A Short Piece Inspired by Andreas Röyem
Appreciating Descartes as Helping Us See Thinking Like Proofs
Descartes does not prove we exist, only that we are a closed system that must assume our existence in order to proceed. Descartes only suggests we cannot not exist, for to think we don’t exist, something must exist to think we’re not around.
But do we exist? Perhaps we’re just a brain in a vat like The Matrix? Perhaps we’re a thought floating in God’s head? Even if we’re a brain in a vat or a divine thought, there is still a sense in which “we exist,” but there’s also another sense in which we don’t exist like we think we do at all. Considering this, perhaps we can say Descartes is somewhat correct; personally though, I can think of some ways to reword his famous phrase:
1. I think (I think), therefore I probably am.
2. I think, therefore there is “reason to think” (there is something thinking).
3. I must think to doubt I think, therefore I can be certain that I think (even if I can only be confident in the subject of my thinking).
And so on. Admittedly, none of these have the same elegance as cogito, ergo sum (the tradeoff between elegance and technicality can be a tough one).
Descartes seems to argue that thinking requires existence versus cause existence, as Andreas Röyem points out. This is an understandable confusion, given the wording of cogito, ergo sum. Basically, Descartes argues:
1. Thought exists, for we cannot doubt this without thinking, therefore a source of (the) thought(s) must exist.
2. A source of thought is a thinker.
3. Therefore, a thinker must exist.
4. Therefore, I exist.
Descartes will then argue that it is impossible for God not to exist because, if God didn’t, the idea for God would have never entered our minds (in other words, only God could be the source of the idea for God). By extension, we must exist, because God must have thought of us, for we wouldn’t exist otherwise, so Descartes grounds his argument for the existence of us on the existence of God, trying to avoid making a circular argument.¹ Whether this line of argument works or not, I leave up to others to determine.
For me, the jump from 3 to 4 can be questioned and/or complexified. Perhaps “the thinker who exists” is the person who invented a brain my consciousness is plugged up into in the future, so though “a thinker must exist,” that thinker doesn’t have to be me. So even if “I must exist” in some way to experience thoughts, it is possible that the proof of “a thinker” doesn’t necessarily mean I am that thinker (as a source, for the thoughts could be downloaded into me from somewhere else). I must be someone who can experience thoughts, but that doesn’t mean I must be the origin(al) thinker.
Personally, I think the main problem with Descartes is that he uses his meditation for establishing certainty, which is not only mistaken but dangerous (as laid out in many works by O.G. Rose). Even if it is the case that “I and my thoughts themselves must exist,” the existence of the subjects of my thoughts doesn’t follow from my mere consideration of them (they could be fantasies, things downloaded into me that have no relation to my world, etc.). What use is Descartes then? Is there anything of value to derive from him?
For me, even if based on a misreading, Descartes is useful because he helps me approach my existence and thinking as requiring assumptions (even though paradoxically his whole project was to find something that couldn’t be doubted). Reality cannot be a hypothetical: I am a system that must assume itself to proceed being itself. I may not exist (in the way I think I do, at least) — my thoughts might be entirely wrong — but I must assume something to continue. I cannot doubt everything.
By investigating and deconstructing himself “all the way down,” from Descartes, we garner reason to believe Wittgenstein was correct: ‘We just can’t investigate everything, and for that reason we are forced to rest content with assumption. If I want the door to turn, the hinges must stay put.’² Descartes was wrong to believe his project allowed him to achieve certainty beyond perhaps the raw reality of thought itself, for it does not follow from his meditation that we can be certain about what we think. However, the fact that we have “reason to think we are thinking” means we have “reason to think we are thinkers,” and even though we cannot verify that we are “thinking thinkers,” we would not be irrational to assume this, because otherwise proceeding in thought becomes impossible, and if there is no thinking, there is no subject to even doubt or be certain about, to be rational or irrational about: it is rational to assume something that, without assuming, defining the rational becomes impossible. The mistake of Descartes though is to conclude that from assuming the legitimacy of thinking itself, it follows that a given subject of thought can be justified, correct, legitimate, etc. with certainty.
The fact we have “reason to think” means we have “reason to assume.” Based on these assumptions, we can then construct the rest of our thinking (rightly or wrongly). If we must assume, in my mind, that means thinking is more structured like a mathematical system or proof than we tend to realize. It is for this realization that I appreciate Descartes, even if in other ways I must strongly disagree with him.
Thinking entails axioms that thinking structures itself off of in hopes of achieving internal consistency, but even achieving this will only increase thinking’s plausibility: there is no necessary relationship between validity and plausibility. Descartes proves we cannot doubt everything but seems to have thought from this that verification was possible. This was his mistake, and why the existence of the self doesn’t follow. What does follow is the requirement of assuming something like a thinker exists to think at all; what does follow is the necessity of “thinking as/in a system” (which can fit with the work of Karl Popper on falsification).
Descartes does not prove verification, but he does prove that something “like” verification is needed (for me, falsification and “confidence” can fill the gap). Still, I find Descartes valuable because he unveils the value of approaching thought like a system, something perhaps found in “set theory.” This is fruitful ground for work and a reason Descartes can be thought of as contributing to “systems thinking” and “mental models,” though he himself, unfortunately, doesn’t take us in that direction. Instead, he takes us in the direction of certainty, which fuels the mistakes of nihilism and totalitarianism (as Lesslie Newbigin argues). He was close, but in being off, he was very far off. Still, I appreciate him, though I can have my doubts.
¹To lay out the argument: I think, and so must exist, and if I exist and can think the thought of God, since that thought couldn’t exist if God didn’t, God must exist. And if God exists, my existence must not merely be a necessary assumption, but actually the case. Though I don’t think Descartes goes this far, it could be said that this is because it is not in God’s nature to think something that isn’t. Additionally, since God is good, anything God can think that can exist will exist, and since it’s better for a thing to be “actual” than merely “mental,” what God creates will be fully actualized. Hence, we actually exist. (Whether this all follows is a different question.)
God must exist because we can think of God, and the “God Whom Must Exist” would exist even if we didn’t think about God (the mistake is treating “must” and “because” like similes). I have always understood Descartes as making a key move here to escape his argument from being self-contained and grounded on nothing outside of itself. He wants to find axioms, per se, for if his system is self-contained, there would be reason to doubt it.
Descartes erects a convincing system, but the final and most difficult step is justifying that system as not simply being “internally consistent” versus axiomatic. Gödel, much later, shows this can’t be done, but it arguably can be if God Exists (though perhaps not convincingly). However, this is not an interpretation I can back up with years of scholarship (simply my take), but even if I’m wrong, I stand behind the point that he has helped me “systems think.”
²Wittgenstein, Ludwig. On Certainty. New York: First Harper Torchbook Edition, 1972: 44e.