Philosophy: You Think, Therefore You Are?

Descartes“I think, therefore I am” is one of the classical philosophical statements, first uttered by René Descartes in the 17th century and most people take it as presented without giving it a whole lot of thought.  However, anyone who stops to consider it rationally for a few moments will realize that it actually is a statement of opinion, not fact, and not even that defensible an opinion at that.  This demonstrates one more area where philosophy goes wrong.

Let’s break this down for a moment.  Descartes was arguing that the very act of thought and existence of internal argument was sufficient evidence to demonstrate independent existence.  Is that really true?  Well, from the perspective of someone living in Descartes’ time, it might have seemed to be a logical conclusion to make, after all, he had no clue that non-human entities might be able to be self-aware and consider propositions, that act alone was probably enough to make him conclude that just thinking was proof of independent existence.

However, today we know better.  We have computers, we’re developing rudimentary AI and it isn’t hard to imagine that sometime in the not too distant future, we could develop extremely advanced artificial intelligence that equals or even surpasses our own mental abilities.  Some have suggested that the way to determine whether an advanced AI was self-aware is if it can think and question it’s own existence.  But what happens if we take one of these hyper-advanced computers and simply program it to think that it is thinking?  What if we hard-code it to question it’s own existence?  Is it then alive? Or is it just mimicking the properties of life?  It isn’t hard to imagine at all that we could take an advanced computer system and program every possible response into it’s electronic brain, such that it thinks it is thinking, it thinks it is making decisions, but in reality, it is just responding to code.  Is this alive?  Is it thinking, therefore it is?  Or is it just responding and being programmed to think it is thinking?

This is a very valid quandary and one we need to consider.  Because it is impossible to solve the problem of hard solipsism, we can never know for certain if we’re actually real, or part of some hyper-complex program like the Matrix, we can only assume that we are actually thinking and not simply following lines of code.  We can only assume that we’re making our own decisions, asking our own questions and seeking out truths, all of that might be a lie, we might just be an electronic brain in a vat, doing what we’re told by faceless experimenters.  In fact, all of reality could be a complete illusion, only one computer-generated “mind” imagining a whole universe that doesn’t really exist and since none of us can ever know what’s really going on in the heads of those that we think surround us, all of their possible responses to our questions could actually be coming from us. Even worse, maybe the world is actually someone else’s fantasy and our own internal monologue is actually part of someone else’s hyper-realistic dream.  How would you know?

Therefore, “I think, therefore I am” really has no objective meaning.  It doesn’t prove anything.  Descartes couldn’t have foreseen the modern world, with the existence of computers performing trillions of operations per second that fit in the palm of your hand.  He couldn’t have had any idea that one day, artificial brains could become so advanced that they might even surpass humanity.  It was totally outside of his realm of experience and understanding.  Given the possibility that all of these things could come to pass, perhaps even in our own lifetimes, maybe it’s time to rethink “I think, therefore I am”.  It just doesn’t pass the rational test anymore.

4 thoughts on “Philosophy: You Think, Therefore You Are?

    1. I really brought this up because I've seen a lot of people acting like this was somehow a proven fact that needs no further thought. That's really just an appeal to tradition, it's an idea that's been around for a very long time, therefore it has to be true. That's not necessarily the case but lots of people are intellectually lazy, they don't want to question tradition, they just want to pretend that if it's been around for a long time, it has to be true, even if we can show that it isn't. That's why science continually tests the things it's found to be true in the past, to ensure that they are still true today. Philosophy needs to do the same thing.

