“I think that yesterday was a crisis in my life. I finished the first part of Renouvier’s second Essais and see no reason why his definition of free will — ‘the sustaining of a thought because I choose to when I might have other thoughts’ — need be the definition of an illusion. At any rate, I will assume for the present — until next year — that it is no illusion. My first act of free will shall be to believe in free will.”
“There is but one cause of human failure. And that is man’s lack of faith in his true Self.” William James
“It is necessary that at least once in your life you doubt, as far as possible, all things.” René Descarte
Ever since Socrates started to question the basis of our ethics and morals philosophers have questioned and questioned until we can only shrug our shoulders and resign ourselves to an “I don’t know”. But this comes from assuming one thing; that the basis of our ethics should be explainable. We are faced with resorting to “because I say so” or “because that’s the way it is” and expose our inability to come up with the rhetoric to sustain our argument.
Yes, the post-modernists are right, there is no wrong or right (paradoxically making the post-modernists neither wrong nor right in their rightness), except what we make right or wrong. Any wrong or right we perceive are social constructs. We live in an ethical and existential void, with no inherent values, that we are forced to make sense of ourselves, so some Existentialists would have us believe.
So, just make it up as we go along right, as though we are tabula rasa?
In a postmodern society, where all points of view are relative and equally valid or invalid, it is easy to lose perspective, even of what is innate within us. The infant human being learns to absorb and reflect the qualities of its society. It is no surprise then that a child born in a “postmodern world” would feel tabula rasa, that they could not even trust their own being.
René Descarte came to an interesting conclusion, when he considered the philosophical possibility everything he experienced was the result of a demon tricking him, otherwise known as “the method of doubt”. Out of all the things he could be sure of, what could he really be sure of? In the end he came up with what he called his First Certainty, which most of us will recognise as; “I think, therefore I am” or more simply “I exist”. In the end, Descarte thinks, the one thing that we can depend on is the “self”, the thinker, the “I”, even if everything else can be considered an “illusion”. Unfortunately it was an “I” divorced from physical embodiment, a ghost in a machine, if you like.
At this point a Zen Master may apply a well deserved Zen Slap: “So, that pain you feel on your cheek, is it real or illusory?” Descarte’s thinker may, in the end, conclude that no matter the answer that’s it’s probably worthwhile saying that the pain is real, especially after a few more well applied Zen Slaps. Some pragmatist thinkers, like William James, would think the same; “real pain” versus “illusory pain” seem so indistinguishable as to be a meaningless distinction, you might as well act as if “illusory pain” is “real” until experience tells you otherwise. If it’s reliable as an experience it’s probably true.
When all society offers us is an existential void, we learn to distrust. We distrust the world around us, we distrust our experience, we may even learn to distrust ourselves. The void has swallowed us.
Exept some experiences are so persistent they cannot be denied out of hand. One of these, as I believe Descarte correctly identified, was the “I” at the centre of thought and experience that I described in Anatta and the Importance of Personhood as:
And yet, there it remains; a strong, persistent sense of self. Despite changing over time, despite interruptions in the flow of consciousness called sleep, there is a strong sense of continuity, that, despite being different ages and with different personal qualities, the “I” ten years ago is the same “I” that is experience by this brain now.
Another is that this sense of self is inextricably attached to a body and therefore the undeniable (whether real or illusory) pain of the Zen Slap. There are some experiences that can be trusted, a rare quality for any person to have!
Going back to Socrates and his continuous questioning (whose philosophical purpose was to “know thyself”, not to nit-pick by the way); we may lose trust in many things, but there are many things we cannot deny, or if we do they hang around like a bad smell. It’s good to question everything, and thoroughly, but it doesn’t pay to live with a feeling that you can’t trust anything. It’s not in human nature to live without meaning… well, I don’t think so. I tried very hard, casting doubt at it from every direction, but this feeling just wouldn’t go away!
At some point the human mind has to find its orientation, and form itself and its world around that orientation. It doesn’t have top be some great big mythological epic, detailing some super-cosmic story that explains EVERYTHING!!! but we do need something, even if it’s thinking about where the next meal comes from.
Following Pragmatist philosophy I think it’s good to trust basic experience and build on that, until experience tells me differently. There is a “me”, no matter how many times I try to fool myself I am “just” a bundle of neurons. I am a physical presense (body) in the “world”, which, incidently, does exist. And there is a a way of telling right from wrong, and it’s called a conscience. I chose to trust these things as far as I may, as far as my experience tells me that they work.
With so much cultural bias and disillusionment it’s easy to see how we learn to distrust in the basic realities of experience, and abstract ourselves from what is right in front of us, what makes our very being; the “I”, conscience, sense, thoughts. We aren’t without some references to go with. And at times they’re not rationally explainable, they just “feel right”.
So, go on, I dare you; trust your Self. You might find it’s worth it.