Existence is an unqualified good; it is good in and of itself. Or so goes the story and intuition of many people. After all, what is the alternative? Non-existence. And how could anyone say that not-existing is better than existing? It seems impossible to even begin comparing the two. In order to have the discussion about the benefits and drawbacks to existence, one must exist. Presumably none of us knows what not-existing is like to compare it to our existing (however meager or grand); in fact, it cannot be compared since it is nothing–or more precisely, “nothing nothing”–and how can something be compared to nothing? However, it seems that existence comes at a very large price–isolation.
For all the heat that Monsieur Descartes takes for his ontological argument for the existence of God and his corresponding argument for the existence of a non-physical mind, he seems to have got at least one thing right–if we are conscious of anything at all, we are conscious of ourselves, and this knowledge assures us that we are among the lucky ones who exist–and know they are existing. Even if the existence of the entire cosmos can be called in to doubt, we are aware of ourselves doubting and so are saved from being lost in the jumble of matter and spirit that may or may not be swirling around us. Further, if we know anything at all, we know that we are consciously existing, aware of something that we have come to call our self. This knowledge, our first knowledge, is based upon experience. We have experienced our self thinking and therefore existing. From here, we begin to take steps forward, drawing on each further experience to expand our knowledge base. Perhaps we experience internal events (thoughts, emotions, desires) and go on to experience external events as well (light, food, people). We begin reflecting on our operation of thought and discover certain rules guiding our minds. In the joy of our youth, we gather all these experiences together and call them knowledge; after all, did we not come to our first knowledge in the same way–through experience?
Gaining knowledge through experience, however, leaves us with much less than we originally hoped for. For after reflecting upon our knowledge of self, we are forced to admit that we have insufficient grounds to move beyond that knowledge to making knowledge claims about the external world and the operations, or even existence, of other minds. We are only directly aware of our conscious self and the varied impressions it receives. It is easy to say that I am aware of the grass, but a moment’s reflection reminds me that I am aware of an impression of the grass upon my conscious self, and not aware of the grass itself. By existing, and indubitably knowing that we exist, we are denied access to all other things. The tragic consequence of this knowledge is our complete isolation from all things. Existence promises us much, but leaves us little. This supposed unconditional good is only a good for the supremely selfish, the lovers of self, those who prefer to be the potentates of a world of one rather than the humble peasants in a world of relationships.
Unconscious existence is blithely unaware of this price and so the grass grows and withers, the rocks ebb and flow according to the iron will of gravitational attraction, and electrons whirl and spin in a wild and oblivious orgy of motion. Conscious existence does not escape so easily–with a desire to know and be known, isolation hurts painfully. Of course it is incredibly practical to live as though the external world exists, and exists in the manner that I perceive it to; however, even this practical consideration cannot get me any closer to the soul of the One that I love. I can pretend that the grass really is that green and that the sky really is that astonishing mixture of indigo, scarlet, and gold. However, it does me no good to pretend that my Beloved loves me, understands me, or is in communion with me–unless, of course, that Beloved One really is doing all those things.
But, being limited by my very existence, how can I know?