  1. that if one thinks of the most peerfct island in their mind, then it must exist for no other greater island can exist. The very definition of God is that which is most peerfct, and since nothing can be more peerfct than God it is only proper to confirm God’s existence. Though debatably flawed, the theory does show the simple strength that faith holds to Descartes philosophy.On the other hand there is David Hume. Hume is an empiricist. Key to point out, as its opposite is a strong support basis for Descartes, is that Hume is a non-believer in God. Right there we can understand that we are dealing on a more sensory account of the world and philosophy. We can rules out thoughts existing simple because there is no greater thought to conceive or that we have merely thought of them. He also believes in the Copy Principle. This is to say that ideas are acquired ideas. Hume states that there are two principal ways to organize beliefs. One is relations of ideas which requires logical relations between the beliefs while the other is matters of fact which is the relation of a belief with the world itself. Furthermore, he denies that these matters of fact can be known a priori, only promoting his empiricist views. Hume had a philosophy that was seen by many as being strongly based in Skepticism. We can understand this by his belief in all knowledge coming by the senses. It is because of this that we can only trust these perceptions and therefore the knowledge that derives from them.By understanding the basics of the two philosophers before, we can get a better sense of the philosophy of Kant. Kant takes what he considers the better of the two worlds of empiricism and rationalism and develops a philosophy attended to satisfy the imbalance between the two. Let us start by looking at the very basics of the two worlds and compare a priori, knowledge before experience, and a posterior, knowledge after experience. He holds that both do exist. On one hand, that of a priori, we have such ideas of logic, math, and other basic concepts that are not developed by human mind but rather recognized and taken from the natural world. Contrary is that of a posteriori, which Kant describes as being such things as science and sensory and analytical sciences that, though done through the natural world, are developed or recorded in a human process.Even further we can break the two in half and use a concept developed by Hume. We can look at these things as being analytic, the equivalent of Hume’s relations of ideas, or synthetic, the equivalent of Hume’s matters of fact. Dividing a priori, we can see Kant labels logic as analytic while math and other basic concepts are synthetic. If we are to however examine closer a posteriori through this, we find that science can only be synthetic and that there is no analytic a posteriori knowledge. So from Descartes we see that Kant has taken the logical sense of thought, the I think therefore I am type of reasoning to support truth from reason alone, and from Hume we see that Kant has taken the relationship of ideas between ideas and the relationship of ideas compared to the world.Kant also takes a good look at such mindful concepts as God, freedom and immortality. This lays on the side of rationalism with Descartes. Looking at this, we can see that there is a break between appearance and reality of the world through possible experience. Kant puts these concepts into reality, but even further he breaks reality into what we can know and what we can think. These concepts are placed in the latter. This puts emphasis on the logic and reason of his philosophy, holding weight not just in what can be sensed but more importantly what can be conjured by rational thought.Taking the side of Hume though, Kant asks importantly the development of concepts. He puts emphasis not on the what we know but also on the how we know what we know. We get a further understanding beyond Hume’s. It goes past the ideas of judgment for Kant denies the practicality in doing such as it would be counterproductive to the cause. Such things belong to a priori, and therefore have an origin that is at least near conceivable to the human mind. What Kant is concerned with locating then is the development of the sensible world through a transcendental philosophy. This relies not to correct knowledge but rather extend it and further support the foundations of beliefs. It is important to note the contradiction of the phrase everything which happens has a cause though, for this will show that development of concepts is based more heavily not on origin but on a form of evolution. The phrase shows that the concept of cause signifies something different from that which happens and so creates this contradiction. Kant is thus focused on a progress of thought in philosophy.Through this we can see the impact that Kant has brought to philosophy. He bonded the empiricist thinking with the rationalist thinking, and vice-versa. This is sometimes called the Copernican Revolution. He puts more emphasis on the reality of things and not on the extent to which our senses can progress knowledge. He also points out that the human mind has limits to its capabilities, like any container, and therefore not everything that exists can be known or recognized by mankind. This is important in that it shows the incompletion of epistemology and philosophy, yet does not point them out necessarily as weakness or restraints, but rather as acceptable truths that can be overcome if balanced between both epistemological worlds of empiricism and rationalism. Though he lies more on Descartes’ side, ruling out some of Hume’s assumptions and judgments of the world, it is a blending between the two to certain degrees that truly accept knowledge for what philosophy can understandably label it and not how epistemology can divide it.

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