In search of truth - Eerik Wissenz

I recall one of my earliest puzzlements when I was a child would strike my soul with such force that all my ideas would fall away to specs on the horizons of consciousness, so unfit were they to offer any kind of advice as to how to deal with the question that for whatever reason had never occurred to me before. There I would sit on an ocean of doubt wondering why I was I and not someone else at some other time.

This was so unfamiliar a sort of question, and so inapplicable was my previous experience with questions that I had no tools or methods with which to start trying to make sense of this strange inquiry. It is often the case that even if you do not know how to precede you may at least have something to try in the mean time, and so in such a way keep yourself occupied while coming to understand a bit about the nature of the problem by finding a series of things that don’t work. Unfortunately, in this case my experience had nothing to offer, and this makes a certain amount of sense, for my experience was my experience and never had experienced being something else. So, without any ideas to work with, I could not lose myself in contemplation without worry as to the extent of the task, diligently toiling away, content when any advancement is made, no matter how small. My thinking would stop, my mind would cease, and I would gaze out into the universe in a silence. Without any point to focus my attention on I could only float through the infinite vastness of my ignorance. It seemed I was forever trapped in this prison of distance, were the only ideas I could know were but vague wisps of fog above the river of things.

Can not once I reach out and bring this water to my lips? It seemed completely unfair. However, after some time this question of why I wasn’t someone else, gave way to the question of what was I to begin with, altogether a much simpler and agreeable question. Regardless of how I came to be, I was something after all. I found two approaches. I was what I perceived, I thought, and I willed - but only was I this to myself. To everyone else I am how they happen to be affected by me. If I am to define my nature precisely to someone else, it would seem the only way they could be sure to make sense of it would be if I described what I would do. Since I didn’t see how to go about defining the nature of myself under the first method, I concentrated on the second. This second approach may not define me completely I admitted, but it would certainly be a start.

To give a complete description I would have to recount what I would do in every single situation, as I could see no lines I could draw. If it was necessary to give an account of one situation, I saw no reason to ignore the next slightly less probable situation, and the slightly less probable situation after that; since I saw no contradiction in attempting to decide what I would do in every situation, I attempted to do so. Whether I could or not, I reasoned I would find out. With this in mind, if ever I came across a circumstance, here, there, or only in the maze of my imagination, that I did not know what I would do within, I would think about it, sometimes for years, until I was satisfied I had good reasons to do what I decided - though this was usually not a specific thing but rather a group of things I may do, or more precisely a group of conditions which an infinite amount of specific actions could satisfy. For though I had no overall system, I certainly thought there was certain things I should do some of the time, and certain things I should try to avoid some of the time. However, though many things I was almost certain I would do, and other things I was almost certain would be worth doing, why exactly these seemed so convincing I didn’t quite know, and so not altogether convinced of my decisions, but I plodded on in my pursuit to cover every possible circumstance.

As an extension of this I also wondered what if anything society should look like. For many if not all decisions, which I actually had to make or simply hypothetical, I found to one extreme or another to be dependent on some idea of what society should be. Indeed, even if I was trapped on an island I would still form a society of sorts. For instance, though I may not know the meaning of life, killing everyone I saw certainly didn’t seem to have any sense, so even just on the strength of this I could decide that I wouldn’t try to kill everyone I saw. In so doing I was proposing that society shouldn’t be a group of people continuously trying to kill each other.

However, though certain things seemed obviously agreeable - like a minimum of torturous suffering and reckless murdering¾a simple absence of these or other unpleasant things did not seem to be an answer to the meaning of life.

For every system I encountered or invented I would say to myself: let’s imagine that society actually did what was proposed here, what then? My mind would slowly turn, but I always came to the same problem, which was that at some point the story ends. I would without fail conclude with being among some unobtrusive people in some unobtrusive architecture, with nothing really to do. Isn’t anything that stays the same become boring? Aren’t goals meant to be achieved, and so once achieved there is nothing to do? Can’t all action be thought of as pursuing a goal?

One way out was to include the goal of always having a goal, but this seemed as equally pointless as having no goal at all. I certainly considered myself to be motivated to reduce or prevent torturous suffering and reckless murdering, but I could not in the end see the motivation for continuing society in any state I could imagine. All these ethical and political theories, if their principles were realized, seemed to propose a sort of purposeless group of people just mulling around.

