Is Self-Knowledge Overrated?

An axiom of intellectual traditions east and west is that scrutinizing yourself and humanity in general makes you a better person. That is, nicer, happier, wiser. As Socrates put it 2,400 years ago, “examining myself and others is the greatest good.”

This assumption, which I’ll call the Socratic principle, underpins a wide range of ideologies, from Buddhism, Confucianism and stoicism to psychoanalysis, cognitive behaviorism and evolutionary psychology.

It is also the rationale for psychotherapymeditation and humanities courses. Self-examination leads to self-knowledge, which makes you more ethical and therefore happier, because being good means being happy, according to Socrates. If the Socratic principle is true, experts on the mind-body problem—which encompasses mind, morality, meaning and other aspects of the human condition–should be especially virtuous and serene, because their knowledge is especially deep. Right?

But scientists and humanities scholars I’ve interviewed for a book on the mind-body problem doubt that claim, at least as it applies to themselves and others in their fields. Take David Chalmers, a philosopher of consciousness. “I’m not sure how deep an integration there is between what I think about philosophically and the way I live,” Chalmers said. “I’d love to be able to say, ‘Here is how the insights I’ve had about consciousness have transformed my life.’… I’ve basically lived my life the way I want to live it without necessarily being all that reflective at the practical level.”

Philosophers Eric Schwitzgebel and Joshua Rust have found a disconnect between the professional and the personal lives of philosophers specializing in ethics. Schwitzgebel and Rust compared the behavior of ethicists with that of other academics. Behaviors included voting, staying in touch with your mother, meat-eating, organ and blood donation, responsiveness to student emails, charitable giving and talking during someone else’s lecture. Schwitzgebel and Rust conclude in a 2014 paper that ethicists’ behavior is “indistinguishable” from that of other professors.

In a recent essay, Schwitzgebel suggests that many modern philosophers see ethics not as a guide to living but as a set of “abstract problems” with “no bearing on day-to-day life.” If ethicists draw upon their training in their personal lives, they do so to justify ethically dubious actions. We “excel at rationalization and excuse-making,” Schwitzgebel says.

The major weakness of the Schwitzgebel-Rust research is that it compares ethicists to other academics. I’d like to see comparisons of specialists in the human condition with lay folk like firemen, engineers, bankers and ballet dancers. Just as we should ask whether economists are wealthier than average and physicians healthier, so we should investigate whether mind-body experts—including scientists, mental-health workers and humanities scholars—are happier and nicer.

Such studies might reveal that mind-body experts aren’t especially good at managing their own minds and behavior. They might even be worse, because they were more troubled to begin with. That is a common explanation for the popular belief that psychologists and psychiatrists are “more screwed up than the rest of us,” as Psychology Today once put it.

I suspect that prolonged investigation of mind, morality and the meaning of life helps some experts become kinder and more content, while it makes others more anxious or arrogant. But in most cases expertise does not significantly alter temperament and behavior. If you were a miserable jerk at 20, you will still be one at 40 or 60, in spite of your training in philosophy, psychoanalysis or neuroscience.

If empirical tests falsify the Socratic principle, should humanities professors like me stop telling students that “the unexamined life is not worth living”? Let me pose that question more broadly: if delving deeply into the human condition cannot make us better people, or yield definitive answers, why bother?

John Horgan directs the Center for Science Writings, which is part of the College of Arts & Letters. This column is adapted from one published on his Scientific American blog, “Cross-check.”