What Do You Know?

Philosophical Reflections I

Cynics have at times defined lawyers as “persons skilled in the art of circumventing the law”. One is tempted to define philosophers similarly, as persons skilled at circumventing, if not subverting, rationality. It is remarkable how much of philosophy, the “love of knowledge”, has been an attempt to prove that nothing is real, that nothing can be known, that man is as nothing and his life, morality and happiness are but a shadow and a sham. What should be a noble endeavour, to determine what we can know, how best to learn it, and how best to apply our knowledge in the pursuit of human life and happiness, has too often been perverted to the opposite. Indeed, one sometimes feels that the sillier the philosophy, the more respect it is accorded. For proof I offer Kant and Nietzsche.

Who cares? Most people ignore formal philosophy anyway. Yet it affects us all, through politics, education, economics. Man is a rational animal, and rationality is his prime means of survival. Yet the task of much modern philosophy seems to be to undermine it. The surest way to paralyse a mind is to make it doubt the basis or value of its own rationality, and this, therefore, is the antithesis of what is good for human life.

To understand to what extent external reality exists and is knowable to the human mind underpins all the rest of philosophy. A fruitful approach to this question is to determine what things are necessarily true, and how any rational mind, knowing these, must respond. By this means, we can establish a rationally indisputable foundation for further inquiry.

Axioms and Absolutes

Axioms are the fundamental assumptions of a logical system. Often they are regarded as obviously or necessarily true, but this is not so. For example, denying various axioms of Euclidean geometry, which always seemed obviously true, led to equally consistent systems useful for analysing curved surfaces and the like. It turns out that the Euclidean axioms are true only for a subset of geometry, flat space.

How then can we know anything about reality, if all of our reasoning must be founded on axioms, which are themselves not susceptible to absolute proof? If we could determine some absolutes, some primary facts which could not be denied, then we would have a firm basis on which to construct our view of reality, and by which to decide between competing axiomatic systems. Such absolutes do exist.

The Two Absolutes

“I think, therefore I am” (Descartes) is one of the most famous quotes in philosophy. But what is this “I”, and can we be sure anything else exists?

Introspection along these lines reveals two things that are clear and indisputable. Any being who can think and has senses, can say with rock-solid certainty: “my consciousness exists, and something external to my consciousness exists.” I know for sure that my own consciousness exists: if it didn’t, I couldn’t be wondering about it! Yet I am surrounded by things over which my consciousness has no control. My consciousness has volition to think and to imagine, and over these things it has control: but it can’t alter the world I perceive, the room I am in, the computer I am typing on. When I walk into a room, the room and all of its contents present themselves to me as faits accompli: my consciousness has not designed or made them. Leave for now the possibility that they are part of a fantasy created by some other part of my mind: the important fact to recognise is that, whatever the cause of the things I sense, they exist apart from my consciousness. My consciousness is not responsible for them, therefore something else is.

Mind, Body and Reality

My consciousness resides in a body, which is a vital factor in my interpretation of the external world. Firstly, through it comes all of my sensory information about the external world. Secondly, my body is a unique part of that external world, for it is a curious hybrid. It is the only part of the external world which I can directly control by my thoughts: it moves at my command. Yet, like the rest of the external world, its nature is a fait accompli beyond the design or control of my consciousness: I cannot make it fly unaided, I cannot walk it through walls, I cannot turn it into a tulip. Indeed, it makes irresistible demands on my consciousness, which cannot ignore its needs for food, water, air and shelter. In short, I can control my body, but only within the limits of its nature, limits imposed from without.

As it occupies such a crucial position between my consciousness and the external world, the nature of my body is an important factor in how I interpret reality. Imagine how different your conclusions about the world would be if you were a disembodied consciousness floating without senses in a black void or a shifting dream.

Another important feature of my body is memory (a mental ability, but still external to my consciousness). I have no impression of having just popped into existence. On the contrary, I remember having grown from childhood, in the process acquiring an extensive memory about the world I live in: its nature and the nature of myself and the other people who share it with me. As with my body’s physical nature, this fact about myself must be accounted for in my view of reality. Again, imagine how your view of reality would differ if you were a conscious machine with inbuilt knowledge of your artificial origin, and personal memories reaching back only to when you were switched on.

Therefore: my consciousness exists, and an external world exists, but the former is not merely a passive observer, a Norm in front of a television set. Rather, it is intimately caught up in the external world via the body in which it resides. The world critically affects me via its effects on my body, and I in turn can affect the world via my control over my body. From this follow some fundamental ideas.

The Fundamental Principle & Axiom: I Must and Can Know

Whatever the true nature of reality, on face value it is quite capable of killing me – of extinguishing my consciousness – if I make the wrong choices. When I examine myself further, I find these two things:

  1. By its nature, my consciousness wishes to preserve its existence and well-being.
  2. My consciousness has the powers of logic and reason, the power to evaluate what it senses, feels and knows, and to decide what to do based on its conclusions. The reliability of these is not an issue at present: I have no choice but to use the tools I have.

These lead to a fundamental principle: any conscious being in an independent world, who wants to stay alive, must try to determine the true nature of that world to the best of its ability. If the world is what it seems, and can kill me, then I must learn about it in order to survive. If it is some kind of entertaining illusion, then I can at least feel comforted, and at best improve the entertainment by learning how to control the illusion!

If I am to learn about the world, then I must make one fundamental assumption: it is possible to gain knowledge about reality which can help me preserve and improve my life. This is not an absolute: there is no necessity for it to be true. However, if it is not true then I am paralysed, at the mercy of arbitrary, unknowable forces. Unless I am to just give up and die, I simply have to assume that the combination of my senses, my reason and the nature of the world, do in fact allow me to acquire knowledge. I do not have to assume that all knowledge is accessible, only that enough of it is.

This, therefore, is the prime principle by which any rational consciousness wishing to live must act: I must try to learn about the world. And to do so, this is the prime axiom it must assume: knowledge of reality is possible. It is a very important point that although I must start by assuming this axiom, by so doing I am putting it to the test. Subsequent events may prove the axiom wrong, and therefore the principle impossible, but until then they must be held. A rational being cannot begin anywhere else.

© 1992 Robin Craig: first published in TableAus.