Descartes Knowledge Essay, Research Paper
Descartes (Essay #1)
Wednesday October 21, 1998
Justin E. A. Busch
The question of our existence in reality is a question which philosophers have tackled throughout time. This essay will look at the phrase, cogito ergo sum or I think therefore I am, a phrase brought about by Rene Descartes. This phrase is the backbone of Descartes whole philosophy of our existence in reality. As long as we are thinking things, we exist.
When we look at this approach to our existence we must first deny that any sensory data that we receive is believable or it is conceivable that it is false. This means that we can?t really know that anything we perceive through our senses is actually an accurate interpretation of reality. After we?ve established that our senses aren?t totally reliable we then have to look at what we know of without our senses. Descartes says that the only thing that we can be sure of is that we are thinking things. Even in denying that we are thinking things we are affirming the actual point that we look to deny. The thought that we are not thinking things is still a thought and therefore proof that we are thinking things. For it is not conceivable for one to think of a point at which we are not thinking. We can try to persuade ourselves that there are times when we are not thinking but in doing so we see that we do exist. For it is impossible to persuade nothing of something, so our existence is solely dependent on the fact that we are things, thinking things that can be persuaded. Even though the fact that we are thinking things doesn?t necessarily prove that we are human beings, it does prove that we are beings. At this point Descartes would say that we don?t know what we are just that we are. A thinking thing really has a very vague description and cannot really be applied to us as beings which we perceive. So what is the connection between what we believe to be us and what is us? Descartes would say we have experiences of what we think we are. For example, even though our senses aren?t reliable, when we see things we still have the experience of seeing that thing. Even if in a dream, an apple is still experienced as our definition of an apple. An apple in a dream will still look and smell the same as an apple to us in wakefulness because the experience is the same. Because we really don?t definitely know if we are awake or asleep at any time we can only say that the experience of the apple is certain in our minds. So we are thinking things which are constantly having experiences of what we think is reality or the world without. These experiences are what define the outside world, if in fact there is an outside world to us. Descartes says that all of these things aren?t learnt but that we know them a priori or without experience. Descartes gives the example of a ball of wax. When this ball of wax is heated it becomes soft and changes shape. When it is heated more it becomes a liquid and some may even evaporate but we know as it is in us to know that it is the same piece of wax that it was to start with. Even though the description of this wax has changed we still know as an a priori truth that this is still the same piece of wax that it always was. Even though our senses tell us that this looks, smells, sounds, and feels like something different then the original piece of wax, we know that it is the same thing. Our sensory data has changed but our interpretation remains the same, this Descartes would say is another sense, a deeper sense, a sense separate from the senses. There must be something that tells us more then our sensory knowledge. Thus extra sense allows us to relate back to the original point of existence without the use of the senses. This extra sense is perception in the mind not necessarily through the senses and though not entirely separate from them. There is a point where we know what we know even though some senses are deceiving. Because we think and the mind perceives there must be something that exists.
Objections to the cogito philosophy aren?t overly plentiful in that it is hard to think of a time when we are not thinking, and because we are constantly thinking we can then say that we do exist. If we can think of a time when we are not thinking then an objection arises. For example while one is in deep sleep we do not know whether we are thinking or not. When we wake up we may remember a dream or two but when we think about it they may only add up to about five minutes in length even though we know we were asleep for eight hours. There is all of that time when we don?t remember what we were thinking or if we were even thinking at all. When using this as an objection to the cogito we say that it is impossible to not be thinking because to stop thinking is to no longer exist. Descartes would say that even though we may not remember that we were thinking, we were thinking none the less. There are many things which we don?t remember. I don?t remember being born but that does not mean that I wasn?t thinking at the time. During the night we might be woken up by a loud sound, but after we wake up we might not remember a thing. It still remains that even though we can?t remember any thought before we woke, we know that there was because we heard the noise and woke up. We still have experiences while asleep whether they are dreams or experience of hot or cold or a smell or a sound. We know we still experience them because they arouse us to wakefulness and therefore are experience while in deep sleep. The introduction of stimuli in deep sleep arouses thoughts in us in order to wake us. Therefore, while in deep sleep we might not remember everything we thought but we are still thinking or else we would probably never wake up. Think about how you wake up at any time and it is obvious that some thought is involved.