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Wednesday, February 18, 2015


 Cogito Ergo Sum

The cogito ergo sum (“I think therefore I am”) is one of the most important ideas in the history of ideas--almost as important as the idea of “idea” itself. The mathematician Rene Descartes, as a post Enlightenment philosopher, questioned all authority that of the State, the Church, or the Academy. All science, policies, and dogmas can be doubted. Mathematics can prove how truths are derived from truths; but those truths are only as valid as the truth from which they are derived. That means that there must be a foundational truth—one that cannot be doubted from which all other truths can be derived.

The only truth that I cannot doubt, says Descartes, is my doubt itself. I can question every thought I have or which has been given to me from the Church, the State, and the Academy (if these exist at all).  But I cannot doubt myself doubting. I can questions all my thoughts, but I cannot question myself thinking. That is the absolute. The undoubtable, unquestionable, solid, fixed truth from which everything else can be derived. I think therefore I am.

On this fundamental truth Descartes proves the existence of the Self, of God, and of the World. It was a great idea because it led to the awareness of human consciousness and opened to the question of human thinking itself. But all great ideas it seems advance human understanding, but at the same time put forth obstacles. They reveal and obfuscate. They raise further questions. And with Descartes’ idea emerges the split, indeed the chasm, between Spirit and Matter, Self and Others, Mind and Body, the Objective and the Subjective.

Cultural historians have traced from this idea the divergent philosophies of empiricism and idealism, materialism and spiritualism, the notion of god in the machine, deism and determinism, the mind apart from the body, the market and the invisible hand, behaviorism without consciousness. It certainly reenforced ideas from earlier religions: separable immortal souls, divine spirits, ghosts, absolute ideas in some Absolute Mind, Great Spirit, God.

But this great idea also led to experiments and concepts that brought together what had been divided. The biggest turn came when thinkers reflected on thinking itself—the cogito. Continental European thinkers like Kant and Hegel examined the way that humans think, the structure of their thinking or the ideas they developed over time, i.e. the  categories of mind or the development of ideas in history. Continental thought culminated in “existential phenomenology,” the notion that human existence is already in and to the world interacting with others and the environment through symbols. The cogito cannot be thought of without its connection through symbols with the self, the others, and the world in time and space. There is no such thing as a detached cogito. And the parallel development in North America was the pragmatism of William James, John Dewey, and Charles Sanders Pierce.

The most important idea to emerge was “natural selection” expressed by Charles Darwin in his Origin of the Species and complemented by Richard Dawkins for explaining how genes and memes evolve to perpetuate themselves in adapting to changing environments. The cogito, thinking, existence, symbolic activity, is the interaction of the human embrained organism and its environment in which genes and memes are naturally selected.

And so in the history of ideas, we go from word (ancient mythology) to idea (Socrates and Plato) to form (Aristotle to Aquinas) to thought (Descartes to Hegel) to symbol (De Saussure to Dewey) to formula (Newton to Einstein) to meme (Darwin to Dawkins) to algorithm (Turing to Denning). Each stage could be identified differently with different principals named. But what is important is to recognize the progression and the growth in understanding of human behavior and being. Each idea was a solution to a problem and an advance for the human enterprise. But each idea also led to new problems and was an obstacle to progress. And so I ask myself today which dominant idea is holding us back and what is the emerging idea that will lead us forward.

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