Experience 101: The Existence Conundrum

by waxnwings

This is the beginning of a story about human experience. And it starts with a modest question: how do I know that I exist?

The great thing about such questions is that everyone will actually have some kind of answer. Everyone will propose an idea when asked such a question. They’re somewhat stockpiled, ready at the tip of the tongue. The same as if you asked ‘what’s the best way to roast a potato’ or ‘what’s the best way to skin a cat’. It’s one of the many questions likely to be eschewed as pointless and unnecessary. Because, ultimately, we know that we exist. Is there anything more to ask? Is it necessary to take it further than that? My own short answer (albeit longer than a staunch ‘yes’) is that it is no more necessary than enquiring into the origins of matter and biological history, theorising the past and future of the universe, the study and implications of quantum physics and the desire to create and emotional influences of the arts. Whilst these are not necessary for human existence they are integral to human development. And it is this in its finest rudiments – the process of human development – that we find the origins and mechanics  of constructed realities upon which we are entirely dependent for both individual and collective conscious existence.

So let’s start with the “I think therefore I am” swag which looks a bit like this:

I think therefore I am

Okay, very good. So, if you can think yourself, the you have a consciousness, therefore you exist. However, there is a big problem here. It immediately assumes that everything ‘outside’ of human thought effectively does not (or cannot) ‘exist’ per se. It’s the archaic paradox of ‘if a tree falls in the woods, does it make a sound…?’ So while we’re pursuing pointless questions, we might as well try to answer this one.

Let’s begin by taking the bare bones of the paradox: if the tree falls, but no one is around to witness and conceptualise the event, ultimately you can never really know. However, by experience (and this idea of experience is and always will be the hammer to the egg) we know that it will. But (a very large, rotund, paradoxical but): what of things which we know by human consciousness and experience exist concretely outside of the human consciousness and experience which we use to conceptualise the concept of ‘external’ existence in the first place? Okay we’ll come back to that later. Basically, just think of things like countries, cities, institutions, labour forces, identities, history, art – these cannot exist without individual and collective human consciousness. But what about mountains? Rivers? The oceans? Weather systems? The life cycles of organisms? These can exist without the necessity of human consciousness. Falling trees still exists. So let’s re-configure our diagram because, after all, these things can also exist within human consciousness in the understanding of our relationship with them:

Best of both

Okay. So now we can be a little more satisfied: everything exists! We just have to settle for this imaginary “divide” which we have completely failed to theorise. That’s the stuff reserved for people who actually know what they’re talking about. And anyway, this isn’t supposed to be philosophically theoretical. It’s more of a comic strip.

So I’ll be the first to admit. This doesn’t work. Kudos to anyone else who has noticed the two massive elephants in the room (imagined or otherwise). Firstly: how the hell can we be simultaneously inside and outside of human experience? Clearly ‘I think therefore I am’ doesn’t help in this situation. Because the human body (in its corporeal) will obviously still exist even if it is unable to think itself, just as a tree is able to exist even if we are unable to see and conceptualise it. Which leads us to the second elephant: where does human consciousness exist? Okay, so we know that the interpretation of the material world around us and our processes of negotiating it happens in our big ol’ brains. You see, the Ancient Egyptian folk didn’t know this. They thought it all happened in the heart which pumped all virtue, knowledge and understanding throughout our body in our blood. This is why they kept hold of all other organs in ornate jars, except the brain. The brain was an anomaly. Just an unattractive lump of grey porridge. No blood in there, must be useless.

I learnt that from a Wilbur Smith novel. Fiction can be useful as well.

So thought happens in the brain, consciousness happens in the brain, existence happens in the brain. But it’s not the entirety of our existence, because there is also stuff ‘out there’ beyond what we can think or experience. I’m pretty sure that’s not the full technicality of the process but hey, we’re using stick-men here. Anyway let’s re-do the diagram again to incorporate this. But first, as this is beginning to get unnecessarily complicated (proper philosophy has single words which explain these entire things – and people complain about jargon!). Let’s assess the pieces we have:

Bits and bobs

Okay. So now we are beginning to see something develop here. A world of existence in a ‘material real’ and a world of existence in an ‘imagined (or symbolic) real’. Symbolic because it relies on symbols we must be able to recognise for them to have meaning and thus ‘existence’ within our symbolic world. If you think of the ‘material real’ as the hardware in a computer, the ‘symbolic real’ would be the operating system. Now you can understand how mathematics is the perfect example of a human constructed symbolic order on which we create realities. Anyway, back to the ‘material world’. It looks pretty simple:

Real stuff

A lump of organic flesh know as the human body with a brain an a tree growing out of the ground. Remember, we have not yet introduced the symbolic (imagined) order of things. So at this level, with no thought process or ‘symbolic real’ present, just the lump of flesh and an inanimate tree, how does this exist? And that’s not a rhetorical question, despite all that been said, it’s a genuine one. Now you’re probably thinking of course it exists. You’ve already said that even if it’s not being thought of it still exists in some ‘material real’, ‘out there’. But if we actually get really anal with this now the only reason it’s there is because you’re thinking it’s ‘there’ – this concept of ‘there’ doesn’t exist in itself. It’s completely made up. Aaaaaand we’ve come full circle. Put it this way: if you didn’t think that a material real existed, does the material real still exist? How can you conceptualise something which is requires for its very existence to be beyond conceptualisation? If you think, okay, yes it still all exits – it just does – then that’s fine. I’m not going to argue with that. In fact, here’s a diagram to show you hoe you’ve come to this conclusion:

You did this to yourself

In your brain you have thought of the relationship between your imagined ‘I’ or ‘self’ and the ‘tree’. There must always be a relationship between one’s consciousness and an object of the material world for it to exits in the symbolic real. Nothing can exist in your mind without consequence to both your imagined ‘self’ and the ‘tree’ – they will both become conceptualised within the symbolic order.

So there is now another question which begs to be asked. Where do ‘I’ exist…? One again, two necessaries to attack. The first we have partially dealt with already: what exactly is existence? Is it justified by the existence of the corporeal body in the ‘material real’? Our interactive consciousness in the realm of the ‘symbolic’? Or is it an intricate interplay between the two? The second question(s) should blow your mind (symbolic mind, unless it actually causes you to have a seizure in which case also your material mind): where does come from, what is ‘It‘ and what does this ‘I‘ mean for my material body and how are they related? Lost and lots and lots of questions. All potentially not worth asking at all. Or maybe they are.

Anyway, now we’re just about at the starting blocks. And I’ll apologise because I’ve probably made things worse.