Therefore I Am

Today is the end of this March of coronavirus pandemic. We know now that it really began late in 2019 and hit China hard in January and moving through Italy and Europe in February. But America was not reacting as seriously as it should have been until this month.

Rene DescartesSerendipitously today, I saw that today is the birthday of philosopher René Descartes. As a student of philosophy in college, if you had asked me to sum up Descartes in a word I would have chosen “doubt,” and that is a word that has filled this month for many people including myself.

Descartes was born in France in 1596 is sometimes called the father of modern philosophy, even though he considered himself a mathematician and scientist. His interest in philosophy began with his finding out that the Catholic Church persecuted Galileo for his scientific theories, especially the idea that Earth was not the center of the solar system.

This doubt seemed to follow him. His own theories were controversial and he believed that doubt is necessary for scientific inquiry. This doubt always seems to me to have almost lead him into depression. He wrote about doubting everything in his life. He even began to doubt his own existence.

As he worked his way through this problem, he realized that one thing he could not doubt was the existence of his own thoughts. From that conclusion, he came to his idea that has lived on in one Latin philosophical proposition: Cogito, ergo sum which is translated into English as “I think, therefore I am.”  In his book, Discourse on the Method, it is written in French as je pense, donc je suis. It has been translated and interpreted in other ways, such as “That cannot doubt which does not think, and that cannot think which does not exist. I doubt, I think, I exist. (Krauth, 1872) Descartes wrote, “I concluded that I was a substance whose whole essence or nature resides only in thinking, and which, in order to exist, has no need of place and is not dependent on any material thing.”

I didn’t intend this post to be a philosophy lesson but, like poems, writing your thoughts often leads you down paths you had not planned to walk. What inspired me on the month-ending day and Descartes’s birthday was the idea of knowledge in the face of radical doubt.

The full title of his book is A Discourse on the Method of Correctly Conducting One’s Reason and Seeking Truth in the Sciences and that last part – “Conducting One’s Reason and Seeking Truth in the Sciences” seems most relevant in the past few months.

The very act of doubting – in one’s own existence or in the way our government is handling this pandemic – is proof of the reality of one’s own mind and a necessary part of the constant inquiry we have with the world.

From “I think therefore I am,” Descartes moves to the existence and nature of the physical world, human and animal nature and God. That may be further than we want to walk in the month ahead, though I suspect some of us have been moving in that direction consciously or unconsciously.