Why I’m Writing
by Tim Garvin | Essay
I read an essay in which the writer recalled a dinner event where the first speaker, a catholic priest, had to stall for time until the main speaker could arrive. The priest was a raconteur and entertained the audience with the anecdote that his first penitent confessed to a murder. A moment later the main speaker arrived, thanked the father, and added as an aside that he and the father went back many years. In fact, he was the father’s first penitent.
That mental ding is your and the audience’s instant recognition that the speaker is a murderer. It seems like new knowledge has been acquired, but really it’s better described as resultant knowledge, knowledge that comes from putting two separate facts together. We call it deduction usually. It’s how Sherlock Holmes got clues from dusty shoes, new umbrellas, and frayed cuffs. And so we get the impression that knowledge derives from correctly assembling noticed facts. At CERN the physicists study particle tracks, measure, compute, and then masterfully conjecture. Look, it vanished here, and then reappeared here, so that means… That’s how we figure out the way things function in the world and get to make iphones.
But where do the facts come from? I don’t mean how do I know the first penitent is a murderer. I mean how do I know what a penitent is, what first means, what a murderer is? In short, how do I know anything? In short, how do I know that the meaning that presents itself to me unchallenged as I think is the right stuff, not just in any particular thought train, but in general? Because if all words are defined with other words, how do we squeeze into that closed circle and know what any of them mean? In short, where does meaning come from? In short, what is existence?
Is this boring? After all, answering that question won’t help you reach your personal goal of whatever. Plus, you likely don’t think I can answer it. Plus, about that question, which is really the question of why there is something rather than nothing, the experts disagree. Plus, the experts really are mostly boring, either philosophers or theologians or new-agers.
That’s four reason to be bored. Here are four reasons not to be: one, the answer will help with your goals. Two, I do have an answer, sort of anyway, and it’s the same as yours and everyone’s. Four, I do think about thinking but am not any of those types. Three? That’s the central question: what is all this existence business? And why so much disagreement about it? The charm of life is asking those questions. The delight of life is catching the scent of their answers. So that’s why I’m writing.
By the way, my audience is the teenager I was when those questions arose in me. And also that same teenager in you.