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

 

 

 

reasons

After reading When Breath Becomes Air, it caused many moments of self-reflection, recognition, and realization. The most profound of these moments was certainly the correlation that Dr. Kalanithi feels between the morality of humans and the principality of science – and the deep and undeniable connection between the two. My own experiences with realizing what morality is and how we as humans can approach understanding truthfully moral ways has heightened my awareness of the breadth, complexity, and utter incomprehension we have of the meaning and value of life. I don’t say this morbidly, because if you know me you know I am quite the optimist (insert cheesy smile), but I do say it with sincerity. There is such a truly bold connection between humans as spirits and souls that feel love, mercy, pain, and an array of emotional qualities, and the humans that are comprised of varying physiologies of biological and chemical pathways and processes. We are such a complex and deeply intertwined species, that pure science and pure metaphysics do not explain us. They require themselves and a few other important things for a full, robust and accurate description of what it means to be alive.

Deriving from my own experiences as a student, Christian,  and human (surprise!), I have found many truths and many troubling thoughts. Philosophy is something I have grown to love and hate at the same time, which I have commonly found is not unique just to me but to others who study philosophy as well. You may ask, what even is philosophy, and you may laugh at students that say philosophy is their major, but I encourage you to exercise some tact when approaching those who enjoy philosophy. But first, to answer your question in my own, rudimentary knowledge of the subject, I would say that philosophy is truly a search for meaning. Meaning of life, meaning of people, meaning of actions, of religion, of science, of thoughts, of generally anything that is worth searching for. And my own experiences with this quest have been… circuitous. Oscillating between why does this matter? and how could this not matter? has left me in a comfortable, but strange, place with philosophy. Almost at peace, so to say. I have found innumerable truths reading though the great minds of thought, peering into their own opinions on the most important matters of life: happiness, virtue, God, and learning to name a few. I have experienced these inquiries from mathematicians, career-philosophers (ha ha at that term), atheists, scientists, Christians, and teachers. What I have found is a universal truth: that we are humans, and that we take our experiences and we develop our own values, our own morals, our own ethics, our own vocabularies, our own meanings, and we are all developed differently but still the same. For me, this has allowed me to see Christianity in a newfound strength (insert: Go read Rene Descartes’s Meditations). It has allowed me to see the necessity with which there needs to be God. God is the true foundation for which all life, thought, and meaning is derived. He is the unifying alikeness that all humans possess, and He is the only thing that can complete science in its discrepancies and shortcomings. Maybe philosophy has the opposite effect for others, but for me it has challenged my thoughts in unseen ways (sometimes scary ways), but has allowed me to truly integrate every piece of my being – my desire to live a good life, my love and faith in Jesus Christ, and my infatuation with science. I don’t credit philosophy with helping me understand more about myself. I do credit philosophy with teaching me how to think, how to speak, and how to formulate my own ideas and opinions. I see the connections in my life, the concrete existence of a God that no, cannot be empirically proven, but can be proven by merely examining humans and experience. I have seen different parts of my life woven into a fabric that just makes sense. In a way, I felt it has set me apart more than before I had studied my own self and values so extensively (as a by-product of philosophy) and has made me difficultly different than other people in this way (hopefully other students can agree with me on this). Ultimately, I have realized the importance of dependency. The importance of friendship; the importance of conversation; the importance of sharing your life with others; the importance of NEVER thinking you are above others and cannot learn from them; the importance of bringing together all parts of your life and finding where you are genuinely the most happy.

This has been me incessantly rambling about how happy I am to have learned something about my life. The truth is, there are many, MANY, many things I do not know. In these are where my trust and faith in God prevails. I know not what my life holds, but I do know who has been entrusted with my future. And I do know that He has placed meaning, importance, and value in every life on this earth. I see these not just through a lens of spirituality but also a lens of philosophy. Until I am made fully aware of these things, I will keep striving to understand more about what God wants for me, how He wants me to live, and the ways in which I can more fully be His humbled, faithful, and loving daughter. I can pray we can do this together. (I also HIGHLY, highly encourage you to read When Breath Becomes Air… It is beautiful.)

 

a tree falls in the woods

A tree falls in the woods, and nobody hears it. Did it really fall and make a sound?

The action may have occurred. In fact, the tree most likely fell. But can we prove that it did?

No. Someone could have chopped the tree down. Someone could have uprooted the tree purposefully. But here we are, immersed in this deciduous forest, and we are all trying to semantically determine the source of the fallen tree. We are all surrounded around the tree, painstakingly and vehemently trying to validate our theories. The tree was knocked down by violent winds. The tree was aged and had fallen due to its worn age. Of course, the qualities of the tree are meaningless. In fact, we have such a lack of care for the tree that we intentionally set it on fire. We, individually, pick at its bark – bark that cannot be replaced – until it is near bare. We see the tree as a great source of profit to our intellectual accounts and spend our time hacking away at its sides, as a miner blindly hacks away at a cave. Except this cave is so magnanimously mysterious. But now there are other theories; the tree was spontaneously uprooted by a theoretically powerful but infinitely improbable force. We all so conscientiously try to put an identification tag on the cause of the fall. We are surrounded around the tree, with blinders on to everything but our own theories. Some theories are substantiated in scientific arguments. While others are rooted in supernatural phenomena. Individually, there are flaws in both. But we would never allow ourselves to hear the views of the other side. We only listen to ourselves. We care only about our own flawed reasoning.

But what if there was a branch that fell off the tree on the way down? Attached to the branch are the punctilious and explicit explanations for the cause of the miraculous fall of the tree. The branch, we know, is most definitely a part of the whole original tree. There are no earthly questions of the authenticity of the branch being a part of the tree. In fact, the branch is the only other existing remnant of the tree. The only other terrestrial evidence that the tree actually exists in a place other than our minds. When the branch is discovered, some people wholeheartedly believe its instructions are pure and divine. The cause of the tree is disclosed in the ink of the pristine instructions.

This is where we are. We are destroying the tree. We are disrespecting the entirety of the causality behind the falling of the tree. We are here not to question whether or not the tree is on the ground; that is not denied. We collectively believe that. But we are out here to determine why it fell. What caused it to fall. Is there significance in the falling of the tree? Are there other trees that will fall in these same ways?

Where are you in this amass of theories, facts, and distorted beliefs? The one hacking away at the tree, disrespecting its origin of death? Are you blind to the branch that is an unquestionable part of the whole? Are your theories based on what the obviously puzzled person in front of you told you? Have you even thought about why the tree fell at all, or are you outside the forest, only believing what those who are running wildly out to tell you? (This is an unsafe place to be)

But the truth is a tree fell in the woods. Someone heard it. We all believe it. Why did it fall?