It seems to me that Rene Descartes’ famous “Cogito ergo sum” begged the question. His premise “I think” depends on his conclusion, “I exist”.
Certainly the stream of impressions he adduces in support of his conclusion demonstrate something – but what? A more appropriate conclusion would be along the lines of “Experience manifests, therefore something is,” or, more succinctly, and tautologically (this is not a bad thing): “Experience is, therefore something is.” Or, to once more in this space quote the words (if not, in this case, the meaning) of the X-Files’ Fox Mulder: “There is something out there.”
To get to the “I exist” actually requires a number of additional premises, first of all that this experience means something – that it is rule-based – and possibly even that is connected to something we might call a “real world”. Descartes makes this connection only after establishing “ergo sum”, and then he makes it only by reference to a perfect and benevolent God – a premise that seems as improbable to me as it seemed certain to Descartes. My own preferred premise for the orderliness of Experience is the anti-skeptical one: “If I don’t assume some rule-based nature to Experience, then there is no point in going on further with analysis”. This is a weaker premise than Descartes’, but it has the decided advantage of being not false. There is also the empirical argument, that I can test the rule-based nature of Experience experimentally, and therefore demonstrate it. While testability is important, its importance is sometimes overestimated, since I cannot possibly subject every needed rule about Experience to my own personal set of empirical tests.
As for the “real world”, well that’s really definitional, isn’t it? I.e., a term of convenience more than a necessary premise. If I can predictably alter Experience by action, and if I can generalize the rules for doing so such that some person on the other side of the planet whom I’ve never met can apply them to some experience I’ve never had, and also alter Experience to conform to the predictions, then it may be useful to introduce the idea of a “real world”, but this concept can hardly can be constructed so as to be testable (hence meaningful) beyond the definition just given.
Of course, as I have implied elsewhere in this blog (“Starting from Zero”, May 30, 2010), I do not really accept the Cartesian method of applying radical doubt to build up a whole body of knowledge about the world from a bare minimum of assumptions, let alone “clear and distinct” (hence immediate and unquestionable) impressions. We always come to any problem with a whole theoretical structure, which we can twist, bend and otherwise alter piecemeal, but which we can never throw out en bloc to start afresh.
Nevertheless, it can be fun, and sometimes instructive, to play with the Cartesian approach as with a game. And then, developmentally, we do, at some point in our lives sort of start to build a world view from experience upon a base of the biologically given. So it seems perhaps some form of the Cartesian approach may have a certain psycho-historical relevance. But this is only more or less. Given that the biochemical environment in the womb begins to affect development even before the brain begins to develop, there are no clear limits between “experientially derived” and “biologically given”. It’s a problem with inherently fuzzy boundaries. It is worth noting, to, that the psychological “program” or world view starts to develop long before the wiring of the biological “machine” – the adult brain – is complete. Starting from zero remains problematic – in this case, because it’s hard to define the zero point.
Considering the developmental problem, I have written, before (“The house I live in”, October 24, 2009) that I think our concept of “I” or self is not inbred, but is learned from experience, and not at a particularly early point, either, which also contradicts the primacy of Descartes’ “ergo sum”.
Another way it is interesting to contrast Descartes’ “Cogito...” with modern thinking is in the nature of the self, itself. Descartes, of course, assumed some privileged level of granularity associated with the self. As a Christian of his age, he could hardly have done otherwise – the individual self was the level at which the soul was allocated, the soul was essentially indivisible, and was in a sense synonymous with the self, so clearly an individual was a discrete, and in an essential sense indivisible unit. A person could colloquially be of “two minds” about something, but that didn’t disturb the essential unity – one of those two opinions had to be the “true” one (at least in the sense of “true to oneself”), and the other false.
Over the course of the twentieth century, the unitary nature of the self came under attack philosophically, psychologically and neurologically. One good book that includes a good analysis of the nature of the self is Daniel Dennett’s Consciousness Explained. The impression I drew from that book (consistent with others I’ve read, see note on references) is of a brain consisting of numerous centers, each evolved perhaps for one primary purpose, but co-opted to other uses, in other networks, by the opportunistic nature of evolution (see “Adaptation? Or Carpe Diem?”, November 30, 2010), with a conscious sense of self perhaps developing only rather late as a sort of supervisor circuit riding on top of this loose, collaborative network of parts. In this analysis, to be of “two minds” about something may literally mean that two different parts of your brain produce differing explanations or predictions, or desire different goals. There is no meaningful sense in which one of these is more “true” to your “essential nature” than the other.
But as I said in “The house I live in”, the constructed and non-atomic nature of my self doesn’t make it a useless concept. As the wag said, and insofar as my day-to-day experience goes, I think I am, therefore I am, I think.
Useful references, cited or otherwise: Rene Descartes, Meditations on First Philosophy and Discourse on the Method of Rightly Conducting the Reason, and Seeking Truth in the Sciences, ch. 4; Gary Hatfield, Routledge Philosophy Guidebook to Descartes and the Meditations; Daniel C. Dennett Consciousness Explained; Stephen M. Kosslyn & Olivier Koenig, Wet Mind: The New Cognitive Neuroscience; Patricia Smith Churchland, Neurophilosophy: Toward a Unified Science of the Mind/Brain; Joseph M. Schwartz, The Future of Democratic Equality; John Dewey, Experience and Nature.