Waxing Philosophical: Everything You Perceive Is Not Fact by Christina Knowles

human-perception            Philosophy was one of my favorite subjects in college, and still remains so today. And although I enjoy reading Descartes and his Meditations on First Philosophy, wherein, he proclaims his existence as well as God’s, it is odd to hear these same 17th century arguments still in use in our modern era. Many people say they just know God exists, and although I understand that this is evidence to them, it does not affect me at all. These arguments are remarkably popular, and although they cannot be disproven, they can certainly be shown to be fallacious and illogical.

In Meditations on First Philosophy, René Descartes claims that he knows he and God exist because he clearly and distinctly perceives this to be the case. He states that because he is able to think about his existence, he must exist. Descartes believes that because he is not perfect, but is able to think of a perfect thing (God), this idea must not come from him, but from God. Descartes also claims that God must exist because he has a clear and distinct perception of him. Another argument Descartes introduces as evidence of God’s existence is that it is God’s essence to exist. He claims that he can only be certain that he and God exist because he can only clearly and distinctly perceive this and this information is innate in him. Descartes’ argument about knowing that he exists because he is able to think about it, is sound. His arguments for the existence of God and for his belief that he can only know for certain that he and God exist are valid, but not true, and therefore, are not sound.

Let me explain. Descartes believes he exists because he realizes that doubting he exists is a form of thinking. If he is thinking, he is doing something, which means he must exist. If this argument is looked at as conversion, then it would not be valid, but I think it can be understood as valid this way: If (p-I think), then (q-I am doing something). If (q-I am doing something), then (r-I must exist). Therefore, if (p-I think), then (r-I must exist). This is a hypothetical syllogism and is a valid argument. It’s premises are true; therefore, it is sound.

However, Descartes also argues that God exists. One reason he believes in the existence of God is that he is imperfect, but he can think of a perfect thing (God). He claims that an idea of a perfect thing could not come from him because of his imperfection. Because of this, he believes the idea must have come from a perfect thing (God). Therefore, God must exist (Descartes, 46). This is valid, first using modus tollens and then disjunctive syllogism: If (p-I were perfect), then (q-I would not doubt). But (not q-I do doubt). Therefore, (not p-I am not perfect). (modus tollens). I can think of a perfect thing. Either (p-it comes from me) or (q-it comes from something external to me). (Not p-it does not come from me). Therefore, (q-it comes from something external to me (God). God must exist. (disjunctive syllogism). These arguments are valid in that their logical organization is not flawed; however, probably not true because their premises are probably not true; therefore, they are not sound. Descartes gives no evidence that an imperfect person cannot think of a perfect thing without an outside influence. There may be other explanations for someone thinking of a perfect thing. I can think of a perfect man, but that does not mean one exists.

Another argument Descartes uses for the existence of God is that he clearly and distinctly perceives God; therefore, he must exist. This can be understood as valid in this way: If (p-I clearly and distinctly think God exists), then (q-God does exist). And (p-I do clearly and distinctly think God exists). Therefore, (q-God does exist). (modus ponens). This may be valid, but it is not logical. Causes of his thinking may be more complex. There may be other reasons he clearly and distinctly thinks that God exists. For example, he may be insane. I may clearly and distinctly think I am Marilyn Monroe, but that does not make it true. He may just be wrong. I have thought wrong things before, but that did not make them true. Descartes’ thoughts are not necessarily facts.

Finally, Descartes argues for the existence of God by saying that it is the essence of God to exist. He states that it is impossible to think of God separate from existing (p. 90). To test the validity of this argument, we can put it in the form of a hypothetical syllogism. If (p-I cannot think of God without thinking he exists), then (q-God and existence cannot be separated). If (q-God and existence cannot be separated), then (r-God must exist). Therefore, if (p- I cannot think of God without thinking he exists), then (r-God must exist). Although this argument is valid in form, it is not sound because it contains a fallacy known as ‘begging the question.’ It is assuming what it is seeking to prove. In order for God to have the essence of existence, there is already the assumption that he exists. Because it is fallacious, it proves nothing and is not logical.

Although Descartes makes a case for his own existence, which is not terribly difficult to do, he fails to prove God exists only because he can clearly and distinctly perceive him and based on his unfounded belief that he cannot think of a perfect being without external influence. Strangely, Descartes believes everything else is to be doubted because it cannot be perceived in this same manner (p. 80). He believes that this perception is innate, but if it is innate, then why is it not innate in everyone? And even if it was, it could be caused by other influences, such as an innate evolutionary need to explain the unknown. He also believes that he can only know that he and God exist and no others, but does he not perceive that others exist as well? Perhaps, he believes that he can perceive others because he perceives himself, so it could come from within him. However, his argument is not sound because it is based on his previous assumption of God’s existence, which is based on his clear and distinct perception of him. It is also contradictory because Descartes mentions other things he clearly and distinctly perceives, things that have no reason to be only internally perceived. If Descartes removes all fallacies upon which his arguments are based, he can only be certain of his own existence, and he fails to prove God exists.

