Problems Posed by Descartes — The Cogito


Hello, my fellow readers!

This is the first official post to a weekly blog series I’m doing on philosophical editorials. I don’t have a title for the series yet, but once I do, each post will be tagged as such! In case you weren’t aware, I love philosophy, and I have a BA in the discipline. My friends might tell you that I went through the program like a grad student, to the extent that I had bounced around ideas with them for their compositions and theses. I guess…

To kick off this series, I have chosen to critique one of the most recognizable names in philosophy: Rene Descartes. Why him? Because if you’re ever planning to teach philosophy to your kids (which studies show is a smart choice), Descartes is about as basic as you can get for elementary school students to understand (which I admittedly just made up). And apparently, I took one of those online quiz things recently, revealing that I think most like Descartes, for some reason.

Today we will be discussing one of the most common topics that you will find in just about any Introduction to Philosophy course: Descartes’  Cogito. This argument can be found in the first 2 sections of his Meditations on First Philosophy, so if you want to follow along, click here.

DISCLAIMER: this is a blog post, and is therefore not meant for academic purposes. Things will be paraphrased or simply me talking out of my ass about ideas posed in philosophy that merely sound “smart.” Cite at your own risk.

One more thing before I get started: I am a firm believer that everyone has prior knowledge of some of the subjects covered in works like Descartes’ Meditations. So if I haven’t bored you to tears already, please answer in the comments one (or more) of the following questions:

  1. Have you ever had a dream that was so vivid, you thought it was real? How did you know it was a dream? How was it real?
  2. Can God be both good and allow you to be deceived?
  3. What are you certain that you know? Are you certain that you know anything?

Now with that out of the way, let’s begin.

Reason to Doubt the Senses

The first thing you might recognize about Descartes’ logic is that he is a negative philosopher. That means that unless there is absolute reason to believe that something is true, it’s best not to believe it at all. And in his first Meditation which I swear is written like a blog post, Descartes constructs an argument to doubt everything he knows!

How he reckons with this idea is rather simple: anything that can be called into doubt — even once — is no longer something that can be certain. But he’s not attacking little things he knows first. He starts big by going after something that nearly everyone would think he’d be crazy to doubt: his own senses! And yes, he even admits that even suggesting that his hands might not actually be his hands sounds like something a crazy person would say! So why does he come to this conclusion?

Consider a dream you might have. The most sane of you would admit that the actions that take place inside that dream are not real. They were imagined. But the very fact that you can recognize very specific things inside your dream, even if they were out of place from reality, must have come from and idea that you experienced in real life, therefore making them very real in your mind! And besides, how do you know that the dream you had was not your reality? What if the reality of you reading this blog post right now is merely just another dream state?

Now before you start having a Cartesian crisis on me or go into detail about some movie franchise that seems to reflect this very idea, there is one thing I need to clarify about what Descartes means by writing this piece. Descartes’ approach is epistemological, meaning that he is most concerned about how we come to know stuff! Some folks who barely passed Intro to Philosophy and never took another Philosophy course again assume that his argument is ontological, as in he is somehow describing reality. At this point in his meditations, he’s not doing that. No worries. Descartes eventually gets to some ontological propositions that sound even crazier than a Cartesian crisis, but they won’t sound as crazy once you follow his logic (heh).

Anyway, since Descartes cannot distinguish his dreams from his reality, all of his senses come into question, hence he must doubt the certainty he learns of anything through them. So sucks to be you, those from the empirical school of thought (aka every science in existence). Your worldviews have been called into doubt!

Reason to Doubt the Abstract

But what about knowledge of the abstract? Surely things that can be known long before we can even recognize that we know them must be true, right? So no matter what form of reality he’s in, Descartes can still be confident that 2 +3 = 5, or that a square always has 4 sides. These come from analytical knowledge, facts by definition, independent of anything we have to perceive to believe! And given all the contributions that Descartes has given to Mathematics as well as Philosophy (seeing how in his time, they may as well have been the same thing), of course he would push for the certainty of this kind of stuff! Well… not exactly.

To tear down any certainty he had of analytical knowledge, he turns to faith, namely his understanding of God. Is it possible that all of this knowledge he has learned were actually granted by an omniscient God, and only God knows the real truth behind this knowledge? That would mean that knowledge even of abstract things are incomplete, leaving plenty of doubt in terms of what something as simple as numbers really are!

Now before you start accusing me (Descartes for that matter) of heresy, I must interject yet again! Despite having his work later banned by Pope Alexander VII, Descartes remained a devout Catholic all his life. In fact, he feared turning his back on the Church by his writings, seeing what had happened to Galileo Galilei at the same time (thought to be fair, Galileo was one of those epistemological thinkers that Descartes already denounced). Descartes isn’t committed to saying it, but if this is to be believed, it is possible for God to be keeping secrets from us, even about abstract knowledge. And if, IF, that were true, then God would be deceiving us!

Well being the good Catholic that he is, Descartes ultimately concludes that God is too good to deceive us about such things, even if that’s totally in His power to do so, so Descartes goes for one last possibility to completely doubt everything! What if — and again, we’re only supposing matters of knowledge here — a demon had deceived us of everything we so clearly thought were defined? In other words, what if we were led to believe that 2 +3 = 5 by a demon, when in actuality, that statement is actually false?

At this point, Descartes may as well have aligned himself with conspiracy theorists and global skeptics, because he basically committed a logical fallacy that only crazy people would ever fall for: you can’t disprove him, therefore it must be true!

