I Am That I Am (A Ramble)
I've done a lot of thinking on the precise nature of ethics, given that ethics grants a fundamental understanding of the relevance of all other philosophies. Trying to tie down a base of knowledge to a single set of ideas is difficult, but a very important thing if you want your ideology to be consistent. Then again, logic and consistency are not two virtues extolled by the average American public. In fact, I will assert that you can balk at logic and consistency and still be a very functional member of American society.
What I find about most people is that nobody is really inherently evil or good in the way they behave. Rather they act in a manner befit their attitudes, which are compromised mostly of whimsy. A lot of what most people do makes no real sense whatsoever, despite people trying pretty hard to find justifications. I find justifying human activity to be a pointless and wasteful activity. For the most part, the average person has only a rudimentary and simple understanding of their own likes, dislikes, dispositions, and they act accordingly. A lot of the time, this means people act to their own detriment. A lot of our understandings of society rely on assumptions to the contrary: for instance, markets presume to work because we assume people act in their own interest and thus this facilitates exchange. I would assert one of the central failings of these ideas is that people really don't adhere to even common sense principles. To many people it is simply not important to consider this.
What a lot of us forget is that most of what goes on inside society doesn't have any firm rules or requirements and by no means must make any sense. So making sense of it all is necessarily a difficult challenge, by no means does it need, ultimately, to make sense. That goes for the economy, politics, science and is thus extended to all human activities. We define our own conventions, for the most part, and while we certainly adopt educational norms in our various societies, no single society of mankind has ever adopted a real consistent understanding of the base function of knowledge itself. That is because seeing and demonstrating tasks and skills is more fundamental to our ability to grasp things than thinking very deeply about them. I guess you could say I'm a skeptic of the civic functionality of reason. Emotive, expressive ideas built on an untrue ideology can result in a functional, healthy society (inasmuch as the function and health of society are not judged by how silly they are, and rather, how they culture, progress and live). If such is true, many generations could pass through life blissfully ignorant and somehow figure to get by. This may be silly sounding, but the understanding of this idea itself reveals quite a bit about the vices and virtues of humanity.
This being a given truth (and really that whole insight warrants its own article), attempting to define purpose and ethics to the human mind is difficult. What do we really know for sure? In fact, who am I to even say one way or another? When contemplating it all we quickly cave in on our own nonsense. I am an atheist, too, making this whole process a bit more involved. I really don't believe there is a god, and naturally a religious stance fills in some of these holes.
Well, my first reflection goes back to a religious man who was asking similar questions of things back in the early 1600's, Rene Descartes. He thought the best way to approach this problem was to create a method which would help him make sense of basic truths, and then build from that. I believe his assumption was correct way to begin, but the method he created is no single absolute principle by which to start. Methods, like his - which was a form of methodological skepticism - have no intrinsic worth. They are models by which we filter our many understandings. One could take a diametrically opposed "method" - like irrational presumption - and come to the same necessarily true idea. I guess what I'm getting at is that methods are not important to understand necessarily true things, because once something is realized to be necessarily true, it is incontrovertibly. As in, it would make no sense to deny something found to be true regardless of the methodology you use to come to your rationalized conclusions. Descartes, picking a reliable and sound method, came to understand one fundamental truth that makes a cornerstone of knowledge: that we exist.
This, to me, is really the best starting point for understanding conscious thought, I like to think of it as the first principle. Descartes' insight is simple: he wanted to figure out what in the realm of the world is real, and to do that he pretended that everything he knew was some grand deception. He figured that no matter how deceived he might admittedly be about reality and his perception of it, there was one thing he was not deceived of: that he existed. If he doubted his own existence, the substantiation of his doubt meant there was an object - himself. Whatever he might be, his doubts proved that he was at very least a "thinking thing". Otherwise he would not be capable of sustaining the doubt required to contemplate his own existence in the first place. He found the truth of "I think, therefore I am". He was by no means the first person with this idea, but deserves credit for this articulation as we popularly understand it today. Consciousness of oneself and the reality of existence is something that we all intrinsically understand, but few of us actually contemplate to great length.
From that point Descartes was able to substantiate little else. His attempted ontological proof of god from that viewpoint was admittedly on unsound basis. I almost think he didn't quite believe that part of his meditation as strongly as he said he had, but he did reiterate a belief in it later in life. Still, I'm sure Descartes had the time to hear about how Galileo's ideas were received by the church, so I take his level of dedication to the topic with a grain of salt.
So where do we go from here?
If I think and therefore I am, we have a basis for considering our experiences real, and we have established the premise of logic, that subjects (in this case "I") have definite meaning and can be given attributes (in this case, existence). If I can show one subject being given definite meaning and thus am able to associate an attribute to describe it, then I've proven my point. Thankfully this ties into the first principle of "I think therefore I am". As if I were proven wrong, then "I Think Therefore I Am" is nonsense, as the subject (oneself) cannot be given the attribute of existence if attributes can not be associated with subjects. I might frame this argument as such:
2. Existence is an attribute which can describe me.
3. I think.
4. To think, one must exist. (If one did not exist, one could not think)
5. The subject of myself thus must have the attribute of existing.
If 1 is untrue, then we're unable to identify what "I" actually means, and the notion of ideas becomes brittle indeed. While a "subject" can refer to many things, in this light, I mean that something which is a subject is a topic, notion or idea. All ideas, notions, topics, etc. bear some sort of definition, if they did not it would be impossible to differentiate them from one another. The notion of self - "I", the id, whatever you want to call it - is an idea which can be described, and that is what I mean when I say it is a subject. If it was not an idea which can be described, then no attribution could be deigned for "I". Thus, you would have to reject the notion of "I think therefore I am", because you could not identify yourself differently from anything else. Again by the act of thinking you identify yourself, thus we see how this statement must be true. Merely by describing oneself, you become something which bears description, thus "things" can bear description. Follow me on this one, as it is an important point to retain as we proceed.
