Philosophical Multicore

Sometimes controversial, sometimes fallacious, sometimes thought-provoking, and always fun.

Why Descartes Was Wrong

Posted by Michael Dickens on August 14, 2009

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, Descartes uttered the famous words: “I think, therefore I am.” Actually he said “Cogito, ergo sum” since back then whenever a cool person thought of a cool thing to say, he would say it in Latin. Aren’t you glad you don’t live during the Enlightenment?

When it comes down to it, though, this logic is flawed. “I think” bears an inherent assumption of existence. So “I think, therefore I am” begs the question. Is it possible to fix this flaw? Well, we can avoid begging the question by saying “There are thoughts, therefore I am.” But this doesn’t make sense. You could use this to prove that anything exists. And unless you think, you don’t know if you exist. So we can say “There are thoughts, therefore there is existence.” But once again this begs the question.

What about “There is an experience of an entity having thoughts, therefore an entity must exist.” This is more complicated and may look promising, but ultimately it too begs the question. An experience must be had by some entity. So we cannot even be sure that there are experiences.

In conclusion, we know nothing, not even our own existence. Which is interesting, since by saying “we” I am already assuming that we exist.


9 Responses to “Why Descartes Was Wrong”

  1. How does this prove that we know nothing? It seems to me that it just shows Descartes was looking for the wrong kind of epistemological justification (assuming that the “Je pense donc je suis” is circular).

  2. The use of latin in philosophy serves the function of helping to remove the concept one is speaking about from more contemporary wording as to avoid unwanted connotations.

    In order to prove the circularity of an argument one must make appeal to the condition of cognitive order between conclusion and premises. That is, it muse be the case that the premise, while true and can be known, can be known only by inferring it from the conclusion. This is the only way to logically prove the absolute circularity of an argument.

    The cogito was held by Descartes to be inherently true due to the clear and self-evident nature of the claim. The phrase refers to an argument found in his Mediations which follows from Descartes method of doubt as the only undoubtable claim. One cannot doubt one’s own existence, because this is to forget the perspective (i.e. the consciousness) responsible for the doubt. Thus more appropriately interpreted: He exists as a thinking thing.

    One might ask you to re-read your own posting on the straw man fallacy. Which is not a reference to an underhanded, albeit powerful, debate method (as per that blog), but rather a mistake due to ignorance.

    • I appreciate your criticism. It’s nice to know that someone is keeping a skeptical eye on me. 😉

      One cannot doubt one’s own existence, because this is to forget the perspective (i.e. the consciousness) responsible for the doubt.

      This assertion still assumes that consciousness must exist, which I do not see as necessarily true. One does not know that this doubt actually exists. One’s apparent consciousness could simply be an illusion. Which raises the question, can consciousness ever be an illusion? We certainly have never perceived it as such, but if it were an illusion, it is conceivable that we would never know. The scope of the illusion of consciousness may be completely beyond our understanding. To come to this conclusion requires something of a leap of faith, which I would not take if we were not questioning the integrity of the most deep-seated assumptions.

      • I never miss a chance at philosophical discussion. It’s too much fun. And so…

        You’ve missed my point. There seems to be some confusion between existential and epistemological concerns. One may not be sure of the truth values of what he perceives, but that does not deny the fact that he is perceiving. Existence precedes any perception. This is not to say that perception assumes existence, but rather that by virtue of existence perception is even possible.

        You write, speak, and think from a point of reference. Here I point to the first person “I”, not the word but rather what it refers to, the conceptual self. It is this self which cannot be denied, as even a denial of it comes from the seat of that ethereal “I”. Thus a phrase such as “I doubt my own existence” proves inadvertently that I exist. So, I raise the question: “Illusionary to whom?”

      • I must admit that you have a good point. You’ve certainly gotten me to think about this, for which I am most appreciative. I could use more of this kind of thought in my life. If you want to tell me I’m wrong about something else, please do not hesitate to do so.

      • Glad to be of assistance. If you wish to discuss anything of a philosophical nature, you know where to find me.

      • Scarletscourge@outlook said

        What is an illusion? A disortion of what is? How are we to know what is? What does it mean to know? Even if we don’t know what is, doesn’t the simple fact that an illusion can be mean that something must indeed be for it to be distorted? If nothing is then nothing would be to be distorted. This applies to consciousness as much as to anything which can be a thing to us. If a thing can be a thing to us then it must be a thing for itself in order for it be a thing to us. Were it not a thing for itself then there would be nothing to perceive, observe, or experience. If a thing can be preceived then it must be real it, must exist but the form of its reality, its existence is uncertain.

  3. FocusedChaos said

    “Illusionary” to all but yourself SinS…”I think, therefore I am”….I wouldn’t have chosen those words myself. The quote, in my opinion, should have been “Conscientiousness, I perceive; My own Existence is therefore plausible”. I, personally, believe that the meaning of Life is redefined each time conscientiousness is perceived by someone of the human race. Each life contained within its own bubble(if you will). Each life has it’s own rules and end game! The deeper one digs, the more ground there is to cover. Descartes seems to have figured it out for everyone but himself…Existence simply is because it is….including each and every “bubble” out there. No amount of philosophical reasoning, no amount of “scientific proof”, or mere hypothetical statements will change the fact that we simply exist because we do….we define our perceived existence within ourselves but we cannot create existence nor take it away. God does that…in my honest opinion! I just can’t buy evolution nor can I ponder science as absolute. There are many things that still wait to be discovered but there is nothing that doesn’t exist already, that will exist!

    • Ivo said

      Either the knowing of self is an illusion or the perceived world. Since material science can use finer instruments of observing – an extension of sensory perception, and the self escapes that scope, they conclude that that’s not real or existing, yet we all intuitively know it – immediately and directly. Thus we need more intuitive scientists to probe deep down in the “substance” of self, don’t you think?!

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