Tag Archives: Rene Descartes

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.

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.