Even though we are halfway through this course, the question of how one can achieve Enlightenment is nearly as confusing as it was when we began, though for different reasons. Where before the question was difficult because I hadn’t taken time to fully ponder it, it is now difficult because I have been exposed to the views of so many philosophers and other thinkers, most of whom I agree with to some degree. In order to understand and justify my own beliefs, it is necessary for me to situate my beliefs with respect to these thinkers.
Rene Descartes, in his First Meditation in Meditations on First Philosophy, argues “if I want to discover any certainty, I must withhold my assent from [beliefs about which doubts can be raised] just as carefully as I withhold it from obvious falsehoods.” In other words, Descartes believes that something can only be known to be true if it is built solely upon other inalienable truths, and he doubts things known through the truth of experiences, since he is aware that the senses can be deceived. While I agree with Descartes’s major idea – that, unfortunately, because our senses deceive us, nothing can truly be KNOWN (as opposed to the lower-case “known,” referring to things sensory experience seems to prove consistently but about which we cannot ever be certain) – I disagree with how he derives the certainty of God. In “proving” God in his Fourth Meditation, Descartes argues:
“Now, when I consider the fact that I have doubts – which means that I am incomplete and dependent – that leads to my having a vivid and clear idea of a being who is independent and complete, that is, an idea of God. And from the mere fact that I exist and have such an idea, I infer that God exists and that every moment of my existence depends on him.”
It is quite a mental leap to assume that because a person assumes he exists and conceives an idea then that idea necessarily must be real. I can conceive of a flying polar bear that created me and maintains jurisdiction over the Western Hemisphere, but it seems obvious that my conception does not necessarily mean such a being exists. If I don’t use a similar loophole as Descartes to form the basis of some type of truth, however, it seems as if I’m stuck believing that nothing can truly be KNOWN. And if I truly believe that nothing can be KNOWN, where does that leave me with respect to enlightenment? If I believe that no one can truly KNOW anything, does that mean that I must necessarily believe that enlightenment cannot be achieved? I think not. Despite my belief that nothing can be KNOWN with 100% certainty, I do somehow believe that enlightenment is achievable. This, of course, begs a very specific definition of enlightenment that would allow for a person to be enlightened without truly KNOWING anything.
In order to negotiate such a definition, I turn to Julian Offray de La Mettrie, who disagreed with Descartes’s idea that the soul and body were necessarily two different entities, instead arguing that the soul and body were interconnected in his work Man a Machine. In this work, La Mettrie maintains “all the research that the greatest philosophers have conducted a priori… have lead nowhere. Our only way to discover the true nature of man is a posteriori, i.e. on the basis of empirical evidence,” something that I strongly agree with. Although I disagree to some extent with his idea that the only meaning of life is seeking and obtaining pleasure, I can’t disagree that empirical evidence helps us understand life and can be a step towards achieving enlightenment. But wait! – you must say – how is it that you simultaneously believe that nothing can be KNOWN and that the true nature of man can be known through empirical evidence? I negotiate these two seemingly opposing ideas on the basis of practicality. While I am aware that there is no possible way to KNOW (for certain) anything that our senses tell us, I am simultaneously aware that simply accepting that belief and refusing to move forward because of it is not useful in any way. The questions of whether I exist or not and whether what I perceive to be reality exists or not are irrelevant. What matters is that, for better or worse, I am subject to this plane of existence and governed by its laws. Whether it turns out that this reality is the only reality or it turns out that this was all a meaningless dream of some sort, refusing to learn about this plane of existence will only make navigating it more difficult. Because I am compelled to navigate it, it seems part of the right step towards enlightenment in this realm is to learn as much about it as I can, empirically. This seems the most practical solution to the problem of attempting to achieve enlightenment while aware that nothing can truly be KNOWN with certainty.
