Identity sets us apart. Who we are – or perhaps, who we think ourselves to be and who we present to the world – provides us with that unique stamp of demarcation as it envelopes us with labels, beliefs, principles, and desires that constellate into the “I”. For some, the results are self-judged as disastrous, for others a self-proclaimed divinity emanates from their carousel of projections. Yet for most of us, there is a certain kind of mixture involving contentedness and disappointment. An acceptance of this “I” naturally evolves through time as the realization of our inability to fundamentally change ourselves either erodes or constitutes our self-satisfaction, depending on one’s perspective, of course.
Descartes wrote, “I think, therefore I am”, a hallmark of philosophical proclamation seemingly capable of providing a functional definition for self-identity. What did he really mean by this?
On the surface, Descartes seems to suggest that our thoughts create our existence. Perhaps the old religious adage “An idol mind is the Devil’s workshop” was buried within Descartes’ conditioning, provoking him to go to the extreme of invalidating his own existence if he couldn’t find his mind ablaze with thought. (After all he was raised and proclaimed himself a devout Catholic although, supposedly in secret, he harbored deist and atheistic beliefs. Either way, we don’t necessarily have a man devoid or openly rebellious of religious dogma.) However, there is naturally more to his discovery than a cooperation with Christian catch phrases.
What was motivating Descartes?
Descartes was attempting to ascertain certainty. Having studied medicine and mathematics, as well as philosophy, he believed in a kind of “ruthless rationalism” in order that he might actually attain it. Certainty, it should be clarified, is defined herein as juxtaposed to truth. For truth suggests a separate “not me” model or principle which exists perhaps objectively as an absolute or at least relied upon framework from which one may position his viewpoints. Certainty, however, suggests an internal knowing that is both subjective and personal. It may be stated that one can only know certainty through direct experience. Thus, Descartes embarked in a process of continual doubt and negation of everything he thought himself to know. He allowed his reality to become reframed by interactions with others and forthright honesty within. If he was clinging to an assumption (versus a certainty, a knowing), he could notice this and re-inquire into the matter as impartially as possible. Another way of stating all of this is to pose a simple question: What does one really know?
For instance (and Descartes would most likely agree), what one sees is a product of his own human nervous system. The eyes receive light from their environment and the brain assembles the image. Yet we know of “color-blind” people, infrared, and ultraviolet light. All of which offer a clue into the kind of doubt Descartes experienced as he considered the absolute non-absoluteness of physical reality. (One may also consider the way dogs, flies and bats perceive their reality for an additional example.) When one considers the psychological nature of our reality, and of how our early childhood (and other) conditions can and do our influence our interpretation of our reality, an apparent challenge is immediately presented: What is real? (Bonus Question: What movie character asked this question?)
Suddenly we are thrust into an unknown state of reality. (Quantum mechanics, by the way, presents an even more emphatic stance on this position of “reality as questionable”.) Descartes – and we may now imagine him frantically pacing about his home, hands wavering above his head as he realizes more and more fully, with each doubting glance towards that which he had considered to be a known thing to him, that reality may be far more nebulous than he originally thought – must have found himself in a complete state of UN-certainty, a state of not knowing or being sure of anything. For he has now concluded that whenever something is considered as known, it becomes a firsthand suspect of doubt.
Descartes’ discovery of certainty
Yet it is because of this preponderance of doubt that Descartes became aware of what he considered to be a self-evident certainty. In all of his thinking, in all of his doubting, there is but one obvious question that sprung to life: Who is doubting? Now if doubting is a form of thinking, and thinking is an act performed, then there must be an entity performing it! Hence follows “Cogito ergo sum”, commonly known as “I think, therefore I am.”
It’s important to note that for Descartes, thinking was a broad term encompassing not just logic and reasoning faculties, but also the entire range of human experience including emotions, intuitions and even extended to the physical body’s perceptions of its environment.
For Descartes, this was a foundational certainty. This was a self-evident truth that allowed him to validate his existence and proceed. To observe that one is thinking means, quite simply, that there is a “one” who can think. Another way of discussing his postulate is to state that “Consciousness is the only certainty one can have”. To be aware that one is aware is to acknowledge the validity of one’s existence. There are critics of Descartes who consider his self-evident realization to be more of a presupposition for they say that Descartes is already assuming the existence of an “I” by first stating “I think”. Before Descartes derives his proof from his statement, he has already, in a sense, confirmed his position from the outset. In simpler terms, the critical argument against Descartes is that he is using a kind of self-referential argument for his proof. “I am right because I know I am” would be a crude example of a self-referential proof. However, the very essence of the “cogito” for Descartes IS the self-referential quality of his proposition. For him, to deny its validity was not possible. This is what is meant by certainty.
What follows the cogito?
To answer this, another question must be posed which is of a metaphysical nature: Who, or what, is thinking? Further, can there be existence without thinking? Or is thinking (again, using the term broadly) a function that generates consciousness? In other words, can there be awareness without thought, feeling and senses?
Use the comment section below to try and answer some of these questions, if you actually exist.