Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Descartes and Cogito Ergo Sum

14th, defending faith

Descartes and Cogito Ergo Sum

We are exploring four generic possibilities to explain reality as we encounter it. Sproul is borrowing from some of the ancient scholars and philosophical thinkers. Sproul's example from last time was the 'chalk' he held in his hand. It has four possible explanations for how it came to be.

  1. Illusion
  2. Self created
  3. Self Existent
  4. Created (Self-Existent)

Is this a big Herculean waste of time to spend even a moment attempting to prove or eliminate this first principle? How many, today and through history, see and know reality as an illusion?

Well, there have been serious philosophers that have precisely tried to make this point. Everything is the dream of an entity and doesn't exist at all. So to start, Sproul is going to call his first witness, Renee Descartes. The father of modern 'rationalism' in the 17th Century who was a renown thinker and mathematician. Who was very much concerned in his day about a new form of skepticism which came from the Protestant Reformation a century before. At the wake of the Protestant Reformation there was a growing crisis in authority. Previous to the Reformation the monolithic Church of Rome was such that disputes were given to those in authority that would settle them. The Church gave the verdict and that settled the matter. So the challenge was the Church, via the Reformation, had to struggle on how, in a different way, to settle disputes. So not only was there a breakdown of Church authority there was a secondary feature of the breakdown of scientific authority. For in the 1500's there was also the Copernican revolution in astronomy. For traditions were being questioned as new avenues of information were being acquired. So all this carried over to his time in the 17th century.

So Descartes seeing this recent history, was trying to reestablish various forms of authority. Some foundation for 'certainty' with respect to truth. he was looking for, what he called, 'Clear and Distinct Ideas.' Ideas that were indubitable and could not be rejected without rejecting reason all together. With this he could put 'Ideas' into a foundation for the reconstruction of knowledge. Both in the scientific sphere and the theological sphere. The process that Descartes followed in order to achieve certainty was to follow a plan of uncertainty or of skepticism. What he did was embark on a rigorous pursuit of skepticism in which he sought to bring doubt upon everything he could conceivably doubt. He wanted to give a second glance to anything that was assumed as true and people held it in that way. He asked the epistemological question, over and over again, "how do we really know that this is true?

Ask yourself, how do I know that the things I 'think are true - really are true?'

Like this above, RC Sproul likes to go back to 'first principles' also. His whole bent in philosophic inquiry is to 'foundational principles' and fundamental truths.' Sproul will often go back and ask himself, "what are 10 things that I know for sure.' He writes them down and will subject them to the most rigorous criticism he can make. To be sure he is not just believing them because of the reason that somebody I liked taught them to me. Or because of my traditions and sub-culture I live within. Again, ask yourself, how do I know that the things I 'think are true - really are true?'

This is one of the most important principles for 'breakthroughs' in any kind of 'knowledge.' One of the great principles for new discovery. The principle of discovering assumptions. This is how philosophers breakthrough - how musicians discover - scientists gain new information - entrepreneurs build new models. One challenges the assumptions and theories of past generations that have been on past on. Things that have been passed on uncritically. An example is the Ptolemaic system of thinking on astronomy and planetary motion. People accepted the theory without it ever have been proven by testing.

We need to do this ourselves and subject our own thinking to a rigorous cross examination. We have seen what takes place in a courtroom trial where for a time you hear just one side of how things took place. You say yes I get this. Until you hear the 'cross examination' comes and people begin to raise questions about the testimony that you already heard and since listening to both sides you are not quite sure who is telling the truth. So this is a valuable thing to do but not to surrender to skepticism as if there is no answer at all.

So Descartes was going to doubt everything he encountered. He was going to doubt what he could touch and hear. Because he knew that his senses could be deceived. We have discussed this earlier when we talked of the example of the 'bent oar in the water' from Augustine's writings. Descartes said that this world may be controlled by the 'Great Deceiver." A satanic controller that is always giving me false views of reality. And he may be the master of 'Illusion.'

"Cogito Ergo Sum" or "I think therefore I am."

How can we know if reality is as I perceive it? Remember back when we were laying down our 4 foundations principles of epistemology where one of them was the 'basic reliability of sense perception.' If we cannot trust our senses in the basic elementary forms then we have no way of getting outside of the interior of our minds and making contact with an external world. This is what is called the Subject-Object problem. How do we know that the objective world, out there, is as we perceive it from our own subjective perspective? Descartes was acutely conscious of this. so he came up with some preposterous possibilities for the way reality works. So he said it is unlikely that a great deceiver is out there creating an illusion of what we see, but he said, it was possible. And if it is possible then I can't know for sure that reality is the way I perceive it to be.

He goes on this long doubting process and comes to his famous motto or slogan in which he is so well know. Which is "Cogito Ergo Sum" or "I think therefore I am."

No matter how skeptical I become the one thing I cannot doubt is, whenever I am doubting what it is that I am doubting, it is a surety, that I am doubting. Because if I doubt that I am doubting - then - it is necessary for me to doubt that I am doubting. And therefore the doubt that I am doubting has to be doubted that I am doubting what I am doubting. Ad infinitum. There is no way to escape the reality of doubt.

If you say, "I doubt it" then you have proven the very point in dispute.

