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Cartesian Philosophy – Emily

“I think, therefore, I exist.”

René Descartes
The Father of Modern Philosophy

Born near the end of the 16th century in France, Rene Descartes has been considered the “Father of Modern Philosophy”. In his early life he studied much, but in his later youth he left behind his father’s dreams for him to be a lawyer and resolved “to seek no knowledge other than that of which could be found in [himself] or else in the great book of the world”. He traveled, “…visiting courts and armies, mixing with people of diverse temperaments and ranks…and at all times reflecting upon whatever came my way so as to derive some profit from it.” (Descartes, Wikipedia)

In his mid twenties, he was stationed in Neuberg an der Donau, Germany, he had a series of three very powerful dreams or visions which he claimed greatly influenced his life. Among other things, it is said that he saw that all truths were interconnected, and that a fundamental truth would help open the way to all science (which he had already concluded would be “a central part of his life’s work”). Descartes found his basic truth fairly soon: the famous “I think, therefore I am”.

This phrase has been described as “one of the catchiest ideas yet created by the human mind” (freerepublic.com) , and is certainly one of the most famous phrases in all of philosophy.

The essence of this idea is that, to think you exist, you must exist. You cannot think about anything without first existing, especially existence. By extension, it is also impossible to truly doubt your own existence, because one needs to first exist before they can doubt existing. However, it is quite simple to doubt objects, people and events. As we’ve discussed before, it ccould be considered ridiculous to base the amount of knowledge and theories that we do on simple sensory perception. Our senses are just too inaccurate for us to rely completely on them – but then again, they are all we have, so we can go with limited and flawed perceptions, or we can go with nothing.

To illustrate the limits our senses have, Descartes used the Wax Argument. In essence, it is:

You have a piece of wax.
Your senses tell you about it: smell, texture, weight, colour, etc.
Yo bring this wax near a heat source.
Your senses tell you that the characteristics of the piece of wax change, however, it is still the same piece of wax.
Therefore, in order to properly grasp the nature of the wax, you should put aside the senses. You must use your MIND.

One can find evidence of this Philosophy or Truth in modern society – there is the common belief that humans are, by nature superior to animals. That we have conscience, consciousness, and more rights. Descartes and others of his time even took this further, some saying that animals had reason or intelligence, or could even feel pain.

I find myself agreeing with Descartes’ “Truth” – “I think, therefore, I am”. I can’t know what exists, other than my consciousness. One’s natural response to this is usually along the lines of either “Well that chair doesn’t think, so it doesn’t exist” or “No, I know that my body exists, and I know that Descartes guy existed since he said that quote, etc…”. But the best thing is, once you start thinking about it, it gets better. No, you can’t really know if that chair exists – all you have to base that assumption on are your senses and perception. If we think back to logic, we know that if A (I think), therefore B (I exist), it does not necessarily mean that if B, therefore A.

Also, we don’t really know if Descartes ever truly existed. We only have our senses telling us that he did – people talking about him, Wikipedia articles written referencing him, etc. But what if all these stories about “that guy Descartes” are just false information from your senses? Maybe he never existed, and your ears and eyes are telling you he did. Maybe you even subconsciously came up with “I think, therefore, I am”, and your senses tell you Descartes really did.

This is what I understand of Rene Descartes.

(If any of this was confusing/convoluted/headache-inducing to anyone, one of the sites I was reading had their Descartes article tagged as “myheadhurts”)


4 thoughts on “Cartesian Philosophy – Emily

  1. That actually makes a lot of sense – great explanation, thanks! The first question that comes to mind, when thinking about the idea of “I think, therefore I am/exist” is simply “What is am? What is exist?” Which I think is the fundamental question of metaphysics, so it might be a bit difficult to answer for even the most seasoned philosopher. But what does it mean to exist, in both Descartes’ understanding and your own? There isn’t much point in proving that we exist if we don’t really understand what that means.

    Posted by liamthesaint | October 26, 2012, 6:06 pm
    • Wow, thanks Liam! What I think Descartes means by “am” or exist” is simply being real, being there. You can’t know if that chair is really there, or even if I exist – you only know that your consciousness is real and not someone’s imagination. I know that I exist, because thinking about existence necessitates existence in the first place – but that means nothing to you, since your senses are telling you that I said so. You don’t even know if your body exists. But you know that your thoughts exist, because you think them. You can’t think thoughts without them being real or being there. And so that’s the only thing you can know is real. It’s not some projection of your subconscious or some inaccurate information from your 5 senses. You just know that it is real, it’s true, it exists. That’s my understanding, and, to the best of my knowledge, Descartes’ understanding as well.

      Posted by anafricanswallow | October 27, 2012, 2:30 am
  2. Here’s an interesting extrapolation of Descartes’ thinking (from Wired Magazine http://www.wired.com/wiredscience/2012/07/cetacean-rights/):

    “Over the last several decades, researchers have shown that many dolphin and whale species are extraordinarily intelligent and social creatures, with complex cultures and rich inner lives. They are, in a word, persons.

    Now animal advocates are challenging society to follow science to its logical conclusion and give legal rights to cetaceans. In the next several years, they intend to make their case in a court of law. If they’re successful, a dolphin could conceivably become the first non-human ever considered a legal person.

    “The problem so far is that all nonhuman animals are seen as being legal things,” said Steven Wise, an animal law scholar and attorney. “If you’re a legal person, you have the capacity to have rights. That’s the fundamental problem we intend to attack.””

    Do you think that if science finds other mammals to be living the same sorts of thoughtful, feeling lives that week do, we should be obliged to extend the natural living rights of people to them? (Granted this is an ethics question, but rooted in metaphysics: why not start now?)

    Posted by Bryan | October 27, 2012, 3:28 am
    • Cool article there, Mr. J! Admittedly got a little distracted from my homework while reading it. I ended up reading the Declaration of Cetacean Rights (http://www.cetaceanrights.org/) and found it quite interesting. Many might argue that the rights of living persons, or at least some of them, should be granted to all living creatures. Some examples I found were: “Every individual cetacean has the right to life, No cetacean should […] be subject to cruel treatment, Cetaceans have the right to the protection of their natural environment, Cetaceans have the right not to be subject to the disruption of their cultures.” I find that it’s hard to know where precisely to draw the line between which animals should or shouldn’t receive the rights mentioned in the article. But shouldn’t all animals have the right to life and the protection of their natural environment?

      Surely, creatures who possess such intelligence and culture should have the rights to life and freedom from captivity and servitude, but if people can’t treat each other as equals (for example how the American slaveholders in Congress proclaimed that “all men are created equal” without freeing their own slaves, I don’t see humans treating other species as equals (at least in the sense of their legal rights) either. But is it the thought that counts?

      This is actually how I had decided that Descartes’ “I think, therefore, I am” is incorporated into our modern zeigeist: “…there is the common belief that humans are, by nature superior to animals. That we have conscience, consciousness, and more rights. Descartes and others of his time even took this further, some saying that animals had reason or intelligence, or could even feel pain“. They decided that we think, and animals don’t, and so we’re superior. Now, we’re deciding that whales think. How do we define thought? Google has it defined as “to have a particular opinion, belief, or idea about someone or something”. And how do we measure it in animals?

      Posted by anafricanswallow | October 28, 2012, 6:21 pm

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