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I Am, Therefore I ThinkA Worldview for the Twenty-First Century
By Albert Low
iUniverse, Inc.Copyright © 2011 Albert Low
All right reserved.
Chapter OneTowards a New Worldview
To be or not to be; that is the question Hamlet
Shakespeare's Hamlet was a troubled man, but he was conceived in troubled times. An old order was breaking up, but a new one was yet to be born. Soon after Shakespeare had written his play, another troubled man wrote the following:
[I am] filled ... with so many doubts that it is no longer in my power to forget them. And yet I do not see in what manner I can resolve them; and, just as if I had all of a sudden fallen into very deep water, I am so disconcerted that I can neither make certain of setting my feet on the bottom nor can I swim and so support myself on the surface.
The invention of the printing press in the mid-1500's, the Copernican revolution that exploded into the mid-1600's along with Martin Luther's protest movement that began in the early 1600's—accompanied by his translation of the bible into the vernacular—the rise in nationalism, and a change in the sense of personal identity, all undermined the authority of the Church, whose teaching had been the rock on which the Medieval worldview had been founded.
Descartes, writing about a hundred years later than Copernicus, and whom I quoted above as being plagued by doubts, was one of the first to perceive that the old worldview had to be replaced. Early in his life, he realized he could not get the kind of understanding he sought within that worldview. "I completely stopped the study of letters, and resolving not to look any more in any other science except one which could be found inside myself or in the great book of the world." He spent nine years divesting himself of all he had learned.
We could say the Medieval worldview was based on the search for salvation; Descartes' search was for certainty: "I judged that I could take as a general rule the point that the things which we conceive very clearly and very distinctly are all true." And in the Meditations he says, "The vivid and clear perception must be true." He finally established four rules by which to acquire certainty:
The first was that he would not accept anything as true that he did not clearly know to be true. The old worldview was based on dogma and belief, and this new rule was therefore a direct severance with the old order. It made personal research, and not the authority of the Church, the basis for attaining certainty. The second rule was to divide each difficulty into as many parts as possible and as might be necessary to resolve it better. The third was to conduct his examinations of phenomena in an orderly way, beginning with the simplest, those easiest to know, so that he could gradually climb up to the most complex. These last two rules were the birth of reductionism, a basic procedure of the new order that Descartes was ushering in. The last rule was to make his calculations throughout so complete, and his examinations so general, that he would be confident that he had not omitted anything.
Descartes is possibly best known for his cogito ergo sum, "I think, therefore I am." It might be well to quote from Meditations the passage in which he makes this discovery.
Thinking? At last I have discovered it—thought! This is the one thing that can't be separated from me. I am, I exist—that is certain. But for how long? For as long as I am thinking. But perhaps no longer than that; for it might be that if I stopped thinking I would stop existing; and I have to treat that possibility as though it were actual, because my present policy is to reject everything that isn't necessarily true. Strictly speaking, then, I am simply a thing that thinks—a mind, or soul, or intellect, or reason, these being words whose meaning I have only just come to know. Still, I am a real, existing thing. What kind of a thing? I have answered that: a thinking thing.
Arguing from this truth, he established to his satisfaction that the world could be divided into three basic "substances"—a thinking substance (res cogitans), an extended substance (res extensa), and God. This in turn gave rise to his famous Cartesian dualism, because he conceived the body and mind as two different substances. This had enormous consequences. He divided intellectual territory into two: one part concerned with thinking substance that could be taken care of by the Church, the other concerned with extended substance that could be looked after by science. Alchemy, which was the science of the time, did not make this separation between res cogitans and res extensa and was unable to establish clear and distinct ideas. Finally, he looked upon the body as a machine that could be understood if one adopted the four rules outlined above.
Francis Bacon, writing just before Descartes, gave substance to Descartes' method by introducing a new way of thinking. Bacon, too, was anxious to break with the old order, and he begins his Novum Organum, which at a stretch could be translated as 'a new worldview,' by saying,
Those who have taken upon them to lay down the law of nature as a thing already searched out and understood, whether they have spoken in simple assurance or professional affectation, have therein done philosophy and the sciences great injury. For as they have been successful in inducing belief, so they have been effective in quenching and stopping inquiry.
