“For to be possessed of a vigorous mind is not enough; the prime requisite is rightly to apply it.” – Rene Descartes (1596-1650)
Modern philosophy really begins with Descartes. He wasn’t unaware. His brief “Discourse on the Method of Rightly Conducting One’s Reason and of Seeking Truth in the Sciences” from 1637, (a preface to “Les Meteores,” “La Dioptrique” and “La Geometrie”) details the “completely new” process by which he stripped himself of as much previous knowledge as he could and tried to think up the world again, as kitchen enthusiasts might say, “from scratch.” Of course he partly failed in ways that eluded him: one can’t COMPLETELY originate thought when one is bound by the endless borrowed concepts and definitions to which language dooms us. That he tried at all is the hallmark of his genius. Genii, after all, attempt to fulfill impossible wishes, even though there are always catches and limitations.
Descartes is the man who glorified doubt, but he did achieve one great triumph of certainty, and it is indeed one of the few things we can know beyond what our treacherous senses might suggest: if we can think, then we must be. This is the first of his principles, and the foundation of philosophy.
“Cogito Ergo Sum” was a catchy hit, the philosophical YOLO of its day. And it’s really just about all we can be sure of in this crazy, mixed-up world…
… And yet I have some smart-ass problems with the phrasing. It assumes that “being” is inexorably tied to “thinking,” when of course there are many things that ARE but don’t THINK: gases, rock, plants, celebutards. While it’s generally true that if you CAN think, you ARE… It’s not ALWAYS true.
What if there WAS something that THOUGHT but WASN’T?
It’s not as nonsensical as all that: Sherlock Holmes THINKS a lot, and very powerfully, but he’s not real. The catch there is with the concept of “being”. Sherlock Holmes exists as a character – a powerful, convincing, inspiring character that draws new fans every year – but believable as he is, and exceedingly well-documented as his life is, he’s completely fictional. He may be a thinking being, but he’s not a living being.
It that seems a far-fetched example, it’s really no more far-fetched than St. Anselm’s creaky Ontological Argument, which Descartes drew on with disastrous results to his logic.
If you’re not familiar with ontological “proof” of God, here it goes: “Think of the most perfect thing you can imagine- there, that’s God- therefore God is real!” Eh, no. We can conceive of many endlessly wondrous things, (“a planet made of ice cream and orgasms”) that all remain distinctly imaginary. As a matter of fact, the closer a concept gets to “perfection” the more separate it becomes from any physical reality.
I can think of several proofs of the existence of God that are much better, but that’s neither here not there: if you’re interested I’ll gladly send you my brochure and invite you to a four-week , no-obligation trial of my free-love-and-ice-cream religion (The Creamies!) No pressure: you may leave the compound at any time with no questions asked.
Descartes doesn’t get to be as cheeky as me. He was limited by self-censorship (he was a better Catholic boy than I am) and by an unwillingness to write anything that might invite the discomfort of religious authorities, as he admits in the “Discourse.” Who can blame him, considering that the Catholic Church had TRIED TO KILL Galileo a couple of years prior? His swings between visionary mysticism and proto-deism were suspect enough at the time, and indeed his works ended up in the Pope’s no-no list soon after his death.
Here is the ontological argument, as shakily presented by Descartes: Our mind is capable of imagining “perfection.” It is, however, imperfect. Since our imperfect thoughts cannot contain perfection, that perfection must be outside of us. Therefore: there is a supreme being, whose idea corresponds to reality “as surely as the idea of any shape or number.” (Descartes forgets there is such a thing as an “imaginary” number; he mocked the concept in “Geometrie” and it only took hold after his death.)
This argument fails on a variety of levels. The jump to the (Judeo-Christian, male) God is a little precipitate. He could have as easily said “Therefore: Allah, or Vishnu, or Zeus and the Olympians, or the Troll of Life, or a triad of Goddesses, or the Originating Magical Light-Beam.”
It also fails when addressing the DEFINITION of perfection. When Descartes defines perfection (“lacking qualities of uncertainty, unfaithfulness, sadness”) he’s talking strictly about human qualities that are generally, (although not universally) thought to be negative. The problem is that God’s “perfect qualities” all crumble when given even a cursory glance. Is the (Roman Catholic) God, say, perfectly courageous? But courage is the control of fear. What is so powerful that would frighten a God? Is God perfectly chaste? That would imply the restraint of cosmic sexual urges, (directed at what, exactly? The Virgin Mary?) Is God perfectly omnipresent? If God is everywhere, and Hell is a “where,” then God is, by necessity of his godliness, constantly present in Hell. To make matters worse, if he is perfectly compassionate, then God is suffering very much there. Here’s a weird one: is God perfectly “selfless”? That would make God Godless.
Here we have Descartes’ final conundrum:
Descartes maintains that to be compounded of things is to be imperfect.
If God = Perfection, and Being Compounded = Imperfection, then God ≠ Being Compounded. (Well, so much for the Christian Trinity: being compounded of three parts would make God “imperfect,” and therefore not God.) But if being made of separate things is an imperfection, then what exactly can God be made of? For something to exist, it has to be made of SOME THING.
I suspect Descartes would have squirreled out of this conversation, if we traveled back in time, by saying something like: “WELL, God is WHOLLY made of GODNESS and nothing else compounds Him.” Hmmm. To be made of things is to be imperfect. But if we follow that to its conclusion, a perfect God would be made entirely of NO THING. God = Nothing? I don’t think Rene could have dealt with that thought.
So he goes barreling down the Path of Religious Contradictions. We further learn that it is “repugnant” that “falsity or imperfection could proceed from God.” But wait: didn’t we establish humans as imperfect? If only perfect things can proceed from God, then do humans NOT come from God? How could a Perfect Being create imperfections? Isn’t the creation of Imperfection a sign of Imperfection in and of itself?
RATING: MASTERPIECE!!! in its historical context … GOOD ENOUGH out of context.
Lest you think that philosophers are always going around with their heads in the clouds: Descartes had some military ambitions, and participated in the same siege of La Rochelle that Alexandre Dumas immortalized in “The Three Musketeers.”
On the lighter side! “Cogito Urkel Sum” – I Think Family Matters.
Here are my additions:
“Cogito Ogre Sum”: “I think I’m Shrek.”
“Fajita Ergo Sum”: ” is it lunch time already?”
“Cogito Virgo Cum” : This one is totally vulgar.