insomnia, thoughts about philosophical skepticism

Sleep? Not much. Maybe four hours a night—five if I’m lucky—and it interrupted every hour or two by nightmares and headaches. I arise several times a night and read—Francis Parkman’s The Oregon Trail of late, but mostly the Britannica’s section on philosophy. I find much that I can’t make sense of, so I reread and rethink. Often, I still make no sense of it, and I wonder if anyone can. Examples are numerous, but I will offer one that is brief, ancient, and famous. In the 11th century St. Anselm made the following argument in favor of the existence of a deity.

“…a being conceived to be perfect must necessarily exist, for otherwise he would lack one of the essentials of perfection.”

Isn’t this the same as saying: “A rabbit that is conceived to be omnipresent exist must necessarily exist, for otherwise he would lack the qualification for omnipresence”? Why has Anselm’s argument survived for 1,000 years rather than being dismissed the day it was made? Much of philosophy strikes me as equally meritless.

The only philosophical stance that has ever appealed to me consistently has been skepticism, because it is the only one that is logically unassailable. To every inductively-based knowledge claim, the skeptic responds: how do you know this to be true?; and the claim is quickly shown to rest upon a train of assumptions that are themselves improvable. The problem with skepticism is that it often defies common sense, which greatly reduces the number of thoroughgoing skeptics. If I say that a given bachelor is single, I might be redundant, yet I will be right 100% of the time, based upon the definition of the terms. On the other hand, I might truthfully argue that there is no absolute proof that pressing my face to a red-hot griddle for ten minutes will damage it (a knowledge of past events justifies, at most, predictions of probability), yet I have no intention of holding pressing my face to a red hot griddle for even ten seconds.

Skepticism is a cure for illogical proofs rather than a source of logical ones, and hence it is of small comfort when one is wide awake at 4:00 a.m., almost panicked by his inability to sleep, and twitching and trembling while struggling to coordinate his movements—all while wondering what in the hell life is about. (I personally delivered a friend to the asylum when he became stuck on the question and would say nothing else all day long.)

Of course, I err logically in assuming that life is about anything. I even err in assuming that insomnia is a problem. After all, I can’t prove either, and I can’t even define my terms since words like meaning, purpose, and problem are among those words that we think we have a clear grasp of until we are called upon to define them. As do most words. Table, for example, or even red; words that are either umbrella words or that define a quality of perception as opposed to a quality of measurability (as in the water is hot, versus the water is 110. 246841ยบ). Only is there, really and truly, such a thing as objective measurability? After all, words and numbers are a human creation, a way of describing reality in terms that we can understand and communicate. We impose an artificial construct over that which our senses can detect and our minds can comprehend, so we can never know that we have experienced reality as it is as opposed to how it seems to us. There is my perception of my dog, and there is my dog, and I cannot know how closely the two coincide.