Saturday, March 29, 2014

Cogito Ergo Sum

Cogito Ergo Sum. I think, therefore I am. This is an oft quoted proposition laid down by the 17th century philosopher Rene Descartes. I suspect that if Descartes had had an inkling that a line he innocuously wrote down would be repeated around the World for more than three centuries after his death, he would have worded it differently, for I believe that the quote is often taken out of context and misinterpreted. I am no scholar of Philosophy, and I may be completely mistaken in my own interpretation, which comes more out of reading about Desecrates rather than reading Desecrates. Despite this possibility that I am completely wrong and misguided, I am  still going to give my two cents. After all, we are in the 21st century, and we are expected to embrace our true selves, and be confident, outgoing, spontaneous  and photogenic without being afraid of what others would think and all allied stuff (despite the fact that our true self may not be confident, outgoing, spontaneous or photogenic). Talking about pop culture, another in-thing today is living happily and in-the-present. You know, yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery and all such things. It seems we are supposed to shun any worries of the future, and "live the moment" so that when we reflect upon our life in our deathbed (which is presumably in the future), we won't regret things we didn't do. Hold on, is there a contradiction in that? Ah! I am digressing again. Let me try and get back to the point.

The common interpretation of Descartes's line is that one exists only when one is engaging the facilities of his mind. It is as if for a person to exist, he needs to contemplate over his life, over the Universe and over everything. I think, therefore I exist. Ergo, I probably do not exist if I do not think. In other words, people who can not, or do not think have meaningless lives, or worse, they do not exist at all. If only this were true, imagine how the things around us would be. Politicians, for one, would cease to exist. Post their 2014 election defeat, UPA's Rahul Gandhi (if he err.. exists) will claim that since politicians do not exist, elections are just a state of mind. Such a life would indeed seem desirable. But think of people who cannot reason, due to psychological reasons. Would you be okay with a proposition that people who cannot think do not exist at all? What about plants and other animals then? Do they not exist at all?

The best place to try and comprehend the real meaning of what Descartes meant is here  at Wikipedia, or here at the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. But I have lately come to realize that you people are busy and you have better things to do than going through vague Wikipedia entries about random people. Trust me, it is difficult for me to personally come to terms with the fact that people can be busy, that too in an Universe that will soon be explode into pieces of nothingness. It increases my already high inferiority complex. But I make efforts, and I realize that the only reason you are reading this despite being busy is to be nice to me, or that you are kidnapped and tied in front of a PC which has this post scrolling down at a font size of 30, and there are matchsticks in your eyes to hold them open, and knives on both sides of you necks to ensure that you don't turn away. In either case, now that you are here, let me try to explain my own understanding of Desecrates. 

Desecrates was a rationalist. He was aware of the possibility that anything we see today at all could be unreal. I mean, look around you, can you be sure of anything at all? What if we are in the Matrix? It would take some three hundred years for the Wachowski brothers (who by now have converted to Wachowski siblings, or just Wachowskis) to make that unimaginably brilliant movie though, and skeptics of Descartes's time had to resort to the theory that the whole Universe is a part of Satan's deception on the mind (one other theory I am aware of is by Plato, who suggested that we are bound facing a black wall in a cave, and what we see are the shadows of things that are occurring behind us. That sounds like you, the kidnapped reader, no? But Plato suggested that all we had to do was to untie ourselves and turn back to see the reality - for the want of a better word). In order to satisfy the skeptics of his age, Desecrates was ready to dismiss every piece of knowledge Man had, and wanted to start from the surest footing. This sure footing is his simple realization that he exists. His reasoning was that the very fact that he is thinking about his existence, and has doubts on it, confirms that there is a he. Hence, "I think, therefore I am". Even if the Satan was deceiving him to make him believe that everything around him is real, there needs to be a him that has to be deceived. Starting with this realization, that he is some sort of thinking thing with no essential forms (he was not ready to believe the things he sensed around him, as senses could deceive us into thinking about things that aren't. Think of mirages), he goes on to lay a whole foundation of knowledge. His exact statement was actually "Dubito ergo cogito. Cogito ergo sum" (I doubt, therefore I think. I think, therefore I exist)

I believe the chief cause of this misunderstanding, which is hopefully not on my part, is due to the fact that we attempt to distill vast amounts of knowledge into a single cool-sounding sentence. Poor sentence, it has to carry the whole burden of everything Desecrates meant, including the context in which he meant them. There are cases when it is really useful to distill things into have such succinct statements. Seeing the spate of articles covering the 2014 Indian election scenario, I have decided to distill every single such article as either "so, vote for Modi", or "so, don't vote for Modi" and save myself a huge amount of time, which I would waste more usefully. But such philosophical statements loose their meaning when we attempt to summarize them. There are things people could learn from this blog post, which uses 1199 words (including this needless addendum whose only purpose of existence is to increase the word count of this post) to say decorated nothing. Reminds me of Oscar Wilde, who through one of his characters said
"I love talking about nothing, father. It is the only thing I know anything about."
PS : It was cheap of me to joke about politicians. If only we common men had as much thinking ability as the politicians, things might be different. But why let facts come in the way of a good, or even a bad, joke.

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