Assuming I completely embrace Descartes’ thinking in regard to reality as strictly a matter of perception, I face an inevitable dilemma. In simple terms, I must envision a way of being and living removed from the ideological foundations upon which I have always relied. The acceptance, however, demands the altered outlook and approach, so I am obligated to consider this as a new reality unto itself. Nothing revealed by my senses can be trusted to be real, given the inherently untrustworthy nature of so much that has been determined to be real. I proceed to live on, then, with this radically altered idea of the world and of myself.
The first thing to strike me as different, and enormously so, is how absolved from former burdens and responsibilities I now am. The human life runs along paths that are built of accepted realities, actions, and consequences, and the life of the one is usually in accord with the lives of the many because the landscape is shared. Put another way, when more people believe in a thing, the thing attains a heightened status as real, so a cycle is enabled wherein common reality is validated by common acceptance of it. Within this framework, then, arise expectations. It is generally believed that we have duties to and for ourselves, and to and for those around us, intimately connected and otherwise. As I no longer have faith in this framework, or as I no longer believe it to possess the validity of reality, I am utterly unconstrained. There is no ideology, culture, custom, or aspect of thinking I must attend to because these things are themselves the results of, at best, dubious processes. On a pragmatic level, and as an example, there is no reason for me to pursue a future for myself because I can not know that my own existence is true.
Similarly, as so much of my behavior has been based on conforming to ethics belonging to the world, and as I now know that these are not to be trusted, there is no need for me to behave in any particular way at all. This is not an embracing of immorality, by any means; rather, it translates to finding my way through an existence in which good and evil are abstract concepts only. I can then only assume that my behavior will be, in terms the world employs, self-interested only. What the world will fail to take into account here is that my behavior will be, in a sense, wholly innocent in the truest sense of the word. Since I can no longer rely on the linear paths rendered by acceptances of reality, whatever motivates me, even as likely only directed by the immediate needs of my sense, must be apart from projections of good, evil, desire, and even altruism. In taking this road, in other words, I take a direction in which I may only address what is immediately and directly before me. Even this, of course, is suspect, but I remain bound to the self – or whatever I am – that can access experience as a human being.
With regard to how I interact with others in my life and in society, however, I feel an obligation of a kind. It is one thing for me to adhere to a life of radical doubt; it is quite another to ignore how at variance this is with the ways of the world. Certainly, my doubt extends to that world, so it would seem that I am under no obligation here to regard anything whatsoever outside of myself as real, and thus deserving of regard or respect. However, and as noted, I must now be guided only by the sensory input before me at any given time, and this extends to the circumstances and the others around me. Put another way, if I am certain that we are all within a dream, I must ask myself: have I the right to interfere with those with me in this dream, since I cannot know who is actually being dreamed by whom? I do not. I think I must accept that, as the minimal trust I can give to my senses affirms, “other” human beings are in play here and I cannot interfere with their lives or perceptions. On the contrary, to do so would be to aver reality all the more and, in confronting or challenging others, I then resume my old way of moving along proscribed channels. Changing one false reality for another does not create reality, and I am better advised to maintain authority only over that which I can barely attend to myself: my self. I therefore create no argument with others because I refuse to acknowledge the rift between us. In a very real sense, I dare not.
As to how this new and radical doubt, which is something more than doubt, will affect my life, I anticipate being drawn into levels of introspection frightening to consider. I have, after all, committed to the idea of all reality as illusory; consequently, as I feel, see, and think, I must be constantly in a state of wonder, or even investigation. Real or otherwise, something is occurring that I experience on some level, always. Just what the self is experiencing this, then, must become the foremost concern. To doubt to this degree is absolute existentialism, and the core of all existentialist thinking must be the determining – and elusive – self. I foresee a life focused on exploration of this self in regard to seeking some kind of authenticity, and I anticipate this no matter how diligently I attempt to see myself as a dream. Plainly, whatever I am creates evidence of a kind validating existence of a kind. If I am a dream, I will wish to know this, as I will gather the evidence in the same way to support that I am not a dream. Ironically, this pursuit, vulnerability, links me to the profound concerns of St. Augustine. In the Confessions, his sense of self is fragile, and consequently eager to free itself from existential doubt through the power of faith (Barrett 95). I do not believe that I will turn to faith, no matter how insistent the existential dilemma becomes, because I will too strongly suspect that motives within my being, dream or real, are seeking to enable a platform of reality.
Ultimately, then, in accepting a life based on radical doubt, I understand that I am stripped of many and immense constructions that form the foundations for living for most people. My way is then largely unclear, while simultaneously focused; I can attend to immediate needs because the senses conveying them have urgency and are as near to trustworthy as I may know, but I lose any direction or path. Equally importantly, living with a mind that discounts all reality, I will likely become introspective in ways I cannot yet imagine. Again, when there is any questioning of reality at all, it is the self that must be the final arbiter. With the self called into question, then, there is nowhere to go beyond the self.
- Barrett, W. Irrational Man: A Study in Existential Philosophy. New York: Random House, 2011. Print.