One approach some philosophers have taken to philosophy has been to identify a central, undeniable truth and then use that truth as a foundation from which to construct a system of thought. Rene Descartes’ famous dictum of I think, therefore I am (cognito ergo sum) is a prototype example of this kind of approach. The value in such an approach is in the grounding the central precept affords. The problem is that even if the original statement is valid, inferences and implications that are needed to grow the system may still be wrong (e.g., Descartes’ substance dualism).
In this post, I want to use this tactic of philosophers, but do so from the language and lens of The Justification Hypothesis. Descartes claimed that his thinking demonstrated his existence. I, however, want to invert this. The central starting point that I want to offer here is the statement:
I am, therefore I justify.
Following Descartes, I agree that the belief that can withhold the most intense skepticism is the belief in the fundamental existence of my self-conscious mind. I exist. I am even more certain of this than the existence of the rest of the world. For example, although unbelievable, it nevertheless remains conceivable that my brain is in a vat—ala the movie The Matrix. Yet it is not conceivable that my first person experience does not exist. (Note this does not commit me to solipsism). But the statement, I am, therefore I justify, is different than my existence. The statement is about my existence. I must both exist and make the claim that I do so. And the claim is an act of justification.
It seems to me that justification is the fundamental first act of philosophy. Any philosophy. All philosophical systems begin with the enactment of a justification, and proceed to grow via the process of justification. One cannot engage in the process of philosophy without engaging in justification. Any starting point will be a starting claim, and thus will be a justification. And, of course, any claims to the contrary regarding the limitations, inaccuracies, or problems with any starting justification will themselves be justifications.
From a philosophical perspective, we can then begin to build a system of thought from this starting point, asking all the strangely obvious/contorted questions that philosophers are inclined to do. Is the “I” making the claim, the same “I” that went to work yesterday? Do you exist? How do I know you exist and you know I exist? What am I made up of? The networks of claims that we develop in answering these questions is our foundational philosophical justification system. Moreover, with the concept of justification firmly in hand, we can move freely into work done on epistemic justification and work on theory of knowledge. The Tree of Knowledge is my conceptual framework for answering these questions.
This central justification also has profound implications for one of the major long standing problems in philosophy and psychology, namely the issue of free will versus determinism. This is the problem, essentially, of whether you freely choose your actions, or whether your ‘choices’ determined by past events, and the sense of choice is an illusion. People grappling with this question wonder, on the one hand, if you are free, how is that possible given the lawful nature of the universe? And, yet on the other hand, if you are not free, they why does it seem, at least in many circumstances, that one can choose what one does? That will be the subject of another post, but for now, I will leave you with this thought…The human self is the entity that justifies the actions of the individual. Your ‘self’ is the entity that justifies your actions.