Social Question

Russter's avatar

Do you think "I think, therefore I am" is true?

Asked by Russter (242points) July 30th, 2009

Are you sure you really exist just because you think?

Observing members: 0 Composing members: 0

55 Answers

lloydbird's avatar

@Russter I’ll have to think about that.

BhacSsylan's avatar

It’s a decent argument, for that specific question. Descartes then uses it to do things like prove the existence of God, which I think hold less water. However, it is a decent proof that you exist, even if it says nothing for the rest of you. I actually wrote an essay on this, though it’s a bit long for here. Descartes’ reasoning was this: a skeptic can say that any part of you can be an illusion. How do you know you’re not a brain hooked up to a simulation machine? You really can’t prove it, but we usually work on the assumption that this is not so. But then, what is truth?

So, we can’t prove that anything we see or know is correct. But, there is the fact the you’re thinking about it! Apart from any debate on free will, you still have your thoughts. Even if these thoughts themselves are dictated by an external source, they still exist. So, there it is. For the fact that we are thinking about it, we have proved that we exist.

Of course, now comes the problem of proving whether anything else exists. But that’s another story…

barumonkey's avatar

Thought is sufficient, but not necessary, for existence.

ABoyNamedBoobs03's avatar

I think, therefore it is true.

tinyfaery's avatar

Could you think if you didn’t exist?

Allie's avatar

Yes, it’s true.

If someone questions whether or not they exist, then they exist simply because they question their existence.
Questioning their existence is proof they exist because there is someone doing the thinking.

marinelife's avatar

Actually, I think that I exist, and my thinking makes me aware of it on a different level. I think animals exist and have consciousness too, although it is different from ours in terms of how they experience life and time.

wundayatta's avatar

Depends how you define “existence.” If you define existence as the ability to think and perceive, then the proposition has to be true. Also, if you look at it the other way around—can you say “I don’t think, therefore I am?” Or “I don’t think therefore I am not?”

“I think, therefore I am” is a kind of tautology. Or a definition. Of course, it requires other definitions, too. What is “thinking?” What is “existence?”

Frankly, I don’t think it’s a proposition that deserves a lot of thought any more. There’s much more interesting propositions to think about.

Jayne's avatar

No; what you do know is that your thoughts at the precise moment of questioning exist, in some form. You absolutely do not know that the thoughts immediately preceding them existed, because your memories of those thoughts may have arisen spontaneously in this instant alongside your current thoughts. You have no way of knowing if your thoughts are true, nor do you know anything about the mind that contains them other than that it is capable of containing such thoughts.

BhacSsylan's avatar

@Jayne ah, but that still means that, at this precise moment of questioning, you exist. The phrase seeks to prove no more then that.

barumonkey's avatar

@Jayne: But there still has to be a “you” there to know about those thoughts, even if they’re not “your” thoughts. And even if you only exist for that instant, you still exist.

martijn86's avatar

bit harsh for a vegetable right?

ragingloli's avatar

Not necessarily.
The argument assumes that the thoughts it uses to assert existence are actually your own, and not the ones of another being.

Jayne's avatar

Well, yes, you do exist, but that ‘you’ does not have to remotely resemble the ‘you’ that you and Descartes assume. That you does not have to be remotely intelligent, it only has to be capable of containing the thought “I think therefore I am”, while even the least intelligent human being is capable of holding many orders of magnitude more information than that.

Zendo's avatar

I am, therefore I think!

lloydbird's avatar

How about – I am, therefore I question, because I think, in order to understand, that I am?

BhacSsylan's avatar

@Jayne Again, you are assuming he was trying for something else! That proof would come later. The statement says one thing and one thing only: There is something which exists, which can be called ‘you’ only for the sake of definition, which is holding this thought. It doesn’t state anything about what that being is, only that existence is implicit in relation to the thought.

Zendo's avatar

@lloydbird Great minds think alike, dude!

barumonkey's avatar

“I am, therefore I think” is much harder to prove. It is possible that rocks think, and that my dinner plates think, but it would be a very difficult point to argue.

