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A Philosopher, Me? I don't know if I even exist!

 

By Adam Vile

 

Introduction *

 There comes a time in our lives where we suddenly sit up and begin to ask all sorts of difficult questions. Questions such as: Who am I? Why do we exist? Do I exist? Does anybody exist? Is there a God? How do I tell right from wrong? And many others. Don’t worry if you don’t know the answers to these questions right away. In fact you should be comforted in the knowledge that mankind has been trying to answer such questions for as long as it has been in existence, and still has not come up with a definitive set of answers.

 What men (for predominantly it has been men who have been afforded the luxury of time to think) over the ages have come up with is a variety of world views, that is a set of ideas and possibilities which can provide at least an explanation of many of the hardest questions. Many of these worldviews have manifested themselves in religion or antireligion. Others have emerged in politics but, mainly to avoid trouble, the majority has been confined to plain old philosophy. 

Essentially this is an article about philosophy. It will be the first of many. All of us are involved in philosophising every day, even though we may not know it. When you pick up a cup to drink you are entering a certain belief system, that the cup will perform as it has always done... it will not leak, the handle will not fall off etc. Additionally, you are making assumptions about the existence of the cup altogether (and for that matter your own existence). At this point you are not philosophising very deeply, because you have already decided that there is a benefit in drinking from the cup. But you had to come to that decision somehow. You really begin to philosophise, only when your attention is drawn to the questions surrounding picking up the cup to drink. You certainly would begin to question the nature of the cup if the handle did fall off and the hot liquid fell all over your lap!! 

As Yamabushi, we have an obligation to think. Being a Yamabushi is first and foremost about being able to understand, explain, teach, help, and discover. We learn to fight so that we won’t have to. In this article I want to start you thinking a little more deeply about some of the important questions that as Yamabushi we should be addressing, be able to address (note, I did not say  “answer”, I would never say “answer”) and help others to address. I will try to draw out of both eastern and western ideas but I have to admit to a good academic background in western philosophy and an ad hoc non-academic background in eastern philosophy, so if anyone who knows more than I would like to comment, please do so. My plan is to take one or two questions each time and look at ways in which they have been looked at. Let's take a straightforward one to start with. 

Lets talk seriously” I can hear you asking. “Of course I exist, I can see myself in the mirror, you talk to me for goodness sake. I can touch and smell myself  (for some this is a particularly strong sensation, no names please!!) and essentially I know I am there because I can think. Because I can ask questions such as “how do I know that I exist?” for example. 

Well sorry to disappoint you but being able to sense yourself is really no proof at all. Picture this, a big glass jar full of formaldehyde with a brain in it. This brain is connected to a number of electrodes and those electrodes stimulate all sorts of senses.  The electrodes stimulate a part of the brain that is in charge of the sense of touch, for example, when stimulated the brain in the jar senses touch. It can be manipulated to sense anything. Even itself. Far fetched? Sure but who is to say it is not true. Maybe you are a brain in a jar, with sophisticated electrodes making you believe that you are reading this article? 

The problem is that nobody is knows how our senses become internalised. How what is  “out there” becomes “in there”. What does it mean to see? When I “see” a tree, for example, I get light reflected off of the tree into my eye, focused on the retina and turned into a number of electrical signals that go to my brain and…. somehow find their way INSIDE MY MIND (whatever that is).   This is the problematic bit.   How do physical (measurable even) things, get inside my mind and become part of ME? (and what is “me”?, we will leave that for another time I think).  

 

I think therefore I am”

Descartes

 

There are a variety of schools of thought on this. First there are those who would argue that in fact the physical responses are all that there is (materialists): mind is matter. In other words the brain is the mind. There are others who would argue that the mind is in fact the seed of all physical senses. Sensation is a product of the mind, not the mind a product of sensation (constructivists). And there is a third (the most popular) school of thought that sees the internalisation process as connected through the intermediation of some higher being (this idea is usually connected with religion). 

