A Deficit Of Rationality

A man said to the universe:
     “Sir, I exist!”
“However,” replied the universe,
     “That fact has not created in me
     A sense of obligation.”

— Stephen Crane —

     I’m in one of those moods this morning. I could slather you with the reasons, but as I’m also feeling charitable, I’ll spare you. Accordingly, if you want to read about horrors and atrocities, please “enjoy” the writers in the blogroll. They’ll supply you enough with enough madness to get your glands in a lather and keep them there till next Saint Swithin’s Day. I intend to take a day off from such things.

     Instead, let’s look at a few aspects of metaphysics.


     The brief Stephen Crane poem at the head of this piece has been a favorite of mine for a very long time. It put a huge smile on my face the first time I encountered it. “Well,” I thought, “if it’s good enough for the universe, it’s good enough for me.” I proceeded to enter it into my ever-expanding collection of Pithy Aphorisms To Live By. (A few others: “Get your first serve in;” “Never play Acey-Deucey for serious stakes;” “Death before dishonor, but coffee before either.”)

     But what does it really mean to say “I exist” — ? Perhaps even more pointedly, what sort of creature makes such a statement?

     When we say “this exists,” we’re necessarily pointing at something we can separate from all else. To say that “Copenhagen exists” is to say that Copenhagen is separate from all that is not Copenhagen. To say that “Hammers exist” is subtler; it asserts, concurrently, that:

  • We can conceive of devices that share certain characteristics not shared by others;
  • That we shall henceforth call those devices “hammers;”
  • That we know of at least one that fits that definition.

     But with “I exist,” we come to the subtlest and most significant statement of the lot. He who says “I exist” is asserting:

  • That he is conscious of himself as a bounded spatiotemporal entity;
  • That he acknowledges his separateness from all other things, including others of his kind.

     If I may, hammers can’t do that. At any rate, they don’t.


     It’s humans who natter about things “existing.” Yet we seldom think deeply about the prerequisites for existence as we understand it. They’re worth a few moments’ thought.

     The first is the matter of boundedness. Physics tells us – and for the moment, we should assume it to speak the truth – that nothing is really, absolutely bounded. I made that point to one of my protagonists in Polymath:

     “What is an outline, Todd?”
     The conversational swerve jarred Todd into a curious state. His thoughts seemed to drift free of mundane reality. He struggled to discipline them.
     “The boundary around an object?”
     “Have you seen any outlines lately?”
     “Huh? I don’t…hm.”
     “In the world outside our heads.” Redmond piloted the truck smoothly down Kettle Knoll. “Did you see anything you could point to and say ‘there’s an outline,’ at any time recently?”
     “I don’t think so.”
     “And why is that? Every object has a boundary, so it must have an outline, right?”
     Todd was overwhelmed by the sense that he was being introduced to a higher realm of thought, a sphere of concepts and relations whose existence he hadn’t suspected.
     He’s way beyond me.
     He fought down his distaste at the admission.
     If I’m going to learn anything more from him, I have to accept it.
     “Outlines are imaginary, then?”
     Redmond pulled into the Iversons’ driveway, stopped, and set the parking brake. “Not quite. It depends on whether you’d say an image—a picture of the world you have in your brain—is imaginary. When we look at the world, we see…things. Objects we take to be bounded and separate from one another. Most of us view the world that way, most of the time. We have to. It makes organized thought possible. And it’s what moved a great writer to write that ‘wise men see outlines, and therefore draw them.’”
     “Who was that?”
     “William Blake. A poet of the late Enlightenment.” Redmond’s eyes twinkled. “He wrote something a bit different a few years later, though.”
     Todd waited.
     “‘Mad men see outlines, and therefore draw them.’”

     Blake’s insight was seminal, possibly critical to all of human thought. Albert Einstein, who famously told us that “Imagination is more important than knowledge,” was surely aware of it. Yet few persons of our time are familiar with it.

     Imagination is the key to abstraction. If you can’t imagine a concept, giving it boundaries in your mind, you can’t define. Without definitions, you can’t think.

     Even though boundaries and outlines solely exist because we insist that we see them.


     Let’s get back to the “I exist” assertion and what it implies.

     It is unclear that when Rene Descartes said “Cogito, ergo sum,” he was doing more than just laying down the first tenets of his philosophy. Moreover, he may not have realized at the time that the sum was the genuinely courageous part of the statement. He was almost certainly more concerned with the cogito: the distinction of Man from that which is not Man. Philosophers can be like that.

