Descartes’ Cogito As Intuition

It is a classic mistake of lazy thinking to believe that Descartes’ Cogito–“I think therefore I am”–is an argument. It isn’t but it is not surprising how people are fooled by the surface appearance of the phrase. The book Descartes’ Cogito: Saved from the Great Shipwreck by Husain Sarkar is a level-headed and necessary restorative of thinking about Descartes’ Cogito. The key, as the author understands, is not to only look at Meditations in isolation, but to understand the Cogito in the context of Descartes’ overall work and his overarching method.

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Habermas Opens Up to Religion?

At least that’s what Stanley Fish says in Does Reason Know What it is Missing?. It is a good article on Jurgen Habermas (who doesn’t get much mention in the media) and on the strengths and limitations of reason. It is nice to see someone have an honest (rather than rose-colored glasses) view of these issues.

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Descartes’ Circle Debunked

Almost since Descartes published his book Meditations he has been accused of committing a fallacy of circular reasoning with his argument that God is the guarantor of the truth of our belief in an external world. Descartes’ argument has ever since been derided as the “Cartesian Circle.” The argument against the so-called “Cartesian Circle” is actually a fallacious strawman argument that misrepresents what Descartes actually argues.

The accusation against Descartes is that he asserts that the existence of God verifies that ideas that are clear and distinct must be true. So those who argue the “Cartesian Circle” position are claiming that Descartes is arguing the following:

    1. I have a clear and distinct idea of God as a perfect being.
    2. God, a perfect being, is not a deceiver and would not allow me to be mistaken about my clear and distinct ideas.
    3. Therefore, I can be certain of the truth of my clear and distinct ideas.

As the Encyclopedia Britannica states it (I think a reasonable summation of the standard interpretation of the Cartesian Circle):

But Descartes cannot know that this proof does not contain an error unless he assumes that his clear and distinct perception of the steps of his reasoning guarantees that the proof is correct. Thus the criterion of clear and distinct perception depends on the assumption that God exists, which in turn depends on the criterion of clear and distinct perception.

This is a valid assessment of the argument stated above. The question though is whether that is an accurate portrayal of Descartes’ actual argument.

Garret Thomson in Bacon to Kant argues that it is not. The key to understanding Descartes’ argument is to discern the difference between particular experiences and the whole of experience.

Descartes uses the proposition “Ideas that are clear and distinct must be true” as his foundational principle. All else follows from that. The proposition is true independent of God. Any idea that can be said to be clear and distinct then must be accepted as true. The existence of God is not a “that X” proposition, it is a clear and distinct idea, God cannot be doubted. The existence of God does not support the proposition “Ideas that are clear and distinct must be true” it guarantees that our sensory perception is trustworthy, or as Thomson puts it on p. 35, “God is introduced to meet our general systematic doubts.” We can, as Descartes points out, doubt that the external world exists; we could be deceived. God ensures that we are not deceived because God is not a deceiver.

So, Descartes’ reasoning goes like this:

    1. Ideas that are clear and distinct must be true
    2. I have a clear and distinct idea of God
    3. Therefore, God must exist.
    4. Since my idea of God includes his perfection, God is trustworthy
    5. Therefore, I cannot be deceived about the existence of the external world because God would not allow me to be deceived.

Descartes is not saying that he cannot be mistaken about particular propositions such as “that X” because he knows his will can overreach and lead him to error. But because he knows he is a mind and because he knows God would not let him be deceived, then knowledge from experience is possible. Thus, if he can reason correctly (his four rules of scientific method) then his mind is incapable of error because he can arrive at clear and distinct ideas.

Descartes’s reasoning can be questioned in several of its premises, but it is not circular reasoning. The accusation of the “Cartesian Circle” is a fallacious strawman argument.

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We See What We Want to See

The human mind is incredible, capable of amazing feats. But it is not perfect as philosophers have known since before Socrates. The senses can be fooled because of their physical limitations but a much more destructive force is the mind’s ability to be warped by its own desires. We see sometimes what we want to see and will make our selves see, or not see, what suits our prejudices.

I found vivid evidence of this when I ran across a site interesting in how utterly whacked out it is. The site is quite entertaining really. It makes the claim that “Phobos — from this wondrous visual evidence alone — IS unquestionably ‘an ancient, artificial moon’ …. an ET space ship!” Uh… not so much. Look at the photos for yourself. I don’t see anything artificial and I certainly don’t see the spaceship features the author keeps talking about. I strongly suspect you won’t either. Even if we are charitable to the author, his assertion that the evidence is “unquestionable” is quite questionable.

Which leaves us with two possibilities about our author. He is lying in order to sell us something or he is delusional. Admitting the very real possibility of the former, I suspect more the latter. There is a segment of the population that seems to sincerely believe in tall tales because they want to believe them. That’s part of the human condition and everyone–yes everyone, me and you too–sees what they want to see. Hopefully not things as delusional as seeing alien spaceships in moons of other planets. As Francis Bacon once said, when we find ourselves liking an idea we should question ourselves as to whether we are believing it because we like it or if there really is a rational reason to hold that belief.

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On Religion and Ethics

Blame religion? That’s too easy and too wrong. Just as people don’t need religion to be ethical, they don’t need religion to be unethical. Religion never created any saints or monsters – the saints and monsters created themselves.

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