I believe in thought and the quest for truth

Author: Jenelle Salisbury, TCU Student, Neuroscience major, Published fall 2012

When I was stopped at the “This I Believe” tent at TCU, they said all I had to do to win a prize was to write down one thing that I believe on a note card. Sounds easy, right? Not for me. I wanted to write something that I truly, actually believed without a doubt. However, for me, doubt seems to be intrinsic. I considered just writing something cliché to get the prize, but decided against it. Another part of me wanted to just lay the card and the pen back down on the table and say, “I’m sorry. I just don’t believe in anything.” Why couldn’t I think of just one thing that I believed? I believe in skepticism; I believe in questioning everything in one’s external and internal realities on the quest for truth. But does the quest for truth really lead anywhere, or will I always be left not knowing? Epistemologically I have always felt that the one thing I can know for sure is the simple fact that I am conscious, so on my note card I simply wrote “thought.”

This is not to say that I don’t have beliefs in relation to my own life. I believe in love, I believe in family, I believe in honesty. I believe the things I do in this world matter and I love to help people. I have all of these beliefs in the moral and social realm. However, as a philosophical thinker, I am hesitant to say that I believe them 100%, i.e., that I know them. This is because I think that the only things that can truly be believed or known are things that are true in every possible world, not just the one we are in. Why? Because then the beliefs are fully general and thus relatable to every situation, even a situation that I cannot comprehend. Every belief I have is relative to the human brain, and who am I to say that this brain reflects reality? Some people think that skepticism is a sad and ignorant mindset to have, but to me, nothing else makes sense. Moreover, I am not a classic skeptic – I have one strong foundational, Cartesian belief that I feel is enough to live a bountiful life.

If one wanted to fully doubt, he/she could ask the question “How do you know that you are conscious?” and to me, this is a question that simply does not make sense. To illustrate, imagine a possible world in which we are not actually conscious. Instead, we just “invented” the idea of consciousness when in reality it doesn’t exist. However, in order to “invent” or “imagine,” one must in the first place have some form of consciousness. Whether all humans that have ever lived are one collective consciousness, or whether we are indeed in the matrix and this is all in our heads, consciousness in some form must exist because thoughts, although difficult to place one’s finger on, are undeniably real.
Well, okay. So we know we are conscious. What then? Even if we are bacterium in jars cultivated by an alien species we could still possibly have consciousness, so how does the knowledge of this fact benefit us at all?

I also believe one more thing, from which I feel I can derive all the knowledge I will ever need. I believe consciousness is a physical entity or collection of entities in the human brain. This is why I chose to become a neuroscience major. I believe we can know nothing of the true nature of the self or of reality until we know everything about the mechanisms with which we perceive and process it. I believe the human brain is this mechanism and thus the study of which is our portal to truth.

I suppose to most people I sound like a person with no direction, no beliefs, no happiness – nihilistic perhaps. I cannot emphasize enough that this is not what I am or the point I am trying to make. I love the processes of life, and I believe what I do matters. I just think to say that I know anything in any sort of absolute sense is illogical given that I have only experienced the world I am in, and only experienced it through the senses I developed as a human. I love these senses and I love this world, I just hesitate to relate it to any sort of absolute truth. I find comfort in the absolute truth that is consciousness. I am passionate about defining the physical bases of this phenomenon and ready to dedicate my life to it. This is my quest for truth.