All this also coincided with my realization that my life was completely devoid of any meaning. I would want something for a few days, and try to get it. If it came, I’d be happy, and if it didn’t I’d be sad, but in the end I always returned to wanting something for a few days. Once I became aware of the pattern clearly, I started questioning these previously unquestioned ambitions. I would sit down and say to myself: let’s imagine that I actually got what I want. Sure, it would be great for a short time, but what then? Perhaps I could imagine wanting something else: well, what if I got that too? And the next. What if I continued this exercise indefinitely? I could never imagine ever coming to some arrangement of things which I would be content with, no matter how hard or fantastically I tried. This very much disturbed me. Would I even be bored in paradise, where such a story of ambitions could be continued forever?

I wasn’t satisfied with simply defining paradise as that place you are always happy and content. Simply because we can attach conditions to terms we invent does not mean those conditions can actually be met. If true goodness existed it had to at least be conceivable. But I could not imagine such a thing, no matter how extraordinary, and this troubled me.

So I thought about these things almost all the time. Thoughts that were always there, poured over the entire mind. Almost everything that happened, every problem I met with, whether in math, physics, literature, chess, society, hockey, rugby or something else entirely had something in it that tied itself into my larger thought. Ever so slowly they’d grow and grow, and each piece of knowledge slowly connected with everything other piece of knowledge, and even these large thoughts would slowly connect with each other. Soon everything was either a proof of the thousands upon thousands of arguments that made up my pondering, or a consequence of them. Everything that happened, everything that was said, my mind would see further and further the things connected to it, the things behind it, the things that could be and the things that most likely wouldn’t. The things that made sense made more sense, and the things that did not make sense, the errors in them became clearer.

Thus went my effort day in and day out no matter what I did, no matter what I do. Sometimes toiling away at a very specific analysis, sometimes sitting in contemplation of the whole, sometimes letting loose the imagination, and sometimes thinking what I can while occupied with more uninteresting tasks. But this is not to say certain activities did not advanced my thinking further than others. I didn’t know if there was anything that was completely devoid of boringness, but I was convinced certain things were full of it.

I became especially critical of the education system in which I seemed to be trapped. For the more one understands, the more one comes to know efficient ways of understanding. My goal was to learn. At first I thought this would be an advantage in school, but I discovered the case to be quite the contrary. I had developed some general rules about learning that I liked to follow and that the school system did not. Since this was a house of reason I reasoned it was up to the school system to prove that their method was superior or at the very least that my method was not. However, all this rested on the idea that school was actually about learning. So they decided, in their ostentatious haughtiness, that if they simply didn’t grant me this premise, my argument wouldn’t function. A clever pan, there can be no doubt, but they forgot one thing: this was a completely absurd way to run an education system. I was fairly certain of this, and so I set out to prove it.

However, no matter how many contradictions I could point out, no matter how many of the real situations I could recount, that were clearly bad and clearly a result of the contradictions I previously pointed out, I was always met after brushing aside a series of quibbles with one rebuttal: “Do you have a better idea!” Now, I knew this was an invalid argument. Even if I don’t have a solution, it doesn’t mean a problem is somehow less of a problem. Furthermore, if it is really a problem (and they were certainly welcome to show that it wasn’t, if they could) is it really reasonable that the entire burden of finding a solution fall on my shoulders. If something really is a problem isn’t the first step in the solution making as many people aware of it, and some social effort started concerning it (some problems can be fairly complex after all), not demanding that the people that point out the problem and try to describe the exact nature of the problem find a solution or quit talking about it? However, I couldn’t convince them of this, and so decided to meet their unreasonable criteria, just to show’em.

My idea at first was simply that if we try to understand and correct contradictions and inefficiencies when we find them, bit by bit the system will become better. However, this wasn’t a very popular idea, for people have an uncanny ability to imagine that any change would bring about either cataclysmic catastrophe or produce just as bad things somewhere else and so not actually be any better - they have an even cannier ability to claim these points are indisputable. So I’d start talking about the different factors at play, and small things we could do, problems we might encounter, approaches we could take, and maybe big things that we could start considering and discussing. But there was already a ready reply: “That would never work!”