Certainly, everyone has the right to perceive, believe, and feel within his person the truth or existence of anything, and this, indeed, may be sufficient evidence for the individual who experiences this certainty within himself, but this is not a sound argument with which to convince others. Clearly, these are interesting topics of conversation and not everything felt or believed needs to be proven, or even true, for that matter, but one should not be surprised if this line of thinking fails to impress those around him. It is interesting to analyze our own thinking, and writing this makes me wonder what things I accept as true, simply based on a feeling or a perception. Probably a great deal, and that might not be such a bad thing, as long as I don’t expect others to base their beliefs on my feelings.—Christina Knowles

Sources

Descartes, René. Discourse on Method and Meditations on First    Philosophy, 3rd ed. Trans. Donald A. Cress. Indiana: Hackett Publishing Co, 1993. Print

Photo: “Human-Perception.” nabeelafsar.com. Web. 12 June 2015.

“Apprentice” by Christina Knowles

“Apprentice”

GoodFon.su
GoodFon.su

Chipped wood

Nicked and dented

Purposely abused to create

What was not earned

Am I a craftsman then?

Or a liar?

Fabricated walls

“Aged” plaster

Crackled paint chips

Shards that flake off into

My shaking hand

Like broken glass

Glass like metal shavings

Their fragmented images

Steal my light

Sending it in a dozen different

Directions

Confusing me

With ambiguous fingers

Pointing first this way

Then that, iridescent swirling hope

A spectrum of half-truths

Promise the possibility

Of a lovely destruction

Even an apprentice can make something

Beautiful

Now and then

–Christina Knowles (2015)

Existdentalism: I Think; Therefore, I Am Confused by Christina Knowles

Rodin, The Thinker Snagged from Google Images
Rodin, The Thinker Snagged from Google Images

In seeking to define my worldview, I have found myself consistently drawn to seemingly oppositional philosophical viewpoints: Existentialism and Transcendentalism. At least they seem juxtaposed in most ways. My definition of Existentialism is the belief that life has no intrinsic meaning; we create the meaning in our own lives. There is no divine. Transcendentalism, on the other hand, is believing the divine is all around us and in us. We are in nature and nature is in us, and through communion with nature, we connect with the divine soul and are one with everything. This connection is the meaning of life.

Why do I bother defining my worldview? Why do I feel the need to label it? I’ve asked myself this question a thousand times. I believe it is because in order to live consciously, deliberately, and according to a personal value standard, which I desire to do, I need to make choices all the time that fall within certain parameters, and to be vigilant in that, they must be defined. Life is short, and to live it fully aware, one cannot blindly stumble through it.

I read extensively and eclectically, and in my reading, I come across wisdom that speaks to me what I recognize as truth. But is that which seems true, truth? Ah, the age old question asked by every ancient philosopher, and Pilate asked this to Jesus, and at some point, every thinking person must ask themselves, “What is truth?” In forming our worldviews, I find that we latch on to bits of wisdom that seem true because we recognize their wisdom according to our already established values, in which we have internalized throughout our lives from various experiences, both internally and externally. I believe we are even born with some of these values.

I have found many things that seem true in Existentialism. I love Existentialism. People say it is pessimistic and depressing. I don’t see it that way at all. I think it is liberating and comforting. Here are some of my favorite Existential aphorisms:

“I saw that my life was a vast glowing empty page and I could do anything I wanted.”—Jack Kerouac

“All that remains is a fate whose outcome alone is fatal. Outside of that single fatality of death, everything, joy or happiness, is liberty. A world remains of which man is the sole master. What bound him was the illusion of another world.” –Albert Camus

“Life begins on the other side of despair.”—Jean-Paul Sarte

“Man is condemned to be free; because once thrown into the world, he is responsible for everything he does.” —Jean-Paul Sarte

“It’s only after you’ve lost everything, that you’re free to do anything.”—Tyler Durden

“Every true faith is infallible. It performs what the believing person hopes to find in it. But it does not offer the least support for the establishing of an objective truth. Here the ways of men divide. If you want to achieve peace of mind and happiness, have faith. If you want to be a disciple of truth, then search.”—Friedrich Nietzsche

“Memento mori—remember death! These are important words. If we kept in mind that we will soon inevitably die, our lives would be completely different. If a person knows that he will die in a half hour, he certainly will not bother doing trivial, stupid, or, especially, bad things during this half hour. Perhaps you have half a century before you die—what makes this any different from a half hour?”—Leo Tolstoy

“We fear death, we shudder at life’s instability, we grieve to see the flowers wilt again and again, and the leaves fall, and in our hearts we know that we, too, are transitory and will soon disappear. When artists create pictures and thinkers search for laws and formulate thoughts, it is in order to salvage something from the great dance of death, to make something last longer than we do.”—Hermann Hesse

“As if the blind rage had washed me clean, rid me of hope; for the first time, in that night alive with signs and stars, I opened myself to the gentle indifference of the world.”—Albert Camus

When I read Existentialist philosophy, I want it to be true. I think it is beautiful and carefree. Unfortunately, I don’t quite buy it.

