Deconstructing “I Think, Therefore I am.”
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Descartes, the 17th century French philosopher, offered a ton of profound wisdom. But like everyone does, he made mistakes. In my opinion, his famous assertion “I think, therefore I am,” is one of them. I’m not even close to the first person to critique this, but I don’t buy it.
What he said takes the idea that we think for granted. Sure, it’s a reasonable assumption. According to some scientists and philosophers, cognition is what sets us apart from other species. But I’ve heard many theories about what makes humans “special.” None of them seem any more or less plausible than thinking. People have convincingly argued for many different unique ingredients for human evolution. They include language, psychedelic mushroom use, creativity, using tools, and many other skills. Maybe one of them is it. Perhaps all of them are. Or each of them could have played important roles in our development, in wildly varying degrees.
Do we actually think? Sometimes, dumb questions are important. I write in many of my blogs about how I follow Socrates’ wisdom: I know nothing. I don’t believe in 100% objective truth because our entire species has been wrong before. It’s virtually a guarantee that we will make enormous mistakes countless more times. Scientists used to think that Earth was flat and that there’s only one planet. It also was accepted consensus that black people are inferior and homosexuals are mentally ill, along with plenty of other examples. Slavery is another one, which was widely practiced for the majority of human civilization.
Physicists have fairly recently written papers with complex calculations that theorize insane propositions. They’re also supported by philosophers, and famous people like Elon Musk. Steven Hawking agrees with one or two of them too. These ideas include the universe being a hologram, a simulation, and that parallel universes co-exist with our own. Some theories involve these “bubble” universes interacting with the only one that scientists are very sure exists.
All of these crazy theories about the universe aside, neuroscientists HAVE shown the brain lighting up in FMRI scans in reaction to countless things. So along with a lot of other scientific evidence, this can be used to argue that we think. It’s likely that we do.
However, meditation, psychedelic drug use, and neuropsychological diseases show us the flawed and subjective nature of human perception. Our conscious sense of self can vanish. It can seem like we’re communicating telepathically with magical beings made of love and shifting spectrums of colours, who control the universe. A schizophrenic can think that they are more than one person. People with Capgras Syndrome, or Impostor Syndrome, can mistake close friends and family members for evil doppelganger versions of themselves.
Also everyone probably has at least slightly different definitions for every word and concept. Thinking has wildly varying meaning for each person. There is no objectively correct way to understand it. I don’t even know what cognition is because I don’t have a decent enough comprehension of neuroscience, psychology, epigenetics, anthropology and philosophy. Do you know what thinking is?
We invent words attached to concepts and categories that we create. They sure as fuck help us because we could easily still be grunting cave people, without language. But these symbols and their associated meaning don’t actually exist. Pragmatically, we think, but it is technically not something that we do.
Even if we assume that we think, does this really mean that we exist? This seems like a massive logical jump to me. I could be thinking inside a simulation or a hologram. Or an alien or demon could be controlling me without me knowing it. These possibilities are unlikely. However, they raise the question of whether what my brain is doing is actually thought in that type of scenario. But that’s an idea for a whole other blog.
It’s possible that existence itself is just an illusion. Other than holograms or simulations, maybe consciousness tricks us into believing that we are real even though we’re inside someone else’s dream. Perhaps consciousness doesn’t exist either. An external force or intelligence, or unconscious nature, could be tricking us into believing in consciousness and existence.
This is all a lot to think about. (Hehehe) I’m certainly not saying that there’s no such thing as thought, or that reality doesn’t exist. Neither am I claiming that the universe is objectively different from the way we believe it is. But whether thought and existence are real are fascinating questions. We may never figure out the answers. But science is always forming a more accurate worldview. Perhaps scientists will eventually find better explanations for complex ideas like cognition and existence. I just enjoy speculating and debating endlessly about them, and my views sometimes change with better information. Just ask anyone who knows me well. Learning is awesome. Even if it’s only an illusion, so is thinking.
Originally published at mindgasms.theblogpress.com on November 13, 2017.