     A man doesn’t say “I exist” in isolation from all his other thoughts, needs, and desires. He has a reason for doing so. Sometimes, he’s merely expressing a desire. Sometimes, he’s expressing a personal survival necessity. And sometimes, he’s trying to get someone else to back the fuck off.

     (Yes, metaphysicians sometimes say fuck. I do, anyway. As for Descartes, we have no evidence either way.)

     “I exist” is the founding premise of individualism. That might seem a trivial point…until you ponder all the figures who’ve strained to convince you otherwise. We also have this:

     ‘Next question,’ O’Brien said.
     ’Does Big Brother exist?’
     ’Of course he exists. The Party exists. Big Brother is the embodiment of the Party.’
     ’Does he exist in the same way as I exist?
     ’You do not exist,’ said O’Brien.
     Once again the sense of helplessness assailed him. He knew, or he could imagine, the arguments which proved his own nonexistence; but they were nonsense, they were only a play on words. Did not the statement, ’You do not exist’, contain a logical absurdity? But what use was it to say so? His mind shrivelled as he thought of the unanswerable, mad arguments with which O’Brien would demolish him.
     ’I think I exist,’ he said wearily. ’I am conscious of my own identity. I was born and I shall die. I have arms and legs. I occupy a particular point in space. No other solid object can occupy the same point simultaneously. In that sense, does Big Brother exist?’
     ’It is of no importance. He exists.’
     ’Will Big Brother ever die?’
     ’Of course not. How could he die?’

     George Orwell, 1984.

     “I exist” being the indispensable premise of individualism and therefore individual rights, to dismiss “I exist,” as O’Brien does in the snippet above, conveys a terror further-reaching than any degree of torture. But note that O’Brien goes further still: while dismissing Winston’s existence, he insists on the existence of Big Brother, a phantasm used by the Party to induce worship and submission. It’s for these reasons, among others, that I consider 1984 the ultimate dystopian novel. The crude dystopian fictions of today, premised upon mere physical catastrophes, fade to nothingness in comparison.


     To return briefly to the Stephen Crane poem:

A man said to the universe:
     “Sir, I exist!”
“However,” replied the universe,
     “That fact has not created in me
     A sense of obligation.”

     Crane’s emphasis was obviously upon the indifference of “the universe” to any individual’s claims. Yeah, you exist. You said so, and as Descartes would say, we have to accept it on that basis alone. But the separability implicit in “I exist” inevitably elicits two other assertions:

  • “Yeah, me too.”
  • “So what?”

     Crane understood this and its implications. Today there are many who don’t – and some of them are angry about it.


     Many who’ve fought their way valiantly through the thickets of verbiage to this point are probably thinking “This is all ‘previous work.’ He has no new point to make.” But I do, and the time has arrived for it.

     Among the horrors of our time is the Left’s rampant, accelerating campaign to destroy the definitions of categories. It’s an anti-intellectual campaign, for categories, as I wrote above, are the things of the mind that enable us to think. Without them, we are intellectually helpless, just as whole-body paralysis renders its victim physically helpless.

     Do you get it? What is the full significance of Ketanji Brown Jackson’s refusal to answer the question “What is a woman?” What is the full significance of the Left’s insistence that a full-scale, blazing riot that causes millions of dollars of damage is “a peaceful protest?” What is the full significance of the Left’s opposition to executions for capital murder, while it insists that fully-formed babies that have not yet passed through the birth canal are mere parasites that may be extinguished for their mothers’ convenience? What is the full significance of the Left’s claim that black rioters who killed and rampaged while the police watched idly are “fighting oppression,” but that Officer Darren Wilson is a murderer for defending himself against Michael Brown, and that George Zimmerman is a murderer for defending himself against Trayvon Martin, and that Kyle Rittenhouse is a murderer for defending himself against three murderous thugs?

     The war for our civilization began as a metaphysical war – a war for the most critical reaches of our minds: the part that enables rationality. It was able to become violent because it succeeded, through the mantras of relativism and “tolerance,” in immobilizing some and enlisting others. What began with words and ideas has strengthened enough to steal, ravage, and kill. And for our paralysis before its metaphysical crimes, we are all on the front lines.

     Do you still think it was all pointless word-spinning?