Life’s First Principle


A first principle is a fact that can’t be reduced to other facts. Physics has broken down the constituents of our shared reality to small strings of folded space that form the basis of everything that exists. While this approach to first principles is laudable and produces fantastically accurate descriptions of our shared reality, reductionism does little to elucidate the first principles of our personal existence.

Rene Descartes sought to determine the first principle of personal existence, and he concluded: “I think; therefore, I am.” Later philosophers realized this wasn’t truly a first principle because it relies on the concept “I”, which is a product of the mind. However, Descartes was honing in on the first principle but didn’t go deep enough. A more fundamental statement is “Awareness exists, therefore existence is irrefutable.” This is a first principle, an indisputable fact rooted in our personal experience.

In human beings and a few other animals, awareness is so strong that it becomes aware of itself. For purposes of this writing, the awareness of awareness is defined as consciousness in order to distinguish this special feature from the ordinary environmental awareness most living creatures possess.

Awareness requires no “I” but it does require an observer. Most people intuitively identify with this observer and create an “I” from it. This is innate self-grasping. The “I” Rene Descartes thought couldn’t be doubted can be doubted. In fact, the core teaching of Buddhism is that this “I” that we identify with so strongly does not actually exist, at least not like we believe it does. Most people perceive the “I” as a separate observer independent of the body that it seems to possess. Most of our deepest intuitions — and mistaken delusions — spring from the perception of “I”.

All the intuitions we hold as basic truths are based on the first principle of awareness. Consciousness, or the awareness of awareness, is based on this first principle. Our sense of self, our “I”, is a product of our conscious mind. All our experiences, beliefs, aspirations, feelings, and choices are colored by our sense of self-created by our conscious mind.

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I am Anattā. Not my real name, of course, but that’s the point. I selected the moniker Anattā because in Buddhism, my primary spiritual practice, the term anattā refers to the doctrine of “non-self”. In more practical terms, I chose the name Anattā because by writing anonymously, it’s far easier to be completely candid and honest. Further, there is no danger of my writing becoming tainted by any desire for self-aggrandizement. I write primarily to improve my own understanding of these topics, but my deepest desire for writing on this site is to help others.