cogito ergo sum

Descartes
A Saturday morning cup of coffee and contemplation.

When I sit down to read René Descartes, it is more like sitting down and getting lost in conversation with an old friend than sitting alone while reading philosophy. I love Descartes. I am utterly captivated by his approach, explanations, and rebuttals. I want to share some of my adoration into this philosophy and specifically Descartes’ way of approaching God. I have personally found this short, concise book to be very influential in the way I methodically approach understanding and especially difficult spiritual questions.

Before I begin on Descartes’ methods, I should explain his background briefly. Pre-enlightenment, scientists were artists and philosophers and all of these creative roles were generally classified under the umbrella term, “thinkers”. Today, these disciplines are so extremely divided that scientists have abandoned art, artists know nothing of science, and philosophers the most removed from both. Although I think this dramatically harms our current society (the separation of explicitly intertwined ways of thought), there indeed was a time where these things were married and remained congruent in society. René Descartes was one of those men who was innately curious and this crept into everything he did in life. He was a scientist, a mathematician, and a philosopher. He was a Frenchman and wrote many of his philosophical musings during the 17th century. His perpetual skepticism is what attracts me so magnetically and is one of the chief reasons I regard him so highly. He doesn’t accept what anyone before him has argued and he even calls into doubt everything he has argued. His methods are logically sound, scientific, yet elegant and beautiful. He is clear, comprehensible, and takes your mind places and into thoughts you’ve never been before. He makes you think in novel ways, about new problems, with a unique perspective. He isn’t afraid of refutation or objection, in fact, he welcomes it and applauds countering opinions. He seeks the Truth, not status or some kind of intellectual superiority (like others I like much less such as Socrates). He brings together science, faith, and reason and shows that they are not separate from each other (not largely challenged during Descartes’ present day, but within a century would become a ludicrous argument in the eyes of modern scientists). He shows that we don’t have to compartmentalize our “selves” and can indeed prove that every particle of our being is in fact connected. He shows that at our most reduced selves, we remain thinkers. We possess the ability to dwell on things, contemplate them, and make decisions of logic and reason. René Descartes’ philosophy is one I hold very close to my heart.

Meditations on First Philosophy in Which the Existence of God and the Distinction between the Soul and the Body Are Demonstrated

Okay, Descartes wasn’t afraid of lengthy titles either. Often shortened to Descartes’ Meditations, these series of thoughts walk through his own methodology for understanding the existence of God. He doesn’t yell at you, throw anything at you, he never even speaks of sin, but he holds God at the foundation of his understanding (inadvertently expressed through the way in which he speaks of God at the beginning of the Meditations). Descartes’ thought journey is certainly spiritual, but it is not solely spiritual. It is intellectual. By nature, he approaches problems with a logical magnifying glass. He pokes and prods at the question from different angles, essentially using a complete reductionist approach (what a scientist).  He begins by calling into doubt every single idea he has ever stored away in his thought bank. Not individually, but as a whole. Everything he knows and believes is erased and everything he once held as true becomes questionable, doubtful, uncertain. In doing this, however, he removes any prejudices. He becomes objective. His mind isn’t muddled by the opinions he has developed over the years. He takes a completely cynical and skeptical approach on a topic that is usually regarded as blind, with no basis for logic. He takes this route, walks you through a series of investigations of reason (dreams, physics, mind and body separation) and arrives at a beautifully comprehensible and sharp picture of what he was working through the entire time. His conclusions aren’t complete, and he even expresses his lack of empathy for those that only dwell on his conclusions and not on his methods of getting there. Descartes is not cowardly. He does not fear refutation. He shows that everything we know, everything we can know, and our most central reason for being is governed by God. Not because of lapse in reason, but because of reason. I won’t work through all of his argument, although I would love to, but I will leave some fragments of his work and an additional resource where you can contemplate your own conclusions from this book. Whatever you believe or don’t believe, much can be learned from his calculated, succinct Meditations and the mental joy ride he takes you on as you work through them.


On dreams being equally as devious as reality:

How often does my evening slumber persuade me of such ordinary things as these: that I am here, clothed in my dressing gown, seated next to the fireplace – when in fact I am undressed in bed!”

