The Certainty of Consciousness and Time as the Foundation of Knowledge

“All men by nature desire to know,” said the Greek Philosopher Aristotle (384-322 BC) in his Metaphysics; and this phrase has remained relevant to all humanity from his time to this very day. Curiosity, for better or for worst, is present in the youngest of children to the oldest of adults regardless of race, gender, or nationality. As a consequence, it is rather peculiar if not utterly ironic that so few among us have made a conscious effort to look into a mirror and enquiry on the validity of the knowledge that we think have. Can we, in utmost honesty and in all frankness, claim that all the knowledge that we have accumulated through time are all precisely accurate, crystal clear, and without fault?

“What do we know (Que sais-je)?” asked Montaigne after exploring the depth and range of doubts.  His implied answer is very little. Aristotle maintained that in order to avoid a vicious cycle and an infinite regress of causes and effects, ‘basic premises’ which we base our knowledge upon must be undisputedly true and need not themselves be demonstrated either by experimentation or illustration. Likewise and in a similar fashion, Archimedes sought just one ‘firm and immovable point in order to move the whole earth’.

This is of course easier said than done as the starting point that we seek is not one that is easily apprehended by the human intellect. In fact, we but stir the murky waters when we seek to see the bottom of the river. First and foremost among the various stumbling blocks of knowledge is scepticism. Sceptical philosophy, as outlined by Sextus Empiricus (AD c.200) of the Pyrrhonian School, has posed a challenge to the validity of all branches of human knowledge through the Five Modes of Epochē (Suspension of Judgement). If these five modes were held to be true, all human knowledge would be baseless and all subsequent extensions of human knowledge would be akin to building a house of cards destined to collapse. The first mode, of disagreement, claims that for any given topic, different individuals are unable to reach an absolute verdict one way or another. The inability to resolve the differences in opinions and ideas would end with no starting point that can act as a base for human knowledge. The second mode, of infinite regress, points out that due to the fact that what is offered as support for believing a given proposition is itself in need of such support, and this subsequent support is in need of another support, we have no foundation to establishing anything. To illustrate, the cause of A is B, the cause of B is C, the cause of C is D, so on and so forth. The third mode, of relativity, states that an external object appears differently to the different individuals perceiving it even though it is the same external object in question. For example, three hills of different heights in a row may appear as three hills to a man staring from a perpendicular angle or one big hill to a man staring at the same hills in a straight row. The fourth mode, of baseless hypothesis, states that those who claim the viability of knowledge involved with infinite regress will begin with something that they do not establish but that they deem worthy of acceptance without question or demonstration. The adoption of a baseless hypothesis as the foundation of knowledge would ensure that all further knowledge built upon it would be flawed and also baseless. The last mode, of circularity, states that in some situations a premise that supports a conclusion seem at the same time, to require for itself support from the conclusion that it makes (A is the cause of B only if B is the cause of A). Should this be so, both the premises and its conclusions cannot be taken as the foundation of knowledge because both seem to justify the existence of the other and neither is both certain and true by themselves.

In light of these five modes, should we blindly trust our senses such as our vision, hearing, smell, taste, and touch, to provide us with the knowledge of things that we take as true and certain? Do not the senses so often deceive us? Descartes (1596-1650) in his Meditations (1641) says we should not; and proceeds in illustrating his [in]famous ‘wax argument’. ‘Let us take this wax. It has just been extracted from the honeycomb. It has not yet completely lost its taste of honey and it still retains some of the scent of the flowers from which it was collected. Its colour, shape and size are obvious. It is hard, cold, easy to touch and, if tapped with a finger, it emits a sound. Thus it has everything that seems to be required for a body to be known as distinctively as possible. But notice that, as I speak, it is moved close to the fire. It loses what remains of its taste, its smell is lost, the colour changes, it loses its shape, increases in size, becomes a liquid, becomes hot and can barely be touched. Nor does it still emit a sound if tapped. But does not the same wax remain?’ Descartes concludes that he cannot perceive the wax correctly with just his senses and without the human mind.

Give some attention to the series of pictures shown above. The first is a picture adapted from German postcard which is sardonically called, ‘my wife or my mother-in-law’. The meaning behind its name lies in the fact that one can see either a young woman or an old woman if one looks long enough. The second picture is the ‘Rubin Vase’ (the middle picture) which contains an image of a vase in the middle, or two individuals staring face to face at each other from opposing sides. Taken objectively, both pictures contain two elements that exist simultaneously within a single frame of representation in our mind. The third picture furthest to the left on the other hand, shows the famous Ponzo illusion. The thicker yellow line at the top of the picture appears to be longer than the thinner yellow line located at the bottom due to an optical illusion. When measured, both lines are surprisingly of the same length. All three cases prove two things: the same external object may appear differently to different individuals and that we interpret the raw-data obtained through our senses differently because of our different perceptions and perspectives. Our senses alone cannot provide us with a comprehensive knowledge of things.

Even if John Locke (1632-1704) in his Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690) was correct by saying that all our knowledge is founded in and ultimately derives from experience (this implies they come through the senses), what is known through our sense-experience must also, if not first, be known through the mind. German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) in his Critique of Pure Reason (1781) supported Locke’s proposition by stating that ‘there can be no doubt that all of our knowledge begins with experience’ but also quickly and firmly adds; ‘Although all our knowledge begins with experience, it does not follow that it arises from experience’. This means that the human mind is not just an empty white piece of paper or ‘tabula rasa’, but an active and positive agent involved in selecting, coordinating, and reconstructing the raw-data obtained from the sense-experience as it comes. Following his line of thought, the mind organises sensations into perceptions, then changes perceptions into conceptions, and finally synthesises conceptions into knowledge, understanding, or science. During each part of the process, the raw-data initially procured by the senses obtains a higher degree of order than its previous form.

Barring magical illusions and dessert mirages, it is also held undoubtedly true that there are some individuals upon having lost a limb either by tragic accident or war, have still in some time or another received sensations from these missing parts of the body. These individuals feel as if their missing limb is still there even though it is in reality non-existent. To say, however, that one is without a body and is in existence only as a ‘brain in a vat’ would seem rather audacious if not outright preposterous. But the fact remains that our senses have from time to time deceived us in one way or another. This leads us to another question: “If we cannot trust the senses, how can we prove we exist at all?” Yet again, our dear philosopher Descartes provides us with a solution. Even if one can presumably doubt everything down to his own existence, he cannot doubt that there must be someone doing this doubting. His most celebrated philosophical statement, Cogito Ergo Sum (I think, therefore I am), implies that we cannot doubt the fact of our existence as long as we believe ourselves to be a thinking thing. Descartes observes that the proposition je pense, donc je suis is ‘so firm and sure that the most extravagant suppositions of the sceptics are incapable of shaking it’. Taking a closer look of Descartes’ certainty of self-observation, we find that he takes doubt as indubitable and infers that the certainty of doubt implies the certainty of thought and the certainty of thought implies the certainty of the existence of a thinker.

Here lies Descartes’ ultimate ingenuity. To ask, “What can we know?” we must first ask, “What can I know, with certainty?”

While many people still hold the notion Cogito Ergo Sum to be true, I believe that it is more likely that Descartes implies consciousness as a prerequisite to knowing one’s own existence and identity. Rather than I think, therefore I am, a more accurate description is, “I am conscious of my thoughts and my senses, therefore I know that I exist.” The distinctive difference between Descartes’ proposition and the one above is that, ‘I think, therefore I am’, seems to imply that when one stops thinking, one ceases to exist while the later proposition holds no such meaning. To illustrate the difference, a person who is asleep and unconscious of his mental processes do not simply vanish into thin air but stays very material in our real and observable world. There is a difference however, in the degree of consciousness. A sleeping person lacks the awareness of a person wide awake and remains in a vegetative state of non-responsiveness. The other implication is that someone sceptical of his own existence betrays his true nature when he ‘consciously’ searches for food as his ‘senses’ tells him that he is in need of nourishment. More often than not, necessity outranks the figments of our imaginations. But what does one really mean when one say a person is in a state of ‘consciousness’?

Consciousness can be defined as many things. Among the more popular definitions in psychology holds that one is conscious when one has sensory awareness of one’s own surroundings. For example, the sense of vision enables us to see whether it is sunny or raining outside our houses, while the sense of hearing enables us to hear the birds chirping outside our windows. Consequently, another aspect of consciousness is selective attention which claims that consciousness is the ability of an individual to focus his attention on a particular stimulus and attain a certain level of self-control and voluntary movement. In order to concentrate on reading this article one must ignore, for example, the music coming from the radio or the hustle and bustle of the traffic outside. Other meanings of consciousness include that of direct inner awareness which is similar to introspection. This implies that consciousness is present when one has the knowledge of one’s own thoughts, feelings, and memories.

All these factors required for consciousness as stated above, seem to point to one’s awareness of change and sequence in both the external environment as well as in one’s own internal disposition. These distinct but interrelated essential elements of consciousness would inevitably require one’s awareness of time, the dimension of change and sequence. Indeed, without the element of time all conscious thought would be impossible. An idea written down on paper is but a static state that arises as a product of thought which we know as a dynamic development and a process that requires a flow or stream of consciousness. Thought would itself be impossible without the element of time because its absence would result in only static states and not dynamic developments. This is not to say that our idea of time is a fundamental quantity with itself an objective reality. On the contrary, we come to the conclusion that time exists independently and simultaneously of our senses and our awareness of it. In saying so, our awareness of time comes only through our consciousness and as a product of thought and observation. Hence, we are aware of the notion of time by observing change (both internal and external) when we are in a state of consciousness.

We can surmise following our line of thought above that our state of consciousness is inseparable from our awareness of change and the perceived movement of time. The certainty of time known through the certainty of our own consciousness should be treated as the foundation of knowledge because it is the one point that is so firm and unmovable that no sceptical philosophy can supplant it. I dare say that even sceptical philosophers would need time to think and food to eat in order to consciously doubt all other things.

2 Responses to “The Certainty of Consciousness and Time as the Foundation of Knowledge”
  1. Arius says:

    The implication of Descartes “cogito ergo sum”, I believe, suggests existence acknowledging itself. To be alleviated from ones own mind, albeit the material remains, existence becomes meaningless if its not idealized-thus, as you rightfully implied, Descartes was hinting a void. He is both right and wrong-as you stated, there are levels of consciousness, yet if existence cannot define itself through perception, quintessentially, it remains a mere void. In this regard, a pragmatic approach must be rendered to encapsulate the axiology of what is.

  2. jamesesz says:

    Pragmatism is good..Sometimes the truth lies just beyond the mist of metaphysics..Elusive and Ethereal

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