Wednesday, January 14, 2009

I Think, Therefore I'm not sure – 1

In a nutshell:
"I think, therefore I am" is, probably, the most famous philosophical argument outside the realm of professional philosophy. What does it actually argue, and why is it considered so central to the history of philosophy (and, in my opinion, so beautiful and inspiring?) Since the explanation is a little long, I chose to break it into a few pieces; here is the first part. Oh, and yes, there is homework to be done before the next part. ,

Photo courtesy of mimax

How lovely is it that we can all quote "I think, therefore I am" (or even the original Latin: "Cogito, ergo sum"), and feel so very philosophical! I am completely in favour of this beautifully put and thought-provoking argument being widely quoted. Understanding the ideas behind it makes it even more enchanting.

Just to be on the safe side, I mention that "Cartesian", of course, is derived out of the last six letters in René Descartes' name. So what is so special about the famous Cartesian argument, referred to as "the cogito", after its original Latin phrasing?

The most special feature of the argument is its method. Descartes lively and eloquently describes how he slowly began to suspect that beliefs and ideas, which he used to hold as necessarily true, might not be so after all. The newly aroused doubts drive him to aim for a solid "building" of knowledge, built using verified truths only. Such a building, of course, must have a solid basis: should the basis be unsound, the whole building is bound to fall apart.

Descartes is not referring to impressions or opinions alone, but to all of our beliefs ("belief" in the sense of a proposition which we accept as true). How can we be sure that each one of our beliefs is true? On the other hand, how can we live in perpetual doubt? The creeping doubt would prevent us from acting at all, since we would always suspect we may be acting on the basis of wrong assumptions. Another problem regards the need to reconsider each and every one of our beliefs, so that we may re-accept only those, which have been cleared of any possible doubt. How is it possible to arrange all of our beliefs for reconsideration? How can we make sure we have not forgotten any beliefs? What beliefs can we count on in the meantime, until our "checkup" is complete?

Descartes replaces the "creeping doubt" with a methodical doubt: we should start at the foundations of the "building of knowledge", he suggests. For this purpose we need to erase our whole body of knowledge, and assume that we know nothing for sure: everything is stained with doubt. How are we to identify the foundations of our knowledge? Where should we start reasserting our knowledge, this time – reassuring ourselves, following a critical scrutiny, that it can be trusted as true?

Readers are more than welcome to prepare homework on this question: where should the methodical doubt begin? What are the foundations of our "building of knowledge"? ,


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