Cogito Ergo Sum? Or the Other Way Around?
Updated: Jun 20, 2018
We do not know what Rene Descartes was trying to achieve exactly when he said his oft quoted, and equally misunderstood quote – “I think, therefore I am”. Of course, given there are historians of Philosophy and philosophers of History who understand the context much better than a common reader does. There are also those who have meditated and contemplated much upon this thought, before accepting it or decrying it.
Some of them will perhaps be annoyed, shocked or even upset that we dare think anything that’s opposed to what’s commonly believed to be the foundation of modern western philosophy. Some others, will perhaps be compassionate and kind enough to indulge this piece in the true spirit of philosophy where debate is healthy and boldness welcome. We would love to hear their thoughts on this.
Is it not interesting that the same Descartes who begins with calling all our beliefs into doubt, ends up settling on the most destructive proofs of existence; the thought? Is it true that we think, therefore we must exist? Or is it that we need to stop thinking for some time in order to even imagine what existence really means? So, would Descartes be saying the same thing today, should he be writing the Principles today?
If thinking was the way to define existence, would one say that a cow doesn’t exist or bacteria or a tree? Or are we already implying that they are incapable of thinking. Sure, modern science has so far proven that bacteria or plants don’t have brains and that of a cow’s is less developed than that of the human. However, with the thinking mind that a human has, does a cow exist in the world or not?
Does our thinking mind allow us to realize that the world, the reality, the existence isn’t limited to or defined by humans? We have time and again seen how important every species, no matter how microscopic, is in the overall ecological balance. Do we realize that we are nothing but a part of the larger whole even when we think? Is it not true that thought often clouds our understanding and realization of who we actually are?
For instance, one may like to think of oneself as a professionally successful person in this moment of time, but is it not true that one is also a person with a family, a friend, a roadside stranger who sometime rages at the person whose car overtakes mine? Is it also not true that as a person each of us uses plastic and there is our contribution to the landfills? We use the AC and contribute to the global warming, sometimes even as we travel to Shimla or Manali.
If we do not realize all aspects of our existence, exactly what value does thought then add to our existence? In fact, then, is thought not actually a hindrance that stops us from seeing ourselves as a part of this being as a whole? It makes us think of ourselves as a human, as a man or a woman, as an Indian or an American or a Japanese, Korean, Russian etc. Keep adding labels and the more of them we strip from our personalities, the lesser we know who we are.
So as a counter argument to 'Cogito Ergo Sum', the more I think, the more labels I have, but are these labels my existence? If categories, labels, stereotypes and divisions are nothing but layers of an endless onion peel, then who am I really? Do I really exist? And if I don’t, would Descartes still say the same? “Cogito Ergo Sum” or would he say the other way around (I am; therefore, I think).