Monday, June 20, 2011

What does it mean to exist?

Today, I'd like to ponder how it is that you can read this blog. Not how you can bear to put up with my silly rants; that's the topic for another post! No, I'm talking about literally, how you can understand the "meaning" of the words on your screen.

There is, of course, a simple explanation. Humans communicate using language. Language is a series of sounds which convey a certain meaning. Written language is the symbols used to represent those sounds. Each series of sounds/symbols is a word, and these words are strung together in sentences. When both the speaker/writer and the listener/reader understand the same language, meaning is conveyed through these sentences.

In any language, the meaning of any individual word may be found in a dictionary. But ultimately, all of those definitions are circular logic, because each definition uses other words. If somebody from another planet came here, a dictionary would be of no use to them in learning our language. They would be forced to learn it just as babies do; by observing the sensual perceptions associated with certain words. The word ball, for instance, could be associated with a small, round toy, because when people use the word ball they gesture to such an object, or are playing with it or whatever. "Mama" is that nice lady who feeds you, "Dada" is that nice man who cleans your diaper, "food" is what Mama gives you on a spoon, etc. This is how we learn the meaning of words.

But what is meaning? Once we've learned to speak and write in sentences, we use some words to explain the "meaning" of other words. Whenever there is a concept we don't know how to express, we invent some new word to express it, giving it meaning. Yet this, too, is mere association. We take something we can perceive through a sense and simply assign it some letters. Let's look deeper than that. Meaning is not always observable through a sense, sometimes it's only conceivable through thought. There are some concepts that we all claim to understand, because we use the word associated with that concept in our everyday lives. But most of us would be hard pressed to articulate definition for those words. For example, try to define the below words without using it or the others in the definition. It's quite a challenge.


What does it mean "to be"? To exist? Yes, we know that Mama IS nice, the stove IS hot, the sky IS blue, water IS wet, but what IS is? We can associate words with perceptions and give them meaning based on what our senses can observe, but it's much more difficult to give meaning to meaning.

Several hundred years ago, a quiet, introverted, and very smart Frenchman named Rene Descartes was troubled by these thoughts. He decided that since everything he thought he knew was based on the meaning of other things he thought he knew, he would scrap everything and start over. He began with a simple statement which is truly the foundation for all human knowledge. In 1637, he wrote the following in his book "Discourse on Method":

Je pense donc je suis.

Hey, I told you he was French! But  since you probably don't speak French, I will translate. In Latin, as it is most commonly referred to around the world, it translates to "Cogito ergo sum". And in English, it means "I think, therefore I am.

The implications of that logical deduction cannot be overstated. The closest we humans can come to articulating the meaning of existence is to express that we ourselves think, and so therefore we must exist. That is as far back as it goes. There is no other way to confirm our existence, let alone explain what existing means. If you were to trace every thought, every logical chain of our society back as far as it could go, it could all be traced to that assertion. It's essentially the foundation of all human knowledge in one sentence. How powerful! And how intriguing, that our whole lives are constructed around this one flimsy premise! How humbling, that we have such a limited and incomplete understanding of our own existence.

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