By Eldon Taylor
I watched as passengers disembarked from the plane I was about to take to Los Angeles, and I saw many stories in their faces. I thought of the personal tales each one could tell. I remembered how deceiving looks could be from my work in criminalistics. Still, my mind was intent on finding a story for each.
There was a large, older gentleman with huge hands and veins standing out on his arms like those of a much younger man who had just finished working out. Next to him was a small, slightly built man with a cane. Perhaps the large man had been a bodyguard and the small one a watchmaker, or perhaps the large man was a schoolteacher and the small one a convicted killer released from prison after 40 years behind bars.
What is it that seems to force us to both make up stories about others and to jump to conclusions based upon appearances?
Plato invested much of his life in the quest to understand and make known the true nature of being. His student Aristotle later called this metaphysics, the study of being, and ontology is its central branch. Is there such a thing as true being? Many since Plato, particularly in the so-called postmodern era, have looked at this notion as problematic at the very least, and at the worst, pure rubbish.
Form and Particular
You may remember Plato’s allegory of the cave. In this tale, people who dwelt in the cave could know only the shadows of forms that were cast on the wall of the cave from the light outside. To be clear: from within the cave, inhabitants could only look at shadows on the wall and not the form itself that was casting the shadow.
The shadows were representative of forms—true forms that lacked the distortion of the shapes on the cave wall. With this, the idea of the form and the particular was advanced.
You and I are particulars; your favorite chair is a particular. Think about it this way: There are many kinds of chairs. Some have arms, some have four legs, some swivel, some rock, and so forth. What is it about a chair that makes you immediately apprehend it as a chair, even if you’ve never seen that particular type before? To Plato, it’s the form that we might call “chairness” that makes the object recognizable. Is there such a form for personhood? Is there one form for female and another for male?
Is there such a thing as a “true being” in the ontological sense other than what we might appear to be here and now? Is our being dynamic and changing? If so, how do we continue to recognize it as our real, true being?
You might say that chairs are artifacts and humans are biological expressions of living material, so they aren’t comparable in the sense of chairness and humanness. If so, does that alter the question in any substantial way? If not, what is meant by true being?
Knowing or Believing?
Let’s once again do some mind traveling and see if we can get close enough to this question to either discard it as irrelevant or to know it personally in a way that may illuminate the issue. To that end, imagine that you’re a student of some great early philosopher. You are witnessing an exchange between a citizen and your teacher.
Citizen asks, “What is being? What does it mean to be human? Is there a true being—a higher being? Are we but meat machines winding down toward an end that destroys all that I think I am and may become?”
Your mentor—I’ll call him Spa, using the first letters in the names Socrates, Plato and Aristotle—tells everyone to sit. Spa begins by asking Citizen: “What do you think is likely to happen when your mortal body gives up the ghost?”
You think about that, too. Intuitively, you feel that all of what you’ve learned, all of who you’ve become, all that you remember and have shared, couldn’t just disappear—be gone, be but a waste of nature’s resources. Or could it?
Citizen answers: “How do I know with any certainty what I think about such an issue when it’s all wrapped up with my own wants and desires?”
Spa smiles. “What you ask is something that has been asked for a very long time. What we seek to know is bound up in the notion of the form. Is there any such thing as a pure form that’s the perfect essence of the particular? Is there a perfect form of chairness behind all chairs? Is there a perfect form of humanness behind all humans? Is it possible that it’s our belief in a perfect form that we anthropomorphize into our gods? Or is it that we wish so intensely for life to go on that we create a theogony [origin and descent of the gods] in the first place? What are your thoughts, Citizen?”
The expression on Citizen’s face indicates that he is no longer present. He is far away in his mind. Finally, the protracted silence that follows Spa’s last question suddenly breaks into his consciousness, and he blurts out, “I know what I believe. That’s all that matters to me.”
Choosing Your Beliefs
Patiently, Spa says ever so softly, “Is what you believe what you want to believe? Are you just so annoyed at lacking an answer that you stake such a bold claim? From whence did your belief come?”
“I know there is a God. I know God through my religion. I’ve read many books, and I go to church. There’s nothing remaining for me to ask,” answers Citizen.
“Have you thought about asking—I mean, in your prayers could you ask something like: ‘What would you like me to know, God?’ Are you open to that?”
Citizen looks quizzically at Spa, afraid of being trapped. Then he says, “I see no harm in asking that.”
“Okay. Then may I ask you another question?”
“Go ahead,” Citizen replies, feeling more confident.
“What if you ask God just what I suggested, and the answer comes back something along the lines that it would be good for you to use your great mind and senses to explore and know the world and its beliefs before you opt to grab one and stop there? Think for a moment. What if you have it wrong? Do you really want to know, or are you content to think that you know without ever really being sure. Real knowledge is possessing some information, something that you can say with an epistemological certainty: This I know!”
Citizen’s head tips slightly as though he is processing something deep within his mind.
Spa continues, “Do you know that one of the rites necessary to enter the Pythagorean brotherhood required that you appear before the entire brotherhood and state what it was that you knew with a certainty. You were first sent out into the desert to think on this, and when you had arrived at what you knew for certain, you returned. The brotherhood was assembled, and once you made your knowledge claim before them, the entire brotherhood would mock, ridicule, question, and otherwise attempt to dissuade you. If you were unable to make an adequate defense or weren’t truly convinced of your claim, it soon became obvious. Only those who could withstand this assault without disavowing their knowledge were admitted. Is your knowledge of that certain kind?”
Citizen shrugs his shoulders, gets up, and walks away.
What Do You Know?
What is it that you know with certainty? You know it through and through. It’s as real to you as your being—but not the being René Descartes doubted when he thought of himself as perhaps an item in someone’s dream. No, if we admit that notion, then is there anything we can say we know for certain?
Descartes began his musings by doubting his very existence. Suddenly an epiphany: “Cogito ergo sum,” or “I think, therefore I am.” I’ll restate that in context: “I doubt, therefore I am.”
What am I? For Descartes, I am a thinking, doubting agency; and obviously, therefore, I am a mind. This thinking spawned what we know today as mind-body dualism.
“I doubt, therefore I am” may have made perfect sense to Descartes, but this kind of doubt is forever destined to doubt. Perhaps the dreamer who imagined you wishes you to doubt your being, so doubt itself is only a circular motion in thought and not an answer. Indeed, many great philosophers have contended with Descartes’ doubt, which led to the duality of mind and body, and on more than one occasion it has been essentially set aside as ridiculous. No, what we seek is a level of knowing that we could classify as beyond a reasonable doubt.
Is your knowledge that certain, and if so, how? If not, why not? What if everything you believe is wrong? Can you even admit that possibility?
Excerpted from What If? The Challenge of Self-Realization (Hay House, March 2011)