inquiry into existence

Thinking a lot lately about existence.

I'm familiar with 'cogito, ergo sum' and how, after most philosophical queries, one necessarily ends up at Descartes' famous conclusion.
(Real quick-my math teacher in high school would refer to Descartes as "Dis-cartees". He was being serious.)
Indeed, it is tough for us to imagine a world in which we don't exist.
And I'm not ready to tackle whether or not we would 'exist' if we didn't think we did.
That being said, I am more interested right now in answering the question:
does our existence matter? Or, for all intents and purposes, does what we do matter?

I've always had a deeper feeling about my actions.
Liken it to Karma or the Golden Rule, whatever, but I can never escape that feeling of 'pay it forward.' And not only between other humans and myself, but also myself vis-a-vis all living creatures and our planet. I've always just tried to do 'good.'
Similarly, I tend to find 'good' in every situation.
Not Panglossian optimism, mind you, but more an appreciation for what 'life' brings. Indeed, everytime I learn something new, I label that as 'good,' and inside me arises a 'positive' feeling. This can get rather 'ridiculous' as I've even felt appreciation for the lessons learned by 'bad' things such as The Holocaust.

But why?

In a recent discussion, a question arose:
Could we have just made it all up based on the instinctually survivalist notion of self-preservation? Our religions, our jobs, our rules, even seemingly sincere things like heroism (underlying basic premise that the human race must survive) and love (need to feel complete rather than alone)?
Rationally speaking, yes. I can see this argument holding weight. Nothing can really be 'good' or 'bad' because it just 'is.' Also, according to this view, there is no such thing as 'good' or 'bad' ramifications of behavior. Karma doesn't exist and it doesn't matter if I drive a gas guzzler.
(I should point out that this possible reality isn't necessarily a 'bad' thing either.)
But how do I explain my feelings of 'good' mentioned above? If they don't really exist, how can I feel them? And, should I feel them and should I be doing things for the 'greater good'?
Or, rather, should I be living a life whose purpose may not actually be real?
(I'm sure there will be discussion of existentialism here, which is fine if it's not just based on nomenclature).

I'm careful not to enter a purely cynical camp of 'nothing matters.' At least not right now.
For starters, I can't change that I naturally feel these things. Indeed, I can say confidently that I'm a "hopeless romantic" of sorts and it wouldn't follow to simply shun my feelings.
Secondly, I'd rather explore further the origins and reasons for these feelings before I just conclude that they don't exist or matter.
Or, on the other hand, that they do exist or matter.

Of course, until then, I'll err on the side I've been living on.

Any thoughts?


Brad said...

Hey Emilie...I'm bored at work and I see that you've somewhat summarized our conversation of last night. A few minor things that I would note about my viewpoint:

It's not that there's no such thing as "good" and "bad", it's that we can't know what they are. Now, is that the same thing as them not existing? It's my opinion that they are not the same thing. I think there's a lot of things we don't know and never will. It doesn't mean that something or someone out there won't.

I think the reason we can't externally define "good" and "bad" is because nobody is the same as another person. Therefore, we can never come to an exact consensus on anything. Even if you say "I agree with you", your perception of what we're speaking about is different than mine because you are not me... we can come close, but in the end we're agreeing on different things.

I think many philosphers would disagree with me on that. One of their arguments is "how could we have created a comprehensible language if we can't agree to define certain objects (and even more abstact things like emotions, feelings, concepts like liberty/justice)." Though, I think that even though we've fashioned a system for communication, it's not necessarily universal. My idea of "sad" is not the same as yours because it comes loaded with personal memories both conscious and subconscious. Neither is my idea of "blue" or "chair" or anything else.

Similarly, I think we can fashion a system of "bad" and "good" (based on stuff we can mutually agree upon -- not necessarily consciously -- like self-preservation), but we are so influenced/biased/polluted by being ourselves that no human being can actually define any sort of absolute except for themselves and applying only to them.

For example you can say "I know that I believe A" and as long as it remains true that is an absolute. Even if you receive concrete evidence against your belief in A, it's still an absolute for you as long as you really believe it. That doesn't mean that your not delusional (according to society's definition of the word).

Any universally recognizable absolute must be derived from some other source, but because of our own "humanness" any perception of that "other" would be polluted and therefore invalid.

Okay, I've rambled enough and I should get back to work. Feel free to disagree with me, because under my system of beliefs I'm right anyway (or delusional).

emilie said...

If we can't know what they are, then do they exist?
Using the premise that our thoughts create reality, then apparently not.
So if we can't know what good and bad are, then they must not exist. (Unless 'something' or 'someone' can).

But then how can I feel my good feelings?
Are my good feelings real and should I use them as a basis for future action?

I agree with what you said in the later portion--about a 'general consensus' being necessary for self-preservation--and also about things being relative thus how can an absolute possibly exist? (Actually, I've heard arguments for that which are logically sound)

But on a deeper level, I'm trying to understand my heretofore motivation for living the way I do and possible ramifications for my future way of living. And anyone's, for that matter.

Spooner said...

