Cartesian Doubt

Philosophy begins with science.

Meditations, 1641 edition

How do we know this? We can try to begin with philosophy. We can start with Cartesian doubt. Unfortunately for the history of philosophy, Rene Descartes did not take his first philosophy far enough. He began his night of doubt by questioning the reliability of his senses and came to the recognition that a demon—perhaps beneficent, perhaps malicious—could be the source of all his sensations and thoughts. But all was not lost. Asking “do I even exist?” he noticed, entailed something existing to ask the question. Furthermore, that he experienced this something-asking-the-question as himself was enough to demonstrate that some sort of himself existed, even if produced by a demon. In short, thinking about his existence proved in some fundamental way—Descartes realized—that he must exist. In this sense his existence could not be denied, even by God.

That was easy enough. But there are other things to doubt. Descartes recognized the difficulty of determining whether dreams were more real than waking life—a problem famously presented in the inner chapters of the Chuang-Tzu. But here Descartes failed to recognize that there is an identity problem. The problem is this: my thoughts often go away—when I sleep and do not dream, when I am knocked out, when I am subjected to general anesthesia (although we can excuse Descartes for not being aware of this last). When my thoughts resume, how do I know I am the same “I”? Certainly I feel that I’m a continuing entity, but that could be a simple trick of Descartes’ demon.

And there is an even deeper identity problem. My thoughts are never the same. They are diverse, not just in subject but in content and feel. What connects all these thoughts into a single “me”? We must remember that for Descartes, the word “thought” encompasses not just our internal dialog of words, but all of our feelings and sensations. What unites a pain in the knee with a feeling of elation? What unites a smell of roses with an experience of blueness? What unites any of these with my thought “Cogito ergo sum”?

And there is a continuity problem. One moment I may be thinking about what I am and if I even exist, and the next moment I may be wondering where I should eat lunch. A moment later I feel a muscle twitch in my arm. Perhaps my arm, hunger and lunch are all illusions, but nonetheless I experienced these in succession without any way of explaining (if experiences are all I am) how or why one led to the next. That is the continuity problem, and it only increases the difficulty of identifying all these experiences as the same me. (Of course, I have a sense of them as “me” but that could be a trick by the demon.)

Furthermore, what separates my thoughts from yours? What makes mine belong to me and yours belong to you? It does not seem to be something that our thoughts and feelings themselves control. They just are, and in being seem to belong to me or to you. But why?

At first philosophy, all I know about myself is that I am a bundle of experiences. Or I seem to be. But what “bundles” these experiences together? What makes them mine? What am I—what can I possibly be—that I experience this bundle as myself? These questions need answers, but at this point it is unclear how we can answer them.

Descartes’ Error

Descartes makes a logical mistake here. “I am, I exist—that is certain; but for how long do I exist?” he asks himself. “For as long as I think,” he answers, “for it might perhaps happen, if I totally ceased thinking, that I would at the same time completely cease to be.” From this he draws the invalid conclusion that “[thought] alone is inseparable from my nature.” Yet, if thinking proves his existence, it doesn’t follow that thought alone is inseparable from his nature. And it certainly does not follow, as he writes shortly afterwards, that the

knowledge of my being does not depend on things whose existence is not yet known to me, and consequently and even more certainly, it does not depend on any of those things that I can picture in my imagination. …

But what then am I? A thinking being. What is a thinking being? It is a being which doubts, which understands, which conceives, which affirms, which denies, which wills, which rejects, which imagines also, and which perceives. (All quotes from Second Meditation, Laurence J. Lafleur translation, 1960.)

In attempting to tease out his nature from cogito ergo sum Descartes has fallen into a trap. True enough, thinking about his existence is logically necessary if he is to have knowledge of his existence. But neither his existence nor the nature of his existence is logically dependent upon his having knowledge of his existence. Contrary to his claim, it is entirely possible that Descartes’ “knowledge of my being” is dependent on something whose existence is at this point unknown to him. Logically, for example, it could be dependent upon the actual existence of his physical body (even though he currently can’t be sure it’s real) since it could be his body which generates his thoughts. He has confused “knowledge of my existence” with “nature of my existence”—”I know I am” with “what I am.”