Refreshingly, in the East this whole question poses little problem. For Taoists in particular, as we are all descended from the one, the grand ultimate, it makes no sense to talk of the differentiation of inside and outside, for we are all composed of the merging of the two principles of ying and yang (Palmer 1991). Buddhists too see the world as a dynamic unity, a “single living organism that is constantly undergoing change” (Snelling 1990, p. 42). For Taoists and Buddhists this question, of how the outside gets inside is just a non question as for them there is no difference at all between outside and inside. It is hard for us in the west to come to grips with this form of philosophy, however recently in post-modern thought this distinction has begun to be challenged. 

Lets return to the brain in the jar for the moment. Assuming that we can never know how the external, objective world becomes part of our  “mind “ then we can never be sure that we are not just a brain in a jar, tormented by some mad scientist. By the same token we can never be sure that we are not just an ethereal “mind” floating endlessly with another demonic being playing tricks on us, making us believe that we have a physical extension. Tough hey?! 

You are right on one count though, and you are not alone in this, you do exist (I may not, but you do.. that’s another problem altogether) because as you quite rightly pointed out,  “you can think”.  This is a conclusion that Descartes came to way back in the 1600’s. Immortalised by the words “cogito ergo sum” (I think therefore I am) in his book Meditations.  Descartes, by way of a malicious daemon rather than a mad scientist, managed to cast doubt on everything’s existence except his own, which he proved by his ability to think about the very question of his existence (Russell 1912). Clever eh? 

So the answer to the question is, you know that you exist because you can think. This should be heart-warming for most of you, as it makes it very difficult to do jiu jutsu if you don’t exist.  Problematically, you have no way of distinguishing your mind from anything else, and so you don’t know that anyone else exists (so you can’t have a training partner). In fact you have no way of knowing if this is all some dream and we are all just figments of your imagination. If you want my advice, if you are dreaming, don’t wake up, you’ll be really lonely.

 

 Where to now?

 

You will probably be pleased to know that Descartes was able to argue for the existence of others (other minds at least) and to make a reasonable attempt at convincing his readers that the physical world exists. For my part I don't care. Pragmatically, it seems to me that the world outside of me exists and so for all intents and purposes, for me, it does. Given that I have the choice (a massive assumption) I can interact with it and affect it. That is what I intend to do. This is the approach found in Taoism and Buddhism, in which they are accepting of the world as we find it, without question. It is also the approach found in ancient and modern western religion in which all hard questions are deferred to a God. 

I think that we have to make the assumption that others exist, and that we have a choice about the way our lives progress, and that we can interact with and affect the lives of others. If we try and it is all really some sick joke, then we haven't lost anything, if we don’t try and our assumptions are valid then we have lost everything.  As Yamabushi we must consider others, and the effects of our actions, such that anything we do has a positive effect.  In order to do this we must have a positive worldview, a belief that what we are doing is actually making a difference outside of us. This is my worldview and if, as I am sitting drinking a cup of tea from a fictitious cup, some mad scientist turns off the power to the brain in a jar that is me, then I am not going to know about it anyway. 

 

References: 

Palmer, M.  (1991) - The Elements of Taoism. Element Books LTD. Shaftsbury. UK 

Russell, B.  (1912/1982) - The Problems of Philosophy. Oxford University Press. Oxford. UK 

Snelling, J. (1990) - The Elements of Buddhism. Element Books LTD. Shaftsbury. UK 

 

Further Reading (Annotated): 

Gaarder, J. (1995) - Sophie’s World. Phoenix House. London. UK 

The very best place to start, a novel that thinks it's a book on philosophy. 

Hospers, J. (1990) - An Introduction to Philosophical Analysis. Routledge. London, UK 

Deals with all of the main questions very thoroughly, but difficult. 

Leaman, 0. (1999) - Key Concepts in Eastern Philosophy. Routledge. London, UK 

Dictionary like structure. Useful for key points. 

Russell, B. (1946/1991) - History of Western Philosophy. Routledge. London, UK 

Excellent, and not too hard a read. The best introduction to philosophy I have ever read. 

 

* This article was prompted by a discussion I had with Megan Ramsay in Glastonbury. I would like to thank her for giving me the idea that it really would be a good thing to sit down and write about.

 

 

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