On mathematics being the only reality not subject to perception:

“Thus it is not improper to conclude from this that physics, astronomy, medicine, and all other disciplines that are dependent upon the considerations of composite things are doubtful, and that, on the other hand, arithmetic, geometry, and other such disciplines, which treat nothing but the simplest and most general things and which are indifferent as to whether these things do or do not in fact exist, contain something certain and indubitable. For whether I am awake or asleep, 2 plus 3 make 5, and a square does not have more than 4 sides. It does not seem possible that such obvious truths should be subject to suspicion of being false.”

On what cannot be called into doubt:

“I am therefore precisely nothing but a thinking thing; that is, a mind, or intellect, or understanding, or reason – words of whose meaning I was previously ignorant. Yet I am a true thing and am truly existing; but what kind of thing? I have said it already: a thinking thing.”

“If the objective reality of any of my ideas is found to be so great that I am certain that the same reality was not in me, either formally or eminently, and that therefore I myself cannot be the cause of the idea, then it necessarily follows that I am not alone in the world, but that something else, which is the cause of this idea, also exists.”

Rene Descartes: Meditations, Objections, and Replies

 

 

 

a reflection

Written below is an essay I was required to read for one of my classes. I always enjoy reading these essays, because even if they are not very enlightening, or liberating, or moderately interesting, they always provide me with some kind of insight – either positive or negative, but always advantageous to some degree. This essay, Happy Like God, is written by Simon Critchley, professor and chair of philosophy at the New School for Social Research.

“What is happiness? How does one get a grip on this most elusive, intractable and perhaps unanswerable of questions?

I teach philosophy for a living, so let me begin with a philosophical answer. For the philosophers of Antiquity, notably Aristotle, it was assumed that the goal of the philosophical life — the good life, moreover — was happiness and that the latter could be defined as the bios theoretikos, the solitary life of contemplation. Today, few people would seem to subscribe to this view. Our lives are filled with the endless distractions of cell phones, car alarms, commuter woes and the traffic in Bangalore. The rhythm of modern life is punctuated by beeps, bleeps and a generalized attention deficit disorder.

But is the idea of happiness as an experience of contemplation really so ridiculous? Might there not be something in it? I am reminded of the following extraordinary passage from Rousseau’s final book and his third (count them — he still beats Obama 3-to-2) autobiography, “Reveries of a Solitary Walker”:

If there is a state where the soul can find a resting-place secure enough to establish itself and concentrate its entire being there, with no need to remember the past or reach into the future, where time is nothing to it, where the present runs on indefinitely but this duration goes unnoticed, with no sign of the passing of time, and no other feeling of deprivation or enjoyment, pleasure or pain, desire or fear than the simple feeling of existence, a feeling that fills our soul entirely, as long as this state lasts, we can call ourselves happy, not with a poor, incomplete and relative happiness such as we find in the pleasures of life, but with a sufficient, complete and perfect happiness which leaves no emptiness to be filled in the soul. (emphases mine)

This is as close to a description of happiness as I can imagine. Rousseau is describing the experience of floating in a little rowing boat on the Lake of Bienne close to Neuchâtel in his native Switzerland. He particularly loved visiting the Île Saint Pierre, where he used to enjoy going for exploratory walks when the weather was fine and he could indulge in the great passion of his last years: botany. He would walk with a copy of Linneaus under his arm, happily identifying plants in areas of the deserted island that he had divided for this purpose into small squares.

Our lives are filled with endless distractions, but is the idea of happiness as an experience of contemplation really so ridiculous?

On the way to the island, he would pull in the oars and just let the boat drift where it wished, for hours at a time. Rousseau would lie down in the boat and plunge into a deep reverie. How does one describe the experience of reverie: one is awake, but half asleep, thinking, but not in an instrumental, calculative or ordered way, simply letting the thoughts happen, as they will.

Happiness is not quantitative or measurable and it is not the object of any science, old or new. It cannot be gleaned from empirical surveys or programmed into individuals through a combination of behavioral therapy and anti-depressants. If it consists in anything, then I think that happiness is this feeling of existence, this sentiment of momentary self-sufficiency that is bound up with the experience of time

Look at what Rousseau writes above: floating in a boat in fine weather, lying down with one’s eyes open to the clouds and birds or closed in reverie, one feels neither the pull of the past nor does one reach into the future. Time is nothing, or rather time is nothing but the experience of the present through which one passes without hurry, but without regret. As Wittgenstein writes in what must be the most intriguing remark in the “Tractatus,” “the eternal life is given to those who live in the present.” Or ,as Whitman writes in “Leaves of Grass”: “Happiness is not in another place, but in this place…not for another hour…but this hour.”

