You Think, Therefore You Are?

I think, therefore I am – René Descartes

Lots of people think that’s the end all be all of individual existence, we can know, for an absolute fact, that we actually exist as sentient beings because we are capable of asking the question at all.  But unfortunately, that’s just not the case.

Descartes believed that human thought was the ultimate sign that he was a real boy was that he could think and question his own existence.  But he couldn’t have foreseen the coming of omnipresent modern computers and intelligent machines.  Of course, to someone in Descartes’ time, that would have sounded like witchcraft, but today it’s commonplace.  We have video games all around us, all featuring characters that act as they are programmed to act, yet they are not sentient beings. It’s not at all hard to imagine that with a little more time and a little more computing power, we might be able to create an artificial intelligence that acts, for all intents and purposes, like it was alive, but is it really?  Does it really think or does it just do what it’s programmed to do?  And if it is a slave to its programming, how hard is it to imagine that we, too, might be the same?

Now I’m not saying that we are, we just have no evidence to support that contention, but we also cannot completely rule it out. So long as it is possible, it cannot be completely discounted.  If, in some ultra-advanced computer system, we are just ultra-advanced programs, designed to “act” as we “act” and “think” as we “think”, how would you be able to tell the difference between the program and the “real world”?  Or if you are just a character in someone’s extremely detailed dream, how would you know?  How could you test this hypothesis and how could you know the results are true?  It’s a question that Descartes couldn’t have even imagined, but unfortunately, far too many people never bother to question his conclusions in light of new experiences, they just blindly follow because that’s what they’ve been told has to be true.

This all goes back to a previous post where I talked about absolute certainty and the impossibility that we can ever know, to any degree of absolute certainty, that anything is true. It just isn’t possible.  We can approximate truth through repeated testing and so long as the results come back consistent, we can assume that we have tentative truth, but to know, to really know, with no possibility of doubt or error, that is simply beyond us and as we advance technologically, it becomes less of a sure thing every day.  I’ve talked about this in the past, but it keeps coming up and sometimes, you just have to revisit the subject.  Sure, going down that rabbit hole leads to a bit of madness, but refusing to acknowledge the reality of the situation because the ramifications make you uncomfortable is irrational as well.  So maybe instead of playing along with Descartes, maybe we should go back to Socrates, who said “All I know is that I know nothing.”  We know nothing.  We think a lot of things. We believe a lot of things.  We cannot have absolute knowledge though, no matter how much that scares some people.

Of course, to a lot of people, this is a terrifying thought, one that they are entirely unwilling to entertain.  In a recent discussion on this subject, I had someone redefining their terminology to get around this uncertainty.  If you are just an ignorant automaton, then your “thoughts”, programmed as they might be, are sign that *SOMETHING* exists, in this case your creator. So it isn’t “I think, therefore I am”, it’s “I think, therefore something is”.  But what if you take it one step further?  What if some intelligent race creates a self-replicating machines that also create these artificial intelligences.  The machines are not intelligent, they are just following their programming, but they are also creating other non-sentient beings that are following similar programming, but those beings are totally unaware of their nature.  They are convinced that the things in their heads are their own thoughts, not programs running on their biological wetware computers.  But what does this say about thought? Even though some intelligent species ultimately created the machines, it may have been thousands or even millions of  generations since, that intelligent species might not even exist anymore, can you really say that your own “thought” now proves the existence of some sentient entity?  I don’t think so.

In the end, it’s just a brain bender and really doesn’t mean anything, but it’s something that a lot of people don’t even consider and, in fact, when faced with a reasoned argument, often refuse to consider because it might make them call into question their own self-concept as an intelligent, sentient being.  Maybe you are, maybe you’re not.  We certainly have to act as if we are regardless, but absolute certainty, being an impossibility, is something we should never pretend we have.

2 thoughts on “You Think, Therefore You Are?”

  1. I think "I think, therefore I am" is still relevant. It simply mean's that I exist. However, it does nothing to answer to quest of what I am. I agree that solipsism is useful to point out that there can be no "absolute" certainty. But beyond that, I find the whole concept utterly useless and uninteresting. Degrees of reasonable certainty is all we have. I can think of no reason to doubt that I am sitting here, banging away at a keyboard. Could I be a computer simulation? Maybe. Is there anything to suggest that this is a reasonable hypothesis? No.

    1. You exist, but in what capacity? If an author writes of a character "I exist", does that character actually exist in any meaningful way? What does it even mean to say they exist? If you were a character in someone's incredibly complex dream, do you really exist? In what way? You could think you are having independent thoughts, but are you?

      I'm not suggesting that any of this is true, I'm pointing out that the argument that Descartes alone isn't enough to show that it isn't. It isn't some self-evident argument that trounces all other possibilities, which is what some people like to pretend. As we all know, it's just more complicated than that.

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