You’ve probably heard of it, Descartes’ well-known statement. ‘Cogito Ergo Sum’ – ‘I think, therefore I am’. But have you ever thought about what it really means? Why make such a stark assertion of simply ‘being’? Surely I know myself just as surely as I do an apple? And why can I not assert myself just as certainly with, as the good old Monty Python boys used to say, ‘I drink, therefore I am!’..?
Descartes’ self-evident truth is entangled in the origins of ‘Epistemology’, what Philosophers call ‘the theory of knowledge’. I’ll try to introduce a few of the ideas and problems that come from delving into Descartes’ famous work, the ‘Meditations’. It’s sure to be just as refreshing for me, as I’m currently ploughing my way through readings for my Epistemology course, trying in vain to make head from tail of all manner of things.
Anyway, let’s go.
We join Descartes on his fictional journey in a somewhat tentative situation; as if being tossed about in a deep whirlpool with no clue as to which way is up or down. Descartes wants to believe human beings can attain true knowledge, so in his efforts to prove this, he decides he must start from the most fundamental level, he must attain global scepticism and doubt everything.
No more relying on the senses! How often have my eyes tricked me as shadows dance on the walls? Or how many times have I heard things go bump in the night that were never really there?
Furthermore, it is possible that there is a deceiver, perhaps an Evil Demon, whose sole malicious purpose in life is to lead me astray. I could be being deceived about all the things I experience through my senses – the demon might just be tricking me into tasting an apple when in fact it is a lemon! Even my ideas and thoughts could just be implanted into my head by this foul demon! So how can I really be sure of anything? What’s more, I could be dreaming, or perhaps even be the subject of somebody else’s dream! Oh what to do…
Uncomfortable though this state is, Descartes realises that there is something we can know: The fact that I am able to doubt my own existence proves there is, at the very least, some thing that exists. The line of thought goes something like this:
I am thinking now. Even if I have no body, senses and even if everything around me is false, I can nevertheless be absolutely sure that I am still thinking, so I must exist. Even if these thoughts are put into my head by an evil demon and I am being deceived about the world, it remains absolutely clear that I must exist as something – for what would the demon deceive if I didn’t exist for him to play with?! Even when dreaming, there must be a dreamer who dreams the thoughts!
At this point Descartes has arrived at his famous phrase as it is known now: I think, therefore I am.
So I know ‘I’, as some thing exists because by thinking, I affirm my existence. My senses can help to further confirm my existence. But not because of the actual ‘sensing’, but by the thinking process afterwards. This is illustrated by the corrupted adage that appeared in the popular Monty Python ‘Philosopher’s Song’: ‘I drink, therefore I am’.
Some argue I may simply replace ‘thinking’ in the with any other verb in order to prove my existence. However, it would not be the sensory act of drinking that affirms my existence, but my own understanding that I am drinking – the act of thinking about the drinking. Because right now, it is only the process of thought that is clear and definite.
So that, in a nutshell, is the beginning of Descartes’ pondering over the nature of existence and knowledge. It is a basic version, and Descartes goes on to argue how we can know other things, but it gets a lot stickier from here on in. It turns out that showing how we can know physical objects exist or even other people is actually very difficult! I’ll be leaving Descartes here for now and branching out onto other epistemological ideas shortly, but I hope this served as a brisk introduction to it all! (And I pray there are few errors in my writing ^_^;)
Anyway, how was it? As you can see, Philosophers don’t just sit in dimmed rooms stroking their beards, burning candles and reading dusty texts all day! They get to tackle the likes of spiteful demons and walk the fine line between thinking and drinking too! It’s never a dull day for a Philosopher. Ho ho.
(Image sourced from the Nieman El Center)