But accusing Descartes of a logical error raises the specter of another doubt. How can we know if our sense of what is logical and illogical is reliable? Where does “logic” come from? And whence my sense of what is logical? Perhaps the demon instilled me with this sense of logic—how then can I know it’s reliable? How am I to determine whether my claim that Descartes made a logical mistake has any truth value? And the same goes for my sense of “truth.” Is it anything more than a preference I have—a preference instilled in me willy-nilly by God or demon?

It seems that we are stuck. If our sense of logic and truth is not reliable, then our thoughts can never be reliable and we are at a dead end, as far as philosophy goes. We must give up on rational thought. So what next? How can we proceed? Or can we?

Of course we don’t know that logic and truth are unreliable. We don’t know if they have a universal basis, or if they’re just something locally instilled in us by the demon. And we don’t know the demon’s game—are its intentions beneficent or malicious?

Rationalism dies here. Analytic philosophy dead-ends. At this point we can only proceed with working assumptions. We are forced to be pragmatic and see where that gets us. And our first working assumption must be that logic is reliable enough, that the tools we have to determine truth are valid enough—at any rate our thoughts are useless (outside of social contexts) without these assumptions. And being pragmatic, we will try to maximize the usefulness of our thoughts. Let’s see where this approach gets us.

It doesn’t lead us to certain knowledge about our nature or the nature of the world—we’ve already seen that. Analytically, we can’t get to final answers. But we seem to have other tools—we can use our senses to study the world empirically, we can develop synthetic knowledge of ourselves and the world using the scientific method (which seems to be a method of maximizing the usefulness of our thoughts). How does this help? Well, we can lay down some possible world views—supernatural, natural, and so on—and see which one seems to fit best with what we discover. Our answers will never be final, since they will rely on empirical knowledge—but maybe this fact itself is an essential component of understanding ourselves.

Back to Identity

But let’s not get too far ahead. We still have an identity problem. Before continuing, it may be fitting to summarize where our Cartesian doubt has left us. Our senses are sometimes not reliable, but it may be that neither are our thoughts, even our sense of logic and truth may be something local instilled in us by a demon. We can know that we exist (at least when we ask the question), and we can presume that we exist whenever we have experiences, but we can’t say what we (as these experiences) are or where we (as these experiences) come from, or what (outside of the demon) provides identity to these experiences we think of as us, or what separates your experiences, dear reader, from mine.

We have not yet—but we must—push these questions to the demon. We will want to do this because if we are reliant on the demon for our existence and identity, then we have to seek the answers to our questions there. When we do so, we discover that if the demon also has thoughts and experiences—if it is through thinking and experiencing that the demon instills us with the same—then it also has an identity problem. Where do its thoughts come from, and what makes those thoughts belong to it? What gives the demon its continuity and identity? We could postulate a regression of demons, but that seems never-ending.

Maybe we are thinking about this wrongly.

The problem with thoughts, we saw earlier, is that they are never the same. Because of this simple fact, there is a problem of continuity and identity. And we must remember that when we talk of “thoughts” we are talking about consciousness—about everything we seem to experience. The smell of cinnamon, the redness of a cardinal flying past the window, the taste of garlic, the dull throbbing of a headache, the excitement of winning a poker hand, thoughts about existence, even thoughts about gods and demons—these experiences are so diverse, so unlike each other that we are hard pressed to identify anything they have in common. (Note that we are not talking about what these experiences reference, but about their internal content. It doesn’t matter to the point at hand whether their references are valid or invalid, exist or do not exist.)

Now, one thing that seems to unite them is that they are all sensations of one sort or another—they are all experienced, yes. But what provides continuity from one to the next, what unites them into my experiences, my sensations? Perhaps I can point outside myself to the demon. But if I attribute these experiences which make up me to an external demon—how does that demon go about creating the experiences that become me, and separating them from the experiences that become you?

Of course, the demon faces the same dilemma—if it also experiences thoughts and feelings.  It seems, logically (and therefore provisionally, given our uncertainties about logic), that the only way to resolve this without an infinite regression of demons, is to assume that the demon does not have thoughts and feelings. Whatever the demon is, it is not like us. It is not experiential. Making this step allows us to have a demon who is our source and accounts for our identity, yet does not have to face its own Cartesian doubt. This move, it seems to me, brings clarity.

