– from the Annus Mirabilis 1 of Nuddle, ToadScribe novice
The following is an Accurate Record of what passed between the sages Isidem and Nunc-bïdi Hyûm in the Garden of Contemplation as they nibbled some biscuits under a dead plane tree. I swear its accuracy upon the Great Oath I have sworn within the Outer Door of the Order of ToadScribes:
Nunc-bïdi Hyûm: These biscuits are dry.
Isidem: Do you not want yours?
Hyûm: Ha, you rascal. All I meant was that I could use some tea. Or a beer, now that you mention it. What time is it? I am suddenly visited by a powerful thirst.
Isidem: This is just what I’ve been trying to tell you. The senses can’t be trusted. It’s too early for beer.
Hyûm: Maybe yours can’t. I’ve trusted my senses these many years and never found a more reliable guide. And mine are telling me it’s time for beer. What say you, my friend?
Isidem: I say you’re the rascal and a dunderhead to boot. Look, I’m not saying the senses aren’t credible or couldn’t offer us a guide to food pairings, or even to something far more important, namely, what is. I’m simply saying that sometimes the senses mislead us, and that only a fool puts his absolute trust in a guide that is prone to deception.
Hyûm: So what can we trust if not our senses, smartypants?
Isidem: I’m not wearing any pants, as you can plainly see. This type of robe is the very latest fashion. As is this elegant turban.
Hyûm: Hmm. You were saying?
Isidem: Yes, well, one day I realized that our senses, while they may help us judge biscuits in our daily lives, are unable to impart to us any certain knowledge of the world. We all recognize that we’re mistaken about things we perceive sometimes, as when a straight stick appears bent when dipped in that pond over there. However, we only recognize the mistake when we later confirm the truth of the matter, when the straight stick belies the impression of our eyes. If we didn’t pull the stick out and have another look, we might well go around believing it was crooked all the time. But what if they’re all that way?
Hyûm: All the sticks are crooked?
Isidem: All our impressions are crooked, or false, but we just don’t know it. What if we are in fact deceived about everything and have no way of recognizing our error. It’s like your dreaming mind mistakes sleeping visions for reality, and only discovers the error upon waking. What if we’re all asleep, all the time? This is the doubt that set on me one day.
Hyûm: That’s a doozy! I think I’m going to need that beer.
Isidem: Oh, it’s much worse. Not only did I doubt the truthfulness of all my primary impressions, but that doubt immediately cast the entire edifice of my beliefs into confusion. Indeed, it is obvious that many things I once believed were false after all. So what if all my beliefs, like false impressions, merely appeared true to me in my ignorance? It appeared that absolutely everything in my head was full of such doubts, and so I decided to question it all to see if I could find anything beyond all doubt whatsoever. Though my old opinions kept creeping back in through force of habit, I came up with a way to work myself into a properly critical attitude.
Hyûm: A strange endeavor. However did you keep yourself from assenting to your own opinions?
Isidem: Systematic doubt, Hyûm! I willed myself to doubt absolutely everything using the following clever technique: I imagined that some malicious demon of the utmost power and cunning was using all his energies to deceive me about the world. According to the story I told myself, earth, sky, colors, shapes, sounds, all have been set out to ensnare my judgement and lure me into error.
Hyûm: That seems like a lot of trouble for the demon. Hasn’t he got better things to do with his time?
Isidem: That’s beside the point, you dolt. My purpose was to cast myself into such a slough of doubt that my reasoning could only extricate itself from ignorance by identifying some truth beyond all doubt whatsoever. Only then could I construct a system of beliefs by which to safely form my judgements. I had to face the demon in order to trust the power of my own mind. But, like Archimedes, I hoped that if I could find a single point that was firm and immobile, I could move the entire globe. Or, in my case, construct a picture of the world upon sound and certain foundations. And if I couldn’t, at least I would know that nothing could be known for certain.
Hyûm: And did you slay the demon, or does he haunt you still?
Isidem: At first, he seemed invincible. Radical doubt means nothing, nothing at all could be taken for granted. I had to doubt absolutely everything. That was a dizzying experience, to hang suspended above the abyss like that. Not only my belief in my impressions, but even my belief in external bodies, motion, extension, and place I supposed to be merely fictions of my mind. The very body I’ve always taken to be myself I cast into doubt.
But that terror, that oppressive doubt, which nearly smashed my sanity proved the light by which I found my way out of the infernal darkness. For I said to myself,
“I think, therefore I am.” No matter how mistaken I might be about all the things of the world, no matter how powerful the demon was, nothing he could do could remove my awareness of my own doubt, angst, and reflection. But if there were some doubter, some being anxious in the extreme, some thinker reflecting upon these great and terrible mysteries, than that thinker, that I, must exist.
But what am I? A thinking thing, as I said. But what is a thinking thing? It is a thing that doubts, understands, conceives, affirms, denies, wills, refuses, that imagines and perceives.
It’s no small thing, if all these properties belong to my nature. But don’t they? Aren’t I the very being who now doubts almost everything; who nevertheless understands and conceives certain things; who affirms just one thing as true, and denies the others; who desires to know more of them, and does not wish to be deceived; who imagines many things, sometimes despite his will; and likewise perceives many things, seemingly through my senses? Are none of these as true as my own existence, even if I am only dreaming all the time, and although he who created me employs all his ingenuity to deceive me? Is there also any one of these attributes that can be properly distinguished from my thought, or that can be said to be separate from myself? For it is so obvious that it is I who doubt, I who understand, and I who desire, that it is unnecessary to offer further proof. And I am also the same being who imagines; for even if nothing I imagine is true, still the power of imagination exists and forms part of my thought. Similarly, I am the same being who perceives certain objects as if through the organs of sense, since, in truth, I see light, hear a noise, and feel heat. If you claim that these impressions are false, and that I am dreaming, I won’t argue with you. Still it is certain that I seem to see light, hear a noise, and feel heat; this cannot be false, and this is what in me is properly called perceiving and sensing, which is simply a kind of than thinking.
Hyûm: That’s a mouthful!
Isidem: It’s a mindful! But if I experience all these sensations, even if they are the misleading tricks of the demon, then I, at least am real. I exist. That cannot be denied.
Hyûm: My head hurts. My real head, not my mind. I can actually feel it hurting. Come on, let’s see if the Lamplight Inn is open yet. These biscuits really are very dry.
[At this point noble Isidem shrugged and acquiesced to Hyûm’s repeated demand for drinking. The two set off together for the Lamplight Inn, where witnesses overheard the two discussing proofs for the existence of the gods]
The character of Isidem is based upon the Seventeenth Century French philosopher and mathematician René Descartes, whose influence on Western thought has been so profound that most scholars date the birth of modern philosophy to his works. The ‘mouthful’, as Hyûm describes it, is more or less taken from his Meditations, the text which lays out the cornerstones of Cartesian thought.
Descartes’ most famous insight is generally expressed as cogito ergo sum, “I think, therefore I am.” His revolutionary situation of metaphysical certainty in the subjectivity of the individual consciousness shattered Medieval ideas of the cosmos and sparked a series of debates that would define the next three and a half centuries of philosophical inquiry.