Where do we start when we look for the most basic unit of knowledge?
Well, Descartes’ famous maxim was “I think, therefore I am” but I believe there’s a better starting point. Namely:
“I perceive, therefore I am.”
Perception does not necessarily require thought, and therefore is a more basic starting point.
So what does it mean to say “I perceive”? First, we note the subject is “I.” This is critical, because this limits the scope of the argument. “I”, as the subject, have direct knowledge of perception, so this is not saying you perceive nor does it say I can perceive what you can perceive. So this is very limited in scope, but it is essential.
Secondly, what is it to perceive? We might say that it is using our senses to take in sensory data. But this is not an accurate definition to begin with, for there is no way for us to know yet whether or not what we perceive is valid or real. It is, after all, possible that the entire external world that I perceive is a hallucination, albeit a very convincing one. Thus, the existence of perception does not actually prove that we have senses nor that the sensory information we perceive is valid.
Nevertheless, the simple fact of perception requires that there be something to perceive such a perception; in this case, the subject “I.” And this leads us to the same place Descartes started from—proof of some kind of existence. For it is the case that if I exist in order to perceive something (and I have direct access to this knowledge since I am the subject and I do, in fact, perceive) then something exists. We do not yet know what my attributes are, other than that I have some kind of existence. It is possible that I exist immaterially, as a spirit who is deluded into thinking the physical world is real. It may even be possible that I exist as a self-aware thought in the mind of some higher being, such as God. Or it could be that I exist exactly as I perceive myself to exist—as a physical being with an immaterial mind.
None of those things can, as of yet, be proven. But for the sake of understanding the most basic unit of knowledge, my direct experience of my own perceptions proves beyond the shadow of a doubt that something does in fact exist. And because something does exist, by the brute fact that what exists cannot not exist, we have established two logical truths as being necessary:
1. Identity. A is A. That is, whatever exists, exists. We can go further and say that while we do not know what attributes to apply to me, we do know that whatever attributes are a part of my existence do, are in fact attributes of my existence. If I have an attribute X, then it is the case that I have the attribute X.
And this brings us immediately the corollary
2. The law of non-contradiction. A is not ~A. That is, whatever attributes I do not have are, in fact, attributes I do not have. I cannot both have and not have the same attribute at the same time and in the same relationship.
So we see very quickly that the two foundational laws of logic are established simply by virtue of the fact that I exist in order to perceive something. And if these two attributes of logic exist, then we can begin to probe logic itself to see what it is that logic must require in order for logic to be valid.
As we’ve seen, logic is established by existence. In this case, the only thing I know exists (at this point) is myself. And as you read this, the only thing you’ll know exists is yourself. We cannot prove to the other person that we exist, for we do not have direct access to others’ perceptions.
But we can still learn important information. If we are to assert that logic is a meaningful tool to probe the rest of reality, then we know that logic must be grounded in something. If it is grounded in existence, then logic is only valid insofar as existence “exists” (for lack of a better word). Now, existence itself cannot exist; rather, objects have the property of “existing.” So to say that existence “exists” is really to say that there must be some kind of existing object. And, as I’ve stated, if that is the grounding for logic, then the scope of logic is identical to the scope of the existing object.
If, therefore, we are to say that logic is universal, then we must stipulate that there is a universal existence. That universal existence must transcend all other existing objects, and indeed must be the basis for which other existing objects have their existence. There must be something that is transcendent, such that if you and I both exist as separate objects then we both have the same rules of logic we must obey. If that assumption is true, then logic is grounded in an existence that is bigger than either of us individually. We must seek the transcendent.
This path also seems reasonable when we consider that our own existence, which we know is real for we have perceptions, must either be a self-existence or a derived existence. That is, whatever it is that makes me exist must be either something that exists with the essence of being within itself (hence, self-existent) or else whatever makes me exist must come from some other more foundational form of existence. Yet it is clear that if there is a more foundational form of existence, then either that foundational form is self-existent, or else derived from another even more foundational form of existence. Yet the cycle cannot be infinite, for that would cause an infinite regress fallacy, which would violate the very standards of logic we are trying to establish. Therefore, my existence proves something must be self-existent. And that something must be either myself, or something more foundational than myself; and if it is more foundational then myself, then it is transcendent once again.
So we see that either I am the sum of all existence, or else there is existence that transcends me. What else can we demonstrate?