In fact, it seems that the only good way to resolve the continuity and identity problems which exist when we consider experience by itself, is to postulate a source for our experiences which—whatever it is—is not experience. If this source is our demon, then it is a demon that does not think or feel. This doesn’t mean we know what the nature of the demon is, but we do know what it is not. And that is a start.

However, one thing we can say about the demon’s nature is this: whatever that nature is, it encompasses the capacity to create our experiences. We must still ask how the demon distinguishes my experiences from yours—the answer, perhaps, is that it doesn’t have to. Perhaps we are products of different demons, since nothing forces us to conclude that there must be a single demon. This thought raises the interesting prospect that Descartes’ demon—and ours—is none other than the body itself. By postulating physical bodies, we have a potential (and common sense) resolution to the continuity and identity issues that have been raised. It would follow that the nature of our bodies must encompass the capacity to create the sensations (including thoughts) which we experience as us.

Previously we saw that when Cartesian doubt is followed to the end, we reach a point where we must abandon rationalism. Even our sense of logic and truth can be questioned, and our only resort is to embrace them with reservations. Like our senses, we cannot be sure of their reliability. Nevertheless, we seem to have no other tools with which to know the world. We have no other manner of addressing our doubts. Answers with rational, logical certainty are beyond us. But we have the usefulness of the scientific method and that is the next best thing. It allows us to move forward from our Cartesian doubt in a pragmatic manner—by postulating alternative world views (naturalism, supernaturalism, etc) and seeing which one best fits the evidence from science and fits the results of our attempt at first philosophy.

I said at the beginning that philosophy begins with science. Perhaps that is not correct. But Descartes’ method has demonstrated, if nothing else, that philosophy must end with science.

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5 Responses to Cartesian Doubt

  1. victoreremita says:

    Hey Dwight. Pleasure reading your article; this kind of thing always interests me and you have an interesting take on it. However I do have some concerns with the way you outline Descartes’ position, and yes I get the whole point is to lead us to the position that we can help philosophy with science so I may be missing the point but I have comments there too:

    Firstly you seem to pay great attention to what you call Descartes’ “Problem of Identity”; we get lumped with this great big “I” that comes in to existence as an absolute certainty and we question how it makes sense that thought grounds the “I”. Your problems with reference to it are, in my view, unlikely to trouble Descartes given what he actually goes on to do; yes he cannot fix himself as a thing with memories or a thing that persists but that doesn’t matter because his next steps don’t need this. At meditation III he argues for the existence of God by the content of his own thoughts which you yourself agree are things that Descartes can be certain of the presence of, and arguably the content of as well (because the content of these things would just be decided by comparing like to like, so in this case thought to thought; some of my thoughts represent things I think I invented, some of them represent things I think I percived as external to me, this sense of “I think I invented” being ground in memory that may or may not be true memory and so forth).

    And I mean this is a more general point about the whole notion of the “problem of identity” you put forward; one has these problems(“What connects these thougths in to a single me?”, “what seperates my thougths from yours” and so forth (these are paraphrases, not quotes)) but are they not solved by Descartes cogito? Well let’s see the structure of the way you expressed it “I think [therefore] I am”. We begin at the reference of the thought that already occurs and then bring in the existence of that thought which itself grounds its existence, so the “I” here is grounded in self-reference of thought at any one moment. But then you state “We don’t think about this all of the time” and that is true but it is a facet of thought that it does self reference; this is how we can get a steady train of thought from one place to the next.
    And as a side note your presentation of thought as “The smell of cinnamon, the redness of a cardinal flying past the window, the taste of garlic…”. I am confused as to what you mean here because you speak of this as “thought” but obviously we don’t just have these things going on aruond us with blank minds; we view them and think about them and draw them to one another. Obviously if we were talking about experience in a thoughtless way then they wouldn’t be related at all because we can experience a whole host of unrelated things, but the pattern within which we experience them in us is grounded.
    And even if we just have as pure an experience as possible you overlook the fact that as experiencing beings we don’t just have inputs but we have a reciprocal relation to such an imput; philosophers of the mind call this qualia. We cannot have an experience without making some sort of judgement about it; all that differs is the severity of the judgement we make. I mean I am not a philosopher of mind so I am aware this probably sounds quite ameturish at the moment but you can get the sort of idea I mean that you haven’t considered.

