Philosophy One...oh, Doug: I Think, Therefore I Am

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Summary: Cogito ergo Sum, possibly the most quoted line from all of philosophy, and easily one of the most misquoted. When Descartes, the avuncular figure of modern thought, wrote those lines: was he really postulating that thought might, in fact, be the foundation of existence? Or was he up to something trickier? I'll give one example why, in philosophy, always bet on the "tricky" horse.

Tuesday, 30 March 2010

(19:09:57 CDT)

Philosophy One...oh, Doug: I Think, Therefore I Am

Picture it, the year was sometime in the past, the place was some other place, and every day life was probably a bewildering combination of things totally familiar and totally not. I'm not writing a pop-documentary, so I can skip the human interest stuff, and get right to the meat of the post: cogito ergo sum. I think, therefore I am. Or, perhaps, Rene Descartes thought, therefore Rene Descartes was. You have probably heard this quote, or something like it, for years now. As far as philosophy goes, it is one of the only bits that will actually seep into public education, into childhood jokes, and into Sunday morning comic strips. If you think about it, and I intend no pun, it does sound a little daffy doesn't it? If you think, you are? What kind of snowflake philosophy is that? What about rocks? They do not think but they at least seem to exist (tricksy philosophers!). What about trees? Do they think? I mean, tomatoes must be thinking right? You had one a burger just yesterday. All of us can name a dozen things that we assume do not think but seem to exist just fine, give or a take a few small moments of self-doubt.

That is what makes this one a two-fer if you will. Not only will explain what the crap Descartes was on about, but I will explain the most basic of Aristotelean syllogisms: modus ponens. If P, then Q. You see, Descartes was not setting up thinking as a prerequisite for existences. That is Bad (capital B) Latin. Cogito does not mean "the act of thinking". It means "I, the first person, think". And sum is not just any old "is". It means "I am". The translation is literal: "I personally think, therefore I personally am". In modus ponens, the truth of P predicts the truth of Q, but the truth of Q cannot predict the truth of P. The untruth of Q lets us know the untruth of P, but you can have a dozen Qs with no P in sight. Let's try it this way: if it rains, the ground will get wet for a little while. If the ground is not wet, it has not recently rained. But, the ground can be wet for any number of reasons that have nothing to do with rain. Descartes is not proving that everything thinks, he is much more self-centered than that. Like a properly tricksy philosopher, he is using heavily constrained logic to set it up.

So his grand quote is only about one person, what good is that? What does it even mean? To get that, I'll have to ask the question that he starts out asking: what can you know for fact? He cannot trust physical reality (stick with me on this) because he can recall instances where something he thought was real wasn't. Say you are walking home one night, and you hear footsteps behind you but it turns out that it was just your echo. Or say, to quote him more explicitly, you have a bad sandwich and that leads to you having really intense dreams that seem real. While these are minor examples, they at least show that unreal things can seem real, from time to time, and so all perception is at least a little bit in doubt.

Ok, so we could be having a collective nightmare brought on by bad beef sandwiches (doesn't that explain a lot?) but what about logic and math? How can 1 + 1 be anything other than 2? Well, here he cites a Satan-esque entity called the Great Deceiver. What if there is this big ole monster who lied to you about the nature of things? What if there is no number 2 and so 1 and 1 can never be anything but two singles?

Non-philosophers have been saying pish-posh for a couple of paragraphs now, and I'll give you: taking Occam's Razor and throwing it out the window by saying it is more logical to assume a force so omnipotent that it can fake the laws of math rather than accept there is truth out there is not the kind of philosophical argument you want to bet your last dollar on, unless you are getting to a point. He was: this is where the cogito comes in at. He has now cast aside everything physical, and everything logical, as potentially false and therefore not completely trustworthy. Where does he go from here? Simply this: someone is thinking about this, so something must exist. Even if that person is thinking absolutely wrong arguments and stupid things, you cannot argue it exists. If it didn't exist, it wouldn't be thinking. Cogito ergo sum.

It is a nice little tautology that really informs nothing. Surely thinking exists and something exists to think, or what's the point of even having philosophy. He ended up at something of a null point. I am one of those philosophers who holds that we can assume that something exists, because if not, what are turtle necks made of(?!), but he is pretty early on in the game here. He, as you might can guess, then starts spitting more false syllogisms than a lifetime of ducks has quacks: about how since he exists, well, then that means God exists (why else would he exist AND think of God if God did not also exist, that's silly. Since he and God both exist, then everything else exists and just joking about that whole "being in doubt" thing. His point wasn't that he really doubted all those things, it was that he did not doubt them at all, and he was going to get to spot where none of your tricky "BUT!s" could be wiggled in his face.

Not that the cogito is perfect. I mean, the "I" is kind of in question. As one of the classic critiques of it says: coming around that something is thinking is not to say that the something is Rene Descartes.

At any rate, now you know why someone would say something of thing, and why it didn't do much. Knowledge is power.

Si Vales, Valeo


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