This summer was my longest stay back home, in Mexico City, in my life as a philosophy student abroad. Because of course I failed to meet my goal of finishing coursework before the holiday, I went back to the studio space I used to rent for writing in Colonia Juárez, near the city centre. By “studio space” I mean the one unusable corner of an apartment in an early twentieth-century building that, the landlord claims, used to house the British diplomatic corps prior to the Mexican revolution, and that now brims with wild flora and peeling green walls.
It was there that the earthquake found me.
The essay I was grappling with deals with the old question whether the things we perceive—the things that we see and touch—have a reality that is independent of us. The relevant discussion starts with Immanuel Kant’s argument against Descartes’ skepticism about the empirical world.
While Descartes aimed to show that the only thing I can be certain of is my own existence, Kant argued that in order for that to be possible I need to in fact be aware of the world around me as actually existing independent of me. This is because, if I am aware of my existence as flowing in time, as I am, then there must be something fixed by reference to which I can be aware that I am not fixed but flowing. Precisely because Descartes is right that I can be certain that I exist, says Kant, I must be certain that a world distinct from me exists as well.
This argument is liable to numerous objections. A famous one, raised by contemporary philosopher Barry Stroud, is that Kant reasons illegitimately from a premise about subjective experience to a conclusion about the existence of objective reality. The problem is that one field of inquiry concerns how we experience and know the world, i.e. what our conceptual framework is like, while the other concerns what actually exists. According to Stroud, the most Kant’s premise can prove is that we experience the external world as existing.
I commissioned myself to get Kant out of this dead end. Though the task is of course ridiculously ambitious for a student, at the same time it felt easy. After all, I have seen, heard and touched the world my entire life. How hard could it be to show that that world, like me, is real?
At the studio, I sit facing a window that faces the inner courtyard. This arrangement makes my desk improbably quiet for the location of the building, opposite various businesses and half a block from the local market. Perfect for thinking and writing. That’s what I was supposed to be doing last Tuesday, around 1pm, when my chair suddenly shook. Because the public early-warning alarm did not in fact go off early, and because my spot is improbably soundproof, it took me a second to infer from the rocking of the lamps and unfastened windows that I was finally acquiring what we Mexico City-born millennials used to be accused of lacking in explanations of our generation’s apathy: the experience of the 1985 earthquake, which occurred exactly 32 years before and which took the lives of thousands of Mexico City dwellers, and transformed those of the rest.
Needless to say, those twenty seconds were unlike anything I’d felt before. Standing under a beam as instructed in school, I did nothing but absorb reality with all my senses. It wasn’t until the swaying finished that I thought about how unlucky I had been to find myself in an over one-hundred-year-old house at the time of the tremor, and how lucky it was that one-hundred-year-old houses were often built with iron rather than concrete beams. Other than that, however, I didn’t think much yet. I sat back down, read a little more, and felt vaguely uneasy. I went out to get something to eat.
The street was chaos. On my way to the market, I stumbled upon debris. Electricity and mobile coverage were out, so I followed the sound of a radio and heard talk of collapsed buildings. Only then did the magnitude of the quake start to hit me. Moreover, the voice said, those buildings were located in the Roma and Condesa area: right next to where I live. I headed back to my studio, still stunned, not thinking, where my friend José Antonio found me. We managed to reach his girlfriend and my parents from a shop’s landline, and at a point when cell coverage was back, a friend from abroad texted me uncanny pictures of the disaster. “They need help digging people out,” he added. And so we went.
Kant’s goal in the above argument, found in his “Refutation of Idealism,” might be described as that of getting objectivity out of subjectivity: his aim is to secure certainty about what the real world is like out of certainty about what our experience of it is like. In these terms, his claim is that subjectivity implies objectivity. Stroud’s objection is that subjectivity is self-sufficient. For our experience to be the way it is, Stroud says, we must only believe the world to be as real as it seems to us.
The attack is powerful. It is tempting to claim, with Stroud, that no matter how genuine my awareness of what’s around me might seem—no matter how vividly red apples look to me or how strongly cheese smells, there is no way to show that my awareness of these things is not just an awareness of my own imaginings, i.e. an awareness of myself and nothing else. But perception has often been considered the most primitive link our minds have to the world. So Stroud’s claim that my awareness of my own perceptions does not imply awareness of the world leaves Cartesian skepticism untouched—and my coursework ambitions in trouble.
Damage in Colonia Juárez was severe but no buildings crumbled. The neighborhood is located just north of Colonias Condesa and Roma, and all three stand on what used to be the lake where the Aztecs founded the city nearly a millennium ago. Their soils, accordingly, are loose and dance to quakes like jelly. Most dwellings in Condesa and Roma, however, are older.
José Antonio and I collected a batteryless radio from his home a few blocks from my studio; and lamps, and although we felt silly, a couple of cans of food. Nothing of this of course would be of any help. Nothing could prepare us for what we were about to see.
As soon as we crossed Chapultepec Avenue and entered Colonia Roma, it became apparent that what happened really had been a catastrophe. One out of every four buildings had some kind of damage, and there was broken glass and fallen bits of facade on every street. We joined a group of people carrying shovels; they were headed to a collapsed office building a few blocks away. A truck that had somehow crossed the cordon blocking off the street drove past us; it was packed with volunteers waving, inviting us in. We followed them running. Shortly, we saw our first site of collapse. Then another. Then another. There were desperate people howling. In Condesa, we ran into a friend outside his practically intact house, pale and shaking. We asked if he was okay and if he was headed somewhere safe. He replied reflexively that he “had no one”—he meant no lovers or close friends. We knew this but it had been never spoken. We hugged; we told him warm things. He stood there and we left.