Rousseau asks, “What is the source of our happiness in such a state?” He answers that it is nothing external to us and nothing apart from our own existence. However frenetic our environment, such a feeling of existence can be achieved. He then goes on, amazingly, to conclude, “as long as this state lasts we are self-sufficient like God.”

God-like, then. To which one might reply: Who? Me? Us? Like God? Dare we? But think about it: If anyone is happy, then one imagines that God is pretty happy, and to be happy is to be like God. But consider what this means, for it might not be as ludicrous, hybristic or heretical as one might imagine. To be like God is to be without time, or rather in time with no concern for time, free of the passions and troubles of the soul, experiencing something like calm in the face of things and of oneself.

Why should happiness be bound up with the presence and movement of water? This is the case for Rousseau and I must confess that if I think back over those experiences of blissful reverie that are close to what Rousseau is describing then it is often in proximity to water, although usually saltwater rather than fresh. For me, it is not so much the stillness of a lake (I tend to see lakes as decaffeinated seas), but rather the never-ending drone of the surf, sitting by the sea in fair weather or foul and feeling time disappear into tide, into the endless pendulum of the tidal range. At moments like this, one can sink into deep reverie, a motionlessness that is not sleep, but where one is somehow held by the sound of the surf, lulled by the tidal movement.

Is all happiness solitary? Of course not. But one can be happy alone and this might even be the key to being happy with others. Wordsworth wandered lonely as a cloud when walking with his sister. However, I think that one can also experience this feeling of existence in the experience of love, in being intimate with one’s lover, feeling the world close around one and time slips away in its passing. Rousseau’s rowing boat becomes the lovers’ bed and one bids the world farewell as one slides into the shared selfishness of intimacy.

…And then it is over. Time passes, the reverie ends and the feeling for existence fades. The cell phone rings, the e-mail beeps and one is sucked back into the world’s relentless hum and our accompanying anxiety.”

Essay found on NYtimes.com.

new year

Happy New Year’s Eve!

2015 was one of my greatest years so far. I have seen myself grow so much just in the past few months and look forward to how much I will learn about myself and my future in the next year as well. God has blessed me beyond what I deserve this year. My highlights of 2015 include:

  • Gaining my beautiful, healthy baby nephew
  • Getting nominated, interviewed, and selected as Presidential Scholar
  • Spending prom night in Nashville with my very best friends (whom I miss so much)
  • Being Valedictorian for the class of 2015 and the great experiences that entailed
  • Spending two lovely weeks at the beach with my family
  • Taking my first, REAL yoga class at Glow Yoga in Gulf Shores, AL
  • Relaxing over the summer and reading some extraordinary books
  • Shadowing a cardiac electrophysiologist at Vanderbilt
  • Attending NEEDTOBREATHE and For King and Country concerts
  • Moving to Belmont, living with my amazing roommates, and making lifelong memories
  • Getting the opportunity to conduct biological research in neuroscience
  • Finding my niche at Ethos church
  • Continuing to learn through difficult times and lean more dependently on God
  • Realizing life isn’t perfect, and it never will be. But that isn’t what makes it beautiful.

In 2016, I have decided to change up my blog posts! I am going to post more frequently and hopefully I can help others with some of the things I have decided to write about. As you probably know, I am a college student studying biochemistry and wanting to pursue medicine. I would love to incorporate more of my study techniques, my ways to navigate through difficult material, and different things related to my course of study. I am going to post more about my journey through yoga and how I became interested in yoga. I will continue my posts about concepts and ideas, and I look forward to sharing more of my opinions on philosophical texts and ideas. I also want to spend more time focusing on Christianity and spirituality. So if you are interested in very different hobbies and interests, I welcome you to my blog!

For 2016 you can look for posts that center around:

  • My journey as a science major and pre-Med student
  • My ways to find happiness and motivation in high stress situations
  • My thoughts on various scientific and philosophical texts, concepts, and ideas
  • My journey as a yogi, health and wellness tips, and ways to find healthy eats in different places
  • My occasional beauty post or recommendations
  • My raw and vulnerable thoughts as I navigate through difficult times
  • My reasons for being a Christian and some of the readings I find helpful

I am excited about this change for my blog, but I look forward to continuing the types of posts I have been about since day one. I hope many of you can find ways to help me in various aspects of my life as well. I pray for all of you to have a happy new year, and find many joys and successes in 2016!