“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.