Saturday, February 12, 2011

That Initial Impulse

A common focus among my posts on this blog is that of the need for a ground (or substrate), broadly construed, upon which other concepts or items may be "built". Indeed, the name of this blog itself indicates as much; part of its meaning comes from a statement of Wittgenstein's in On Certainty: "Doubt rests upon that which is beyond doubt."

In epistemology, we want a fundamental, solid basis for knowledge: the indubitable, or the undoubtable. Analogously, in metaphysics, we have the need for something that sit in the spot of "prime mover": an uncaused cause (causa sui), the First Cause, God. In ethics, we need to know what can possibly justify objective moral imperatives when every value judgment is, apparently, subjective. (To refer to this notion of a "first thing" in general, I will use the general term "ultimate ground".)

In a digression, I note that these problems are not what typically occupy philosophers as professionals. I don't mean that the whole of each field in philosophy drives only toward finding an ultimate ground. Rather, while a philosopher's personal sense of ultimate grounds or justifications may be upset when she first begins studying skepticism and/or thinking critically about her own experience, usually this problem is eventually settled or ignored in favor of "higher level" concerns later on. There may be good reason for that: once you cover the basics, is there a lot else to say? And there is certainly no shortage of richer philosophical veins to mine elsewhere, once you accept something as given, like, "We do have knowledge of some sort, even if it is not and cannot be 'perfect'", or "Ethical systems can be evaluated in some kind of objective way", etc. Yes, maybe the skeptics are right that nothing meets their impeccably high standards, but that doesn't suddenly render thought, learning, and acting useless.

My main point--which may end up taking less time to say than the above digression--is that there is an analogous apparent absence within our psyches with respect to personal agency. At least, within my psyche: perhaps the rest of you are different. Anyhow, when I introspect, I notice a distinction between mental activity that feels constitutive of me as an individual person, and that which seems more incidental (or "accidental", if you like). For example, the thoughts I hold now, the ones inspiring these very words, fit the former category. The sensations from external (and some internal) stimuli that I experience at every moment fit the latter category, e.g., my experience of a glowing screen upon which words appear.

Now, the thing that strikes me as highly peculiar is the palpable lack of an ultimate ground in all of this. For incidental experiences, that makes sense: most or all of them originate from outside of me, so I can safely presume that any such ground lies "out there" as well. But when it comes to constitutive (we might also say integral) mental activity, I have a very strong sense of personal agency and thus responsibility; that is to say, I subjectively feel like "I" am the origin of such things. When I make a decision, any kind of conscious decision, I feel like I am a mini prime mover (c.f. Chisholm on free will and unmoved movers). But, in fact, under scrutiny, I can find no ultimate ground within me for decision nor motivation. Even though I feel in control of myself, even though I feel that I am the "first" in a chain of causality or what-have-you, closer inspection reveals no such basis within me.

And that strikes me as unusual.

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