046. Make Believe

tldr: existentialism

The more philosophy classes I take, the more I believe I am a skeptic. When do we know what we know? What can I be certain of?

I’ve struggled with questions like this for most of my life. When I was younger, I was terrified by the vastness of the universe. I didn’t feel certain of anything. So, for a long time, I felt frozen; I couldn’t work through the overwhelming uncertainty of life. We discussed this view in 24.251 [Philosophy of Language]. Unger argues the following:

  1. A person S knows a premise p only if S is certain of p.
  2. If S is certain of p, then there is no q such that S is more certain of q than of p.
  3. Almost no p is such that there is no q such that S is more certain of q than p.
  4. Therefore, for almost no p is S certain of p, and thus there is very little that person S knows.

In essence, one can know something only if they are certain of it, and there is very little we can be certain about. Though I didn’t have the words to formulate an argument like this in elementary school, some version of this argument was there. I kept asking questions like: “Why should I go to church when I don’t know, and don’t believe I can ever know, that a God exists?” And I wasn’t terrified of death, but rather not being able to truly picture feeling nothing. And how can I express these viewpoints to someone else, when I can’t even know if how they think is how I think (in a meta-cognitive sense).

I felt like I was going insane, and I felt terrifyingly alone.

At some point, late night existential crises looking in the bathroom mirror stopped. I don’t know quite how to describe how I got them to stop. It’s almost analogous to how sometimes, really old people stop being scared of death. They don’t know what it will feel like, and in some cases many would stay if they could. But they accept the concept of dying just enough to stop being afraid anymore. In a similar way, I accepted the concept of uncertainty just enough to stop being scared of life.

I started playing make believe. 

While there is very little in life I think I can know, I found comfort in selecting a handful of ideas I would accept to be true. I doubt I can name each idea, but I can certainly name a few.

  1. How I feel about myself, my identity, and my body is valid. This was most prevalent in my gender expression. For example, when I came out as trans, I didn’t need to change my wardrobe immediately. I wore what I wanted to, when I wanted to, and accepted this as part of my identity.
  2. Math is real. This felt easy enough to believe when at the time I had never encountered ideas like the axiom of choice. But I still stand by this idea. We can debate whether numbers existed before people did, or if math was/is discovered or created, and to some extent I think these are interesting conversations. But frankly, I don’t care what the answer is. I accept that if nothing else, math is real. I don’t need to worry about the merits of the subject, or the usefulness of studying n-dimensional orientable manifolds. I just accept it.
  3. People can be good. Of course, people change and fluctuate over time, so perhaps no one can ever be fully good or fully bad. But people can do good things. This idea could be seen as a way of preventing becoming a “Chidi”– a reference to the TV show The Good Place. In this show, before dying (the show takes place in the afterlife) Chidi tries to be a good person. For him, this meant questioning the ethics of every. Single. Decision. Ever. I try to be a good person everyday and I wanted the mental reassurance that that’s something I don’t need to question every, single, time I go to do something. I can be good.

I accepted these premises (among others) as fact, and at some point felt more comfortable existing. If nothing else, I felt more comfortable allowing myself to exist.

Recently, I’ve been trying to figure out what more I should add to the list. What things do I just want to accept as true? To some extent, being a philosophy major has made this question harder to answer. Before attending MIT, I remember asking my mom “why can’t we/why shouldn’t we just decide what things are good and what things are bad and go from there”. To some extent this isn’t fully a naive question [in fact it’s one that can be seen in meta-ethics in one form or another]. But since then, I have been exposed to many readings (in particular ones with regard to freedom of speech *cough cough John Stuart Mill cough cough*) explaining why such beliefs are harmful in the pursuit of knowledge. It’s also been difficult adding things to the list when right now things on the list are so important– why moral/religious/uncertain thing can I accept that will be as important in my life as math or gender identity? [This is what I get for making the list when I was in elementary school.]

I haven’t created any new ideas to add; turns out creating axioms regarding what to believe in life is really difficult. But thinking about this (probably flawed) ideology has been an interesting thought experiment. It’s nice to be at a point in my life where trying to answer the question “What should I believe” is no longer having major effects on my ability to go about my day without an existential crisis. I still think that ultimately there is very little I can know, but for the time I will simply play a game of make believe.

Published by Paige Bright

Hi- my name is Paige Alexandria Bright. I am a rising junior at MIT interested in mathematics and philosophy. I have been writing this blog since the beginning of COVID. Lets see where this goes.

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