So I turn to Transcendentalism. After all, I have practiced yoga all my life. Some of my favorite works of literature are Transcendentalist works, and although I see them as contradicting Existentialist views, I see them also as containing profound truths, and one cannot help but be inspired by the idealism. Here are some of my favorite Transcendental pearls:

“To laugh often and much; to win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children; to earn the appreciation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends; to appreciate beauty; to find the best in others; to leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child, a garden patch or a redeemed social condition; to know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived. This is to have succeeded.”—Ralph Waldo Emerson

“I learned this, at least, by my experiment: that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he had imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.”—Henry David Thoreau

“The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. What is called resignation is confirmed desperation.”—Henry David Thoreau

“Rather than love, than money, than fame, give me truth.”—Henry David Thoreau

“So behave that the odor of your actions may enhance the general sweetness of the atmosphere, that when we behold or scent a flower, we may not be reminded how inconsistent your deeds are with it; for all odor is but one form of advertisement of a moral quality, and if fair actions had not been performed, the lily would not smell sweet. The foul slime stands for the sloth and vice of man, the decay of humanity; the fragrant flower that springs from it, for the purity and courage which are immortal.”—Henry David Thoreau

“Wherever a man goes, men will pursue him and paw him with their dirty institutions, and, if they can, constrain him to belong to their desperate oddfellow society.”—Henry David Thoreau

“Many go fishing all their lives without knowing that it is not fish they are after.”—Henry David Thoreau

“Simplicity is the glory of expression.”–Walt Whitman

“Be curious, not judgmental.”—Walt Whitman

“Re-examine all that you have been told… dismiss that which insults your soul.”—Walt Whitman

“I cannot be awake for nothing looks to me as it did before, Or else I am awake for the first time, and all before has been a mean sleep.”—Walt Whitman

“To me, every hour of the day and night is an unspeakably perfect miracle.”–Walt Whitman

“Stop this day and night with me and you shall possess the origin of all poems.
You shall possess the good of the earth and sun . . . . there are millions of suns left. 
You shall no longer take things at second or third hand . . . . nor look through the eyes of the dead . . . . nor feed on the spectres in books.
You shall not look through my eyes either, nor take things from me.
You shall listen to all sides and filter them from yourself.”

There was never any more inception than there is now,
nor any more youth or age than there is now;
and will never be any more perfection than there is now,
nor any more heaven or hell than there is now.”–“Song of Myself,” Leaves of Grass, Walt Whitman

“I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion. For most men, it appears to me, are in a strange uncertainty about it, whether it is of the devil or of God, and have somewhat hastily concluded that is the chief end of man here to “glorify God and enjoy him forever.”

“An honest man has hardly need to count more than his ten fingers, or in extreme cases he may add his ten toes, and lump the rest. Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity! I say, let your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand; instead of a million count half a dozen, and keep your accounts on your thumbnail.”–Walden, Henry David Thoreau

“Make your own Bible. Select and collect all the words and sentences that in all your readings have been to you like the blast of a trumpet.”― Ralph Waldo Emerson

“The purpose of life is not to be happy. It is to be useful, to be honorable, to be compassionate, to have it make some difference that you have lived and lived well.” ― Ralph Waldo Emerson

“Dare to live the life you have dreamed for yourself. Go forward and make your dreams come true.” ― Ralph Waldo Emerson

“Once you make a decision, the universe conspires to make it happen.” ―Ralph Waldo Emerson

“The only person you are destined to become is the person you decide to be.”― Ralph Waldo Emerson

Obviously, the commonality in these two modes of thinking is the idea that we are the masters of our own destinies; we are the captains of our ships. The only thing holding us back is ourselves. This is the fundamental appeal of these beliefs for me. I love these beautiful ideas; I revel in the wisdom of these two philosophies. The practical advice they give for surviving in a savage world that seems hopeless, gives me hope–Yet, I don’t really believe any of it for a minute. Something deep inside of me says I am not completely in control, I am not the center of my universe, I am not in charge of today, let alone tomorrow. So, I turn to Modernism, Deism, maybe even some Buddhism. The effort to define life’s truths continues. Perhaps I’ll start my own philosophical movement to incorporate bits and pieces of all these things, but that sounds a lot like something an Existential-Transcendentalist would do.—Christina Knowles

Sources

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