Descartes error?

by Penrod

The admirable Rene Descartes realized that the human mind, his and ours, everybody included, is filled with misinformation, false claims, errors, and a lot of BS. So, he took a rigorous, decisive approach to find certainty and, in so doing, discover, he hoped, foundation for his being. He decided on a method in which he would start from scratch. I will doubt, he thought, everything — until I come to a clear and distinct idea about which there can be no question. In the process of doubting he clearly and distinctly knew he was thinking. He famously concluded, Cogito ergo sum. “I think, therefore I am.”

That’s pretty good. A solid foundation that most of us would acknowledge. There are critics of Descartes and it seems there are some good reasons. For example, working from this fundamental discovery he proceeded to think it certain, “clear and distinct,” that reality is divided between mind and body; between mental thoughts and physical things; between the thinking non-corporeal reality of inner life and corporeal things outside us. He was wrong about that, don’t you think? We have learned much about how integrated and inseparable mind and body are, integrated to a degree Descartes

could not have imagined; to a degree that few people imagined 50 years ago. Our discovery of the synaptic activity that shapes thought and action is recent and it seems clear everything is physiological. Although we know more than Descartes could about physical reality, we remain on the same footing as he, because, in spite of all that has been discovered, the underlying mystery of life persists.

Consider this. Although Descartes led us a fair distance, he did not go deep enough or far back enough. I am confident he was amused the moment clarity dawned on him—amused and delighted; but, being overly intellectual (perhaps), maybe he missed his own chuckle. Don’t you think the chuckle came first? Maybe, “I chuckle therefore I am,” is the foundation of personal life.

But hold it, there might be other realities besides laughing or thinking, that break in upon us to defeat human skepticism and nihilism—downers that Descartes and most humans experience at one time or another.

What else comes to mind? For some, proof of existence might be, “I cry, therefore I am.” Does a starving person or someone in severe pain doubt their existence? “I hurt, therefore I am.” “I love, therefore I am.” What else does the job? Most any feeling, it seems to me. Feelings and emotions precede thought. Thinking, thought Hume, is a calmer passion but still a passion.

Personally, I’m so glad for my chuckles that I’m not looking elsewhere for the starting point of life. Chuckles are such a delight. Reality gives us the “hard knocks” of life — plenty to assure us that we are real. We are bodies and we can’t escape our bodily limitations, nor would it turn out well or be fun to do so. A word from a friend awakened me to the possibility that I might be overrating the chuckle. What about belly-laughs? he asks. Good point. The ecstasy of a belly-laugh cannot be contrived.

The prologue to John’s Gospel proclaims that “in the beginning was the word.” Logos or reason depends upon an actual word or words. Is a word the spark of the divine? Was it the first time our ancestor said a word, that God was born? With speech, biological life is transcended, we cross over (trans scend) and up (I guess) where divine or spiritual life begins. Isn’t this the beginning of being human? It happens over again and again. It happens to virtually every child; it happened to you and to me.

Language opens the door to life; it provides the spark of spiritual life; it opens the door to freedom and increasing independence. But at the same time, it is physical; it is nothing if it is not. Speech is physical—it requires vocal chords and a movement of air in a particular way. Complicated as it is, a child can master speech without thinking about it.

When we come into being, there is a world here waiting for us—it includes the rungs on our cribs and the immense beauties of creation. The “Swarming” seas and bountiful fruit trees of Genesis are here before we arrive. The plants and the animals need humans to name them, and children do, as if for the first time. It is interesting and fruitful to explore this unfolding, to observe children naming things as their understanding deepens. Our understanding and appreciation grows as children discover more and more. It’s worthwhile to relive and rethink our own experience growing up. I’m pretty sure amusement and instinctive chuckling are always on the front line for children — if amusement in that child’s particular situation is at all possible.

If this little essay holds water, it might not be possible to avoid the chuckle or the belly-laugh because we don’t control them.

“T’ank the Lord for that!” says an old friend. Thank you, too, Dr. Descartes.

Penrod says that, in thinking about him, one should think first of Booth Tarkington's Penrod, the boy writer, and then of the mighty pen of Martin Luther with its power like unto the rod of Aaron.

See all articles by Penrod