What Do You Really Desire?

Experts  in the media (both genuine and self-appointed) stream terabytes of self-help advice on how to get what you want out of life. But how do we know what we want? What sort of epistemic access do we have to our real desires?

Of course, we know what our impulses drive us to do. We know we need to sleep when tired and eat when hungry. Our psychologies are designed to put impulses in front of us given their role in helping us survive and satisfy immediate needs. But we know that acting on impulse often doesn’t work out. We learn from painful experience to hesitate, to be wary of instinctive responses. But once we hesitate and grow wary, then what? The sources of our more deeply held desires are embedded in historical behavioral patterns and habits that operate subconsciously while we focus on immediate tasks. They come to seem natural even when “satisfying” them doesn’t yield satisfaction, even when we feel detached from them.

But once we step back and question them, we’re inundated with alternatives. We can dream of how the future ought to be, but desires based on dreams are thoroughly untested and lack the weight of circumstance that would make their costs apparent. We have a media that puts enticing images of everything at our fingertips with no criteria for choosing except for those pesky impulses again.

We can reason about what we should do, but, without reliable access to our real desires, our reasons are fatally underdetermined by evidence. And in the absence of traditions that used to make these decisions for us, reasons run out very quickly, squeezed by competing trains of thought and endless undecidable alternatives. At this point, it’s easy just to do what other people do or do what other people want us to do but without quelling that vague sense that something is wrong. Our thoughts are shaped by mental functions that evolved to want what others in our social group want, and so we reinforce wants that are not really ours. It’s as if our psyche is designed to keep us ignorant of who we are and how we think.

This is the central problem in knowing how to live. If philosophy is a way of life, it must help solve this fundamental problem of agency. The problem isn’t freedom. It’s knowing what to do with it. I suspect the only way out of this epistemic fog is experimentation. Try something and stick with it for a while. And don’t be afraid to change if it doesn’t feel right.

If the problem is a lack of evidence, live so as to create it.

Published by Dwight Furrow

Wine, food, and travel writing, philosophy, aesthetics

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