Alien Asylum

I awake and I am myself. My memory is intact. At least, my memory is working the way it usually does. I am Allen. But when I look down, something is wrong. My arms are as thin as broom handles and their color is an unnatural white. They are striped like candy canes with red and green lines winding around them. My fingers are twice as long and half as thick as they were and they're striped in the same manner, only more delicately. I must be 7 feet tall and weigh less than 100 pounds. I am...what? A cartoon? I see a mirror and my face is striped like the rest of my new body. Still, my face is somewhat human: two eyes, a noselike thing, maybe a mouth.

My memory disagrees with my senses. Which am I to believe? I have to turn back to my philosophy in order to decide how to proceed in such unfamiliar circumstances. What is the most important thing in the world, I ask. My answer is immediate: MY WANTS, MY DESIRES. Now I want to know what's going on; I desire to know what's happening. In an hour, I may want a hamburger or a beer or to work for peace in the Middle East. My desires are the cause of my actions. Nothing is sacred except my what I want. Let me restate this idea as a pseudo-Taoist dictum: The only reason a person moves is because he is unhappy.

There are few sentences in human language that do not contain some imprecisions or lies, but there's one class of utterances that I tend to believe. I never question the honesty of a person who begins a sentence “I want..." Of course, he can always ruin it by saying something like “I want to help you."

I want to know where I am and I have two tools for finding things out: my memory and my senses. My memory gives me few clues now and so I turn to my senses. I seem to be in some sort of room. I suppose that I am in a bed. There is an interplay of light that makes it a sleeping place. There are other things in the room. I can name some, but I have no names for the other things. If you look at the vegetation beside a road, you may see many different plants, but you may not be able to name them. They are a blur to you and you can not reconstruct a picture of them in your memory. This is how I see my surroundings.

One wall of the room is missing. I walk out of my room but as I go into the open landscape I move more and more slowly. Some sort of force is slowing me down so that I can't actually leave the room. But as I try, a creature appears, a creature that looks like what I have become. Only this creature is colored black with paisley markings decorating its skin; or perhaps what I think is skin is actually clothing. He leads me gently back to the bed, but there is no bed there. It's just a sleeping place. I don't know how I know that.

I want to know what's going on but I'm being thwarted. I turn to my mind and memory. My memory tells me that I am thinking like a crazy person. Perhaps I am Allen hallucinating or perhaps I am an alien being in an insane asylum with with the delusion that he is Allen. I use this idea to achieve my desires. First, I walk into the open space that slows me down and the paisley alien appears again to take me to my sleeping place. I point to myself and say "Allen Thornton." The alien looks at me sadly and says “TreeJAT" with an unnaturally loud accent on the second syllable. I point to myself and say “TreeJAT." The alien looks surprised. He leaves me for a while and returns with another alien. This one is green and yellow with geometric decorations. I stand and point to myself and declare “TreeJAT." I think I'm getting somewhere, but if this method doesn't work, I'll try something else.

I can't know if pursuing my desires will make me happier or sadder. I can't know if anything I do makes sense, but I am condemned to act on my desires. Perhaps I could choose inaction or try to change my desires. Even the act of trying to change my desires is acting on my desires and I have no idea where it will lead.

I begin in quiet, in harmony with the world. Then a desire enters my mind, a want, an itch. After the desire, I act. I may act to fulfill my wish or I may act to control myself from fulfilling it. But if I try to control my desire or change it, I am simply acting from some other desire within myself. I can not escape the selfishness of my actions. All my actions originate in my desires.

My want may be as simple as thirst and be satisfied simply by drinking. But my desire may be incredibly complex. I may desire to find a hair shirt so that I can punish my flesh in order to strengthen my identification with Jesus. But this desire is still my selfish desire and my actions are still selfish. Perhaps I try to stifle my desires in order to get in touch with the cosmic consciousness. My desire to stifle desires is still a desire itself and so ultimately selfish. Here's what I know so far: I desire something. I act to satisfy that desire. I can not escape the selfishness of my acts.

But wait. How do I know that? I know it only from my memory. But my memory is in conflict with my senses. How can I believe my memory? I believe my thoughts are always changing, that I keep desiring different things. Why do I believe that memory is set in stone? Perhaps my memory, which includes all my knowledge, is in flux. What possible test could I give my memory? If I conducted the test, how could I be sure that my memory of the test was correct? If I can't be sure that my memory is accurate, I can never know anything.

My senses give me information, but what makes me believe that this information is true. Neither my memory nor my senses can be proven to give me truth. Therefore, I must forget about truth. I'd like to know the truth. It could help me in attaining my desires, but I can never know that anything I experience or remember has any relation to actual existence.

What am I to do with my desires? In the alien asylum, I started by treating my senses as though they were giving me true information. When I was stopped from realizing my desire by the force field, I went back and searched my memory. The alien place was like an insane asylum and so I acted as I would have acted in a human insane asylum if I wanted the same thing. First, I wanted to summon an alien. An alien had appeared once when I walked through the open wall and so I walked through the open wall again. Ours minds make the most outrageous generalizations. Here's a proposition: “If you walk through the open wall into the force field, an alien will always come." This statement could be true or false. But I can not know truth or falsehood. Here's what I do. If I want something to happen, I try to duplicate the conditions that preceded its happening before. Notice that I simply assumed that my memory and senses were giving the correct information. But what else can I do? I can't know the truth. The truth is not my business. My business is satisfying my desires and I am interested in UTILITY. I am interested in what is useful to me. What is useful to me? THE REPEATABLE. If I can find some pattern in my sense impressions, I can use it to satisfy my desires. THE REPEATABLE is very close to what is called the truth as established by the scientific method. The “useful" and “scientific truth" may be identical in matters relating to the material world.

The “useful" helps me in other ways. I can not establish the truth or falsity of my memory or sense impressions, but I can find no “use” in assuming that they are not generally correct. I, therefore, establish the correctness of my senses and memory by their “utility” to me. I'll outline what I believe so far.

1. I can not prove that my senses are giving me correct information.

2. I can not prove that I am remembering things that actually happened.

3. I have desires and must I act.

4. All my actions are aimed at fulfilling my desires.

5. All my actions are necessarily selfish. So far I am in general agreement with David Hume, but now I will begin to diverge a little.

6. I want to know what is useful in gaining my desire.

7. I can not know what is truly useful.

8. Proposition 7 is not useful to me.

9. I will find a basis for action that seems useful to me.

10. I assume that my senses and memory are generally true because the denial of that proposition would leave me utterly helpless and confused.

11. If some other assumption proves more useful to me, I will use it instead of 10.

I call this subjectivist epistemology.