    There is more unease in your presentation of Descartes but I think that is irrelevant to the thrust of your rhetoric here. I guess the real thrust of what you are saying is that science can solve the corners philosophy backs itself in to, but obviously not in a philosophical way. Equally you posit the body as a possible source of dobut for us, and then I am not sure what this means. Do you mean we are compelled to simply stop thinking as Descartes does in the most basic sense of “I”? Here I have problems because we won’t, and it isn’t obvious why science gets the upper hand here. Your breif exposition of the scientific method as summing up worldivews and judging them with reference to evidence (which, as another side note, is presenting it in an unrealistically pure light; judgement can’t occur from a neutral stance and only occurs within a worldview), aside from it itself being ungrounded (or maybe it isn’t… I am willing to conciet that I am ignorant here) all you seem to be arguing for is conceit to science on pragmatic grounds. Why should we believe pragmatic grounds? Is there any evidence you would accept to make you convinced that you weren’t experiencing pain if you felt as if you were? So if we do have a sense of “I” in the same way is there anything that will get rid of that?
    I may be misrepresenting your case so let me rethink… You are just talking about the productivity of the starting point. Well in what sense does philosophy try to talk about everything? As far as I can see all Descartes is trying to do is ground thought, and does so in showing it can ground itself. I think then what this revolves around is how much science thinks it can describe, and here I feel as if we will simply differ on opinion as to what matters.

    I appreciate my response is long winded and tedious (and incorrectly spelt) but your presentation of the Cartesian problem is a fresh one and one I respect, even if I don’t agree with it. Also may I say how refreshing it is to read a naturalist writer who doesn’t seem to be unnecessarily rude.

  2. Dwight says:

    Thank you for your thoughtful comment. I appreciate the amount of time and consideration you put into it, and I’ll try to address your criticisms—particularly your doubt that there is a problem of identity or continuity with thoughts.

    But first let me try to clarify what appear to me to be misperceptions of my take on science and worldviews. (I believe there is a misperception because you ask “Why should we believe pragmatic grounds? Is there any evidence you would accept to make you convinced that you weren’t experiencing pain if you felt as if you were? So if we do have a sense of ‘I’ in the same way is there anything that will get rid of that?”) Hopefully the following (far too long) explanation will help elucidate my position.

    What I believe Descartes is trying to do in the meditations is to throw everything we think we know about ourselves and the world into doubt, and then see what basic facts about existence can be recovered from the ruins using rational philosophy. Our senses can be doubted, even the existence of our body can be doubted. Descartes imagines a demon tricking him with sensations of an external world (including his body and its senses). That’s essentially the first meditation.

    In the second, Descartes’ notices that when he ponders the question “do I even exist, or are my thoughts also a figment created by the demon?” he can be certain he does exist because—if nothing else—he is pondering the question. I think this is incontrovertible.

    Descartes then attempts to move from this incontrovertible proof of his existence to identifying the nature of his existence (and hopefully a lot more). What am I, he asks himself? The answer, he thinks must be based only on what he has established so far, which is that he is a “thinking being.” What, he asks, is a thinking being? And his answer (correctly I believe) expands “thinking” to include all aspects of consciousness—our feelings and perceptions as well as our thoughts. Any experience we have is incontrovertible evidence of our existence, even if it is not a self-referencing thought (as cogito ergo sum is), even if it’s just a feeling or sensation we have. If I feel a pain, the experience of the pain is proof that I exist, whatever “I” am.

    I would argue that this conclusion is incontrovertible. It can’t be denied. And I would argue that any viewpoint that attempts to pretend our experiences don’t really exist is a non-starter. Evidence—in this case, conscious experiencing—doesn’t disappear because we are incapable of studying it in a scientific manner. You can’t sweep consciousness under the rug and expect it to go away—especially so since science can’t be carried out without scientists employing conscious thoughts.

    But I also argue that Descartes makes a mistake at this point. He says, “I know that I am a thinking being” and from this concludes that his being a thinking being does not rely on his having a body (because he proved his mind’s existence without having to rely on anything but his thoughts). This is a logical mistake as I pointed out in the article. From here Descartes will argue that our conceptions are more perfect and reliable than our perceptions, and try to use that to provide a rational argument for God’s existence in the third meditation, and from there eventually give us bodies and a real world around us.