Jayne's avatar

@BhacSsylan; but there is absolutely nothing that can be proven from this statement. I don’t just mean that I can’t think of anything; I mean it is logically impossible to construct a proof when you cannot know if the foundations of the proof, which must be held in memory, are true or not.

erniefernandez's avatar

The “I think, therefore I am” argument coming from Descarte presumes an “I”... later, his theory also presupposes the Platonic notion of “perfection” (as opposed to the Aristotelian definition, which would totally debase his ‘God’ conclusion) and, simultaneously, that Earthly existence is imperfect while “God” is necessarily perfect.

If you do not believe in an inherent “I”, or in the silly notion of a “perfection” which Descarte defined by essentially begging the question, Descarte—and basically everything he asserts—is debased. Irrelevant. Non-sense. Wrong.

In short, no.

BhacSsylan's avatar

@Jayne Aha, that’s fair. So yes, we cannot be sure that even logic exists, since that could also be a construct. So, in general terms, I’ll have to concede that no, we cannot prove anything with that sentence.

Of course, then you run into the problem of the fact that nothing is provable, and you’d be right to suppose that. That also means that in order to suppose anything at all about the universe, we must make use of unprovable axioms. But, that’s a different argument.

@erniefernandez Yeah, as I said, most everything else Descartes says is gibberish. There’s a reason the only thing left of his philosophy after this time is one phrase. And, as has been shown, that one phrase doesn’t necessarily mean anything either. Poor Descartes.

CMaz's avatar

“I think, therefore I am”
Bottom line.
It is the process of putting more thought into what you are doing besides running on pure instinct.

Harp's avatar

To elaborate on what @erniefernandez said, Descartes’ statement assumes that there must be an agent behind the thought, an “I” that does the thinking. That’s certainly the conventional way of seeing things, but conventionality isn’t proof.

Another way of looking at it is that the agent, the “I”, the thinker, is itself only a thought, and that thought has no agency behind it. Agency may just be an illusion, a first-person perspective that arises along with the thought process, but is not its owner. If thought simply creates the_ illusion_ of “I”, then Descartes’ cogito ergo sum would have to be rewritten as “Thought makes me appear to be”.

As strange as that may sound, this is the way that many neuroscientists and modern philosophers are starting to interpret subjective experience

lloydbird's avatar

@Harp Overcomplication!!
Self awareness leads to investigation of such. Naturally.
The existence of the investigator goes without saying.

Jayne's avatar

@BhacSsylan; as you say, nothing is provable, and we must assume axioms, which implies that there is no point in reducing our axioms to something so useless as “I think therefore I am”.

BhacSsylan's avatar

@lloydbird Not true. Just because something seems to be true, or seems to follow, doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t investigate whether or not it’s true. The existence of the investigator does not go without saying, you either have to prove it, or take it as an axiom. This is true of any axiom. Humans once thought it obvious that the world is flat, that the sun went around the earth. These truths went without saying. Just because something makes sense does not make it above questioning

@Jayne Well, yes. I did say i conceded to you :-p. I now agree, the statement is useless. An axiom is the only possible starting point, an unprovable assertion. ‘I think therefore I am’ tries to prove the existence of a starting point, and so fails.

Allie's avatar

Removed by Allie. Someone already wrote what I was going to say.

Harp's avatar

@lloydbird Not an overcomplication at all, but a radical simplification. The popular view (and that of Descartes) introduces an entity, an I, into the process where none is needed. It appears complicated only because it doesn’t mesh well with conventional ways of understanding reality.

lloydbird's avatar

@Harp That’s easy for you to say!....

erniefernandez's avatar

@BhacSsylan Poor Descarte? That’s what happens when you philosophize with your conclusion already decided. You make things up.

@lloydbird “Self awareness leads to investigation of such.” For this premise to be true, you must demonstrate a “self” (also called a “such”, here). I see no cohesive entity. I see many simultaneously occuring phenomena, including consciousness, memories, sensation, and a material human body responding to these other phenomena which is in turn acting on a keyboard which, through a long chain of cause and effect, is causing words to appear on a screen and, subsequently, for meanings to arise before another consciousness (in “my” head).

We call it a “me” and a “you” and an “I” and whatever else but you can’t demonstrate an actual self more than you can demonstrate an actual sky. It seems to be there, but try to draw a line around it.