Bacon sums up his new way of thinking by saying,
There are, and can be, only two ways of searching into and discovering truth. The one flies from the senses and particulars to the most general axioms, and from these principles, the truth of which it takes for settled and immovable, proceeds to judgment and to the discovery of middle axioms. And this way is now in fashion. The other derives axioms from the senses and particulars, rising by a gradual and unbroken ascent, so that it arrives at the most general axioms last of all. This is the true way, but as yet untried.
These two writers, Descartes and Bacon, were mainly responsible for laying the first bricks of the foundations of our present worldview. Descartes' insistence that certainty, the clear and distinct, is the hallmark of truth, and Bacon's insistence that this certainty can only be acquired by reliance on the senses, has led to what could be called an Objective view of the world.
These two together, certainty and the Objective, meant that scientists could share with other scientists the results of their research. In alchemy, in which the Subjective and Objective observations were inextricably mixed, this kind of sharing was not possible because each researcher may well have different subjective experiences of the same situation. Not only could the results of research now be shared, but they could be accumulated as well. Finally, the results could be proven; that is to say, the basic observations could be reproduced, conclusions could be made, and the work repeated and verified. This ushered in reliable experimentation. From these simple and humble beginnings the magnificent edifice of the physical sciences, and the technology derived from it, has been built, and with it our present worldview was brought to birth.
First person science
Ironically, we have to return to Descartes for a way into a new worldview. By a cruel twist of fate, the very basis of what he had to offer has not only been lost, it has been actively rejected. He said that he "resolved not to look any more in any other science except one that could be found inside myself or in the great book of the world." But what he had to offer has been rejected using his own criterion of what is scientifically acceptable, i.e. that it be stated as clear and distinct ideas.
He used the method of "meditation" as a way to introduce his thoughts. By doing so he invites his reader to enter the meditation with him; that is to say, Descartes invites the reader to understand what he has to say "from within." Indeed he warns, "I should never advise anyone to read [The Meditations] excepting those who desire to meditate seriously with me, and who can detach their minds from affairs of sense and deliver himself or herself entirely from every sort of prejudice." (My emphasis.)
He begins his meditations by doubting everything, as far as possible. He even goes so far as to imagine God or some demon is actively deceiving him. He also imagines that all that he can experience is illusory. Then, he reaches what for him is rock bottom, he reaches for what is not a deception or illusory: he realizes that he thinks, which proves that he is. As he says, "Strictly speaking, then, I am simply a thing that thinks—a mind, or soul, or intellect, or reason, these being words whose meaning I have only just come to know."
Doubting everything is the basic method in the practice of Rinzai Zen Buddhism. This doubt is not a methodological doubt but a doubt that arises in some people naturally and spontaneously. A methodological doubt presupposes a certainty that will end the doubt; Zen doubt even questions the possibility of a certainty. It is like a hunger that feeds on itself. It is not a conscious technique or method to arrive at a certainty, but comes unbidden from a dire necessity to make sense of what otherwise seems to be a senseless life. Doubting of this kind is often accompanied by feelings of distress or anguish. Zen koans are used as a way to focus this existential questioning or doubting.
A Zen Master, Mumon, who lived in China in the tenth century CE, tells his monks, "You must cut off ordinary ways of thought," which is his way of saying the same as Descartes said, "deliver [yourself] entirely from every sort of prejudice." The doubting that the master urges the student to undertake is not an intellectual affair but one involving the student's whole being. He says, "Arouse your entire body with its three hundred and sixty bones and its eighty- four thousand pores; summon up a great mass of doubt and pour it into this question day and night without ceasing. Question it day and night." The basic question is, "What am I?" Another Zen Master, Hakuin, who lived in seventeenth century Japan, exhorted his students to ask, "Who is the host of seeing and hearing? Walking, standing, sitting, lying down, active or silent, whether in favorable or unfavorable circumstances, throw your mind into the question of what is it that sees everything here and now? What hears?" He could have asked the question, "What thinks?"