    However, I can’t get Descartes to the third meditation because, I believe, he failed to take his night of doubt far enough; that is, he failed to consider the problems of identity and continuity we face if, as thinking beings, our existence doesn’t rely on having bodies. That’s a key focus of what I wrote, and my job is to convince you that there really are problems of identity and continuity if we don’t have bodies, and that we can’t satisfactorily solve these problems by referring the source of our consciousness to God or to a bodiless demon (whereas if our bodies are the source of our thoughts and feelings, we have a workable, common sense solution).

    But first this. In the article I pointed out that we can’t just assume that logical thought is reliable. Yet as soon as we accept this possibility, it becomes impossible for Descartes (or anyone else) to establish a world view by force of logical argument. Descartes was not willing to go here because it puts any attempt to rationally deduce truths about the world (beyond his own existence) into doubt. Especially if our bodies produce our thoughts and are responsible for the logical connections of those thoughts—we can have no certainty of the truths we think we establish by logical argument.

    I haven’t touched on this, but even Descartes’ example of the wax being melted (“Does the same wax remain after this change? We must admit that it does; no one denies it.”), which is meant to show that the “understanding” is fundamentally reliable, fails. This is because we can and should doubt whether the bit of wax is the same wax object after being melted. Our minds are constructed to treat it as the same “object,” because it’s useful to us to do so, but is it really?

    My point here is that Cartesian doubt, taken far enough, destroys the goal of rational philosophy. We become unable to establish logical truth about anything beyond the incontrovertibleness of our own existence. But I believe that’s ok. It just means we have to proceed more creatively (pragmatically). We can do this by postulating various worldviews—natural, supernatural, etc—and then trying to see if we can determine which one best fits all the evidence we have. A lot of that evidence will be scientific, but some will come from this “first philosophy” of Descartes. Science has its limits, particularly when it comes to studying consciousness; but science also has uncovered a lot of evidence that consciousness is in fact produced—somehow—by the body, particularly by parts of the brain.

    So, on to identity and continuity (finally).

    Your argument (unless I misunderstand it) is that Descartes’ demonstrated that thought grounds itself because it self-references, so there isn’t a problem of identity as I claimed. And because we can get a steady train of thought there is not a continuity issue. Even taking our sensations and perceptions alone, they don’t just occur in us “with blank minds: we view them and think about them and draw them to one another.” And you add “the pattern within which we experience them in us is grounded.”

    Remember that we are still in the second meditation at this point, and my job is to convince you that there really are problems of identity and continuity if we don’t have something of a non-conscious nature behind our thoughts and sensations.

    You say thoughts ground themselves because they self-reference, but only some thoughts self-reference. Most thoughts are not about themselves at all, but about whatever the subject of the thought is. If I think “2+2=4” that thought is about 2+2=4, it’s not about itself as a thought (until just now, when I make it self-referencing to make this observation). The only sense in which thoughts are grounded is in the sense that when I am having a thought-experience, it is incontrovertible that I exist as something having that thought-experience—or at least that I exist as that thought-experience which is occurring. But if I now have a different thought-experience, is it the same me that had the previous one?

    I believe you are arguing that because there is a steady train of thoughts that are me (or experienced as “mine”), there is continuity of identity. Perhaps. But our trains of thoughts do end. They do become discontinuous with subsequent trains of thought. There are gaps of time and gaps of subject matter. You might want to argue that when we start thinking again, that we remember the previous chain of thought and resume it from that memory. But this is just the problem. Where was this memory of our previous thoughts stored when it was not being experienced by us? If our identity is our consciousness, then when memories are out of consciousness, those memories do not belong to us, they are not “our” memories any longer. Hopefully this helps you see the problem I’m trying to expose.

    If we are bodies, the answer is easy. Our memories are stored in our brains somehow and retrieved by our brains when they create our next train of thoughts. But Descartes can’t use this answer because (1) he hasn’t yet established that we even have bodies, and (2) he has (mistakenly) concluded that our thoughts do not require a body for their existence, since we can know we exist simply from cogito even if we don’t have bodies.

    Furthermore, imagine we have a conversation and I say “there is a red poker chip on the table” which makes you think the same thought “there is a red poker chip on the table” a moment later. What makes the first one my thought and the second one yours? The commonsense answer is that we are different bodies, and different bodies will have their own separate thoughts. Descartes of course will obtain bodies for us before he finishes all of his meditations. But after death this problem will return if the soul (consciousness) survives the body.