No self.

ratboy's avatar

In most cases, it’s vacuously true since the antecedent is false.

Harp's avatar

@lloydbird Imagine a dream in which you’re running away from an attacker. In that dream, there is a powerful sense of self, of being an “I” in a world. That “I” runs, fears, thinks, and sees itself as the agent behind all of those actions. That “I” does not see itself as the agent behind the attacker’s actions, but assumes there must be one. All of this has a robust feel of reality to it, and that dream-self is certain of its own existence.

In the context of the dream a complex world exists full of separate entities, each acting according to its own volition. But outside of the context of the dream it’s easy to see that the reality is far simpler: all of that complexity, all of those entities, were manifestations of a single process, and had no real claim to independent existence. The attacker and the “I” were both equally only the dream, as were their actions, thoughts and emotions.

So does the fact that there is now, at this moment, a robust sense of self that appears to think and act according to its own will and gazes out on an external world—does this prove the reality of that self? Might there not be a way of transcending this context too, of seeing all of this complexity as the manifestation of a simpler reality?

erniefernandez's avatar

Harp is sooo dreamy. ^_^

barumonkey's avatar

@Harp: I think, at this point, we run into the question of defining “existence.” Specifically…
– Does the one doing the dreaming exist? Likely.
– Does the dreamer’s “I” in the dream exist? Less likely.
– Does the attacker in the dream exist? Even less likely.

Harp's avatar

@barumonkey It’s easy to fall into semantic traps here, to assume that reality conforms to the conceptual language we use to model it. As reflected in our language, we interpret the phenomenal world in terms of subjects, objects, nouns (things) and verbs (actions). We attribute actions to doers, and identify recipients of those actions as well.

This is the system the brain uses to organize information and to put it into thinkable, communicable form. But it’s a great leap of faith to infer that this scheme has some privileged claim to truth. Why, really, must there be a dreamer behind the dreaming, for instance (or a thinker behind the thinking)? Couldn’t the reality of the matter simply be that there is dreaming when the conditions for dreaming are right, and thinking when the conditions for thinking are right? This doesn’t really sound so outlandish, does it? Yet no doer is involved.

wundayatta's avatar

I still think it’s all tautological. How can we know if existence (whatever we define that as) is there if there is no “I” to perceive it? How could we have an “I” if we didn’t exist to perceive our “I-ness?” Existence, I think, is defined as awareness of existence, which, it seems to me, can not be distinguished from awareness of “I-ness.” To perceive an “I” is to perceive existence. If we don’t exist, there’s no “I” to perceive existence.

It’s not so much “I think, therefore I am,” as thinking = am-ness = existence. The therefore is not needed, unless you’re defining terms.

lloydbird's avatar

@erniefernandez Is that yourself ? Saying “such“and such. If it’s you, I’d like to ask you :-
Who ”..sees no cohesive entity.”?
Who is it that claims to be able to ”..see many simultaneously occurring phenomena etc.etc..”
And just ‘Who’ is it that ‘You’ think you are talking to if not ‘Myself’?

erniefernandez's avatar

There’s a me, relatively speaking. There is a “me”, and a you, sort of how there is a cup of tea.

Sure, there’s a cup of tea. But don’t insist on it. Don’t count on it, press it, expect too much of it, or attribute inherent, enduring qualities to it (think Plato’s “Tea-ness”) because that cup of tea is just porcelain wrapped around hydrogen and oxygen with some funny compounds from leaves floating inbetween and if you look at too closely, the tea will disappear, and you’ll only have atoms. But if you insist too intently on those, you’ll have to look past those atoms at a mob of subatomic particles, so there really was no atoms, just the appearance of atoms.

Of course, subatomic particles are composed of… strings, they say? No one really knows. So you could say no one knows what a cup of tea is, so maybe I was over-extending in assuming it was water, leaves, and porcelain.

And once you drink that tea, it’s going to be you! Right? Or, is it still tea? Or are YOU the tea? I’m not sure.

