Sometimes the best thing to do to find new perspectives is to go on a journey. The most fruitful journeys are often done in the mind. I wish to take you on such a journey, one that René Descartes paved the way for. Feel free to pause and think every time you encounter a question mark.
The Next Best Thing To Doubt
Descartes’ journey was one of doubt. He started doubting everything – one step at a time – to see what undoubtable facts he would be left with when he was done. So our first task is to find the next best thing to doubt, the first step of our journey. I assume that if I told you that the world would end this year, you’d immediately doubt my claim. Over the recorded history, many people thought the world would end soon. All those dates passed and we are still here. So, if I wanted to remove your doubts, I’d have to present evidence.
Let’s go on step further. Imagine you read in todays newspaper that “the lazy average Greek only works half as much as the average German.” Depending on your prejudices towards Greeks and Germans, you might agree at first. But then, doubt creeps in. You know it’s never that simple. What was compared, exactly? Someone probably oversimplified complex statistics with this statement. Then it got copied and pasted by the press.
These first two steps were some straightforward doubting. Let’s see how far we can take it!
What You See is What You Doubt
Look at your hand. What is it made of? And the molecules and atoms that form it, what are they made of? Mostly: nothing. But what you see is not one bit of nothingness. The hand looks solid. Do I mean to say here, that you don’t see the world as it is? What you see is how you view the world. How do you know anyone else sees it the same way? How do you even know you’re seeing it right now? You could of course be dreaming it, which means the photons reflected by your hand don’t hit your retina. How could you tell the difference?
Doubting what you see might seem something trivial to do. Of course you see the world only as you perceive it! The next question is: how far can you doubt what you see? Is it that the outside world is real (whatever real means) and your perception is doubtworthy? Or is it that the existence of the things you see must be doubted as well? Imagine yourself dreaming. Not everything you dream about has a correlate in the physical world outside your dreams … It could be made up by your brain, or (worse?) by some evil scientist feeding your brain with perceptions. This would still be imaginable if your brain lay in a jar and was fed with perceptions via electrodes.
All this leads you inevitably to the conclusion that you can never be sure about what you see (and, for that matter, perceive any other way).
Don’t Think, Just Doubt
Pursuing that last paragraph to its full implication is a little disturbing: if you can’t be sure of your perceptions, what can you still be sure of? Descartes journey climaxed here, with the famous discovery “I doubt, therefore I am”, because even if he can’t be certain of anything he perceives, he still doubts all of it, therefore he exists (*he* being an entity that doubts). But if your perceptions aren’t to be trusted, how can you trust anything your brain creates (even the sensation of doubting)? If all the “inputs” into your brain can be manipulated, so can potentially anything you think about.
You are a biomechanical machine. Your brain behaves in predictable ways, depending on its previous state and new inputs (perceptions). You are not free then, to choose what to think about next. It just occurs to you. You can easily observe the occurrence of thoughts. Let your mind wander for a bit. Thoughts just occured to you, and you were there to watch them. How can you say you were free to think about anything else, when anything else didn’t occur to you? You may have been under the illusion that you controlled the process, but that only hinders you doubting its freedom. You can’t control something you didn’t see coming. And yet you are ill-equipped to observe your own intellectual wanderings in a neutral way, without a sense of agency and control. One thing that you can do, is doubt this sense of agency.
How did you get here? You now – I hope – are sincerely doubting that you can control your own thoughts. Does our journey of doubt end here, then?
There Is More To Doubt
Let’s not stop. When Descartes concludes that he exists, what does he mean by that? What is he? The entity that doubts all of this must be your conscious self. It’s the only thing you really do know exists, isn’t it? Even if everything you see is not what it seems to you. Even if everything you think is just the reactions of your brain to previous states of your brain plus inputs from outside (whatever outside is).
As you’ve certainly guessed, I will not leave you with that undoubted. If you’re not controlling your thoughts, you’re not controlling your conscious thoughts. If consciousness doesn’t control anything, what does it do?
Imagine a philosophical zombie, who looks and acts exactly like you, except it isn’t conscious. This zombie, of course, would be you for all practical matters. Or would it? Now let’s imagine a second zombie, which has two unconnected half-brains in her head, each with its own consciousness. To each of these conscious entities, it would appear that it is in control of the perceived body of our zombie. As we already know, none of them is. Would anything change if it were one brain, but still two conscious entities? There could be thousands of these conscious entities, none of them would notice. They can’t even be certain that there is a zombie, just because they experience one.
When you doubted everything, there is not much left. Possibly only this: There is experience. There might not be anything else at all.