    Let me list a couple of scenarios in which there is obviously a discontinuity of consciousness.
    (1) during general anesthesia
    (2) when consciousness is lost due to being knocked out.

    Both have happened to me. But what made it still me afterwards? What united my thoughts before with my thoughts after so that those thoughts were all part of the same me? I remembered that I was “me” afterwards—that is to say I was able to call up memories that I knew were from before and were my memories. But where did these memories exist while I was knocked out? They did not exist in my consciousness—I had none. And what gave me that sense of continuity of identity wherein I felt like I was the same person afterwards? How could I know this?

    Again, if my identity is really bodily, the answer is obvious. If my experiences are something created by my brain (such that a blow to the brain, or particular drugs can halt them temporarily), then the source of my identity and continuity is obvious—I still existed because I am a body, and my identity remained constant because my body was the same body before and after.

    Now, I’m not saying that a supernatural worldview can’t also resolve the identity problem. It can by giving us a body. Which of course most supernatural worldviews do. The body gives us a place for our memories to be stored when we’re not “remembering” them. The body provides the constancy of identity we need when we’re not thinking, or when we suddenly change subjects. Or when we lose consciousness. But this makes our bodies and our consciousness—our thinking self—inseparable. Which means: we cannot isolate our thoughts from the body without re-introducing the continuity and identity problems. On the other hand, as general anesthesia shows, our bodies can continue on without consciousness, we can live without having thoughts or feelings. This makes the body seem primary, and consciousness seem optional (although a very valuable option).

    It is this intermittent nature of consciousness that I think forces us to conclude that we must have bodies. Even that we must be bodies. Even that our very identity is bodily. And I believe it reasonable to conclude that if, instead, a bodiless consciousness (such as God or Descartes’ demon) is postulated as the source of our consciousness, then that God or demon must have a body as well, or else it will have an identity/continuity problem.

    Now, this is not “proof” of the natural worldview. Rather, it falls into the category of evidence that should be considered as we attempt to determine which worldview best fits the situation. I do believe we should imaginatively “try on” each major worldview in turn to see which one fits the evidence best. And we should be as willing to change worldview as we are to change clothing when we find a better fit.

  3. Dwight says:

    I hope I didn’t inadvertently leave the impression that general anesthesia or being knocked out are the only situations in which there is a continuity and identity problem for consciousness (if we define ourselves as our consciousness—rather than as bodies with intermittent consciousness). For one, there is the example of dreamless sleep. But the problem, I believe, is even more fundamental than these examples indicate; in fact I believe it is endemic. A few examples may help make this point.

    Consider a situation in which you can’t think of a particular word—it is on the tip of your tongue, as the saying goes, but you cannot recall it no matter how hard you try. Later, after you’ve stopped trying and gone on to think about some unrelated subject, suddenly “out of the blue” the word appears to you. Unexpectedly you’ve recalled it—but how did you do so? You may not have any idea how your thoughts about the unrelated subject led you to the retrieval from your memory of the elusive word. Nor did you experience the actual retrieval of the word from memory. This is perhaps related to a point I did make above: that our memories, when we are not “remembering” them, have no place to exist if all we are is our thoughts and consciousness. My point here is not only do we not experience our memories when we are not remembering them, but we also don’t have an experience of the actual “retrieval” of a particular memory. This seems to be evidence that we must possess a non-conscious nature that feeds words and memories (and what are words but a certain type of memory) to our consciousness.

    Consider situations where we make a decision to do something. Although we may very well have plenty of thoughts about what to do prior to making the decision, and afterwords we may have the feeling or thought that we’ve made a decision, do we in fact experience the actual “decision” itself? My experience in this regard seems very much like my experience of suddenly remembering an elusive word—I know I’ve made a decision, I know the decision I’ve made, but I didn’t actually have the experience of deciding. Or occasionally, I “decide” and then my body ends up not doing what I decided in my thoughts to do. Where was my experience of deciding to change my decision? Nowhere—instead I “impulsively” did something else instead. The more closely we attempt to pay attention to our decisions and pin them down, the less clear the moment of decision becomes. And in fact there is experimental evidence that our brains make decisions a few tenths of a second before we have an experience of “deciding.” If we are only our thoughts, feelings and perceptions, then this doesn’t add up. If we are bodies with thoughts, it makes complete sense.

