Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Does Matter Exist?

The seeker after truth must, once in the course of his life, doubt everything, as far as is possible.[1]
You are your brain. Your thoughts are reducible to motions of atoms in your brain, dizzyingly complex motions to be sure, but nonetheless still just motions of physical things. This is the assumption, often hidden, that pervades much of what we watch, read, and especially of what we are taught. Even among those who still stubbornly cling to the idea that we are more than merely our brains, the modern tendency is to remove this belief in man’s spirit[2] from the sphere of the rational and relegate it to the sphere of irrational leaps of faith and neo-mystical experiences. The result is that the upper sphere[3] of man’s spiritual life is completely severed from the lower sphere of the physical world. We are left with a dissatisfying truce in which these upper and lower spheres are completely severed from one another and thus never challenge each other. The problem is that they also stop supporting each other. The price of this truce is devastating for both spheres; it renders the upper sphere completely subjective leading it to wither away into irrelevance, while the lower sphere loses all meaning and value as everything becomes reducible to just a bunch of atoms bouncing around according to inexorable physical laws.
But doesn’t our starting point have to be the lower sphere? Isn’t this what is most certain? And doesn’t our understanding of the lower sphere necessitate the belief that we are indeed our brains? After all, one does not have to be an expert in neuroscience to see the effects on a person from taking powerful drugs or suffering catastrophic health issues such as a stroke or Alzheimer’s disease. If a person’s brain is physically altered then the person is altered, so is not the conclusion that we are our brains inescapable?
Did you ever lose your glasses only to find, after several minutes of looking for them, that you were wearing them? When we think along the lines of the argument in the previous paragraph we are doing the intellectual equivalent of this. When we think like this, we are forgetting the “I” that is doing the thinking!
To fully understand what I mean we need to take a step back and ask ourselves, “Of what am I most certain?” I think the best way to approach this question is to follow Descartes’ advice, and once in the course of our life doubt everything. While I part ways philosophically with Descartes in a number of areas, I could not agree more with his placing the importance of this so high that he lists it first in his Principle of Philosophy. In his Meditations on First Philosophy Descartes put this principle into action as he systematically threw out everything that could be doubted.
“Reason now leads me to think that I should hold back my assent from opinions which are not completely certain and indubitable just as carefully as I do from those which are patently false. So, for the purpose of rejecting all my opinions, it will be enough if I find in each of them at least some reason for doubt… Whatever I have up till now accepted as most true I have acquired either from the senses or through the senses. But from time to time I have found that the senses deceive, and it is prudent never to trust completely those who have deceived us even once.”[4] Descartes then continued to systematically throw out all beliefs that could be even slightly doubted. He went to such extremes in this doubt as to postulate, for the sake of his argument, that there is an all-powerful demon that is systematically trying to deceive him. He reasoned that any belief which could survive such extreme doubt must be accepted as certain, but can any belief survive this “demon doubt”? Yes, in the Second Meditation he wrote “I must finally conclude that this proposition, I am, I exist, is necessarily true whenever it is put forward by me or conceived in my mind.”[5] And what type of thing is this “I” which exits? “A think that thinks”[6] answered Descartes. So, according to Descartes, the belief of which we can be most certain can be expressed as, “I think, I am.” It is absolutely essential to Descartes’ argument, and to the rest of my argument, that you understand that this belief is an intuitive belief which we immediately judge to be true without any sort of reasoning. He made this clear in a subsequent letter about the Meditations in which he wrote, “When someone says ‘I am thinking, therefore I am, or I exist’, he does not deduce existence from thought by means of a syllogism, but recognizes it as something self-evident by a simple intuition of the mind.”[7]
I agree with Descartes that “I think, I am” is, and indeed has to be the starting point of human knowledge. Even given the most radical demon doubt, I cannot doubt that I exist. It is here that I will part ways with the path Descartes takes in his Meditations, as my goal is more limited than was his.
My goal is to understand what type of thing this “I” which thinks is. In other words, I want to understand our essence. To get at the essence of anything we must try to rip away everything that is not essential to the thing. Find a quiet place and close your eyes. After a few minutes completely alone with your thoughts, ask yourself, “What am I?” Was not Descartes right, are you not a thinking thing? Is not this your essence? Are not your thoughts the essence of who you are? Your current thoughts and the memory of your past thoughts, are not these what are most immediate to you? If you are to follow my argument, when you examine yourself for the answer to these questions, you must rely on the same “simple intuition of the mind” with which you directly see the truth of “I think, I am.” Only by limiting yourself to these bedrock intuitive judgments can you be most certain of the answer, because nothing can be more certain than these intuitive judgments as they form the starting point of all human knowledge. Even deductive reason is less certain than these intuitive judgments. Deductive reason cannot validate itself, for trying to use deductive reasoning to prove the validity of deductive reason would of course be nonsense. Deductive reason is thus dependent upon our intuitive faculty to show us that deductive reason itself is valid. Again, I ask you to try to block out everything else and, using your intuitive faculty, directly perceive your own essence. If, when you use your intuitive faculty to examine your own essence, you do not see your own essence as that of a thinking thing, then you might as well stop reading now because you and I are fundamentally different things.
When we seek truth, when we seek to understand our world and who we are, we have no choice, we must start with ourselves, and with respect to our self, that which we can be most certain of is that we are a thinking thing that exists. Now let us think about our thoughts themselves. Our immediate intuitive understanding of our thoughts is that they have nothing in common with physical things. How much do our thoughts weigh? What are their dimensions? Where are they located? These are of course nonsense questions because our direct intuitive understand of our thoughts is that they are not physical, they are spiritual. That which is closest to us, that we know in the most direct way, that which we know with the highest degree of certainty, is our self, and our direct intuitive understand of our self, of the “I” which exists, is that we are not a physical thing, we are a thinking thing, a spiritual thing.
Now, open your eyes. At this moment when I open my eyes I see a Christmas tree. I perceive the tree in two ways, I see it and I smell it. Notice that these perceptions are not physical things either. We must not confuse our perceptions with the things we perceive. The “I” which exists has perceptions, and as with our thoughts, our direct intuitive understanding of our perceptions themselves is that they are not physical. Thus, even our knowledge of the physical world is not direct. We know the physical world through the intermediary of our non-physical perceptions. In fact, it is very possible that I could have the perception of a tree even if it were not there; it could be an optical illusion created by a good magician, a hallucination, or even a life-like dream. Nonetheless, even though I can doubt the objective existence of the tree, I cannot doubt that I have a perception of a tree. Once again the perception itself, the spiritual, is more certain than the physical.
Those things which are most immediately known to us are our thoughts and perceptions. Our immediate intuitive understanding of these is that they are not physical things, they are spiritual things. Therefore, those who look to the lower sphere as their starting point have it backwards. Our starting point has to be the upper sphere because it is the most certain. Those who start with the lower sphere usually argue that it is the complexity of our brains that produces the emergent phenomenon of the spiritual from the physical, but to reduce the spiritual to nothing more than an emergent phenomena of the physical is to deny everything our direct intuitive judgment tells us about the nature of the spiritual. Upon what is such an extreme counterintuitive assertion based? Of course it must be based upon our knowledge of the physical world. But our knowledge of the spiritual is more certain than our knowledge of anything else because our thoughts are closest to us, they are most immediate to us and thus most certain. Nothing about our direct experiential knowledge of thought leads us to believe that a thought is physical, or has anything in common with a physical thing. How absurd it is to use our knowledge of that which we know with less certainty as a ground for disbelieving that which we know with more certainty![8]
As you may have guessed, I am a dualist. To those who find the mind-body problem a perplexing one, I offer my hearty agreement. The relationship between our physical nature and our spiritual nature is indeed perplexing. However, if you doubt the spiritual because you believe there is a fundamental problem with having both a spiritual nature and a physical nature, then I submit that you have it backwards. If you must doubt one, it seems obvious to me that the one which must be doubted is the physical, not the spiritual. If I were forced to choose between idealism and materialism, I would choose idealism because it does not deny that of which I am most certain. I know I exist and I know I am a thinking thing, a spiritual thing. My immediate and direct understanding of thought is that it is not physical but spiritual. The one thing I cannot doubt is that the spiritual exists. Again, how can we deny that which we know most directly and most certainly in favor of that which we only know in a secondary and less certain way? Therefore, the question “Does matter exist?” is far more in doubt than the question “Does spirit exist?” If you must doubt one, doubting the existence of matter makes much more sense.
1. ^ Descartes, Rene. The Philosophical Writings of Descartes. Trans. John Cottingham, Robert Stoothoff, and Dugald Murdoch. Vol. 1. N.p.: Cambridge University Press, 1984. 193. Print.
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2. ^ I struggled with the word to use here. Initially I used the phrase “man’s incorporeal nature” but this phrase is too antiseptic and simply very clumsy to use. I tried several other words. “Soul” is too nebulous and has very strong religious overtones which could be distracting, while “mind” is too limited as most think only of man’s reason when referring to “mind.” I therefore settled on the word “spirit” which also has its drawbacks, but which best captures my meaning. However, please keep in mind that when I refer to our “spirit” I refer to our entire incorporeal nature which most significantly includes the trinity of our reason, our moral sense, and our will.
3. ^ My use the terms “upper sphere” and “lower sphere” correspond directly to and are inspired by Francis Schaeffer’s use of the terms “upper story” and “lower story.” Francis Schaeffer used these terms extensively in his writing most notably in his books The God Who is There [View or Purchase], Escape From Reason [View or Purchase], and He Is There and He Is Not Silent [View or Purchase]. These books are also included in The Complete Works of Francis Schaeffer [View or Purchase]. I believe Schaeffer used “story” because he wanted to emphasize that the upper and lower form a single structure. While I understand this, I never liked the way the use of “story” implied that the upper rests on the lower which I think is upside down. For this reason, I have chosen to use the terms “upper sphere” and “lower sphere” instead.
4. ^ Descartes, Rene. The Philosophical Writings of Descartes. Trans. John Cottingham, Robert Stoothoff, and Dugald Murdoch. Vol. 2. N.p.: Cambridge University Press, 1984. 12. Print.
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5. ^ Descartes 17
6. ^ Descartes 19
7. ^ Descartes 19
8. ^ There are many reasons for not believing that the spiritual can be an emergent phenomena of the physical, but this is the most fundamental. In subsequent posts I will examine other reasons.

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