A few weeks ago, I mentioned in passing that I am an advocate of Referentialism, the name I have given to my general philosophy of approaching life. Sort of a tautology, I guess. Anyways, given the tremendous feedback I recieved regarding that article, I figured I'd go into a bit more detail about my particular approach.
Descartes, often considered the first "modern" philosopher (by virtue of his willingness to disregard Plato and Aristotle, and to look at the world afresh), is my model as regards philosophy. Although his conclusions are shaped by the inherent brainwashing by religion enedmic to his time, he was the first major philosopher to attempt to create a system of belief from the ground up - rather than working based on previous philosophical works, he simply started afresh using logic. Out of this effort comes m "Cogito Ergo Sum", the first principle in Descartes' new philosophy.
Although "Cogito Ergo Sum" is very powerful, of particular interest to me while reading Descartes was a lesser passage, from the very start of his Meditiations on First Philosophy: "So today I have expressly rid my mind of all worries and arranged for myself a clear stretch of free time. I am here quite alone, and at last I will devote myself to sincerely and without reservation to the general demolition of my opinions."
What is stated in the passage is that Descartes devised his philosophy in the Meditations through the simple expedient of sitting down and thinking. What is implied is the rather powerful idea that that's all it takes. Sure, Descartes at that point had a lifetime of experience and knowledge to draw on, but he was expressly demolishing his old opinions and creating a framework of pure logic to arrive at truth. And, even more liberating, anyone could do it! "For myself, I have never fancied my mind to be in any respect more perfect than those of the generality; on the contrary, I have often wished that I were equal to some others in promptitude of thought, or in clearness and distinctness of imagination, or in fullness and readiness of memory. And besides these, I know of no other qualities that contribute to the perfection of the mind; for as to the reason or sense, inasmuch as it is that alone which constitutes us men, and distinguishes us from the brutes, I am disposed to believe that it is to be found complete in each individual" - from Descartes' earlier Discourse on Method.
But I'm not here to sell you on Descartes. I'm here to explain Referentialism. If you want Descartes, there are lots of resources available. I imagine you will find, as I did, his ultimate conclusions to be (despite his avowed goals) very much formed by his already existing opinions. His method is sound, but he appears to have set out to prove his earlier beliefs, and so he does. However, more than his conclusions, it was his method I found refreshing.
So, like Descartes, I took a day and devoted it to thinking. And, like Descartes, I wound up securing most of my conclusions to the linchpin that is "I think, therefore I am."
So, I exist. Beyond that, nothing is certain. This pulls me towards an additional conclusion: since I am the only certain thing in the world, I am the most important thing in the world.
Heady if arrogant stuff. And actually not that useful. Important, yes, and of critical importance in decision making, but not really that useful. For utility, we have to move forward and deal with the world. But how?
Because I am in the world, it is necessary to draw conclusions about it. And the only tool which I have to do so with is sensory experience. So, sensory experience must be accepted because it is what I have to work with. But, while so doing, I must also remember that it is never completely reliable.
Which brings me to the first tenet (as apart from a conclusion) of Referentialism: Maintain uncertainty. Because of the uncertainty inherent in the world, always remember that the conclusions that one must form in order to interact with the world are never entirely certain.
Given that, however, inasmuch as one must interact with the world, it makes sense to use the scientific model of reasoning. Namely, accept something as true given that it explains the observable phenomenon and cannot be proven false. And the reason it makes sense to do so is, rather self-referentially, because using this method of thought provides the best results. Science works, because that his how science is defined - using science is finding that which works.
So, trees which fall in the forest even when I cannot hear then should be assumed to make noise - but the Referentialist will maintaion that there is a non-zero possibility that this is not true. However, the fact that it may not be true is irrelevant to how a Referentialist should approach a world where it is probably true, since one is only given finite information, and decisions must be made. Behave as though the world exists because doing so gives the best result.
This brings us to the major issue of other people. Given that the best explanation for other people is that they are individuals who function as I do, within certain bounds and given certain variabilities, I should behave as though this were the case. And, given that other people are indeed individuals, it makes sense for us as individuals to have social compacts and institutions that govern our interactions the way we would like to be governed. Hence, the 'Golden Rule'. Not because it is inherently morally correct (not to say that it is not), but because if we all as individuals apply it, we will all as individuals be better off.
Now, this is a step away from "I am the most important thing", but it follows logically given that we must deal with the world as it appears to be. However, it is also possible to observe that, given the uniqueness of myself, there is not reason to behave towards others as I wish to have them behave towards myself. After all, what happens to them is irrelevant, because there is only one me and I am it. A necessary corollary to this, though, is that these other, external individuals then need not behave towards me in a fashion which I would like. The 'Golden Rule' is an agreement, an arrangement between myself and another whom I assume to be similar to myself, for our mutual benefit. I, as a Referentialist, accept laws and customs because having these agreements with other individuals benefits me, as an individual.
Obviously, there are those who do not behave in this fashion, who approach the world as the only individual and therefore without regard for others. And, since they reject the social compacts between individuals, it becomes unimportant to extend to them the benefits thereof. As an individual, it behooves me to agree to rules governing my interaction with others - but it does not behoove me to adhere to these rules when dealing with humans who do not adhere to them. "Moral" behavior is only necessary if a) it is multilateral or b) it gratifies us (as the only 'provable' individual). There are no laws laid down for us, there are only those we agree to.
Note that, as observed, the world is as it appears to be. In a practical sense, as an individual I have limited power and exist in a world with laws and behaviors already locked about me like a vise. But what Referentialism states is not that one should behave in an impractical fashion - quite the opposite. If stupid laws are being enforced, a Referentialist will obey them. However, morally, the only laws a Referentialist should be constrained by are those that are not only applied to him/her but on behalf of him/her. And those are the only laws or social agreements that a Referentialist should support. A Referentialist is always, always practical, but acknowledges the only valid social interaction regulations as those agreed upon by the parties involved.
So. Enough generalities. Let's hit some specifics. What does Referentialism say about...
Anyways, that's a taste of Referential thought. Note that there is a significant difference between strict "I am me, everyone else is important only in how they pertain to me" Referentialism and broader "Assuming that everyone is like me, we must behave towards each other in a way that benefits us all" Referentialism. It's kind of a conservative/liberal split, in fact. Republicans and serial killers fall into the strict constructionist category. Funny, that.
- Sun Ra
Columns by Sun Ra