Is Descartes Wrong? The Key Problem with Cogito Ergo Sum

First things first. Before we can start off with our critique of Descartes we must first understand where he was coming from as well as what he was postulating. So, let’s begin…

Descartes was a 17th Century French philosopher who was born in an era in which philosophy was very influenced by religion and dogma everywhere you looked. Most of the arguments that you could hear were backed up by appealing to a God. But Descartes was different, he was what we nowadays would call a “hipster”, but back at them time, they were called “rationalists”.

He was someone convinced that logic and reason were the primary way in which we could know stuff. Now we have science and technology so it’s easy for us to dismiss this idea as obvious, but in the 1700’s that was not the case. Religious beliefs reigned in philosophical discussions as well as normal conversation. So, this stance of trying to use reason to reach at the truth was quite new and peculiar.

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Cogito Ergo Sum

In 1637 Descartes published a book called “Discourse on the Method” that included a phrase that marked a turning point in philosophy: “Cogito Ergo Sum”, or in English “I Think, Therefore I Am”. Almost anyone knows the phrase – you may have seen it on a fancy cup or remember it from high-school – but not that many know how he arrived at it, which is the most interesting part of it all.

One of the most troubling questions for philosophers, ancient or modern, is “how do we know what we know?”, or better known as Epistemology, and this was no different for Descartes. He was obsessed with building a theory of knowledge, an answer to this question of “how do we know what we know?” purely based on reason and logic alone. The foundations of this theory, he thought, should be unquestionable pillars, because if we got that part wrong, all our beliefs and theories and assumptions might as well be as solid as a sandcastle.

So, what he did was pretty ingenious. To make sure his theory was based on true observations, he proceeded to examine every belief he had very carefully, only accepting those which there could be no doubt whatsoever. If there was the slight possibility that one belief could not be true, he discarded it. In this way, he was making sure he was only believing true things.

Can you trust your perceptions? 

He started his investigation with sense experience and checked if it could be absolutely trusted. And I ask you, dear watcher, can you trust your senses? How many times did it happen that you thought you saw a friend of yours in the street and when you touched her back it was a complete stranger? Or when you were young and saw a scary ghost or monster, but by turning your lights on you realized it was just your chair with a jacket on it. Also, orange juice tastes different after brushing your teeth or when you are sick. There are a lot of examples that show us that our experience cannot be 100% trusted, and Descartes reached the same conclusion. So, he discarded it – sense perception was not a completely reliable way to reach at the truth.

Can you trust your intellect?

Then he moved on to intellect. “Sure”, someone might say, “I perhaps cannot trust my senses, but I ain’t distrusting my intellect. 2+2=4 is true whether I am in a dream or I’m color-blind. These are a priori truths, truths that are true even if my experience is faulty because they are independent of it.” But Descartes would say: “Yeah, but what if there’s an evil demon that is deceiving us and making us believe false stuff. Since you cannot be sure there’s one in your head, you cannot discard that possibility.” And in this way, Descartes throws away any theory of knowledge that is based on intellect and intuition alone.

So far, following Descartes train of thought we discarded sense experience and reason as a foundation to know the truth. So, what are we left with? And it was here that Descartes had a flash of insight and realized that the only thing he could not doubt was doubting itself. Yeah, he could be wrong about what he was doubting but the activity of doubting itself, of thinking, of being aware of his own thoughts was indisputable. The world might have been the Matrix, his thoughts might have been influenced by Satan himself, but he could not refute his own existence.

Cannot Doubt the Doubter

From this truth, he deduces that if there are thoughts and doubts, there’s a thinker that is of a different from the body – it is what we nowadays call “a mind”, a non-material, ethereal substance that is us. “Cogito, Ergo Sum”. “I think, therefore I am”.

And from the existence of a mind, he managed to prove the existence of God and of the material universe. In his mind, Descartes has built a theory of knowledge that is 100% bulletproof and based on correct assumptions and observations.

He created what is currently known a Cartesian Dualism, or just Dualism – the belief that reality is made out of mind as well as of matter. And here’s where most philosophers see Descartes stray away. They don’t see how it could be logical that mind and matter (or body and mind) influence each other if thought doesn’t occupy space and matter does. And while I somehow agree, that is not where Descartes gets it wrong, in my opinion…

Where do thoughts come from?

