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?

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Posted by Tex

6 Comments

  1. “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.”

    Keith, what grounds do you have to say that I am not aware of the grass itself? Your “moment’s reflection” doesn’t work for me because try as I might, I just can’t make myself think anything else but that I’m directly aware of the grass. I don’t know what it means to have an awareness of an impression.

    I think this point is the hinge upon which the argument stands. If we actually perceive things directly (the technical name for this position is ‘direct realism’), then we are not as isolated as you suppose.

    Furthermore, I thought you were a Platonist! What about eternal ideas such as number and measurement and the Good. All of these things exist self-evidently apart from myself and yet I have very trustworthy perceptions of them.

    Thanks for the post, bro.

    Reply

  2. “Presumably none of us knows what not-existing is like to compare it to our existing (however meager or grand);”

    Actually, we do. It’s called sleep, at least while we’re not dreaming. We die every night.

    Reply

  3. Existence is indeed a hideous trap. All too often I have sought solace in its sweet folds and fumbling fallow fields.

    But that is all as nonsense to me now. Be it so.

    But in being, I have known what Sartre would tell us is the greatest crime of all.

    Reply

  4. “Your “moment’s reflection” doesn’t work for me because try as I might, I just can’t make myself think anything else but that I’m directly aware of the grass. I don’t know what it means to have an awareness of an impression.”

    I don’t know what it means to be directly aware of an external object. This seems to imply that the thing itself is in direct contact with myself, without any mediation. I don’t understand how this can be possible given that all external objects I interact with are necessarily mediated to my conscious self through my senses, intellect, and/or cognitive processes. Each of these mediators stand between me and the external object.

    I think the issue is not one of what I seem to be aware of, but of what I am actually aware of (or at lease what I am able to claim knowledge of being aware of). When I say that upon a moment’s reflection I realize that I am only aware of my impression of the grass, I mean that however the grass appears to me, I must admit that I am seeing it from a particular perspective, namely, my own. Regardless of what my eyes are seeing (be it grass or some hallucination or sense datum or what-you-will), I am forced to admit that I only have cognitive access to the way the grass appears to me. My eyesight, my position in relation to the grass, my past experiences with grass, etc., all come between me and the grass itself. Each of these things are the means by which I see and understand the grass as grass. I allow for the possibility that each mediator between myself and the object could be perfect and transparent, so that I am able to have knowledge about the grass; however, I fail to see how to test whether my mediators are, in fact, perfect and transparent. Nevertheless, even being perfect, they still would stand between me and the grass in the same way my bedroom window stands between me and the front lawn.

    Reply

  5. “My eyesight, my position in relation to the grass, my past experiences with grass, etc., all come between me and the grass itself. Each of these things are the means by which I see and understand the grass as grass.”

    Either faculties such as sense, intellect and cognitive processes get in the way or they bring you closer. Tex, what you have to do is define what you mean by “I”. Why doesn’t the “I” include the senses, intellect, and cognitive processes? You talk as if these things were added on piecemeal to some amorphous central identity. While it is not proper to identify the identity (hehe) as the sense or reason, it is equally incorrect to not include these faculties in the ego. As a suggestion, the faculties may be related to the self in the same way as the nose and mouth and eyes are related to the face. You conclude they are like clothes on the self, i.e. extrinsic, but that is not immediately evident.

    “Nevertheless, even being perfect, they still would stand between me and the grass in the same way my bedroom window stands between me and the front lawn.”

    If the faculties are part of the self, then they actually bring us closer to the outside world as opposed to standing between us and it.

    Contra Sartre, we are not trapped in a room without windows.

    Reply

  6. Is the self something that can be separated from the senses, intellect, or cognitive processes?

    The senses, yes, the intellect or cognitive process, perhaps not; although cases of people living in vegetative states makes the answer to this question perhaps a little less than obvious. I agree that you are right to say that it is not proper to identify the self with sense or intellect. I would be interested to hear more of your argument for why they are essential parts of the self. It seems to me that the self can be separated from its senses (e.g. Helen Keller or Teri Schiavo) or from its cognitive processes (e.g. someone who has lost her mind or is in a coma (or even sleeping?)).

    Nevertheless, whether sense and intellect are parts of the self or extrinsic to it, the problem remains that the world is mediated through the processes of my senses and intellect. I am limited by my perspective–by my senses and by my intellect. How can I know a thing in itself when I am cut off from that thing by my self? My point is that the limitations of existence as a finite, temporal, single being, seem very grave. I am limited to my mind, my senses, and my perspective of [the impressions of] the outside world that are conveyed to me through my mind and senses. (I think my point stands whether or not you agree that I have a perspective of impressisons of the outside world, or a perspective of the the outside world itself). Again, even if the senses and intellect are essential parts of the self, they are not the self, but serve to convey or mediate things to the self.

    “If the factulties are part of the self, then they actually bring us closer to the outside world as opposed to standing between us and it. Contra Sartre, we are not trapped in a room without windows.”

    But we may be trapped in a room with windows. It seems that the very best that the senses and intellect can do (if they are a part of the self) is give us a very clear window to look at the world through. I want to know if there is a door, and if there is, how do I open it?

    Reply

Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published.