Well here we all are walking about the world. If we think about ourselves and our situation – if, in other words, we become philosophers – then we have to start with the most basic thing we know. What is it? It is that we are conscious beings surrounded by people and things. So these are the most basic philosophical questions: how do we know? what is a thing? what is a person? So there’s some homework for the rest of your life.
Most contemporary atheists think within traditions of philosophy that have come down from Locke and Hume, so what did they think about these three questions? How do we know? On this they are agreed. All our knowledge begins with sensing things. Until we hear something or see something our minds are like blank sheets of paper, a tabula rasa in Locke’s phrase. The things outside us that we see and hear impress themselves on our minds ‘as a signet ring leaves an impression in wax’ says Locke. Hume’s metaphor – and this is a crucial point for me because they thought of these ideas as such obvious facts they needed no further demonstration whereas I think they were just misleading metaphors – in Hume’s metaphor the mind makes copies of what it sees and hears. This is what he meant by an idea, but the copy is not something immaterial and nebulous. It is always a material copy of what the body senses. For us the comparison with a photocopier comes irresistably to mind.
What did they think a thing is? On this they are completely agreed. When you see a tree you think without thinking too much about it oh hello there’s a tree. Locke and Hume think this a kind of illusion. There is no such thing as a whole tree. What you actually know are brown and greenish colours + a round trunk + branches + leaves and so on. There are no whole and indivisible things, only collections of bits which are in their turn collections of the molecules and atoms that make them up.
What is a person? On this they disagreed. Locke thought that a person is the one exception to the ‘things are only collections of bits’ rule, because the soul is directly created by God. Hume, who had severe doubts about God, disagreed. ‘For my part’ he wrote ‘ when I enter most intimately into myself I always stumble on some particular perception or other, of heat or cold, light or shade, love or hatred, pain or pleasure. I can never catch myself at any time without a perception, and never can observe anything but the perception’. For Hume a person is no more than a bundle of feelings, ideas and memories born forward on the stream of time. When I am asleep I cannot be said to exist. When I die I will not be a soul surviving into another dimension but will be entirely annihilated. There is no connection whatsoever between you and the person you were when you were a child except that of contiguity between one lot of cells that took the place of the previous lot that took the place of the cells that preceded them.
From what I know of modern brain science, which isn’t very much, and from much looking at Cezanne’s paintings I have come to the conclusion that Locke and Hume were wrong. But I have to see to the dog now who is poorly, so I’ll have to go on thinking about this another time.