If 2 is untrue, then while we might be able to identify ourselves as a "thing", we could not associate an outside idea - existence - with it. The point I am getting at with this, is that all logical prepositions consist of this pattern of thought, involving the necessary assignment of subjects to attributes. Thus, just as existence is an attribute which describes a subject, a subject is an object, idea, topic or notion which is being described.
Because this logical argument follows, we know that the notion of "things" (ideas, notions, topics, subjects) and "attributes" (descriptive properties) are necessary forms of language. Because if they aren't, then I think therefore I am breaks down into gibberish. Thought being something to be described does not gain an association to "I" or an association to existence and thus becomes nonsense. Likewise, if 3 and 4 are untrue, then we've failed to provide a concrete proof for the notion of subject/attribute relationships in this, the principle Descartes and so many skeptics have found as being really the only sound one. So whereas Descartes is correct in finding we exist, the conclusion of that also substantiates that logic exists. As a principle, logic - the study of properties and propositions - requires subjects and attributes such as the "self" and the attribute of "existence".
Which is funny, Descartes doesn't quite prove god actually exists as he set out to do, but he does prove that the idea of "god" and the notion of "existence" do, because while language barriers can have us find alternate uses and meanings for the word "god" and "existence", they are necessarily descriptive properties that are real. At least, as real as language and vocabulary that ultimately generate the descriptions are.
The second part of this notion I want to analyze is what really gets me back to the point of my little rant, that being of course ethics. We established above that we think, and exist, and that subjects and attributes of our existence are fair things to consider - logic exists - its only limitation being coherent language to communicate the ideas. Of which, the most base communication, that I exist, being necessarily true and thus a good place to stage our furthered observations. So what does this possibly have to do with ethics? I think the important thing to consider is as follows...
I think therefore I am.
If you accept "I think" nothing outwardly compels you to accept "I am", to arrive at that you must make a conclusion, you must decide that "therefore" one, then the other. Of course we are all free to decide one thing from another, but if we all accept the Descartes maxim here, then we all accept that we all decide at least that one thing. Thus independent volition, or will, exists. If it did not, then there would be no therefore, and thus no conclusion, as no ideas could be consulted without a will or volition to contemplate them. A conclusion, which in the structure of logic simply acknowledges the truth of some idea, is an act or volition. You would have to decide, upon volition of the will, that it follows from thinking that one does in fact exist. If you denied this, then you reject the notion of "I think therefore I am" because there is no therefore and again as said before, if you reject that basic notion, then we find ourselves in a state of nonsense. Effectively, reason - which is a byproduct of our ability to decide and conclude things based on prepositions which we don't always word so straightforwardly as we are now - exists in the same light as logic does.
You see, you could say that ethics don't exist without some great outside influence, such as a god. I might argue that ethics necessarily exist, as the notion of ethics arise from the notion of conclusion. Conclusion is an idea inherent to logic itself, which again while being limited by our language and capacity for imagination, is a real thing. The idea of concluding something or acknowledging the truth of something, is an act of will, the conclusion that one exists the first real fundamental act of ethics. Ethics, in this light, being the assumption that we ought to do some things over other things. In this instance, we all ought to conclude that we exist. This is if anything my first commandment. If you do not acknowledge that you exist, there is literally no point to communication, as you cannot effectively comprehend anything until you actually make this acknowledgement. To put it another way: we already established that we think, we established that things exist, and that we exist because we think. Well by making this initial assumption, something nearly every conscious human being understands intuitively, we've made a judgement, that judgement being a recognization of our own existance. We have no cause to actually conclude one thing from any other thing, that we can is to me a defining property of intelligent conscious life.
So, to wrap up, I would assert that if we exist - and I cannot really assert if you do or not, at least from the methodologically skeptical point of view, but I know I exist - then I in making that determination substantiate that logic exists as does ethics. If logic did not exist, rather if I could not relate concepts to others, then the terms become impossible to define. If ethics do not exist, then I have no basis for making conclusions, as will and volition is an activity. We showed this with the one idea you can't really deny, but another way to put it is that if 2+2=4, the mathematical operation while being a logical one is still an act requiring a decision. The decision being, something equals something else. This requires will and volition on the part of the observer. Of course, one could deny that 2+2=4 especially if they abstract or silly reasons to do so, but nobody can really deny that "I think therefore I am" as denying that effectively renders any part of logic, reason, deduction and in fact reality void.
Many theories of god's existence tend to attempt to prove god exists as the thing which substantiates reason and ethics. Descartes tried to prove god existed as the "guarantor of reason", the thing that effectively proves reason is a sound concept. Really, it's the other way around. Because Descartes made the correct assumption that he existed, so must reason by necessity, and so must ethics. Unless you believe it is impossible for god not to exist, you must conclude now that ethics does whether the god does or not. Perhaps the truest thing that can be said, is if you are an entity which is conscious, a being in the truest and simplest sense of the word, you might consider yourself that "I am that I am". Which, quite oddly enough, is one of the famous transliterated versions of the name of Yahweh, the Abrahamic god of the Bible. Perhaps one of the most stark things that ever made sense to me in a religious text, was a god describing himself as a being which is, as this is a foundation for understanding all other things that are. Interesting, really.
I thought that was a set of thoughts worth sharing, sorry if it sounded a little rambling. Later,
- Phoebus Apollo