Pierre is N’t here
In his masterwork Being and Nothingness, written during the Nazi occupation of France, Jean-Paul Sartre asks us to imagine a scene in everyday life: You walk into a café. You are meeting your buddy Pierre there, but you are running late. You look around the café to get Pierre, and you see he is not there.
However, what’s it to see that someone is not there? You see lots of items, sure enough: chairs, tables, cups, saucers, patrons. But all the café provides you is favorable sense-data: sights, sounds, scents, and so on. There is not any visible, concrete Pierre-shaped hole floating in space. Nevertheless Pierre’s absence haunts it and we see this immediately.
Note that you didn’t infer that Pierre isn’t here. You didn’t need to go through some process of conscious justification; you just see that Pierre is not where you expect him to become.
You start playing a game. Pierre is not here. But neither is Napoleon! Yet you didn’t see Napoleon’s not-beinghere if you walked . Pierre’s absence is a real fact; Napoleon’s is not.
What does this experience tell us? According to Sartre, perceiving”negative facts” — scanning a crowded area and seeing our friend is not there, or even staring in piles of rubble and seeing that the town has been ruined — reveals that consciousness is not simply determined by the information streaming into it in the external world. We’re not just like a camera that could only capture whatever is facing it. We can discover what is not in front of us, not yet or no longer there. That, says Sartre, demonstrates something fundamental: this understanding, alone of all the things in the universe, is free.
“I will set aside anything which admits of the slightest uncertainty, treating it as though I had discovered it to be outright false; and that I shall carry on like that till I find something certain, or at worst — until I become certain that there isn’t any certainty. Archimedes said that when he had one firm and immovable point he can lift the entire world ·using a long enough lever·; therefore I too could hope for great things if I have the ability to find only one little thing that’s solid and certain. I will assume, then, that everything I see is fictitious. I will feel that my memory tells me nothing but lies. I don’t have any senses. So what remains accurate? Perhaps just the 1 fact that nothing is certain!”