It was really a beautiful argument: the contradictions could only be resolved by doing something really drastic, but clearly nothing drastic ever works. Despite this fortress of logic I would struggled against all sound strategic advice to advance my ideas, no matter how futile it seemed. Again and again I would have the same discussion and end up with the same defeat. I soon discovered that if my idea was in any way complex - as in took more than a minute to say¾it satisfied the condition of being too radical to possibly function, and if I tried to explain that it really wasn’t all that radical this just made matters longer, more complex, and altogether a whole lot worse for my point.

After many tries I discovered that if I limited myself to something so simple and obvious it can’t really be argued with, then the discussion could progress just a little bit further. For instance, eventually I had a bit of success with the fact that I read through the entire education related legislation of our province and no where in it did it say education was about learning things. Isn’t this a bit odd? I would ask. Shouldn’t we at least say that the point of school is learning things? It couldn’t hurt could it? - Well … I suppose not … but it wouldn’t matter anyways.

So this was some advancement but a similar problem ensued. Anything that was so simple couldn’t possibly have any real affect and so there’s no point in making the improvement to begin with. I ran into this argument everywhere, with essentially everything. In general, it’s abnormal to consider there’s a problem with normal, so since it’s normal to be normal you can only ever make normal improvements if any improvement at all. There can’t possibly be a problem with the normal system, or else why would everyone in the world think that way?

I became quite frustrated with this, because it seemed quite obvious to me that the world isn’t a good place¾a lot of people don’t have access to even the basic requirements to live, there are wars, famines, genocide, torture, indifference and it doesn’t seem to be getting any better. Clearly this is a result of what most people tend to do, what is normal. If it’s crazy to destroy the world, then it’s complete insanity to be normal, and so the only sanity is craziness. But who ever started this movement new what they were doing. If you’re normal it’s abnormal to even consider normal is crazy. So if normal is actually crazy, then if your normal you can’t possibly become uncrazy, and being crazy and not being able to become uncrazy really is crazy. So the only way to possibly ever be sure that you’re sane is to be crazy to begin with. So even if my crazy plans were crazy, which was clearly false, craziness is what we’re looking for, so you couldn’t possibly dismiss such things in any case.

I could make small advancements but my discussions would always end with an angry, “Well what’s your better idea - few seconds of response - Ha! that is so extreme and ridiculous I can’t believe you would ever think that - few seconds of asking for a reason - This is so idiotic I don’t eve want to talk about it - …bu… - I said it’s a waste of my time and I don’t want to talk about it!”

This continued on for a bit until I was drafted into the Finnish military. I had lived in Canada my whole life, and I didn’t speak Finnish, so I didn’t have many responsibilities since I couldn’t make any decisions not being able to communicate them, didn’t have that much opportunity to talk, couldn’t really understand much less criticize the system I was in, so didn’t have much to think about, nor could I use my intellectual and oratory abilities to improve my situation in any way, which usually occupies at least some of my mind. In general I never had a clue what was going on, and so, usually unable to prepare myself for the near future, I spent most of my time waiting for things to happen, in order to follow what people seemed to be doing in a refined sort of panic. Having rarely something relevant to my situation to think about between these dense packages of panic, as picking out any clues about the future in the indecipherable Finnish language was quite out of the question, in a couple of months I basically thought through everything I could possibly think through - my whole life, what math or physics I knew, what philosophy I knew, the people I knew, the mistakes I have made, my weaknesses, my strengths, were I was going, were I had gone etc. - and having no energy or time to read anything new, I soon had nothing to think of except those things I could think up myself. I thought about everything I had been thinking about, all the problems in society, all the difficulties I had discussing things with anybody, and one day I was on leave and I sat down with nothing and said, “All right, what really is reasonable? If I can’t find an answer I can’t be reasonable can I, and so would have to be crazy all along, even if it was sane.”

So I sat down and I thought, and I stared at what I hadn’t written and it didn’t seem do be anything¾I had to admit that I hadn’t made much progress in my eighteen years of so called life. Where to begin? What was reasonable? Certainly it would be completely unreasonable if there wasn’t an answer. Now that would be crazy, I was almost sure of it.

