A few weeks ago I had an experience that I hope one day to reflect upon as a defining moment in my life. It all started innocently enough. I was looking on my bookshelf for something to read. I don’t recall exactly what I was thinking about at the time, but I’m sure it was something like, “What am I in the mood for today?” That’s when it hit me.
I suddenly realized that there was no rhyme or reason to my reading patterns. There was no aim or purpose. In fact, I would describe my choice of reading material on any given day as being all over the map. I might read Hume one day and Melville the next with no justification for the switch other than my mood. When I look at my bookshelves, I see Dostoevsky, Kant, Augustine, Russell, Dante, and so forth. I’ve read much of what I find there, but why? Why do I read at all? My answer to this question was not very satisfying. Until that moment, my primary motivation for reading was little more than a desire to know what a particular author said about a particular topic, which he or she happened to be discussing in a particular publication, and which I happened to be interested in at that particular time. I read Kant to see what he said epistemology. I read Dostoevsky to see what he said about humanity and the problem of evil. I read Melville to see what he said about the destructive nature of a heart bent on vengeance. My choices were driven by my mood at the time of the selection. In fact, I am notorious for reading part of a book and moving on to something else. I frequently get bored with whatever the author is discussing, and I go on to another book having never really looked at the material critically or having used it as fuel for my on thoughts on the subject. I now believe that the my primary reason for failing to do so was my lack of direction. Either I didn’t know what I was looking for; or I wasn’t really looking for anything at all.
You can’t imagine the impact that this realization had on me. I felt lost and without purpose. I sat down on my bed in dismay and stared at my bookshelf. Suddenly a question popped into my head. It was a simple question, but it had a profound effect on me. The question was this:
What is it that you want to know?
I asked myself, “If you could have any question answered, what would it be?” You might suppose that formulating “the question” would take considerable time and contemplation, but I assure you that in my case it did not. A question entered my head almost immediately. It wasn’t the one that I most wanted answered, but it was instrumental in getting me there. The question was this:
Does a real world exist outside of my mind?
I can remember sitting in my yard as a child, looking at a tree, all the while thinking, “Is this real?” In a similar way, I have often asked myself if the people around me are real. I wondered if they were actually intelligent beings, thinking and acting independently of myself, or if perhaps they were mindless automata created by some being for my amusement, or if they were simply a creation of my mind. Is the world around me real or is it . . . well . . . something else? That’s a question the greatly interests me, but it still was not “the question.”
In thinking through these things, I recognized that there was at least one question which was more fundamental than the one above. It was “the question” for which I was searching. I had contemplated it many times before, and I recognized it immediately as the one that I most wanted answered. When one asks “Does a real world exist outside of my mind” he makes a critical assumption. He assumes the existence of the “I”. Before one can inquire into the nature of the external world, he must inquire into the nature of the one who perceives that world. It was this line of thinking that led me to ask myself: What is “I”?
For the first time, I no longer needed to depend on my mood for book selection. I was no longer going to read simply for the sake of knowledge acquisition. I was no longer going to snatch up volumes of philosophical ponderings at random or on the basis of some fleeting mood driven whim. Oh, I can imagine that there will be times when I want to break from my search and read an unrelated work of intellectual value for purely entertainment purposes; or perhaps I will occasionally get side-tracked by some curiosity that has gotten the better of me; but those times will be few and far between. I knew that from that day forward, I would be reading to see what conclusions others had reached about the nature of the mysterious “I”; and I would use their thoughts to stimulate my own original thinking on the subject. I am excited to see where my journey to find the “I” will lead me!