Well, obviously the issue of time comes to mind. And this can present some real conundrums. For instance, when it comes to being there are two different classical strains of thought: Whatever is, is; and whatever is, is becoming. The first sense gives us a static universe; the second gives us one which is never the same (yet, ironically, it becomes static in its ever changing nature—that is, if it always changes then it never doesn’t change, which means it’s always the same after all). In any case, the questions that result from this discussion are fundamentally based in a concept of time.
Time cannot be infinite, for the same reason that we cannot have an infinite number of more foundational existence. It causes a regress fallacy. If time is not infinite, then it had to have a beginning. Regardless of how we come down on the topic of “whatever is, is” and “whatever is, is becoming” it seems plain that time must exist as soon as there is physical existence.
Now time is inherently tricky to define. Ultimately, time cannot be defined except in relation to movement; yet movement is defined in relation to time. For instance, in physics we know that velocity is distance divided by time. And using math we could say that time is therefore distance divided by velocity. But that doesn’t give us a definition of time, because velocity requires time to define what velocity is! But in the end, this is the only satisfactory definition of time that we have. For instance, Einstein once quipped: “Time is that which clocks measure.” But all that essentially means is that time is defined by the rate in which one arm on a clock moves a certain distance. Thus, when one hand moves all the way around the clock face, it is said that 60 minutes have passed.
Since all definitions of time require movement, it seems most likely that “whatever is, is becoming” is the most accurate concept of being, even though paradoxically it leads to a different form of stasis (as I indicated above). This means that not only does time require existence, but also change. If something existed but never changed, there would be no time. But if time is the “space between changes” so to speak, then time cannot be eternal for if it were, there would have to be eternal change. And if there were eternal change, then we could trace it back an infinite distance. But if we traced it back an infinite distance, it would take an infinite amount of time to return to our present position. Which means if time began an infinity ago, the present would have never arisen—for we would still be an infinite number of years in the past.
On the other hand, time is also relative…and it is precisely relative in its relation to motion! Indeed, the faster an object moves, the slower time appears to go (from the perspective of someone not moving). More precisely, if only two objects exist, Adam and Mary, and they are moving away from each other, then Adam will perceive time move more slowly for Mary (for from his perspective, she is moving while he is standing still) while Mary perceives time moving more slowly for Adam (for from her perspective, he is the one moving while she is standing still). So the relative motion between objects gives us the rate of time. And yet this requires one to have a view from inside the universe, so to speak, which immediately begs the question: how fast does time go for the observer outside the universe who looks at the universe as we would look at an ant colony? If all motion is internal to the universe, then perhaps in the end “whatever is, is” becomes true after all—for if no motion escapes the universe, then from outside the universe, the universe itself is static.
So from all of that, we can come to this firm conclusion: time makes no sense.
In fact, I believe that the inconsistencies actually prove that time doesn’t exist, at least not in the way that we think it does. Therefore, the perception of time is an illusion, useful as it may be. Time is not transcendent. And therefore, in order to ground logic, we must step outside of time. The ground of logic itself must be atemporal.
Similarly, the existence that grounds logic cannot be physical existence either, for physical existence is tied up in the paradox of “whatever is, is” and “whatever is, is becoming” for the same reason that time is so fluky. Therefore, whatever grounds logic must be aphysical or, in this case: immaterial.
So by using simple logic, we’ve discovered that the grounds of logic must be transcendent, immaterial, and atemporal. These are three attributes that can only be found in divinity. Speculating further might give us more information, but in terms of identifying Who the divine is, that is something that cannot be grasped from these principals. Instead, we require Revelation from the divine.
And that is to be expected. For if we exist, and if we are not ourselves divine (as does not seem likely, although logically that has not been ruled out yet), then that means we were created. And if we were created, the very act of creation itself implies a purpose for creation. That is, there must be a reason for it. And if there is a reason for creation, then we ought to think that the One who created us may very well provide that reason to us.
Naturally, there are competing claims as to Who the divine creator is. Some say Yahweh, some Allah, some The Great Spirit. But it seems plain that atheism cannot be true. At least, not if we are to remain rational adherents to logic.
Important Note: I am not the author of this blog. This is a reposting of Peter Pike's thoughts on "The Basic First Principles of Knowledge." However, please know that this post may or may not accurately reflect his current opinion.