The one thing there is about which there is no doubt is - that I am doubting. For if you doubt that ,then, you have proven the premise. So he came to the conclusion that there is "no doubt that I am doubting." And then he raised another question: what is required for there to be doubt? His answer was, if there is doubt, doubt requires cognition. This process requires thought and conscious action. Because doubt is an action of thinking. without thinking there can be no doubting. For when I am doubting I am, therefore, thinking.

Now at least, when I doubt, I think that I am thinking. there is no way to escape the reality that I am thinking.

Premise 1: To doubt is to think.
Premise 2: Just as doubt requires a doubter; just as thought requires a thinker, so if I'm doubting I must conclude rationally that I am thinking and if I am thinking and...

if this is so, then: I must be. I must exist. Because that which does not exist cannot think. That which cannot think cannot doubt and since there is No doubt that I am doubting it means also that I am thinking and if I am thinking then I am also existing. The conclusion being "Cogito ergo Sum."

Now people not students of philosophy look at elaborate process that Descartes goes through and say that philosophy is very foolish. that somebody would spend all this time and all this effort to learn what they think people already knows who is alive and awake and conscious. Remember that Descartes was a mathematician and he was looking for certainty at the philosophical realm. That this would equal in force and power and rational compulsion the certainty that can be arrived at in mathematics. He is going through this to get a primary principle so, then, I can go out to his garden and use the art of deduction - where I am not dependent on my senses - and come to an understanding of truth.

Two sessions ago when we talked about pre-suppositional and classical apologetics. The starting point in the Classical camp is not God-consciousness because we say only God can start there but the epistemological starting point for Classical Christian apologetics has to be 'Self consciousness.' You start in your own mind which is the only mind you have at your disposal. All thought begins with an awareness of one's thinking and/or one's existence. So whatever Descartes is getting at in his discovery the fact that I am a Self-conscious existent person is not in doubt. I do not have to look at my feet and body to know that I exist. Descartes and Sproul say that I am not dependent on any external perception. I am now learning this from the interior processes of my thought in the mind. I am not dependent on external data. So Descartes says that we all can now stay within the process of rational deduction for this conclusion.

Now the reason this is important

This is important because Descartes is disposing of the first option that reality is an 'Illusion.' There may indeed be illusions in reality, but if we say all things in reality are an illusion that would mean that nothing exists, including myself and yourself, without proving the reality of myself and yourself. He is getting at the point that this 1st of the four alternatives as a position to account for the universe has to be discarded. Because his argument proves that something exists. And this something that exists, if nothing else, is his own consciousness. To say a little differently we could hold up a piece of chalk and say, that this 3" white cylinder of chalk is an illusion - and it maybe - but if this piece of chalk actually does exist; then it would prove that God exists. Since it might be an illusion Sproul is going to have to take a different tact and say, "that if anything exists then God must exist." This makes us to not have to be tied to the fact of proving if this particular piece of reality, that is, this piece of chalk must exist. For all he is saying is the chalk, theoretically, could be not existent. What I have to establish for the Classical apologetic system to work is that something exists.

And we can thank Renee Descartes for solving that problem for us. By proving the existence of himself.

What are the things the Descartes is assuming in this process of arriving at this conclusion? For their are philosophers who don't agree with this premise 'Cogito Ergo Sum.' Who insist their is no basis in reality for his coming to that conclusion. These critics point out correctly, at least to this extent, that there are certain assumptions that Descartes is making along the way to get to this conclusion. And yes, there are 2 major assumptions he's making in order to come to the point - that if he is doubting - he's thinking - and if he is thinking then he must be existing.

The first is, clearly, the epistemological principle of the 'law of non-contradiction.' He is assuming logic. He is assuming rationality. To doubt doubt and conclude real thinking is a form of logical deduction based on the law of non-contradiction. Where the 'existential irrationalist' may say, so what, it maybe in the end still irrational and silly. all that Descartes has said is he is doubting about doubting and thinking and existing, but it is still in an all encompassing illusion. {But remember: all the 'Classical system' is trying to show is that Reason requires the existence of a 'Self Existent Eternal Being.'} If somebody is an atheist and says I don't believe in the existence of this God because I don't believe in rationality. Well, if they admit to this give them the microphone and let them state that what they stand upon and believe as an alternative to theism is, then, absurd and irrational. For if they say this which they think it will save us the time of having to demonstrate it. Please, sir just acknowledge it. For if they do this they have taken themselves out of any intelligent discussion as soon as they admit that there premise is one of irrationality and lawlessness.

What Descartes is trying to say is just as mathematics is rational - just as sound science is rational - just as sound philosophy must also be rational; and if you are going to be rational and if you are going to be logical then you cannot deny, that if you must doubt.

The second major assumption is the law of causality. For doubting requires a 'doubter.' Descartes is saying to doubt is an effect that requires an antecedent cause. The critic will say to Descartes or anyone else holding this position that we don't accept causality or noncontradiction. OK, that's fine, don't accept them. But remember, that the law of causality is a 'formal truth' and is as certain as 2+2=4. It is true by definition. Remember, do not ever negotiate the law of non-contradiction away or the law of causality. Because if you do you will end up in absurdity. But if we use these principle that are necessary for all intelligible discourse, in all science and all philosophy and all theology you cannot escape, Sproul thinks, the prove Descartes gives, that we can through a resistless logic, through Formal reason alone, come to the conclusion of our own existence. This, then satisfies that first premise about illusion that cannot be and it is now certain that we can eliminate it as one of possible alternatives for a sufficient reason for the existence of the cosmos.

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