When I was a student I felt compelled to challenge anything presented to me as being irrefutable. As soon as I heard about the cogito I assumed I would be able to refute it, to show that is was not necessarily true. That proved easier said than done. Try for yourself; it is interesting, and it is the only way to grasp Descartes’s point. Discuss your efforts.
On the surface it could be considered that the simple doubt of ones existence proves that the cogito is in fact irrefutable. The argument for this being that to doubt ones existence one must first exist. There is an easy simplicity in the supposition of this. This seems to be a sensible place to begin when considering this matter. It could be argued that this was Descartes attempt at defeating scepticism in what he felt was its own arena.
This begins with doubting everything that has been presented as true, Descartes began by supposing that the information passed on from the senses was possibly incorrect, asserting that it is always best not to trust what is seen and or heard as it may not be as it first appears. This is possibly good advice in general that would prevent un-thought out responses and would possible save many arguments, maybe some would go so far as to say this kind of considerate thinking could avoid wars, humans have a great capacity for misunderstanding or having wildly opposing perceptions of the information presented to them, a person will understand the information in front of them in the capacity that their experience allows, as everyone has different experiences, even of exactly the same event. Delving deeper in to the idea that what the senses are telling us may not be true Descartes presents the notion that at times dreams are so vivid and real that it is hard to tell them apart from waking reality, this is a rational suggestion to any one who has woken from a dream so real that it is hard to shake the feeling that it has indeed just happened to them, maybe there is even the memory of smell or touch that lingers after the dream, it is easy to see how the question can be raised if a dream can produce the impression of smells or a physical sensation.
Suppose that a person is trying to relate how much pain they are in, for that person that pain is very real and my feel like their whole existence is consumed by it, while the listener may be able to relate to their own experience of pain the pain of the other person cannot be a reality for them, they are relying on their senses to inform them of the other persons discomfort. While there may be no disbelief that the person is truly suffering the inability to experience the suffering helps support the idea that the physical world its self could be denied by anyone who would chose to consider it, the world out side ourselves could be nothing more but a fabrication of an imagination with little else to occupy it.
Descartes turns his attention to the idea that there might actually be a God who rather than being as religion teaches us, a God who is omnipotent, and loving wishing to guide us in our quest to be good and Godly ourselves, this God is spiteful and petty, this God has set about deceiving humanity suggesting that what ever is believed to be true might be removed at any point and proved wrong at the whim of this God, the suggestion being that the metaphorical rug may be pulled from under our feet at any given time.
Descartes argued “If I know that I am, then I know what I am” the understanding of our true character must be contained with in our awareness. (Kemerling, 2011)
It seems that the harder on attempts to prove that their very existence could be in doubt the more concrete the proof of their existence is when we consider this idea and take it quite literally, how ever Descartes has used the term thinking in a broad manner, it seems reasonable then it could be further made a generality, for example I am typing, therefore I exist, I am surrounded by adoring suitors, therefore I exist the second there being an obvious fantasy but it serves to highlight everyone has fantasies and a tendency for wrong perception, for seeking an absolute certainty, these arguments can not work, the fact I am typing can be doubted, or being surrounded by adoring suitors, each of these things would be just as easily believed as a dream, however it can not be doubted that it seems to me that I am typing that it seems as if I am surrounded by adoring suitors, it can not be mistaken how my experiences appear. So in thinking about these matters it has to be concluded that I know that I am thinking, so can rightly conclude I exist. (Cave, 2012)
This opens the consideration then that if something has the capacity to think it then exists, presenting new conundrums to deliberate upon, one being that characters in works of fiction think. Yet in our capacity of understanding reality they did not exist, these characters did not exist in real life even if they did consider their own existence in the fictional settings their authors wrote them into. This leads to the consideration of “I” by using the statement of “I” there is a commitment to the statement rather than the observation there is thinking going on. From this it can be concluded that it is fundamental to existence that “I” am thinking, allowing the opposite to be true, if I am not thinking then I do not exist, there is a fault in this thinking, Descartes notices he is thinking when thinking about these things, and as such his noticing that he exists at these time, it doesn’t result then that he does not exist when he is not considering such matters in order to notice his thinking, if Descartes had only ever considered these matters while in the bath he may have noticed he was always wet when he existed, this could have lead him to the wild idea that being wet was essential for his existence. (Cave, 2012)
Can it be that “I” could both exist and not exist, if “I” were a fictional character, or the figment of someone’s imagination, or even the subject of a dream that is mid-flow, is that existence any less true than any other, the “I” of these instances are making considerations, having thoughts even questioning and doubting their very existence. If the proof of existence it thought then it is possible to both exist and not exist simultaneously in these contexts? Is it simply a question of perception?
It is hard to draw a solid conclusion from the thoughts presented by Descartes, even when other philosophers have considered this matter they have only expanded upon the idea, or refuted the wording of the original statement, sometimes questioned the fundamental meaning that the words have in order to dissect and understand the concept that Descartes put forward, how ever none of them have come to a conclusion that the idea is wholly wrong.
There has long been a desire to explore the connection between mind and body, and could even be a consideration that need more consideration in modern times as technological advances offer the ability for greater and greater understanding between body and mind. Both Aristotle and Descartes tried to locate the soul or mind Aristotle locating it in the heart and Descartes in the pineal gland in the brain. In modern thinking the brain is now considered to be the physical origin of the mind. Each of these great thinkers, while not agreeing on location connect the soul to the body, Descartes is clear that the soul can not be located in any one part of the body however its principle position is in the centre of the brain. (Howells 2011) It seems both men were of the opinion that the boy and the soul were very separate and yet joined in an inseparable way.
Descartes makes the assertion that while body and soul are not one in the same thing one cannot be with out the other, he is “not only present in my body as a sailor is present in a ship, but I am very closely joined and, as it were intermingled with it so I and the body form a unit.” (Howells 2011)
The typing of this has brought me no closer to proving or disproving the Cogito in a personal sense, it would be more sensible to say that the only certain outcome is there are now more questions than there were before. It would be truer to state now, that there was more surety in the reality that this essay was really being typed with the physical fingers that this ”I” perceives to be stroking the keys upon the keyboard than before it was started than there is presently, maybe this scene has been the fabrication of an author writing a story of a character in a book or the fancies of a day dreamer sat in a class room not paying attention who has yet to “wake” up to discover that they still have this essay to write, maybe their journey to a conclusion will be more decisive, or conclusive.
Cave, Peter. ‘How to Outwit Aristotle, and 34 other really interesting uses of Philosophy’, London, Quercus, 2012 print
Kemerling, Gareth ‘Descartes: Starting with Doubt’, Encyclopaedia Britannica, (2011) www.philosophypages.com, Web 18 Apr. 15
Howells, Christina ‘Motal Subjects, passions of the soul in the late twentieth – century French though’, Cambridge, Polity Press, 2001 print