    Discontinuity also occurs every time the stream of word-thoughts in the head abates. This can happen not just with sleep, but during waking hours as well. We may stop thinking and instead concentrate wordlessly on nothing other than our sensations of the world around us. We may hear the patter of rain on the window or the sound of traffic in the street and vegetate wordlessly with those sensations. No words, no ideas, no concepts, just the unanalyzed sensations of the moment. And then suddenly cognition returns. How do we explain the stopping and starting of such transitions from one type of consciousness to another? How do we explain our continuity as a consciousness when we seem in fact to be several different types of consciousness? We need something non-conscious to bind them together; if we try to push the problem off to an external consciousness it doesn’t actually go away—the problem just gets transferred.

    And I would argue that even when we are thinking about a specific subject, experiencing thoughts in sentences with logical connections between one sentence and the next, there is still the question of how or why sentence B followed sentence A. Sure, there is a logical connection—but how did that logical connection come to us? In actual practice, logically connected sentences can be strung together more loosely (with some logical steps being skimmed over) or tightly (with the connection between the sentences spelled out in excruciating detail). This implies some sort of repository outside our actual thoughts (outside consciousness) where logical connections are retrieved prior to constructing our sentences. Furthermore (and in general) when we speak or write, we necessarily construct sentences with specific grammatical constructions—yet we don’t usually have an experience of working out what grammatical sentence structure to use for our next thought. Rather, the thought just comes out unplanned in that regard. And this is more evidence that things are going on in us outside of our consciousness even as we are thinking intently about a particular topic. We may attribute our ability to construct sentences without thinking about constructing them to learning—we’ve acquired a skill. But where exactly do the skills we acquire exist if we are not conscious of those skills as we utilize them? If we are our thoughts, and those skills are not thought or experienced when being utilized, how can they be considered something belonging to us?

    At every step, the identity problem rears its head. We need a head (and a body too) to resolve it. And this tells us that Descartes got something fundamentally wrong in his second meditation.

  4. Blinn Combs says:

    Thanks for this, Dwight! It’s an interesting post with a lot of good meat to it. I’m not fully convinced, though, that it quite captures the spirit of the Cartesian dialectic, for reasons I’ll try (briefly, hopefully!) to explain.

    Remember that the first meditation sets about systematically providing grounds of doubt, not about individual knowledge claims, but about the *sources* of possible knowledge. The first step, the argument from faulty sense experience, goes some way toward undermining our empirical beliefs, but not far enough. The dream argument is sufficient to systematically undermine our confidence in our empirical beliefs. But even that leaves the foundations of math and logic intact. The evil demon is brought in precisely to undermine even this (apparently!) most secure sort of knowledge.

    So Descartes comes to the second meditation in a mode of full-bore skepticism. To put this somewhat differently, let’s say he is systematically doubting the particular *content* of any his specific beliefs.

    The cogito emerges at this point as a triumph against the demon precisely because it offers a fixed point. Regardless of the specific content of any belief, he is (and must be!) a believing (feeling, thinking, doubting, etc.) thing. (The first person perspective here is also key. He wants to draw us in with his thought experiment. Doubting that squares have four sides, or that I even have a body, or that the sky is blue of the earth vaguely round, is, after all, *doubting* nonetheless. And the point is that the formal trappings of thought exist (so long as something is thinking!) whether or not there is any material reality (or independent truth grounds) corresponding to the thoughts being experienced.) The overarching point is that the existence of the mind is logically independent of the so far open question of whether material bodies exist. That is the point of your quoted passage: “knowledge of my being does not depend on things whose existence is not yet known to me, and consequently and even more certainly, it does not depend on any of those things that I can picture in my imagination. …”

    Now I tend to agree that logical independence isn’t sufficient to ground ontological or physical independence, but Descartes isn’t quite yet interested in those questions. Why? Well, he’s going to call on God for those things (in later meditations). He actually thinks he has to call on God to explain the identity conditions for all things that have diachronic identities, and the mind is no exception. God explains the creation and persistence of individual souls no less than simple material objects, and in fact, the entire created order. And this is, note, for him, separate from the subjective identity conditions by which we come to form our own first-person narratives. The former is just the individuating condition for mind-like substances, which are what they are independently of our knowledge of them (thinks Descartes), and the other, as Locke would put it, are just forensic notions of personal identity, full of the idiomatic quirks of different streams of first-person experience. They are, as it were the accidents of individual minds, the individuality of which is established separately in God’s continuous acts of creating and sustaining the world. It is, of course, no less a personal accident that Descartes has his upon his method and his cogito, but it is, he thinks, a world-historical accident because it gives us a unique path to ground all of our further investigations into both the mind and the body, and incidentally shores up a good deal of scripture.

