Sunday, March 18, 2012

2. Existence

Part of my Subjective Epistemicism series

In this chapter, I address that which can be said with absolute certainty to exist, aka. that which can be said to be a priori. I end with a discussion of what existence means.


2a. I exist.

This is of course, the safest thing to assert, and is thus the common starting point for any epistemic meditation. Naturally, all such starting points (at least in the West) reference René Descartes, who pretty much nailed this point as well as anyone can, in his cogito ergo sum argument: the moment I ponder whether or not I exist, I demonstrate my existence to myself. The activity automatically raises the question "who ponders this?" And the answer to that question demonstrates the answer to the question being considered. If you don't find this convincing, then I dare you to doubt your own existence. Say it out loud: "I doubt my existence." It sounds silly for a reason; all I need do is reply "Who doubts your existence?" You do. Thus, you must exist.

Some criticisms of the cogito argument (such as that provided by Søren Kierkegaard) tend to analyze it in terms of strict formal logic, and generally conclude in one way or another that "I think, therefore I am" presupposes the "I" in its premise and therefore "begs the question," i.e. employs a circular argument. This criticism is worth exploring, especially since Descartes does exactly that later on in his ontological argument for the existence of God, as well as in later explorations of Rationalism.

In reply to that line of criticism, I should mention that at this point in my epistemological construction, I have yet to introduce whether or why formal deductive logic as we understand it should be persuasive at all; I'll let you know when we get to that point. As such, anyone using established formal critical methodology to attack the cogito "from the outside" as it were, is therefore putting the cart before the horse; they're using their basis of assumed deductive processes to criticize a point which seeks to establish reliance upon thought and knowledge itself, without which they could not mount such an attack. I freely admit that the existence of the self might not necessarily be provable according to any very strict deductive logical construction. However, one should also note that anybody who does not exist cannot criticize this argument, because they don't exist.

But the point isn't to support it as a conclusion; the point is that my own existence demonstrates itself to me in practice. The existence of the self need not be concluded as the result of a formal argument when it demonstrates itself by merely attempting to either construct or criticize the argument.

Furthermore, this form of demonstration is of the highest possible order; my own existence is more real than anything else that could be said to be real. It must be, because in order for anything else to be demonstrated to me there must be a "me" to demonstrate it to. If I don't exist then nothing else can either, including the validity of formal logic. One can't argue the contrary to me, because then there would be no one to argue it to. There's a reason that this line of thinking is referred to as a "meditation" rather than an "argument." It consists of introspective analysis rather than a deductive construct built from any set of already-assumed axioms. Before I can consider any formal logical constructs, with their premises, laws and conclusions, I must first be.

A second line of criticism (following Pierre Gassendi and Bernard Williams) suggests that "I" and the entity which is thinking have not necessarily been established to be identical. That is, that there is thinking happening, but that does not mean that what I think of as "I" is the one doing it. The thinking thus might constitute some sort of external phenomenon to "me."

Frankly, I can think of nothing more terrifying than the suggestion that I am not a participant in, much less the owner of, my own thought processes. Gassendi and Williams are quite directly accusing me of being completely insane. For what else is insanity if not the inability of a person to claim ownership of their own thought process? Or perhaps they are claiming to be insane themselves, or are at least pointing out that some insane people exist. To this I reply, if your "I" cannot be an intimate participant in its own conscious thought process, then your "I" is as broken as it is possible to be. Completely insane people may if they wish be exluded from this level of epistemic consideration, and we'll bring the question of their existence in later along with asolipsism, aliens and robots. Until then, I'll direct my arguments to the at least somewhat sane, i.e. people who can participate in and claim ownership of their own thought processes. If you are not one of those, then yes, the question of your self-existence, cogito, identity, free will, and related considerations are more applicable to te spheres of psychology and/or neurology than to epistemic philosophy, and you may be excused from the remainder of this essay series. Also, get help.

However, this line of criticism does raise an interesting question: what am "I?" What do I mean when I say that "I" exist? The Vedas provide a fairly simple reflective method to approach this sort of question. It isn't necessarily convincing, but it's an informative approach towards analyzing necessary vs. contingent properties of the self. I'll here give a brief parallel of that method, using my own ad-hoc scheme of layers working inward towards the self:

  1. Q: Am I anything external to my body?
    A: No, or else "I" would be a meaningless distinction. If I am not at most my body, then "I" am meaningless.
  2. Q: Am I my body?
    A: No. You could lose part of your body and still be you. You with no leg is still you, and the same goes for any body part not immediately necessary to your continued survival. If you could lose any body part and still be you, then you cannot be your body.
  3. Q: Am I my senses?
    A: No. You could lose any of your various senses and still be you.
  4. Q: Am I my personality and attitudes?
    A: No. You could choose to change your personality and attitudes and would still be you. In fact, one could argue that you would be even more "you" than you were before, having defined yourself through an act of will.
  5. Q: Am I my past memories?
    A: No. You could lose your past memories, but would still be you, as you are in the here and now. Your memories are like senses, in that they serve to provide information to you.
  6. Q: Am I my current thought process?
    A:In the instant that you raised the question, you could be nothing else. No one else could have composed the question, if not the thought process. There's nothing else left.