Except… that’s not what he’s saying either. Descartes’ argument in Meditation I never commits to anything true or false. Descartes’ argument sounds weak because he’s not actually persuading any version of the truth, one way or another. But remember what Descartes’ main goal is for this meditation: he’s not looking for what he can know (yet), but what he can doubt! And if all the propositions are to be considered — at the very least — possible, then Descartes has reason to doubt everything!

Or does he?

At Least One Thing is Certain

So if you’re following along, this is where Descartes begins Meditation II, where he finds at least one thing he can be certain of, regardless of all the parameters that he has set up in Meditation I to doubt everything. And despite how you might feel about Descartes after this, it becomes clear why he is considered a legend in institutional Philosophy.

Even if a demon is ultimately controlling every last bit of knowledge that Descartes has, that demon would be foolish to deceive one very specific truth from him. If the demon were to withhold the truth about this one thing, then that demon would be utterly insane for committing to a lie that is so clearly obvious a truth! What truth does Descartes know to outsmart this powerful demon?

That he exists.

Even if this demon’s sole purpose was to deceive Descartes of everything he knew, he (Descartes) would have to exist for the demon to do so. For a demon to deceive absolute nothing has to be the craziest idea of all! And if Descartes were to be deceived by anything (not necessarily the demon) of his existence, to be told that he’s there even though nothing is there, I honestly have no idea what I just wrote, because that would make no sense! So Descartes can be certain of his very existence, by virtue of cracking literally every other parameter that falls short of doubt. Fine. But what exactly is he? And how does he know this to be true?

The answer is a little more obvious than you think — and I just gave it away. Descartes is a thinking thing. The one property of his being that he can know for certain is exactly what allows him to reflect upon himself: the power to think.

This is where Descartes’ famous meme comes from, which he may or may not have stated, given that he would not have written in Latin: Cogito, ergo sum. “I think, therefore I am.”

By being a thinking thing, Descartes can interact with his entire world, to understand anything in it. By the power of thought, he knows how to recognize the wax of a candle, even though it has changed shape upon burning. Hell, he would know why the wax burns, or how it can form into different shapes! And all of that stems from the foundation of his knowledge: the fact that he is a thinking thing.

And if you noticed, I said at the heading of this section that the cogito is at least one thing that is certain. That’s because Descartes isn’t done blowing people’s minds by separating himself from yet another group of people with a weird school of thought: the solipsists. Solipsism is a very specific monist belief that only one thing exists: Me (as in the person that utters this statement). Now you don’t have to remind me twice about just how insane it is to have a group of solipsists argue over which of them is the only thing in existence, but given some of the strange things I’ve read on the Internet with the tag “philosophy” in it, there are quite a few believers of this.

Even though Descartes can be certain of his own existence, it is not the only thing that he becomes certain of his own knowledge. In fact, in Meditation III ( which I will cover in a future post), Descartes is certain of the existence of God. In Meditations IV and V, he elaborates on certainties of truth in senses and abstract knowledge. You know, those things that he merely proposed couldn’t be certain in Meditation I? And in Meditation VI, he proposes perhaps his greatest gift (or rather biggest problem) to philosophy: an argument for a dual reality (again, to be continued).

But even though Descartes has solidified his position in philosophy with the cogito, there are plenty of problems that making such a bold claim entails. Yep. Despite how famous and steadfast the cogito has been cemented into philosophical institutions, it also gives us a lot of problems.

For me, my attack isn’t so much within Descartes’ epistemological or ontological arguments, but in something that even Descartes would not have been aware of: its phenomenological effect.

The cogito comes to us from a rational, internalist view of knowledge, and in that regard, it still holds to be one of the finest in that school of thought. However, the assumption here is that the individual supersedes all other views. By uttering the cogito, Descartes is founding his entire theory on ideas presented by the mind, where there are plenty of philosophers who believe that physical, external substances also hold a lot of truth, if not more.

Descartes could even argue that all of the ideas we have to describe our world, from something as vague as community, to something as prevalent as poverty or oppression, are all just fictions created by fallible human beings (which, let’s be real for a moment, all of us are). It is very much possible for a Cartesian scholar to commit to saying that all of these things are completely separate from one’s thinking self, and therefore can (and perhaps should) be ignored. Well, tell that to the people who are constantly reminded of these problems, that they are all just somehow in their heads! And to that, you, Descartes, are an asshole!

If  I were to be a Cartesian to somehow make sense of these ideas that were to be separate from my self, the one thing that I am most confident of knowing, would be to recognize that I have one very distinct view of the world. That view matters to me because I have thought about it. However, there are other thinking things in the world — namely other people — who are also capable of seeing the world differently, and that view is separate from mine. However, it is by God’s infinite wisdom (spoiler for my take on Meditation III) that I can make sense of their separate version of the truth, so that I could understand their perspective. But even so, I must always stay true to my own method of thinking in light of knowing theirs, for it is my knowledge by my own thoughts that make sense of the truth. (I guess…)

I’m going to level with you all for a moment: I think this way of thinking is certainly logical, but totally incomplete in terms of motivation. Descartes never concerns himself with ethics or his relationship to others, frankly because his scope is epistemological and metaphysical. Had he been concerned with others, he would have stopped knowledge from other people short of the conversation about doubting senses in Meditation I, namely that he could potentially doubt things he’s heard or read from others. After all, Descartes’ proofs are so logical, I’m pretty sure a robot could have written them.

That is, except that being “pretty sure” isn’t good enough for Descartes. That would fall into the realm of doubt by default!

Thus concludes my first philosophical editorial! I will continue with more conversations about Descartes’ meditations in the future, but there are other ideas I have in mind in-between! I will try to examine these with as much critique as I can, but also with a bit of humor, because talking about this stuff is a lot of fun! Until then, see you next week!

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