world is also filled with many good-hearted people, who do not exploit others, but who also distance themselves from the larger concerns of society. They look for a small corner of this planet wherein they can achieve a certain degree of material comfort and restrict their concerns to the welfare of their family and close friends. Since I have done nothing to make the world a better place, it is probably inappropriate of me to ask others to exert themselves beyond the confines of family and friends. But, fairly or unfairly, that is what I do.
When I was a teenager I started trying to read serious books, and trying to care about serious issues. At that time, especially during 1967-1968, when I was 14 and 15, I followed closely the career of Bobby Kennedy. He was the brother of a former president, and himself a candidate for the American presidency. Regrettably he was shot and killed in June of 1968.
He was the only person outside of my family or friends who I admired. Perhaps it was because I was young, and easily influenced by superficial factors, in the same way that young people everywhere devote too much attention to actors, singers, or dancers. Maybe he was just a political version of a pop idol.
But maybe not. It is difficult to assess these things clearly, for I was too young at the time, and too many years have passed. What I recall most is the refrain with which he ended most of his speeches. Speaking metaphorically, he liked to say that “the hottest places in hell are reserved for those people who in times of moral crisis do nothing.”
I interpret this as meaning that virtue requires more of us than that we just avoid causing harm to others. Virtue requires that we apply what knowledge or wisdom we have acquired, that we apply whatever skills we have cultivated as thinkers, to making this world a better place. Or, at least we make the effort, even if the chances of success are small.
On this, the first day of the new year, I wish for you to become thinkers who care, care about other people, care about the world. I hope that in living such a life, you will achieve a sense of fulfillment. I don’t know what exactly to tell you to do. I don’t know how you should live your life. I can only exhort you to cultivate wisdom, so that when choosing you will choose well. And I believe that if you choose well, you will be the kind of people who can recognize a moral crisis, and who will do whatever they can to resolve it, not just for yourselves individually, but for all of us who share this world with you.