Rush: The Art of Doubt: How Philosophy Illuminates the Importance of Skepticism in a Globalized World

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Rush: The Art of Doubt: How Philosophy Illuminates the Importance of Skepticism in a Globalized World

Meditations, Rene Descartes

Meditations, Rene Descartes

Meditations, Rene Descartes

Meditations, Rene Descartes

By Nicholas Rush

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An emerald green book sat atop the otherwise ransacked dresser, hurriedly cleaned by my brother who had just left for his first year of college. My room was smaller and situated near a constantly droning furnace room, and his absence provided the perfect opportunity to set up shop in his space. I quickly surveyed the room and assessed the potential of the newly vacant space, which was barren save a crooked Michael Jordan poster that hung above the bed frame.

Before I could start plotting, the thin and tattered book, seemingly left by accident, captured my attention. At a time in my life when spontaneity and curiosity were converging, my eyes became fixated on this conspicuous book. The glossy finish of the emerald dust jacket gleamed with scattered fingerprints, evidence that my brother had perused this book on more than one occasion. 

His visible interest in the book piqued my own. The embossed orange letters on the jacket read “Meditations on First Philosophy” by Rene Descartes. Normally, when encountering something of interest by way of my brother, I would simply blurt out my inquiry, or wait until I could see him to inquire. Now that he was heading more than 500 miles away, I knew it was up to me to find out what was inside. Being the perennially inquisitive younger brother, I picked up the book and ran my thumb through the text block. It was thin — thin enough that intimidation didn’t overshadow feasibility. 

In that moment, holding the book with the word “philosophy” emblazoned on the cover, its meaning conceptualized in my mind in a wholly new manner. I felt an existential pull from the word, it was an ineffable feeling inside. Before that moment, the word “philosophy” was something I knew of, if only in a very alien way. I had heard rumblings like “the philosophy of coaching” on TV (regarding the holistic approach of the great NBA coach Phil Jackson), but at the time, I didn’t understand what exactly that entailed. As a teenager, I didn’t understand myself or what it means to understand oneself. 

I was searching for something — a worldview, per se, that on a macro-scale help me realize myself on a micro-scale. The prescribed antidotes weren’t enough. Science was too detached from emotion, and religion, in general, was too detached from intellect. It may be a false dichotomy to demand a choice between one or the other. I simply felt that neither worldview spoke to me in a personal way. There are a myriad of mediums that one could attribute to the process of self-realization, and while I enjoyed many activities, for me they equated to blissful distractions from a pressing void within myself. Inside I was continually feeling the grating John Lennon lyric “just gimme some truth, man!” 

This was until that fateful August afternoon, when I began to read Descartes’s “Meditations on First Philosophy.” It was then that I had the realization that changed the course of my life forever. Up to that time, I felt the urge to construct a foundation of beliefs around myself to fill the existential void within. “Meditations” taught me that constructing a foundation of beliefs wouldn’t fill the void — it was the critical deconstruction of beliefs that would fill the void. Belief wouldn’t solve my crisis, skepticism would. The need for external validation was washed away by an internal critique. As W.B. Yeats said: “There is more enterprise in walking naked.” This did not lead to a streak of nihilism, but a liberating and peaceful disposition. The “truth” I was seeking was not found by discovering it, but through discovering the lack of it. I thought my existential confusion was due to a lack of clarity, but I found, after reading Descartes, it was due to a lack of opacity. 

While that may sound contradictory, in light of Descartes’s goal to get to the root of every belief, it is not. By doubting all of his previously held beliefs in order to get to the truth, Descartes had to shed the chains of belief, and thus embrace the darkness of uncertainty. As Rosa Luxemburg eloquently stated, “Those who do not move do not feel their chains.” Descartes had to move, intellectually and spiritually, to realize the chains of his beliefs. There is a comfort in belief — a clarity. There is a discomfort in doubt — a darkness, an opacity.  

Before philosophy, I felt that the void inside me was a lack of knowledge. After reading Socrates, Descartes and others, I realized that knowledge is not an acquisition process, but a process of elimination. While science predicates itself on this notion, philosophy incorporates concepts from outside the realm of the sciences, e.g. the meaning of justice, truth and, of course, existence. Science find answers, and philosophy says, “What do those answers mean?” 

Doubt is what forces the integrity of institutions because belief requires no further analysis. This does not mean cynicism, but skepticism. “Liberty, once lost, is lost forever,” said founding father John Adams. He begged his peers to be vigilant of government and its institutions. To be vigilant requires a level of doubt and skepticism. Philosophy sparked within me an urge to inquire, an urge to seek what’s beyond the veil. Laws, it seems, are a process by which doubt in man, meets belief in justice. 

In a globalized world where corporations have nearly carte-blanche power and influence, my aim is to be a counter-balance to this hegemony and work to ensure corporate accountability, as well as government accountability. In my time pursuing an international studies degree and Arabic minor at the University of Utah, I have studied the issues humanity is confronting in the face of multinational corporate power in a globalized world. With very little mechanisms in place to check this new institutionalized power, and the failures of the U.N. Security Council in enforcing resolutions, I seek to be a part of a future that creates organizations which deal with corporate accountability and justice in a globally interconnected world. Multi-national corporate interests have moved faster than human interests. There needs to be mechanisms in place to address this growing concern, and we should all be harnessing our doubt and start questioning this growing power.

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@shinjirush