Descartes

Rene Descartes, not at all (Pythons notwithstanding) a “drunken fart,” simply wanted to know what he could know for certain. His skepticism was methodological, his goal was indubitable certainty. This, he thought, would serve the new science well. He misunderstood the self-correcting, probabilistic, fallibilistic nature of empirical reasoning. But most philosophers still think it’s worth wondering: how do you know you’re not dreaming, not being deceived by a demon or by your senses, not mistaking your own essential nature?


Still, cogito ergo sum overrates intellect. You don’t have to think, to demonstrate your existence. You just have to do something… even, as an old grad school pal used to say, if it’s wrong.

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I usually think of Charles Sanders Peirce as Descartes’ most practical critic, and I agree with him that a contrived and methodological doubt is not the best starting place in philosophy.

But it occurs to me that an even more practical alternative to what I consider the misguided Cartesian quest for certainty is old Ben Franklin’s Poore RichardHis is not armchair wisdom, it comes straight from the accumulated experience of the folk. Some of that “common sense” is too common, but plenty is dead-on. “Early to bed, early to rise…” has definitely worked for me.

Still, says Grayling, “we may disagree with Descartes that the right place to start is with the private data of consciousness” rather than the shared world of language and common experience; but even if he was wrong he was “powerfully, interestingly, and importantly wrong.”

Is there anything we know or believe that we could not possibly be mistaken about, or cannot reasonably doubt? Certainly not, speaking at least for myself. But I’m next to certain that I’m more-or-less awake, at this hour, as the coffee drains.

I’m also pretty darn sure that I am (and do not “have”) a body/brain. When I think of who, what, and where I am, though, the answer is interestingly complicated by all my relations (I don’t just mean my extended family): I am inclusive of a past and a future (though it keeps shrinking), and of wherever my influence (for better or worse) manages to stretch. I am vitally related by experience (actual, virtual, vicarious, possible, personal, interpersonal) to points far and wide. And, to physical object. I’m not trapped in my skin, and we’re definitely not alone in a solipsistic universe. Like Dr. Johnson, I find the pain in my toes (or hips) definitely more substantial than an idea. 

I don’t believe in ghosts, except metaphorically. (I am haunted by opportunities missed, and possibilities unnnoticed.) But most of my metaphorical spooks are Casperishly friendly. This is true of most people who read and think a lot, isn’t it? We’re in constant, happy communion with the dead. Books transport us to their realm, and to the great undiscovered country of the future as well.

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