So, is there a cup of tea? In what sense? To whatever extent there is a cup of tea, there is a me, and a you.

lloydbird's avatar

@erniefernandez Can I have a cup of what you’ve been drinking please? (-:

lloydbird's avatar

@Harp The most useful, comforting, grounding, and seemingly trustworthy concept that I have gleaned from Buddhism is that of ’ The Absolute ’. Which could also be called ’ The Everything ’, ’ The Totality ’, ’ The All ’ or ’ The Entirety ’. If we stretch our minds to try and conceive of the idea of an ’ Everything ’, then we would have to conclude that there can only be one such (Everything). It would be totally and completely – all inclusive. Nothing would be outside of it. Nothing could be outside of it. If anything was outside of it,then it wouldn’t be ’ Everything ’.

Now, if we grasp this idea of a single ’ Everything ’ and consider as to where it would be located, we would have to conclude that it is ’ Everywhere ’. That there is nowhere that the ’ Everything ’ would not be. Forget multiple dimensions and parallel universes; they too would be included in the same, single ’ Everywhere ’.

So, we have one ’ Everything ’ that exists in one ’ Everywhere’.
And then we have us. We who are something. We who are somewhere, considering if we exist or don’t exist.

Are we not just part of ’ The Everything ’? Individualised aspects? Individualised perspectives from within the same ’ Everywhere ’ on the same ’ Everything ’?

It seems that there is an awful lot of time and effort spent by Religionists and Spiritual Practicioners, of one sort and another, on trying to ” Reunite with the ‘Divine’ ( The Source, The One, call it what you will.)”. Is it really possible to be separated from it, except in some illusory sense?. Can you be excluded from ’ The Everything ’?

Might this, apparent, sense of separation be the whole aim of existence in the first place? This wonderful, potentially fun-filled experience that we are ‘apparently’ having.

Beyond these few simple but fundamental concepts, is there really any need for such complex analysis and terminology? Could these obscure rather than reveal the nature of existence?

So, there is one Everything, which is Everywhere of which All Things ( Including YOU, the ‘Thing’ that is reading this) are but a part. There is, literally, No-Thing else to discuss.

mattbrowne's avatar

Some neurobiologists tell us “I feel, therefore I am”

Harp's avatar

@lloydbird You’re quite right! As soon as you’ve said a single thing about the Absolute, you’ve overcomplicated it. Words divide the whole into manageable bits, but can have no purchase at all on the entirety. In talking about these matters, like we’re doing here, the role of words is limited to deconstructing the concepts that form our conventional view of the self and the external world.

“Self” can be talked about, analyzed and deconstructed, because its essence is thought, a concept, and so it’s fitting fodder for discussion. The Absolute is impervious to concepts. Buddhist teachers have never had anything to say about it, even though it’s the focus of their teaching. Instead, they try to find creative ways to draw attention to it. Thus you have Zen masters who slammed the door in the faces of students who come to ask about it. Or Gutei, who would just hold up a finger when asked about it. Or Vimilarkirti who remained silent when questioned. Or Fu Daishi who struck the lectern with his stick when asked to give a speech about it. This is really the only way to expound on the Absolute without distorting it.

As you say, there’s no “reuniting” with it, because separation from it is only an illusion. But the major aspect of this illusion of separation is the “self” concept, because of the way that it appears to differentiate one from the whole in a persistent and compelling way.

lloydbird's avatar

@Harp Mr.Gutei, Mr. Vimilarkirti and Mr. Fu Daishi…..why were they so reticent? What was their problem? I suspect that more than a few ‘Blaggers’, may have used this state of affairs to their advantage. Might they have been some? However, beyond their reluctance to divulge, I see no difference of opinion between us on this matter

Persistently compelled.

Harp's avatar

Dear Persistently Compelled,

The problem they faced is that faced by every Buddhist teacher from the Buddha on down: how to get the student to realize that what they are seeking has never been distant or hidden. As one teacher put it, teaching Zen is like “selling water by the riverside”; the water’s right there, free for the drinking. In the end, the teacher’s job is to make the student understand that the student needs nothing at all from the teacher.

There are “blaggards” out there all right, but they prey on students by making them think they can give the seekers what they seek.

erniefernandez's avatar

I have no interest in discussing an “Everything” since I seriously doubt everyone here (myself included) has even finished dealing with “themselves”, let alone everyone else’s selves, and everything else, for that matter! :-)

Buddhism’s practical meaning comes not in stretching the mind to encompass the whole, but rather sharpening the mind to examine the parts. Under close scrutiny, you find you are unable to identify the smallest component of anything, and because of this may dismiss the whole startling realization as “frivolous speculation” or something along those lines.

