(1884–1885) by Vincent van Gogh.
'I wish to raise my hand. Well, I raise it. But who raises it? Who is the "I" who raises my hand? Certainly it is not exclusively the "I" who is standing here talking, the "I" who signs the checks and has a history behind him, because I do not have the faintest idea how my hand was raised. All I know is that I expressed a wish for my hand to be raised, whereupon something within myself set to work, pulled the switches of a most elaborate nervous system, and made thirty or forty muscles — some of which contract and some of which relax at the same instant — function in perfect harmony so as to produce this extremely simple gesture. And of course, when we ask ourselves, how does my heart beat? how do we breathe? how do I digest my food? — we do not have the faintest idea. We as personalities — as what we like to think of ourselves as being — are in fact only a very small part of an immense manifestation of activity, physical and mental, of which we are simply not aware. We have some control over this inasmuch as some actions being voluntary we can say, I want this to happen, and somebody else does the work for us. But meanwhile, many actions go on without our having the slightest consciousness of them, and . . . these vegetative actions can be grossly interfered with by our undesirable thoughts, our fears, our greeds, our angers, and so on . . . The question then arises, How are we related to this? Why is it that we think of ourselves as only this minute part of a totality far larger than we are — a totality which according to many philosophers may actually be coextensive with the total activity of the universe?'
Analytic philosopher G.E. Moore took a stand against the idealism and scepticism that emerged before him and advanced a more-common-sense philosophy. To understand Moore’s epistemology we can look to his famous ‘Here is one hand’ argument. It goes as follows:
P1: Here is one hand.
P2: And here is another.
C: Therefore, there is an external world.
The argument is simple but effective. Why? For if anything, it seems too simple! Well, it passes a logical triad: (i) the premises differ from the conclusion, (ii) they are both known to be true, and (iii) the conclusion follows from them.
However, many idealists and sceptics would, of course, at least doubt (ii). My senses could be deceiving me, for example: I could be in a simulation or a dream. Furthermore, beyond ‘common sense’, I don’t have a compelling theory of knowledge to be able to claim I know my hands exist outside of myself and are therefore really there.
Instead of rooting existence in the external world, sceptics such as Al Ghazali, Michel de Montaigne, and René Descartes centred knowledge in the self, over and above it.
But Moore put the following riposte to them: Why should I have more confidence in a sceptical conclusion than a common-sense one? You say my hands don’t really exist; I say your argument against them isn’t more compelling than my common sense!
Aldous Huxley, in The Divine Within: Selected Writings on Enlightenment, poses a counterthought:
Viz, in sum of his sharp and compelling take, Huxley claims that ‘I’ and the world are very much intertwined.
Who do you agree with?