We culturally assume that we are the source where thoughts come from. We can think them as we wish, establish conversations in our head, and imagine events that had not happen before – all of them at will. It is our daily experience that we control them, but not a 100 % and not all the time – we also experience that thoughts comes to us and some of them happen automatically. We daydream without even realizing or wanting to, we make ourselves feel worried by thinking about tragic futures, and if we sit in meditation, we cannot stop them for even 30 seconds.

So, on the one hand we have the experience of thinking thoughts, and on the other hand we have the experience of receiving thoughts.

We call this thinker/receptor of thoughts “mind” and we call it “I” or “me”. But what are we referring to specifically? Where is this mind located? What shape does it have? What are its characteristics? Where does it come from? Descartes reached this point but didn’t go beyond it. He assumed that the mind was a given, that it was made of ethereal, incorporeal substance, and was the producer of thought. But he never doubted the nature of this thing called mind, and what we personally call “I”.

I AM for sure

It is self-validating and obvious that we exist, that we are aware. The mere fact of you hearing these words proves it.

You are most likely also thinking right now (at least in the background), and we completely take for granted that the one doing that is you, just as Descartes did back in the 17th Century. But where is this “you” in your experience? If you look closely and critically, behind your eyes and between your ears there’s nothing more than bodily sensation. And if we were to open your skull and start digging in your brain, we wouldn’t find a “you”, we would find brains and lots of blood.

We cannot find, neither in our experience nor in the physical world, the “I” or “mind” doing the thinking. In our experience, thoughts just pop up and we suppose we are somewhere behind the scenes pulling the strings. But why do we do that if we cannot locate ourselves? Thoughts might as well be a result of an unconscious process that happens in the brain and we just happen to be aware of the last part of it, kind of like a customer that sees the food on the supermarket shelves but it’s completely clueless about the hundreds of processes that need to happen in order for it to be there in the first place.

In short, it’s completely obvious that we exist and are aware, but we cannot locate ourselves, we don’t where we came from and we are not sure if thoughts are thought by us or they a result of an unconscious mechanism. Descartes believed that when there is thought, there is a thinker, and that the thinker is made out of ethereal substance – but that is just a mistake we cannot afford to make. But on the same line, we shouldn’t also assume that if we cannot find this “I” in our experience, it means that it’s non-existent and it’s just an illusion created by the brain, which is what most scientists do.

The Mystery of the “I”

This is The Mystery of the “I” which has been troubling scientists and philosophers for decades, and interestingly enough, is the foundation and main quest for most ancient religions and spiritual pursuits. In this circle, the answer to this question and solution to the mystery is usually referred to Enlightenment or Awakening.

Sure, we cannot find the “I” in the brain or our experience, but why do we stop there? Why do we either call it mind and forget about it or call it an illusion and mock religions? The experience and writings of sages and mystics across the globe, ancient and modern, shows that there is a third way we can approach this matter. 

Through contemplative practices, they assure us, we can have a direct experience of our true nature, of the true nature of the “I”, that is beyond words, objects, perception, , and beyond time. And what’s most interesting of it all, is that they all describe the same experience, just through a different cultural perspective – but that’s topic for another article.

It’s important not to confuse this with religions that exist today like Christianity, Buddhism, or Islam. Christ, the Buddha, or Muhammad might have been enlightened but the problem usually arises when these mystics start teaching what they discovered, and people take it as something to be believed rather than something to be experienced for themselves through rigorous practice. And that’s how religion and dogma begin.

This is not Religion

So we don’t have to believe religion saying that we are an ethereal soul, we don’t have to trust science saying that the I is an illusion, and we don’t have to follow the herd believing that you are a mind. We can decide to try to answer the question for ourselves and take responsibility for the matter.

I’m not the right person to give you advice on how to get enlightened or even what the nature of the “I” since I’m clueless and not enlightened myself, but I highly recommend teachers like Adyashanti or Peter Ralston and his book “The Book of Not Knowing” as a perfect way to start.

Descartes and Spirituality

Even though Descartes was a proponent of skepticism, he didn’t go all the way through. It never occurred to him to doubt the nature of the doubter itself, and that was his most important mistake. But hey, he did a pretty damn good job considering his day and age.

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