The upshot of this is that everything but my conscious experience in the here and now is externalizable. But my conscious experience in the here and now is what I must be, if I could be said to be anything at all. And so I am.

As a working definition of the self, I am at least that which A)> receives at least some empirical sense-data (input), B) participates in my thought process (information processing), and C) participates in my will (output). To the degree that I am not a full participant in any of these functions, I could be said to be at least somewhat less than completely sane. I suspect that may apply to many more people are than we commonly admit.

But I only need at minimum some participation in these processes, particularly process (B) as described above, in order for this epistemological argument to apply to me. And if I am not even somewhat a participant in figuring out the conditions of my own subjective state of being, then whether or not I consider myself to exist is the least of my problems (or perhaps a fair summary of them). It would require a rather extensive amount of dissociative drugs to induce an otherwise sane person to completely externalize their entire conscious thought process. But as with most drug trips, even that would only amount to a temporary illusion.

Finally (and this may seem flippant but is not) if one wishes to argue that they do not exist, then in deference to their position I should discard any argument that they make out of hand. If you contradict the position of self-existence, then your thesis must be that you do not exist. Therefore, in order to respect your position I must completely ignore anything "you" say. If I give any credence to your argument then I am at the same time demonstrating evidence against it.

A clever contrarian might reply that they just happen to exist, but need not; that while there is no necessary argument proving their existence, nor is there one disproving it. Therefore their existence (for purposes of presenting such a contrary position) is a matter of accident. To that I reply: that's good enough. The two word thesis being supported here, "I exist," is still fulfilled by their presence, be it accidental or necessary. One still cannot argue from a position of not being.


2b. This exists.

In existing, I am at once confronted with a dizzying array of sensory information, an evidentiary and/or epistemical world that could be described as consisting of sight, sound, smell, taste, and feeling. But regardless of what sensory categories I might divide my current empirical input into, I can only assert that there is a This and that it exists. All I know is that my mind is receiving input. For a list of types of input, we can reference each excluded point mentioned in Vedic meditation cited above. Whatever is accessible but externalizable vis a vis my self, constitutes my reality at any given moment.

Whatever is happening to me right now is the underlying basis of all empirical fact. If I claim that something is a "fact," then I'm either describing my current experiential situation (including the experience of memory), or claiming that such an experiential condition could be replicated (in all relevant respects) for you. Beyond the constant demonstration of self-existence, This (i.e. whatever is happening to me) is all that anyone can appeal to whenever they make any empirical claim whatsoever.

Generally speaking, whatever This is, constitutes the definition of the term "reality." To say that something is real is to say that it is, or could potentially be, demonstrated to me, which is to say that it could become part of my "This." Whatever is happening to me is reality, as far as I'm concerned. And at this stage in my epistemic construction, "as far as I'm concerned" is all I've got.

When discussing reality, certain types of conjectures are often brought up: What if I'm actually a brain in a jar, with all of its neural inputs and outputs fed to a computer that replicates what I understand to be reality? What if the Matrix has me? What if I'm nothing more than part of the Red King's Dream? An infinitude of such conjectures could hypothetically be invented, each challenging the underlying basis of reality as I understand it.

However, none of these conjectures are relevant to challenging the notion that This is happening to me. All of them only speak to what reality consists of. They are no different "in kind" to any other question regarding the contents of reality, such as might challenge any passing question of fact or science. At most, such a conjecture might amount to a more significant claim about the contents of reality than others, but it still remains a claim about the contents of reality. As such, such claims fail to challenge the fact of reality itself.

All I'm claiming is that something is happening to me. I'm not (at this point) saying anything about what that is, or how it works. But there certainly is something happening to me, and that I call "reality." I must assert that it exists. This assertion constitutes the basis of all fact.

Ultimately, any challenge to this position can be turned on its own head: if you seek to rationally oppose it, then you must either A) live in a condition lacking any empirical input whatsoever, shouting your defiance into a void of absolute sensory deprivation, or B) have already based your understanding of concepts on empirical reality (from your perspective). If the former, than you must not exist and thus your arguments can be discarded out of hand (who are you arguing with, the void?). If the latter, then you have already provided evidence for my position by constructing an argument using the same basis I've described: having an empirical experience of reality. If your argument challenges the position I've described above, then it must undercut its own at the same time.

All I've claimed is that some sort of reality must exist. However, that claim is (like the existence of the self) self-demonstrating, aka. a priori. It is the basis of all empirical fact. All further theories which I develop in future essays will involve the contents of This/reality. But the existence of reality remains incontrovertible, whatever its contents may turn out to be. What that reality consists of, what's going on in it and how it works, are all questions for much futher down the line in terms of this epistemic journey. And as interesting as such questions are, they have no bearing on the point being established here: that reality exists, whatever else it may entail or involve.


2c. I and This are aspects of a single phenomenon.

