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The Pit of Existential Despair

Now, if you've been paying attention and haven't already figured out where I'm going with everything to the point where you are now horribly bored, you should now be intellectually poised above a Pit of Existential Despair (PED). This is deliberate.

However, there is a distinct possibility that you are instead going ``huh'' and scratching your head, when you are supposed to be dangling out there screaming at the glimpse of Philosophical Nothingness that underlies All Things. This won't do. So permit me to get out the block and tackle and tie this rope around your feet - there, comfy now? Now - mmmph - we'll just crank you up and swing you out over the PED, hold on to your loose change and try not to lose your eyeglasses, if any. There. Now look up - errr - down.

In the previous sections all the questions that you hold most dear (no matter what they are) have just had their legs kicked out from under them - if all the fundamental questions are really pseudoquestions, is it not the case that we can build little chains of sensible-sounding questions leading from any question at all to one of the biggies? It is8.1.

Ah, you begin to see the pit? Stop that whimpering! I'm not going to drop you in. In fact, the purpose of this whole work is to fill in this pit so that it is no longer lurking as a trap beneath your every step in life. But first we have to face the pit and even embrace the pit. Consider:

How can we ask whether we should have a reuben or a grilled cheese sandwich for lunch when we can't answer the pseudoquestion at the base of the whole question chain of why eat lunch in the first place (to stay alive), why stay alive (because God wants me to, because the Bible says I must, because I'm evolved to want to so that I can reproduce and pass on my genes), why did I evolve, why are there laws of physics, why is there a God? Psuedoquestions. There is basically no reason to choose between reuben, grilled cheese, or a hot shit on marble sandwich for lunch until we find a pragmatic way of dealing with this issue.

Note that a variety of smart-ass solipsictic answers work, but only if you are already living on the bottom of the PED. After all, the solipsists get to choose whether or not to continue imagining that they're reading all of these words that they were clever enough to think up in third person. They regularly manage to imagine that they are masochistic enough to cause themselves to endure the pain and suffering an uncaring (and in my humble opinion real and external) Universe inflicts upon them on the movie-screen of their senses, unless they are so incredibly fortunate that their lives are totally free from toil, moil, and angst. Surely they can imagine some way to make hot shit tasty.

The rest of us have no Good Reason for Doing Anything without first having a good reason for being, and right about there we run into trouble as reason and being in a single proposition is totally pseudo. Yet we generally do choose a sandwich, and that choice sometimes even works out well for us. We only get in trouble if we think too deeply about it and the waiter starts to fidget and look around longingly at his other tables. And of course there are days that you (metaphorically) try to choose grilled cheese but the ``cook'', so to speak, prepares grilled shit...

This is more than a bit of a shame; so much so that sensitive souls literally go mad over it. What is the suicide's standard apology? I have no reason for living. Surrounded by choice, a mentally ill person often has little to no free will8.2. Confronted by an endless parade of choices big and small we make them, badly and well, for better or worse, yet most humans never work out why they do what they do from the beginning, the nature of the answers they necessarily embrace to the most fundamental of questions that underlie all decisions, to the end - the choice of what to have for lunch today. At best their choices work if not examined too closely or deeply, lest they fall into the Pit.

We as a thinking species should be able to do better.

This is why it is important for you to clearly recognize the True Nature of the most fundamental factors that you do use as the deepest basis of all of the casual decisions you make throughout the course of the day. Ultimately, these factors are your axioms, both philosophical and socio-memetic. They cannot be proven, but that is not as we shall see, a problem, it is a blessing! Indeed, this choice is the fundamental exercise of free will!

If your philosophical axioms include a belief in God, and your cultural (memetic) axioms include the particular interpretation of Leviticus that prohibits pastrami and provolone or bread made with milk in the same bite, well, the reuben is out. If your personal axioms also include the laws of temporal continuity and causality (and hence, physics, biology, and all the rest), you might well conclude that hot shit on marble isn't likely to be either tasty or nutritious, leaving you with grilled cheese. This decision would be even more soundly based (given these same axioms) if you both have memories of enjoying toasted cheese sandwiches past and are silly enough to believe, without any possibility of rational proof, that something as ephemeral as a memory has any bearing whatsoever on the Now or an expectation of future satisfaction.

We leave it as an exercise for the reader to work out how to resolve a set of axioms that includes God, Leviticus, temporal continuity and causality into a system of reasoning and decision making that doesn't have too many internal contradictions8.3.

You may not agree, of course, but according to my axioms, the Truth Shall Make You Free. Somewhat paradoxically, this axiom is also in the published axiom set of many religions - in the Catholic Catechism, for example8.4. In particular, simply having the epiphinaic insight that axioms are ultimately both a matter of totally free choice (as in they are neither true nor self-evident in any sense of the word, and cannot even be judged for consistency or esthetics without more axioms to tell you how to do so) and that most of the axioms you do have are very probably geneto-memetic social imprinting and not something you ``chose'' at all (providing that we agree on enough axioms for us to be able to continue a discussion at that point, which will not happen if you are slamming this book shut and crying out ``Get thee behind me Satan'') might just empower you to, perhaps for the first time in your axiomatically surpressed and conditioned existence, to choose your axioms as a matter of absolute, conscious free will.

It will then be time for you to go axiom-shopping. I will, of course, offer up a set that I find particularly lovely and useful, and even moderately consistent and adequately complete (although Gödel teaches us not to take that particular combination horribly seriously as we can't get both and well may end up with neither). These axioms come with a free shave and haircut from a very sharp razor, metaphorically speaking, as we sloppily adopt as an esthetic standard (not really an axiom) a wee bit of the William of Ockham's single contribution to Western Thought. Once accepted these axioms can form the irrational basis for a reasonably rational view of the Universe, and can even provide at least some poetic meta-answers to some of the unanswerable pseudoquestions, which is the best one can ever hope for.

In the meantime, I'll have the reuben on rye, chips on the side, with a frosty cold beer. Mmmmm. Don't worry, my axioms permit it. As long as I get enough exercise, so does my wife...

next up previous contents
Next: Philosophy Up: Reason and its Limitations Previous: Fun with Logic: Contradictions   Contents
Robert G. Brown 2007-12-17