The “truth about the Everything”, whatever that is, is irrelevant. Will it come? Maybe. But it is presumptuous, arrogant and an over-extension to even discuss it until we’ve made the slightest bit of progress on our “selves”.

Convenient metaphor: Take Masons, who do not learn to design temples before they’ve reflected on and Mastered the dimensions of a single block. So should we examine the component (which is infinitely complex enough on it’s own!) before we foolishly entertain our egos and try to explain “everything”; including that “self” that’s so out of control, dominating every sensation, every argument, and every thought or feeling that meets out consciousness.

As far as the “divine” is concerned, Buddhism is thoroughly uninterested in anything “supranatural”. Indeed, the Dhamma is aimed at understanding the supra mundane.

lloydbird's avatar

@Harp I now see your point about these “teachers”. You made it very well, in simple terms, without resorting to any of the ploys that they employed.
“In the end, the teacher’s job is to make the student understand that the student needs nothing at all from the teacher.” You mean after they have been taught, right? As in ‘no longer needs anything from’? The student would have had a “need” for the teaching – If only to realise that they didn’t “need” the teaching in the first place. No?

@erniefernandez ” interest in discussing….” does not really make for any more discussion.
At least, only on this subject, I hope.
However, I suspect that you won’t be able to avoid doing so.
No point of discussion is excluded from this ‘particular’ subject/object!

erniefernandez's avatar

@lloydbird Well, if you take four words out of context, then yes. If you read the other couple hundred words, you will see I have ” interest in discussing….” only one angle on this subject.

It has been my experience that looking at things macroscopically does not help you find answers. Look at the economy; the cause of this recession is ultimately the individual consumer, not cosmic forces in the Universe. “Zoom in, not out, for understanding” is what I’ve found to be most effective.

So it’d be down right foolish of me to engage in the kind of behavior I’ve personally found to be unproductive! :-)

Like I said, conversations about “Everything” tends to be egomaniacal; the same part of our ego that compels us to describe “God”, but secularized.

Anyway, I’d be repeating myself if I kept writing this post. I’ll wait until something new for me to say presents itself. :)

Harp's avatar

@lloydbird “The student would have had a “need” for the teaching – If only to realise that they didn’t “need” the teaching in the first place. No?”

Yes, that’s it. The seeker, by definition, sees himself as separate from that which he is seeking. He’s frustrated by this sense of incompleteness and insufficiency, and is driven to acquire some mysterious something that will make him feel whole. He looks for it to come from the outside, so he hopes to find it in books, or philosophies, or hallucinogens, or from a teacher who he thinks has what he needs.

A legitimate teacher realizes the student’s quandary. It’s like the old Three Stooges routine where the guy screams, “I can’t see! I can’t see!”, and the other guy tells him “your eyes are closed”. The teacher’s job isn’t to see for the student; it’s to get the student to open his eyes. If the teacher were to try to describe the Absolute to the student, all the student then has is a second-hand mental image based on that description. While that might intrigue the student, he now thinks the way forward is to keep pressing the teacher for a more and more complete picture.

But that’s not the real solution to the student’s predicament, is it? The solution is that he get his damned “eyelids” out of the way. The teacher can’t do this for him, but he can, whenever the student comes to him for help in seeing, keep telling him, “you don’t need my help; just open your eyes”

erniefernandez's avatar

@harp That sentiment is beautifully illustrated (literally) in the classic “Ox Herding Pictures”.

Harp's avatar

@erniefernandez Interestingly, there are a couple of different versions of the ox-herding pictures. This is the best known because it’s the one Suzuki published, but this is a version with a somewhat different progression to it, most notably the ending.

erniefernandez's avatar

The latter is actually the one I am familiar with (and was referringt o), but come to think of it, I saw the first one a long time ago; before I really had the understanding for it to make an impression.

I have those in a small book all about the print series.

poisonedantidote's avatar

i think, therefore i think… i think.

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