It would not be possible for anything that could be called a self to exist without some form of empirical input, either constantly or at some point in its history. Imagine that you were born into a void; instead of the world of sensation and experience that you knew, you came into existence in a universe that consisted of constant and complete sensory deprivation. It would not be possible to have ever formed a single thought, having nothing to form a thought about. Thoughts, being intentional, require an object. But with no input, there can be no object for any thought to refer to, and therefore nothing like thought could possibly form. Furthermore, even preceding coherent thought, one could not even form an attitude, opinion, or feeling of any kind, since those also require an object. There would be nothing to form a self relative to. I could not come into being without an empirical context within which to exist. If my empirical universe did not exist, then neither could I.

Secondly, it would not be possible for an empirical world to exist without a self to observe it. Imagine that an otherwise fully phenomenological universe existed that contained no beings which could be said to have subjective participation in it, one which contained no conscious entities at all. Having imagined that, remove yourself from the equation as well (the implied presence of any relatively omniscient thought-experimenter is a cheat to any epistemological thought experiment). Without access to that universe, can you assert that it still exists? Is there anyone who could? We've left no one in any such position. Therefore, with no one to make it, the assertion cannot be made that the thought-experiment universe exists at all. Similarly, this universe can only be said to exist because I do (I haven't at this point established asolipsism). If I did not exist then neither could it, at least not in any way that was respective of epistemic considerations, i.e. from any position from which one could observe it or assert its existence.

As a brief aside, this absolutist demonstration of the necessity of observer-dependence to phenomena relates strongly to the Zen koan "if a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?" Ultimately empirical phenomena can not be asserted until and unless there is some form of observer (even if second- or third-hand) because there is no one to assert it. Until then, it's at least nothing at all, and at most could be described as a big stack of complicated eigenstates awaiting an observer to collapse them.

Summation: In order for my self to exist, an empirical universe must exist around me, and in order for an empirical universe to exist, I must exist within it. I cannot exist unless This does, and This cannot exist unless I do. To put it in logical terms: if and only if I exist then This exists. Which is to say, my existence and that of my empirical experience are mutually contingent.

When it comes to the property of existing, any two mutually contingent phenomena may be freely described as aspects or elements of a single phenomenon. That is to say:

X ⇔ Y
∴ ∃ Z ∈ Z ≡ {X, Y}

(The formal logic above is provided for explanatory purposes, not as support; we have yet to establish the validity of formal logic in this series).

In terms of the mutually contingent phenomena of selfhood and empirical reality, we can say that there is some single phenomenon of which both are apparent aspects. Because they must both exist together or neither can exist, that amounts to the same thing as saying that the single phenomenon (of which both are a part) either exists or not: if both sides of the coin exist, then the coin exists. In fact, when we're limited to discussing existence as the sole property under consideration (so far), contingency of the property of existence is the only way we have of distinguishing any phenomenon from any other.

Therefore, when it comes to the two sole propositions which can be properly considered a prior - that I exist and that This exists - supported above, what we've really been talking about all this time is a single phenomenon, one of which both the self ("I") and reality ("This") are its chief parts. The name of this phenomenon, the property that both the self and reality define, is "existence," or "being."

Previously in this chapter, I have separately supported the propositions that the self certainly exists and that reality certainly exists. Then I have asserted their mutual contingency, and that they together define existence.

The last point bears further mention, because it ultimately turns all of the earlier propositions in this chapter on their head. The true case is not so much that the self and reality each have the property of existing, but rather that "existence" (or "being") itself has the component parts of self and reality. In the end, the point isn't that the self exists or that reality exists, but rather that they together define what existence means.

Furthermore, the notion that the self and reality are separate phenomena is itself illusory. There is ultimately only this subjective state of being, including simultaneously both an observer and whatever is observed. This is what existence is, and it is therefore the ontological anchor to which anything else that can be said to exist must refer, in terms of carefully building a worldview in a way that respects epistemic causality.

This approach incidentially addresses Martin Heidegger's complaint that nobody (at least in the Western tradition) has made a serious attempt to define being itself. Although I've gone about it an a somewhat backwards fashion, a definition of existence is where we've ended up. One might complain that it was perhaps unfair of me to approach individual propositions of what exists in a philosophically forward manner, and only afterwards combine them and turn the question on its head to claim that they are actually components of the definition of existence. As my apology, this sort of temporary subterfuge is difficult to avoid when approaching such a basic ontological subject as "existence." The difficulty of describing in language the basis of the subjective condition of being has been a principle thesis of Zen Buddhism. In any dialectic, it's difficult to know where to begin in approaching this subject, as anything that can be said (even in E-Prime) tends to presume that certain things exist. One therefore finds himself bereft of language in the face of the constant a priori demonstration of being. Hopefully this kind of work-around, presenting forward-directed propositions asserting what exists, and then turning around to reconstextualize them in reverse as definitions of existence, is at least communicative, and hopefully persuasive, if not as linearly straightfoward as most typical Western approaches demand.

Next up: What is going on in reality, and how do I confront it?

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