Tuesday, September 25

Cogito ergo sum

Meditation II: On the Nature of the Human Mind is part of Meditations on First Philosophy, a philosophical treatise by René Descartes published in 1641. I read this short text a few days ago because I am participating in a philosophy course about the subject of consciousness. After reading some extensive and, to my humble eye, rather vague discussions regarding Vedic philosophies of Hinduism - not my piece of cake - I was struck by the clarity of Descartes' writing. Some excerpts.

"I suppose, accordingly, that all the things which I see are false (fictitious); I believe that none of those objects which my fallacious memory represents ever existed; I suppose that I possess no senses; I believe that body, figure, extension, motion, and place are merely fictions of my mind. What is there, then, that can be esteemed true ? Perhaps this only, that there is absolutely nothing certain."

"But [as to myself, what can I now say that I am], since I suppose there exists an extremely powerful, and, if I may so speak, malignant being, whose whole endeavors are directed toward deceiving me ? Can I affirm that I possess any one of all those attributes of which I have lately spoken as belonging to the nature of body ? After attentively considering them in my own mind, I find none of them that can properly be said to belong to myself. To recount them were idle and tedious. Let us pass, then, to the attributes of the soul. The first mentioned were the powers of nutrition and walking; but, if it be true that I have no body, it is true likewise that I am capable neither of walking nor of being nourished. Perception is another attribute of the soul; but perception too is impossible without the body; besides, I have frequently, during sleep, believed that I perceived objects which I afterward observed I did not in reality perceive. Thinking is another attribute of the soul; and here I discover what properly belongs to myself. This alone is inseparable from me. I am--I exist: this is certain; but how often? As often as I think; for perhaps it would even happen, if I should wholly cease to think, that I should at the same time altogether cease to be. I now admit nothing that is not necessarily true. I am therefore, precisely speaking, only a thinking thing, that is, a mind (mens sive animus), understanding, or reason, terms whose signification was before unknown to me. I am, however, a real thing, and really existent; but what thing? The answer was, a thinking thing."

And the Wachowski brothers were inspired. Strikingly, at one point Descartes even writes, "and yet what do I see from the window beyond hats and cloaks that might cover artificial machines, whose motions might be determined by springs?" And indeed, what do we see? What do we really know? The question and its answer are simple and clear, but nevertheless 'greatly disconcerting' - or at least, that is how the great philosopher felt.

Read the whole Meditation here.

Saturday, September 22

A common identity

I fell in love with the sweet sensation
I gave my heart to a simple chord
I gave my soul to a new religion
Whatever happened to you?
- "Whatever Happened to My Rock 'n Roll?", Black Rebel Motorcycle Club

For centuries, the identity developed by adolescents was solely influenced by their families and the communities they lived in. Their values - their entire life - was shaped by their family's class, religion and age-old culture. Children were tought to be like their parents. It was really not that long ago that young people started to share their beliefs and ideals with other young people. Social movements became the new ideologies and defined new cultures. Flower power, Generation X. You name them.

Let's take a look at Western society today. How can we define the current youth culture? When I discussed this subject with some fellow students, somebody suggested that we would only be able to say afterwards - because we do not have any references for comparison. But on the other hand, other generations do. Our philosophy teacher grew up in the sixties and was happy to give her opinion. She says (and I agree with her) that she doesn't recognize any common identity in today's young people. This in contrast to the time when she was our age.

If there was one common characteristic I had to attribute to 'my generation', it would be individualism. Its not just that we're all very much concerned with ourselves (as are most people), we also search for answers by ourselves. We construct our own ideologies, values and religions, combining whatever fits us best. At the same time, there does seem to be a desire to share our identity with others, to be part of a group. But apparently this desire is not strong enough to produce more than small-scale, temporary hypes. Don't get me wrong, I wouldn't go as far as to say identity has become subject to fashion. If Buddhism or youth churches gain popularity, the idea obviously reaches more people, who might 'try it out'. But how often do we find what we're looking for, and stick to it?

Most of us - not just young people, but a very large group of people of all ages today - will probably never completely call off the search. We have become seekers. Maybe that's the defining common factor. We are free to choose, but can't seem to find the right choice. We are all essentially looking for the same thing, but our search is nevertheless a lonely one.

"Do you think the time of massive social movements will ever come back?", one of her students asks. She shakes her head and smiles. "No", she says. "It'll never be like the sixties again."

Wednesday, September 5

A tree and a human mind

Ever since man learned to see more than his eyes perceived, he has given sacred meanings to natural phenomena. This tree in the Tsavo National Park in Kenya - the so-called Tree of Life - is a beautiful example. In a forest of a thousand trees, none seems particularly significant. But one solitary tree surviving on a dry African plain becomes a symbol. Of persistence and strength, of merciful shade in the midst of a sundrenched world, and any other meaning you may wish to give it. The symbolism is not so much about the tree as it is about the human mind. I see a tree, but I can also see a connection between earth and sky, between being firmly rooted and reaching for the heavens at the same time. I can see an organism that is part of something bigger, of a whole ecosystem. It breathes out what we breathe in. Something as complex and inspiring as it is common. A place to sit for the birds.