After a while I got passed the initial blankness and started to consider. Clearly I was writing some sort of philosophy. So starting with what philosophy actually is, is at least a start. I wasn’t sure of much, but I was sure of that. What is philosophy was one of the first philosophical problems I ever plied my mind against, so I figured I had a head start. When I first started studying philosophy I found it completely preposterous that philosophers couldn’t even agree as to what philosophy was. This just wouldn’t do I said. So I decided to solve the problem. It certainly couldn’t be a specific philosophy or way of looking at the world, otherwise there’d be a philosopher that disagrees, and that would do even less. Philosophers were famous for the skill of having nothing in common, so what did they all have in common that we call them all philosophers?

Many years ago I concluded that no matter what a philosopher thinks, they’re all trying to provoke thoughts in others, communicate ideas if you will. Couldn’t do philosophy without communicating ideas, so philosophy couldn’t be anything else, I reasoned. Now the weaknesses in this is that the latter didn’t imply the former, as every attempt to communicate was an attempt to communicate some sort of idea, even if it’s just ‘look at me, I’m screaming in a completely random way.’ Philosophy is the attempt to communicate philosophical ideas, and this is a very different thing. At the time I tried to add a whole bunch of conditions to narrow the field - such as: philosophy is, among other things, the communication of ideas that one actually has, and not the communication of the idea that one has no idea¾but this strategy always leads to never being able to narrow it precisely, like trying to define a tree as not a dog, not a cat, not a moon, not a spoon - you can just keep going and never get there.

Some had proposed the idea that everything was philosophy, but then why have the term at all? Now everything could be philosophy, but that would mean everybody’s a philosopher. Now everybody could be a philosopher, but you’d never get a philosopher to admit it. So this sort of line won’t do at all.

This time around I decided I’d really solve the problem. There must be something that narrows a thing, which could be anything, down to philosophy, which is something in particular. So I thought and I thought about every philosopher I’d ever come across and I tried to come up with a definition they’d all be satisfied with.

The only solution I found was the search for truth. Whatever disagreement two philosophers might have, they were both at least searching for whether what the other says is true¾and, if they are wise, what they say as well¾even if they are quite certain it’s not. You really couldn’t do philosophy without searching for the truth of things, at least from time to time. And it really didn’t seem to be the case that every conversation people wouldn’t call philosophical was a search for the truth of something.

Now, if philosophy was reasonable, and philosophy included searching for the some of the truth of things, it seemed that the answer to what was reasonable, at least includes some searching for truth - that is, if what was reasonable was anything at all. Indeed, without searching for the truth of things from time to time you can’t even know anything¾where your trousers are, where the water is, what your hand does - you couldn’t even function without some searching for truth. So searching for some truth seemed to be clearly at least part of my answer.

So the next question was, how much truth exactly is it reasonable to search for, and what should I do the rest of the time? But before trying to figure this out I decided to solidify the little progress I had made, make sure I had actually made it. I was at the time in the habit of proving even obvious things, as it is quite pointless to continue an argument if there is any doubt in any of the steps taken, and people tended to doubt most if not all of my steps¾not to mention that even seemingly obvious principles can have very tricky boundaries of where they are and are not valid, and so by proving their validity one consequently proves where they are valid, unless one is writing backwards of course. In that case everything is reversed.

So after some thought I concluded that if anything else was proposed as what one should do apart from search for truth, this would clearly depend on whether it was true or not. So, if it actually was true, the only way to come to know it would be to search for the truth of the matter. So even if there were other things worth doing apart from a search for truth, those things would only be part of the search for some truth, not actually something else¾as finding can also be a part of searching without this being a contradiction, quite the opposite in fact. So it seemed that the only reasonable thing, could be and only be the search for some truth.

Or, put another way, let us imagine an interlocutor, no matter how clever, proposes ‘The’ or ‘their’ purpose of existence as anything other than the search for some truth - be it success, the fulfillment of wants, enjoyment, happiness or at least believing one is happy, or anything at all - Is this the truth of the matter? I would ask.

If they answer yes, then clearly they’re not disputing searching for truth as the fundamental purpose, they’re simply claiming they have already found it. A claim we would have to verify. If there is a way to verify it without first searching for exactly what it is, and then whether or not it is true, I haven’t heard about it.

