Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Essential Thinkers #20 Rene Descartes "I Think, Therefore I Am"

Cogito, ergo sum” (I think, therefore I am)

French philosopher and mathematician, Rene Descartes is often called the father of modern philosophy. Known to physicists as the discoverer of the law of refraction in optics, but Descartes’s most famous work is in philosophy. Meditations of First Philosophy set the agenda for speculation in the philosophy of mind and epistemology for at least the next 300 years. He raised problems of such radical scepticism about our knowledge of the world that he suggests the only thing one can be absolutely certain of is the fact of one’s own existence, an insight summed up in his famous edict “cogito, ergo sum,” popularly translated as “I think, therefore I am.”

Descartes’ program in the Meditations is to put the edifice of human knowledge upon secure foundations. Reviewing his beliefs, he finds that many are contrary. Some are more or less justified than others; some, such as the propositions of mathematics, seem certain; others readily turn out to be false. He resolves to put some kind of order into this jumble of beliefs so that justification from one proposition may follow from another. In order to do that he needs to begin with whatever is most certain and infallible. The question is, where to start?

Descartes comes up with an ingenious program. Rather than attempt to examine and order each belief in turn – as task impossible to contemplate – he decides to examine his beliefs against a method of doubt. The method of doubt consists in questioning the source of his beliefs and asking whether that source is infallible. If not, he can be sure that any belief from that source cannot be relied upon to provide the foundations of knowledge.

To begin with, Descartes notes that many of his beliefs are derived from his senses, or from perception. He notes that the senses, however, can often mislead. A stick may look bent when viewed half submerged in water, the true size of the sun and the moon is many times greater than would appear from sight, and so on. One can even suffer hallucinations such that what one thinks to be there does not exist at all. Descartes resolves not to trust completely that which has deceived him once, and therefore rejects any information from the senses as being uncertain and fallible.

Even so, one might think that although the senses may deceive from time to time, Descartes can be sure, at least, that he is sitting in his study, or is a Frenchman with an interest in philosophy and so on. Be he recognizes that there is no clear and distinct way of telling the difference between reality and dreaming. How does he know that the life he thinks he is leading is not just part of a dream? There are no clear ways of distinguishing between waking life and a life merely dreamt.

So, rejecting all perceptual knowledge, Descartes turns to what he believes on account of his own internal reflections. Surely he knows that 2 + 3 = 5, that a mother is older than her daughter, that a triangle has three sides? But it could be the case, reflects Descartes, that he is the subject of a massive deception. Now Descartes imagines a scenario wherein he might be deceived by a divinely powerful, but malignant being; a demonic being that could manipulate his thoughts, as God might if he were not supremely good, into thinking anything the demon might choose.

This idea of wholesale radical deception has been the subject of popular films such as The Matrix and Twelve Monkeys. Descartes realises, however, that there is one proposition that neither the evil demon nor even God could make false. This is that at any time when he thinks, it must be the case that he exists. For he must exist in order to be able to think. By such reasoning Descartes is led to the cogito as the one certain, infallible rock of knowledge.

For Descartes, the cogito was the beginning of a project in which he attempted to prove the existence of God, in order to guarantee the rest of human knowledge. His commentators, unimpressed by his weak version of Anslem’s ontological argument or his own “trademark argument” to prove the existence of God, have taken the Meditations to be the definitive work of epistemological scepticism.
[Summarized from Philosophy 100 Essential Thinkers by Philip Stokes, 2012.]

Lord, Give Us Today Our Daily Idea(s)

Monday, February 6, 2017

As A Man Thinketh #4 The Most Basic and Logical Principle

Good thoughts and actions can never produce bad results; bad thoughts and actions can never produce good results. This is but saying that nothing can come from corn but corn, nothing from nettles but nettles
(James Allen, As A Man Thinketh)

Most everyone understands the biblical concept of sowing and reaping because we can grasp the simplicity of logic. If we were to plant durian in our farm we wouldn’t expect apple to come up. But even though we can grasp the logic, we don’t always act as if we understand the power of this principle. And we certainly don’t act as if this principle will affect us.

An example: For many years my morning ritual began with video games (or PSP to be exact). Most mornings spending an hour or more on games and morning news before dashing off the office. I wasn’t realize then that our minds are most impressionable immediately upon rising in the morning and just before sleep in the evening. It shouldn’t have come as a surprise to me that my sowing of these thoughts would reap an ‘attitude’ at my workplace (impatient, demanding, shouting, etc.).

I gave up my morning ritual seven years ago and replaced it with a habit of reading. I read my Bible or book of the week and on the way to work I listened to motivational or self-development audiobook. When I sow “good thoughts” and thus I’ll reap “good results.” The Apostle Paul wrote, “You’ll do best by filling your minds and meditating on things true, noble, reputable, authentic, compelling, gracious—the best, not the worst; the beautiful, not the ugly; things to praise, not things to curse” (Philippians 4:8, The Message).

We always reap what we sow and that is especially true with our thoughts. As Emmet Fox writes, “The secret of life then is to control your mental states, for if you will do this the rest will follow. To accept sickness, trouble, and failure as unavoidable, and perhaps inevitable, is folly, because it is this very acceptance by you that keeps these evils in existence. Man is not limited by his environment. He creates his environments by his beliefs and feelings. To suppose otherwise is like thinking that the tail can wag the dog.”

Think about it!

Lord, Give Us Today Our Daily Idea(s)

Saturday, January 28, 2017

I Wonder #9 Why Do Introverts Find Social Situations So Tiring?

Apart from the simple fact that introverts prefer to have plenty of time to themselves, and that being denied this can be draining, there’s also evidence that, at a physiological level, introverts response more strongly to stimulation, such as loud noises, than extroverts do. This means socialising is more likely to leave them exhausted and needing a rest afterwards. On the introvert, Dear blog, contributor Shawna Courter even argues that there’s such a thing as an “introvert hangover,” which she describes as “an actual physical reaction to [social] stimulation. Your ears might ring, your eyes start to blur, and you feel like you’re going to hyperventilate.”*

Lord, Give Us Today Our Daily Idea(s)

*Taken from BBC Earth Vol 9, Issue 1. Page 82 by Dr Christian Jarrett

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