Descartes reached the point, "It might be that if I stopped thinking, I would stop existing," and later, "[I am] a thinking thing," and he believes that he has reached rock bottom, a final certainty. He believes that because he thinks, he is. A Zen master, if Descartes were to have visited him at this point, would have urged him to go on with his questioning, not to "stop existing" but to transcend existence itself by asking, "What is this thing that thinks?" or, "Is there a thing that thinks?"
Descartes stops his meditation when he arrives at the certainty of what he knows: "I am a thinking thing." The master would have him go further still to that he knows, or simpler still to knowing.
[The content of] what Descartes knows and [the fact] that he knows are not the same. What I know can be identified, experienced as "a mind, or soul, or intellect, or reason," to use Descartes words. We might say, "I know it is raining," or "I know Charles is a student," or "I know my body aches." In these preceding sentences, what I know is italicized. What I know changes constantly. But that I know does not change because that I know is not an experience and has no content, no identifying quality. With "I know it is raining," or "I know that person is a student," or "I know my body aches," knowing is constant.
The metaphor of a mirror and its reflections can serve as a rough approximation. That I know is the mirror; what I know is the reflection. The reflection is changing all the time, but the mirror is constant. We cannot find the mirror in its reflections any more than that I know can be found by examining what I know. The reflections depend upon the mirror; the mirror does not depend on the reflections. The reflections are the mirror in action, so to say. Similarly, what I know is dependent upon that I know, and what I know is knowing (that I know) in action.
I cannot prove, that is to say, demonstrate by any kind of logical thought or argument that I know. Like Descartes, I must invite the reader to see what I have to say "from within," to see that I know. Indeed, like Descartes, I must warn, "I should never advise anyone to read [what I have to say] excepting those who desire to meditate seriously with me, and who can detach their minds from affairs of sense and deliver themselves entirely from every sort of prejudice."
Each of us must see for him or herself the difference between what I know and that I know. When people doubted what Galileo was saying, he replied, "Look through the telescope yourself and see for yourself that what I am saying is so." Ultimately, this is all any scientist can say to someone who doubts the result of his experiment: "Look for yourself." The new worldview must be arrived at by restoring the Subjective: that I know because the existing worldview is based exclusively on an Objective view: what I know. Had Descartes continued his meditations perhaps he too would have arrived at "that I know," instead of remaining with "what I know," i.e. "a thing that thinks."
Idealism and realism
It seems that saying that I know bestows reality on what I know is idealism, if not solipsism. Descartes was aware that he ran this kind of risk and so tried to demonstrate that the world too was as basic a reality as the cogito. But this demonstration is not easily accomplished, and many philosophers since have struggled to find a way to make the demonstration. Other philosophers have tried to show that idealism is the only acceptable truth, because we can in no way prove beyond doubt the existence of a world independent of our view of it. This idealist philosophy is quite widespread in the Far East and has adherents here in the West, even among theoretical physicists. The Anglo-Irish Bishop George Berkeley, who lived in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, was one of its chief exponents.
Descartes sought to escape from idealism by trying to prove that although all the other qualities of an object (e.g. color, weight, smell) could be seen simply as sense data without necessarily having some objective basis, the object had extension (e.g. length, breadth, and height) that proved it had independent existence. This argument has also been questioned. So the question remains. Descartes says that something is and the question remains: what is 'it' once we have extracted all qualities?
In trying to prove the existence of an outside world we have a similar situation to that I know and what I know. We can say what it is and that it is. What it is is given to us in experience: as an atom, or a galaxy, or a house. That it is is not given in experience. We cannot experience that it is. But it would be a mistake to believe that not being able to experience that it is proves that it is not, or that it is simply a product of imagination. A philosopher, Christopher Norris, rightly said, "Whatever the notional reality 'behind' phenomena ... it cannot be grasped, described, or represented in conceptual-intuitive terms." Thus we have two realms that cannot be grasped, described, or represented in conceptual-intuitive terms, which cannot be experienced because they transcend experience. Nevertheless, they make experience possible.
Not only this, but that I know (knowing) is both an Objective and a Subjective knowing. (I have capitalized these two words to show that I am using them in a special way.) I can know as though from outside or as though from inside.
Excerpted from I Am, Therefore I Think by Albert Low Copyright © 2011 by Albert Low. Excerpted by permission of iUniverse, Inc.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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