I guess my first question is, "So what?" If either or neither is true, what does it change? It does not change our ability to "feel" good or bad, merely our interpretation of that feeling. And what of those "feelings" that are seem to be above us, like a notion of fairness, or honesty or simple consideration? I feel confident that regardless of where I go in the world, if I butt in front of someone in line, it will be seen as "bad" to some degree. Why?
While it is true that if I say, "Take a photo of a dog" what you capture and what I capture will probably be different, but that does not negate the idea that both photos will probably have the same basic characterics which would quantify it as a dog, at least to us. Though our interpretation of the word may be different, it will have characteristics that will remain firm.
But isn't the very concept of an Absolute that it exists outside of the human condition? To use the cliche example: gravity. We can argue it and define it and interpret it, but here on earth, if you throw something off a building, it will fall. We are subject to absolutes, whether we choose to accept them or not. Our interpretation of those absolutes will always be tainted, because it is seen through our own lens, and that lens is in relation to all that is around us.
So what does that change? Anything?
Thanks for making me think, Em. I'll see you soon.

emilie said...

Firstly, I'd like to say that I like how this 'conversation' is evolving. After a read-through of the original post and comments, my first reaction was that it was veering 'off topic,' but I kind of don't care.

OK, so I understand your CONCEPT of absolutes. Taken seperately, the concept makes sense.
But I'm interested in how you logically came to the conclusion that there are absolutes.
I get the whole gravity thing, and even other concrete examples like mortality, etc.
But in terms of 'emotional' absolutes...do they really exist?

I know I'm working backwards here. I already feel the 'good' or 'bad' feelings, so why question them? It's not like it's going to change whether or not I feel them.
But I am interested in understanding why I feel them.
Like I said, I'm not going to all of a sudden stop 'doing good' and come to some conclusion that all my 'effort' isn't worth it. But I do wish to explore the origins of them beyond my own constructed theory of Karma-like ramifications.

A few tidbittal thoughts:
-Apparently you've never been to Romania, where if you don't butt in line you're shit out of luck.

-I'm glad I made you think, but I'm sure a vibrant mind like yours doesn't need li'l ol' me to get the oil flowin'.

withknivesout said...

to go back to original post...

it reminded me a bit of the Ring of Gyges Arguement in Socrates' Crito.

emilie said...

While your reference to Crito is nifty, unfortunately I don't have a copy of the text handy.
Perhaps you could explain a little more?
If not for interested persons' sakes, then for proof that you're not just rattling off some intellectual-sounding factoid, thus rendering your blogsistence a flat and shallow thing.

Or not.
I know you're a busy teacher.

Spooner said...

I do not want to confuse the good/bad argument with the right/wrong debate, a debacle that should probably be saved for another time and headache. What do you mean by "emotional" absolutes? Is this inferring the existance of an Absolute Good and subsequently an Absolue Bad? As good/bad are much more an outlook than an actual fact, the notion of an absolute viewpoint seems, well, trite. It's verisimilitude at its finest, no? However the notion of Absolutes in general takes a certain level of faith, "irregardless" of whether the debate is religiously driven. Logic can fuel the debate only so far, the rest is faith.
I look at the concept of Absolutes not as diametrically opposed but rather as the measurement of existance, similar to temperature or light. Cold is not the opposite of heat, merely the absense of it. I constantly doubt the existance of most Absolutes but to finish my point: an Absolute Good would, by its very existance, have to not only be the absense of bad, but would have to be above the whims and transient nature of our interpretations of it, or our ability to rationalize it away. I disagree with Brad here: I say Absolutes HAVE to be above us; by applying to only oneself it is no longer an Absolute but a shiny personal concept.
Thanks for the Romanian tidbit--before I go I'll totally practice cutting in line. I got sharp elbows; they're good for that kinda thing.

withknivesout said...

after some research...

it isn't in the Crito, its in the Republic (Book 2).

and its about justice.

sorry about misquoting such a great piece of lit.


emilie said...

So you're saying that out there there really does exist an absolute good, and here in our own lives we only feel a certain level of it, depending on the situation?
So for us to feel 'good' or 'bad,' there has to be an absolute 'good' or 'bad' against which we are comparing the thing at hand?

I understand your saying there is a certain faith involved behind this concept.

I am wondering IF there is an absolute 'good' and absolute 'bad.' Not "what would absolute good be like?" but "is there even one?"

I'm still trying to understand why I feel emotionally good and/or emotionally bad. You're saying that that doesn't 'matter' but I think it does.
Do we feel 'good' and 'bad' because the absolutes of those are out there and we what we're feeling is a 'viewpoint' (as you call it?) of the absolutes?

Brad said...

We're so deep and philosophical...

Anyway, I don't know much about formal philosophy so I won't make any arguments based on what other people have written and I don't pretend that anything I say is insightful or original (see i.e. my philosophy of life).

But, I guess I don't get how the example of gravity represents an absolute. Things go "down" because we say they're going down or behave in certain ways in the universe because that's how we perceive them to be behaving. Imagine somebody who couldn't perceive gravity. They just thought they were floating along in space. Now that might seem a little ridiculous. Everyone else would see them on the ground and assume they were hallucinating or delusional or mentally unstable. But that's the point of perception. For that person gravity is not an absolute. Would that person be "wrong"? What would make them "wrong"? Is gravity even constant in terms of our own perception of it? Many scientists think gravity behaved differently during the big bang and still could in different extreme environments (like at the singularity of a black hole).

That's pretty much all I have to say. I guess I just don't see the possibility of any sort of absolute in a paradigm where we can't even perceive or imagine most of the things that actually appear exist around us. I mean 3,000 years ago people were defining absolutes both moral and scientific based on their perception of the world (i.e. that it was flat, that we were made of four humors and that gods lived on mountain tops). Today these ideas have been totally discarded. Who knows what's out there we still don't know and how those things will change our perceptions of what we currently hold to be absolutely true.