As Abby and I settle into swanky leather seats and I nestle sandwich baggies of contraband candy into cup holders, preparing for a nostalgic showing of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1, the previews shutter to a stop and the monolithic screen sends us off to Privet Drive with one final message: Prepare. To. Believe. Mind-Blowing Images. Earth-Shattering Sound. The Ultimate Movie Experience. Watch A Movie. Or Be Part of One. IMAX Is Believing.
I think that today there exists in our movie theaters and in our nation the idea that if something is big enough, loud enough, or repeated enough times, it must be true. The more something can plug up your senses or monopolize your mind, the more real it must be. But I don’t think something needs to be big to be believed.
In his 1637 work Discourse on the Method, René Descartes first published his famous declaration of existence “Je pense, donc je suis.” “I think, therefore I am.” The assertion was hewn from a period of profound doubt in which Descartes extrapolated the uncertainty found in optical illusions and dreams to their logical extremes, concluding that if a single perception or thought can be false, they all can. Then, in the philosophical void he dug for himself, he began to scavenge for one certainty he could cling to and off of which he could rebuild his understanding of existence, turning life itself into a logic puzzle.
Descartes later repeated these sentiments in his book Principles of Philosophy, writing:
While we thus reject all of which we can entertain the smallest doubt, and even imagine that it is false, we easily indeed suppose that there is neither God, nor sky, nor bodies, and that we ourselves even have neither hands nor feet, nor, finally, a body; but we cannot in the same way suppose that we are not while we doubt of the truth of these things; for there is a repugnance in conceiving that what thinks does not exist at the very time when it thinks. Accordingly, the knowledge, I think, therefore I am, is the first and most certain that occurs to one who philosophizes orderly.
In my 2010 Philosophy 101 class, I remember being fascinated by this Odyssean philosophical feat but simultaneously a bit skeptical. I hate to ruffle up Descartes’ orderly philosophizing, but it seems to me that if we’re throwing our senses and our worldviews out the window, we should probably be tossing the very concept of logic out, too. Maybe we really are just brains floating in vats of chemicals being prodded by aliens deep in the REM cycles of a sleeping and entirely non-existent buffalo named Barbara Streisand.
However, while I remain unconvinced by the foundation of Descartes’ carefully crafted philosophical framework, I’ve been inspired by his devastating commitment to painstakingly sifting through reality for a single nugget of truth, to ruthlessly burning down a forest to find a puddle that will quench his thirst.
And while my existential sojourns may not be quite as thorough as Descartes’, I embarked on many of them during my college years and often found myself lost in the very same void he dug, hopelessly turned around and left to desperately wonder if happiness is chemical, if love is instinctual, if truth is cultural, if altruism is farcical, if publication is trivial, if life itself is happenstantial. Maybe we are nothing more than a mold congealing over a primordial soup, a coincidental succession of chemical reactions. Maybe the earth is as formless and void as it has always been. At my darkest moments, life felt like looking in on a snow globe that I was tired of shaking. I needed that one certainty.
It was then that I hypothesized that we can believe in one of two things: nothing or something. I’ll explain. For me, believing in nothing does not mean not believing. Rather, it is the belief that the science of our existence is passionless, that atoms are 99.9999999999996% empty space and, thus, that we and everyone we know are overwhelmingly nothing. It is fatalistic without the imagination to muster fate.
Likewise, to believe in something does not mean to believe in anything. It is not 30 Rock’s Liz Lemon being asked what her religion is and responding, “Hmm, I pretty much just do whatever Oprah tells me to.” Rather, it is a conviction that there is something hovering over those primal waters, something true and something meaningful.
With this diametric view, anything beyond molecular dominoes—Buddhism, Deism, Greek mythology, Scientology, Steinbeck’s “human spirit”—is necessarily mystical and somewhat illogical. This is not a rejection of evolution or science or fact, but a belief that it is not directionless but instead intertwined with beauty and creativity and purpose.
For this reason, merely believing in “something” is not half-hearted or vague, but both mind-blowing and earth-shattering. Sure, I think the Cartesian continuation of this decision is to pursue this something, assembling faith and morals and religion to approach and better understand it, and most days Christianity feels like a lyrical, moving framework for perceiving this something. But at the end of the day, I think that something isn’t reserved for and is in fact beyond religion.
Instead, something is pressed into the bedsheets that old friends tuck over their couch cushions and loomed through the stanzas of ancient hymns and blotted about the words typed miles and lifetimes away. It is even, I believe, tucked in the shambled shops of Diagon Alley. It is not big or booming or broadcast in HD, but it is steadfast and true, a vanishing point somewhere in the distance that always justifies the time and effort needed for another Renaissance. And if at the end of each day, I can whisper, “There is something, therefore we are!”, I am happy.
Gabe Gunnink (’14) lives in Seattle, where he works for a European travel company and gawks at the landscapes and skylines surrounding him. In his free time, he enjoys practicing Portuguese under his breath on city buses, running far enough to justify eating an entire pan of cinnamon rolls, and faithfully implementing Oxford commas.