Experiencing the moment

by Charlie Huenemann

7312619_f496David Hume, that most sly student of human experience, declared he couldn’t find himself anywhere. As he gazed inward, he came across sensations, feelings, passions, and moods, but he had never come across a self in the way one might come across a vivid shade of turquoise or a lampshade or a heartbeat. He could find no “simple and continued” thing underlying his perceptions, as a bed of stone lies beneath an ever-changing stream. And so he haplessly concluded that he was nothing more than a stream, a bundle of impressions, a shifting mass of predicates without a subject. And if someone else has come to a different conclusion – if he stumbles across himself in his own experience –

“I must confess I can no longer reason with him. All I can allow him is, that he may be in the right as well as I, and that we are essentially different in this particular. He may, perhaps, perceive something simple and continu’d, which he calls himself; tho’ I am certain there is no such principle in me.”

It wasn’t long before alarm bells went off. In an appendix to his treatise, Hume admitted he was in deep trouble. The basis of his entire philosophy was the view that distinct events are, well, distinct: it is only our thinking that combines distinct events into ideas of enduring things, into stable causal regularities, into expectations of uniformity in nature, and so on. Our minds create the universe out of the diverse. But if we ourselves are diverse – if there is no unity even in us – then how we ever be able to pull off such a trick? Without a simple and continued thing to assemble all the broken fragments into a whole, how is the appearance of a whole ever to come about? “All my hopes vanish,” he wrote, as he entered into this deepest of all labyrinths. He provided no solution, not ever, and he never wrote on this subject again.

Taking this problem seriously leads to what might be called “balls to the wall” skepticism. (Nothing naughty about that, by the way: the phrase comes from mid-century US fighter pilots who, when they put their planes into perilous nosedives, had to push both the throttle ball and the ball at the end of the joystick to the wall of the instrument panel. It’s an all-out, last recourse sort of maneuver.) All our experience ever shows, at any moment we might call “now,” is a collage of vivid sensations, along with some dimmer ones (called “memory”), and some even dimmer ones (called “anticipations”). It’s practically impossible not to regard that momentary now-collage as merely a stage in a longer process we might call “an hour,” “a day,” or “a life.” But philosophically, we can wonder whether there ever is anything more than that now-experience.

Imagine a god who, for whatever reason, thinks it would be a good idea to create a near-instantaneous now-experience: whatever Hume was experiencing on some frosty morning in Edinburgh in 1750. It lasts a mere second, let’s say. Then this god lets everything lapse into chaos for two million god-centuries (we’ll let Chronos keep the time). Then this capricious god thinks it’s time for another now – and it’s this one, yours, right now – and then the god once again lets everything lapse into oblivion. And so on: a pearl of a moment here, another different pearl there, without any continuous thread on which the pearls are strung. And don’t think there has to be more than a handful of pearls in order for all of human experience to be accounted for. Actually, only one pearl is required: this one, yours, right now. Your experience does not show anything more than this.

You can’t possibly know this isn’t so, can you? Welcome, then, to B2W skepticism.

It’s the most extreme skepticism that can be imagined. It even has the power to reduce Descartes’s Archimedean “I think, therefore I am” to rubble: at most, Descartes can confidently assert only that “Right now, it sure seems like something is going on” before, for all he knows, everything gets sucked back into the oblivion that preceded that moment.

To my knowledge, the only philosopher who has taken B2W skepticism seriously enough to try to refute it was Immanuel Kant. In his Critique of Pure Reason, he wrote “A Transcendental Deduction of the Categories of the Human Understanding,” which was an attempt to show that a conscious subject couldn’t possibly have a now-experience unless there were a world of stable objects in causal relations to one another. It is a magnificent piece of philosophy – a true Mona Lisa in the magnificent hall of ideas – and so compelling that he completely rewrote the thing six years later and no one since has been able to completely figure out what’s going on in either version, no matter how smart they are or how hard they have tried. Now that’s a great piece of philosophy!