21 March 2019

What do we really want? by Lawrence

What we want, whether “really” or just “want”, is a very subjective process? Maybe even a process that is both conscious and subconscious of our brain.

The linguistic difference, of “really” wanting something and “just” wanting something hints at our epistemic state of mind. What we want can be something based on emotions, an immediate necessity, a possible means for future plans, and maybe even an indulgence. However, what we “really want” suggests that we have put some “rational” input in deciding that we want A and not Z. What we really want seems to be more like a plan than an impulse.

We can also interpret the topic question as an interrogation to decide what we want as opposed to an impulse or even to make up our mind! On a good day this would be like selecting a dish from a menu del dia when we like two of the options but can only chose one. And on a bad day having a choice of six dishes but none are appetising. I won’t discuss this “indecisiveness” interpretation of the question.

Wants, and up to an extent desires, are motivating forces to interact with our environment and certainly a key factor for our intentions and our actions. Knowing what we want suggests that we have a plan. Surely if wants and desires are forces to interact with our environment, then we need to have a clear idea of what will satisfy reality and a good knowledge about how the world functions. Even simple things in life must reach this equilibrium of our level of knowledge and reality itself to reach a success.

In philosophical terms, we are looking at the question: what are the necessary and sufficient conditions for our wants to be fulfilled? Hence, in effect what I am asking here is to replace the “really” in the question with “necessary and sufficient conditions” for what we want. In other words, what we really want must include the necessary and sufficient conditions that will bring about what we want otherwise nothing is going to happen. Surely we cannot be said to really want something unless we also want to align in our favour the necessary and sufficient conditions that can bring about what we want?

Let’s take as an example of a political programme that aims to achieve wealth and prosperity but at the same time has no provisions for alliances and international cooperation. This is a desire or a want that fails to take into account the reality of 21st century economics and geo politics. Even countries with untold wealth will still have to negotiate with other countries. North Korea is a very good example of a country whose leaders are completely divorced from reality; which is why these people are not leaders but dictators. Compare South Korea with North Korea; South Korea is a balanced country with the necessary and sufficient conditions relatively lined up in their favour! Of course, knowing what we really want does not imply nor reflect any sense of perfection or superiority.  

At a personal level the necessary and sufficient conditions still apply: the balance is to know what conditions will bring about what we want and preparing ourselves to act accordingly. Although our personal knowledge about the situation is key, since this helps us to know when to act and how tact, success is not just a matter for us. The world is a big place and we are not the only people interacting with it, thus a lot depends on the people around us.

The second issue with our mindset about what we want is that we might be wrong. Knowing what we want and knowing what we want but we are wrong are two different things. There are many reasons why we could be wrong, some reasons are legitimate and some just simply ignorance about the facts. But any anomalies regarding what people say they want and what they do might even alert us to the honesty, naivety, or integrity of that person.

Hence, what someone wants and what someone does might enhance or diminish the meaning of “really” in the question. The wider the discrepancy the more cautious we have to be about any statements of fact professed by that person. At first blush we might think of applying this test to politicians and advertisers, but this need not be the case. In teaching, for example, we seek to check whether our students have understood a point; and in the case of teaching a language this could be the meaning of a word or text etc.

When a student tries to explain or use a particular aspect of a lesson, rather than memorise the lesson, we know what they really want to say. We know we have no cause to question their integrity, so this leaves us with their state of mind. In this case if how they use the lesson reflects what they were supposed to have learnt, then we can claim that they have learnt the lesson: given that the only variable was their state of mind. Whether people remember the lesson the following morning is a different matter. But even when a student forgets something, the student who has learnt the lesson will know that they forgot.

In effect what people really want and what they really do can tell us a lot about people, their intentions and state of their knowledge. We can question the honesty and integrity of the person and even ascertain whether they are mistaken or just confused. However, there is a little problem when looking at what people say they want to ascertain what they really want: how do we know that we are not wrong about our assessment of the situation?

Best Lawrence

from Lawrence, SUNDAY PhiloMadrid meeting at 6:30pm: What do we really want? + News https://www.philomadrid.com/2019/03/from-lawrence-sunday-philomadrid_21.html

21st March 2019

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