I Don’t Think Therefore I Am Not.
Lady HP and I were about to enter a new world for me. One where the teacher talked and I listened. But that was to come… my tutorial started the other way round for a few minutes as I fell again for her sneaky tricks.
She started off as good thinkers often do, by asking a question, “What were you trying to tell me about Descartes and cogito ergo sum?”
If you want to impress a cynic like me, her using the original Latin was one way to do it.
“Yes,” I replied, “Descartes said, ‘I think therefore I am.’ I believe that is fundamentally flawed.”
“Go on, I am interested to hear why?”
“Well, you read the essay… oh, never mind… Okay.”
‘I think therefore I am’ was an important historical moment. It was the line in the sand – a point that allowed philosophy and science a stable ground from which it could move forward. Very much like our arbitrary use of dates, in the Western world, that measure before Christ and after. It was a significant moment in the world when Descartes decided this was the starting point, if you will, for man’s existence. As he said at the time even if you thought you were dead or did not exist that very thought proved you wrong – because that act of thinking you are dead means you are, in fact, alive.
Now the problem emerges when you examine this dualistic thought in the real
world, the metaphysical world, that is ‘if I don’t think, therefore I am not’ – I don’t exist. Now for me to have this thought is, according to Decartes, proof that I exist, but a babe in arms, is not capable of thought by any standards that Descartes used to establish a thought. Therefore the baby does not exist. And this is hugely problematic for the use of cogito ergo sum as a foundation of philosophy or science.
Linguistic ability was the accepted norm for thoughts at the time and for a lot of people who think much further – even until today. A one year old is not capable of forming thoughts because he is not capable of forming cognitive patterns of words. Now there is an argument (Bell) that babies are capable of forming thoughts using images instead of words, but this theory has now been widely discredited because of the length of time a baby needs to actually store and access image memories and moreover the baby’s ability to cognitively pair them into a complete thought.
Descartes’ view is that a person does not exist until he or she is capable of thought. Now, you could agree with Descartes, but even the most liberal or conservative among us are likely to agree that a baby exists at one year old – that there is a human life – a person.
If Descartes was arguing that thought forms the characteristics that form personality, well, that is a slippery slope I can go into later. But if you follow Descartes you would almost – logically – have to make the case that abortion is valid until the baby is capable of speech/thought (when “the life” comes to exist). Descartes could also try to explain this rather drastic conclusion by stating that the babe did not exist as a human being or a person but was certainly a living being. That, however, would accord the babe the same status as a common, stinking, reeking, fetid street rat. Not something that even philosophically speaking would go down well with new mothers. However, Descartes wishes to argue it, thought can not on its own be the sole proof of existence.
Lady HP was nodding as I finished running through my thoughts. At first, I wasn’t quite sure if it was because she agreed with me, or she was trying to placate me until she found some way to extricate herself from the room and call for psychiatric reinforcements.
“Don’t you understand what I am trying to get at? This guy – Descartes was wrong.”
“Yes, I hear what you are saying. Now the reason you are here with me now is to learn how to write what you want to say.”
“You honestly didn’t get any of that from my paper?”
“No, nothing. Not even a little bit, sorry. The good news is that I am here to fix it so that people will understand what you want to say when you write it down. So, between now and tomorrow I want you to think about five major flaws to Descartes’ ideas and write them down… in point form, and I will see you here same time tomorrow”
“Okay, great, can I get my keys for my office…?”
Photos provided by Jodi Young, and the last at the pleasure of the Viscount of Bessarabia.