    (Needless to say, I don’t buy it, either, at the end of the day, but it’s nonetheless a fascinating piece of intellectual history. 🙂

    Cheers! (and thanks for the post!)

  5. Dwight says:

    Thanks very much for your very valuable comment, Blinn. Your description of what Descartes is doing in the Meditations is clearer and more accurate than mine was. I particularly like, “The cogito emerges at this point as a triumph against the demon precisely because it offers a fixed point. Regardless of the specific content of any belief, he is (and must be!) a believing (feeling, thinking, doubting, etc.) thing. (The first person perspective here is also key. He wants to draw us in with his thought experiment. Doubting that squares have four sides, or that I even have a body, or that the sky is blue of the earth vaguely round, is, after all, *doubting* nonetheless. And the point is that the formal trappings of thought exist (so long as something is thinking!) whether or not there is any material reality (or independent truth grounds) corresponding to the thoughts being experienced.)”

    I gather, however, that you may not agree with my contention that Descartes makes a logical error at this point. You continue, “The overarching point is that the existence of the mind is logically independent of the so far open question of whether material bodies exist.” In my mind, the warranted conclusion at this point is that knowledge of the existence of the mind is what is logically independent. Descartes correctly says “knowledge [emphasis added] of my being does not depend on things whose existence is not yet known to me…” But unless I have misread the meditations, he goes on to conclude that his being itself does not depend on anything outside his thoughts, and this, I submit, is an invalid conclusion. In his earlier Discourse on Method, the error is more obvious. There Descartes writes,

    “From that [cogito ergo sum] I knew that I was a substance the whole essence or nature of which is to think, and that for its existence there is no need of any place, nor does it depend on any material thing; so that this ‘me,’ that is to say, the soul by which I am what I am, is entirely distinct from body, and is even more easy to know than is the latter, and even if the body were not, the soul would not cease to be what it is.”

    Cogito allows him to conclude validly that he must exist, but this does not allow him to make any valid conclusions about the dependencies of his existence – yet he does. He goes from “the whole essence or nature of which is to think” to “nor does it depend on any material thing” to “even if the body were not, the soul would not cease to be.” Perhaps Descartes was aware of the weakness of this sequence, for in the Meditations it seems to me that it’s skillfully hidden.

    My arguments about identity and continuity of consciousness are meant to demonstrate that we cannot just be Cartesian thinking beings or souls, that there must be something that feeds our experiences to us and provides a continuity of identity. That might be God, or it might be Descartes’ demon (the demon might even be none other than the body). I hope my arguments show that this something which feeds our experiences to us must be (or at least probably is) non-conscious, otherwise it can’t avoid the same problems of continuity and identity that we have as strictly thinking beings. In the case of God this will take a lot of explication, but I feel fairly confident that God can’t be solely a thinking being and still address our continuity and identity problems, nor provide an explanation for sensations and perceptions of an apparent world of bodies.

    Nor do I think that invoking infinity can solve God’s own continuity problem if God is only a thinking being. Ironically, I suspect that William Lane Craig’s argument against an actual infinity would be applicable to the endeavor of counting God’s thoughts. (Although you can use infinity as a starting point for counting, you can’t get to a finite count from there – ie you can’t get to the count of a single thought or sensation. To avoid this we would have to argue that thoughts are essentially uncountable, but that would mean – since applying infinity to thoughts in our particular case does not resolve our continuity problem – that it won’t resolve God’s either. Like us, God would have to be given a body, and that move would blow up the supernatural worldview.)

    If you perceive from this that I believe Descartes’ “first philosophy” is where all philosophy should begin, then you understand me correctly. The first and primary evidence we have is of our own consciousness. The existence of everything else (including how it all fits together) must be inferred from this starting point, and it must be done so using a synthetic process rather than an analytic one. At least that’s how I see it.

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