If they answer no, then I would - after brief but certain puzzlement - ask how exactly do they know there is not some superior purpose in existence for existence? If they venture an answer then clearly they should have answered yes to the original question, which we have already dealt with. If they don’t answer then I would ask why they think I should accept their idea if they themselves don’t even know it is true?

If they answer that they do not know, then I would suggest they try to find out, and everybody knows that trying to find out is the same as searching … everyone I know anyway.

So they are either suggesting that you search for the truth of the matter, which we are already in agreement with, or what they say really is true, and you really should do it, in which case there can’t be a problem; if it really is the truth, well that’s exactly what we’re looking for. It would be a strange sort of occurrence if voyagers where confused by actually getting to where they are trying to go. Thus, any attack on the philosophy just supports it, and so if one shouldn’t do anything else, one should do it.

So, one should search for some truth. Now I must confess that at first I felt very strange about all this. I had just established an ethics (an idea of what I should do) which was, when I thought about it, extremely strict, since I could search for some truth in every single situation, yet it wasn’t like any other ethic I had ever come across. Most ethics I was familiar with were either fine principles that couldn’t in the end resolve matters exactly, a list of what one should or should not do, or too vague to have any meaning. Either way, these ethical systems usually had specific things they justified or attempted to justify, whether in the theory itself, or in the mind of the person proposing it. Or in other words, an idea of what life would look like, a group of life styles, for lack of a better word, generally came to mind when one thought about life under the ethical system in question, even the ones that didn’t really mean anything.

I had just began operating under an ethical system, according to a rule I could follow every moment of my existence, and yet what this actually meant in terms of what I would do and how I would live was completely unclear. This was very strange, and at first I felt quite awkward, but after thinking for a few days I concluded that certain actions would lead to understanding more truth than others, if there was any truth at all. If I knew any truth at all I could certainly imagine never having learnt it, and if there wasn’t any truth, well I could never come to know it¾indeed, if there wasn’t any truth I couldn’t actually be wrong about anything anyway. Fortunately though, certain things were true and I was pretty sure I knew some of it. Something exists after all, and I couldn’t be convinced otherwise, for as long as I be in any case.

But … how do I search for truth? What truths should I search for? I could go out and count every blade of grass on the lawn and come to understand many things about counting things and blades of grass, but was this really what my new life style suggested? I thought about all the seemingly absurd searches for some truth I could undertake, as everything you can do leads to some truth - at the very least the truth about what it is like to do it. But not everything you can do seems reasonable. If everything was reasonable according to my definition, I certainly hadn’t gotten far¾indeed, not having this principle would be reasonable as well. But what could be made of this? Was my principle somehow unsound? Could searching for truth lead to completely absurd things? Or was my concept of absurdity, what was actually absurd. I thought this over for some time, and eventually asked myself why these seemingly absurd things were absurd, and I concluded that it was because they generally lead to an early death. If I did nothing but count grass I’d soon die. Now my principle wasn’t “avoid death if you can” it was “search for some truth”, however, I couldn’t search for anything if I was dead. Or more precisely, I couldn’t search for some truth if I ceased to exist. So, it seemed I needed to continue to exist to search for some truth, and I needed various truths to continue to exist.

This solved my problem of not being able to decide which truths to search for. I should at least search for the truths that will allow me to search for other truths whatever they may be. Now this was very characteristic of my thinking. So if in my search I found that it is true that I needed to do something to search for other truths effectively, then I should do it.

It also seemed wise to me that it was more efficient to search for truth in collaboration other people that were also sufficiently searching for some truth to some degree or another. Basically if someone doesn’t impede me from searching for truth and continuing my existence, and is searching for more than no truth, then it is possible to cooperate (some could be just, were the door is, what the time is, etc). For cooperation actually to occur between myself and someone so inclined, fortune must first put us into conscious interaction with each other, then we must ultimately have an sufficient agreement on how to proceed.

Now the first two principles form the foundation of the ethics, the third is derived from the carrying out of the first two. However, even if everyone on earth agreed with these principles (and agreed on the strategy and science as to how to carry them out), conflict could still arise.

Eerik Wissenz
July 2007