In their work Racial Formation in the United States, Omi and Winant present an analogous situation that I believe supports my idea that, despite the fact that we can’t truly KNOW, we must still attempt to learn in order to achieve enlightenment. Even though Omi and Winant believe race is a socially constructed phenomenon, they believe that it is a mistake “to imagine race as a mere illusion, a purely ideological construct which some ideal non-racist social order would eliminate” and that a “more effective starting point is the recognition that despite its uncertainties and contradictions, the concept of race continues to play a fundamental role in structuring and representing the social world.” In other words, even though theoretically race is something that only exists in our minds, it would be impractical to pretend that it doesn’t exist – it makes more sense to accept that it is a social construct and use that idea to navigate the social realities created by race. Similarly, even though we might accept that we cannot KNOW anything with certainty, it is impractical to assume that because of this we should not attempt to know anything. Just as understanding race is socially constructed should not prevent us from navigating the social realities created by it, understanding that we KNOW nothing should not keep us from pursuing enlightenment through attempting to know.
Up to this point I’ve deduced that, despite the fact that nothing can be KNOWN with certainty (are my all caps KNOWNs annoying you yet?), enlightenment can still be achieved through learning. This begs the question of at what point a person is enlightened. Is there a certain amount of knowledge that must be accumulated for a person to become enlightened? Is there some arbitrary threshold of enlightenment through which one can be thrust at the accumulation of a certain amount of facts!? Obviously, this seems improbable. But if enlightenment can’t be quantified, how can we know when enlightenment has been achieved? I believe Immanuel Kant is spot-on when he asserts in his essay “What is Enlightenment” that “Enlightenment is man’s emergence from his self-imposed nonage. Nonage is the inability to use one’s own understanding without another’s guidance.” The most important part of achieving enlightenment is that the enlightened individual uses his or her own understanding to analyze and form beliefs rather than simply accepting the beliefs of others as truth. One has reached enlightenment not when she has accumulated a certain amount of knowledge, but rather when she is able to form her own beliefs independently of what she is told to believe. This is not the only aspect of enlightenment, since we would not necessarily say that every person who desperately clings to an independently deduced belief is correct or enlightened, but it is part of it.
My definition of enlightenment, then, combines major ideas of Descartes, La Mettrie and Kant. To me, enlightenment isn’t simply reached by either accepting that one doesn’t KNOW, accumulating knowledge to a certain point or being fearless enough to use one’s own understanding. Rather, it’s a combination of these things that I believe amounts to what I would call intellectual skepticism. Though the enlightened individual understands that nothing can be KNOWN for certain, rather than allowing this fact to lead him to despair, he uses this as the basis of his skepticism. Everything that the enlightened individual accepts, he accepts on the basis of well-reasoned facts which he accepts out of practicality even though he understands that he ultimately can’t KNOW them for sure . In interpreting information, he takes into account the potential biases of the source as well as his own biases and uses his own logic to deduce what is correct. Once he completes this process, he is willing to change his beliefs relative to what the facts and logic tell him, rather than what his prejudices tell him. This is the most important part. Not only does the enlightened individual use his own understanding – he is not afraid of it. Rather than simply clinging to a belief that is convenient to cling to and deliberately understanding it the way he wants to, the enlightened individual does his best to understand what is true as objectively as possible.
In conclusion, I do believe enlightenment can be achieved, but I believe it is an individual journey and it is very difficult, if not impossible, to know for certain when it has been achieved. After all, isn’t the mark of a wise (perhaps enlightened) man that he only knows that he does not KNOW? This should not discourage striving for enlightenment, however. Enlightenment is not about reaching the destination of enlightenment and enjoying the fruits of the labor it took to get there. Rather, enlightenment is a process, and it is the process that is the most important thing. Even an undeniably enlightened individual must wake each day with the intent of striving to be enlightened. Because of this, I think it is fair to say that achieving enlightenment is possible, but it is only achievable if the individual who aspires to be enlightened makes it her goal to constantly strive towards enlightenment through constantly challenging what she believes to be true.
Rene Descartes, Meditations on First Philosophy, “First Meditation”:
Rene Descartes, Meditations on First Philosophy, “Fourth Meditation”:
Julien Offray de La Mettrie, Man a machine:
Omi and Winant, Racial Formation in the United States:
Immanuel Kant, “What is Enlightenment?”: