What do I really know? What if the stuff I was taught was untrue? Of what can I be certain? For instance, at this moment, what do I know? It would seem that the stuff I know is the stuff that I’m directly aware of. But how do I know that all this isn’t an illusion? This was Descartes question. He concluded that even if the stuff he was aware of was an illusion, his awareness was real since to be aware of an illusion one had to be aware. He then concluded with “I think, therefore I am”, where think = awareness. As for “I am”, I wonder; did he infer his existence from his awareness, or did he identify himself as awareness? However, are there more assumptions at play?
If I pay attention now, what do I notice? A keyboard. But is it a keyboard or just some sensations I call a keyboard? Well now that I look at it, it seems the latter is true. But can I ignore my original impression of the object “keyboard” as primary? After all, when I saw the keyboard I wasn’t aware of these sensations, so maybe I’m doing this retroactively? But I can see how these sensations make up the keyboard. But so what? Besides, I’m constructing this and applying it to a memory and assuming that memory was valid and that there is a stability of sensation. Why assume memory is valid? Why assume stability? Why even assume that sensations are more fundamental than ideas? Why assume anything?
It looks like my mind’s getting in on the act even before I’m aware — at least, so I infer. But I am inferring this from memory of awareness, so how reliable is this, and is this a chicken-and-egg problem? An argument can be made for either, so I’ll weaken my claim and say there’s reason for considering the mind as more fundamental than awareness. But wait, there’s more.
What is “I”? I’m not aware of any “I”, but if it exists, it would be above awarenss anyway, so that could be a moot point. If “I” = awareness, then it is redundant. “I” is often used to differentiate among other inferred awarenesses. Now what of awareness? It is an idea that relates the memory of all the things remembered, possibly with an inference to differentiate among other awarenesses. This means the only things that exist are things. No observer, no observation, just stuff. However, it is convenient to keep using “I” and “aware” provided we remember they do not necessarily correspond to anything real. Having thus equated reality to subjectivity, what is objectivity?
Objectivity is subjectivity writ large. Something is observed by multiple awarenesses, and where they coincide, that thing is called objective. Thus, objectivity is simply consensus. Thus a car is “objective” while the envy of viewing the car is not. Interestingly enough, although objectivity is given lip service, subjectivity is valued far more. After all, subjectivity includes things like happiness, misery, and so on — the things that often drive people’s lives.
A few philosophers have made interesting points along these lines. For instance, David Hume wrote that he couldn’t find a “self”, but only bundles of sensations. He also wrote of one prior mental tendency — induction which was fundamental to reasoning. Immanuel Kant said we experience phenomena which we order by imposing our categories of experience (things like space & time). As such, we created our personal reality. He said ultimate reality was unknowable. Arther Schopenhauer said the will created our personal reality and that this was ultimate reality.
Categories of experience can be layered, hence Hume, Kant and Schopenhauer need not contradict. However, Schopenhauer’s Will is the most important for it works on the level of emotions. If we assume will = desire (and I think this is justified), then my desires determine my reality on the level that matters to me. Back to the keyboard example; one point I saw a keyboard because my desire was to simply be aware. At another point I noticed sensations because my desire was to “go deeper”, and so on. That desire operates on this relatively emotionless level shows its ubiquity. In the example of the car, it’s much more prominent, as my wish to have the car can reduce my happiness.
Let’s use an analogy to show how desire relates to “reality”:
Sensations = Paint
Desire = Painter
Personal reality = Picture
The painter can paint a lot, but ultimately is limited by the paint. For instance, s/he can’t paint a functioning car. Simlarly, desire can do a lot with sensations, but ultimately is limited by them.
All this does not downplay ethics; on the contrary, it gives a foundation for it. While we cannot experience other awarenesses, we infer they exist, and there is reason to trust inference. Indeed, the consequences of not making this inference are grim. Ethics becomes the task of improving the quality of other awarenesses — an ethics of compassion. We do things for how they help others, and not because they are rules. Our ability to channel desire and create means we can recreate ourselves as more ethical beings and find happiness in that creation.
Knowing this, I can improve my life by working with desire and my ability to create my personal reality. I’m not talking about anything magical, but simple perception. Read this:
Descartes’ thought experiment:
David Hume’s book online: http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/h/hume/david/h92e/index.html
Kant is a tough read. Here is a pretty readable account, but even then it can be tough going. I can’t find a preview or anything online, sorry:
Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason: An Introductory Text by Humphrey Palmer
There’s a fascinating book about drawing called Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain. Its premise is that most people who think they can’t draw actually can’t SEE, and if they could only SEE, they could draw better. Often what people “see” when encountering something (like a tree) is their idea of a tree, and their drawing is often of that idea. Includes exercises to get past this conceptualization:
Schopenhauer’s philosophy went into detail and included things like maximizing happiness. Warning: this is one pessimistic man, and even his views on happiness are depressing. He makes some good points, but take the essence of what he says and don’t worry if you disagree about the degree: