Doug Bruns

Winter in Maine…We Go Dark

In Philosophy on February 28, 2013 at 6:00 am

Let’s fish deep today. As deep as 500 words (give or take) will allow.

First, pardon me if I’m about to wax too philosophical. It’s winter in Maine, and we retreat, hibernate, go dark. Come spring things will look up.

The Father of Modern Philosophy, Rene Descarte

The Father of Modern Philosophy, Rene Descartes

Suppose for a moment that you’re out and about on the town, and suddenly a degree of self-doubt washes over you such that you’ve never experienced before. So deep is this doubt, that, indeed, you’re not even certain you exist–you are so very, so profoundly, freaked out. You escape to your room trembling. You have one of those exquisite dark nights of the soul and by morning you have concluded that you only know one thing truly: that you are thinking. And, you assure yourself, if you are thinking, then you must in fact exist. With this knowledge you rest easy and nod off to sleep.

This is the foundation of modern western philosophy. Cogito Ergo Sum, said Descartes. I think, therefore I am.

Now, fast forward a few centuries. You’re extremely cool, sitting at a cafe on St-Germain-des-Prés, the west bank of the Seine, smoking black cigarettes, sipping wine and watching the world go by. You are feeling especially philosophical and it occurs to you: How

Sartre, the Father of Existentialism, as photographed by Cartier Bresson.

Sartre, the Father of Existentialism, as photographed by the great Cartier Bresson.

could you possibly even think if you didn’t first exist? Why, it’s not thinking that comes first, it is existence. I is not, I think therefore I am, but: I am, therefore I think. You have just erected the cornerstone to existentialism. You’ve turned Descartes inside out. You are a genius. But then you know that.

The most fundamental contribution of the existentialists is simple: existence comes first. Everything else follows.

And that, friends, is the briefest account of modern philosophy you will likely ever encounter.

_____________________

But what can we really know?

There is a philosophical mind game that goes as follows: You are nothing but a brain under glass. There are tubes and wires coming and going from your brain and coursing through these tubes and wires are stimuli, thoughts, and emotions. This input is nothing more than the machinations of an evil scientist. You think you exist because the evil scientist has programmed your brain to believe it so…and so forth. How can you possibly prove this is not the case? If you’re a Cartesian, you’re stuck under the glass. You are thinking. Period. There is no: …therefore, I am. You really can’t prove anything. Robert Nozick put it this way: “How is it possible that we know anything, given the facts the skeptic enumerates, for example, that it is logically possible we are dreaming or floating in a tank with our brain being stimulated to give us exactly our current experiences and even all our past ones?”

I don’t have an answer for that. Perhaps you should read Nozick? Or maybe, you simply shrug your shoulders and just hold out until spring when you can take your canoe down the Dead River to Flagstaff Lake where you watch the sun set behind the Bigalows. That’s what I think I’ll do.

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Want to read Sartre’s thoughts on existentialism, but not suffer through his magnum opus, Being and Nothingness? Consider his landmark essay, “Existentialism is a Humanism,” linked here. Or, perhaps you are feeling lighthearted. If that’s the case, then here you go–now for something completely different:

Thanks for reading.

d

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  1. Thanks for adding the Monty Python, I think i need a Zanax before reading any Nozick:-)

    • Thanks for reading, Lacey. I think the Zanax would be just the ticket for reading Nozick. I might have to give that a go. The first sentence of his 700+ page book, Philosophical Explanations, is: “I too seek the unreadable book…” That’s pretty intimidating opening. d

I welcome your comments. Thanks for reading.

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