I Think, Therefore I’m Wrong? Did Descartes make a mistake?
Larry Culliford, 2019
In his search for certainty, the French philosopher, René Descartes (1596 – 1650), ruled out everything he could not test. Because he undoubtedly experienced himself thinking, he concluded that at least he knew that he knew. As a result, he came up with the classic statement, ‘I think, therefore I am’. This really started something.
According to the spiritual writer, Thomas Merton (1915 – 1968),
If the thinking subject is the basis of all certainty… What happens is that the individual is a self-enclosed unit… From the very beginning you have the individual enclosed within himself, seeing everything else as an object… You define yourself by separating yourself from everybody else, and then you operate and work with others from that standpoint.’
*This is fine, according to Merton, only if people seek their own interests while also following the rules of society; you make your personal fortune without harming anyone else. Unfortunately, this is not what has been happening. Some people are dishonest and greedy. In addition, when people group together, you get organizations that might be honest and ethical or dishonest and criminal—like big retail chains on the one hand and the Mafia, let’s say, on the other. In other words, things get complicated.
So, did Descartes made a mistake? Let’s start again and look at things differently. Consider this: ‘Raise your right hand!’ What happens when a person obeys that instruction? It’s more than just a question of thinking. To get the full picture, we need to consider the situation from five different angles, examine its five aspects or dimensions. This is true when we want the full story on anything else too.
In this case, raising one’s right hand obviously does not involve picking it up in one’s left hand and raising it up (although it could). When I raise my right hand, let’s say palm facing forward, a scientist could tell me what’s happening in the physical dimension regarding the flow of energy involved, the different chemical substances too like neurotransmitters and muscle fibers, right down to the DNA molecules and such. In the biological dimension, the discussion would be about activity in the cells and body organs: the brain, bones and joints, heart and lungs, muscles and fibers, skin and nails etc.
Only at the next level, the psychologicaldimension, does consciousness and therefore thinking come into it; and so too does sense perception (visual and sensory awareness of the location of the hand and what surrounds it), also the question of voluntary and involuntary impulses. This dimension also covers emotions, which may well come into play when someone is told ‘Raise your right hand’ in order to receive, for example, either punishment or reward.
Whenever there is communication between two or more people, the next dimension comes under consideration: the social dimension. Raising one’s hand can, for example, when acknowledging another person’s greeting, be a powerful and effective form of communication.
Finally, because (with respect to Descartes) we are not separate units in isolation, bouncing off each other like billiard balls. Because we are all human beings whose lives seek meaning; sensitive creatures who may naturally feel kinship towards each other despite outward differences, who may likewise feel attached to all living things, involved equally with the condition and fate of the planet’s ecosystem; because we may have or acquire an overall sense of unity, of the seamless inter-connection of everything; we must also consider a verbal command such as ‘Raise your right hand’ (along with everything else), as integral to a holistic or spiritual dimension. It’s what we do, for instance, when taking an oath in a court of law.
Summing all this up and trying to make sense of it, we can say that the spiritual dimension (representing souls and the sacred: the miracle of unity) embodies an originating principle, seamlessly creating, linking and shaping the other four:
The Physical dimension (energy and matter: the miracle of existence)
The Biological dimension (organs and organisms: the miracle of life)
The Psychological dimension (mental activity: the miracle of consciousness)
The Social dimension (relationships: the miracle of love)
To be clear, these dimensions may or may not represent ‘reality’ as such. They are best considered as ‘dimensions of human experience and understanding’. In that way, although they go well beyond Descartes’ ideas, they remain faithful to his original aims and integrity, to accept nothing except the product of the human mind.
Science is good on physics, chemistry and biology, less reliable on the complexities of psychology and sociology, and relatively ignorant regarding (and possibly suspicious or dismissive of) spirituality, but things are changing. The ‘Galileo Project’ of the Scientific and Medical Network aims ‘to open up discussion and find ways to expand the basic underlying assumptions of science, so that it can explore significant human experiences and questions that science, in its present form, is unable to accommodate’.
This welcome initiative will give renewed legitimacy to spiritual experiences of the type I wrote about in an earlier post, such as, ‘awareness of a sacred presence in nature’, and, ‘awareness that all things are one‘. The new scientific paradigm will strengthen the very human idea that each person is intimately and seamlessly connected to every other person; promoting, as the basis for all human interaction, that what each person thinks, says and does, also what they keep silent about and avoid doing, has an impact on everyone else.
This introduces to science the vitally important topics of ethics and morality. Human inter-dependence is the true basis of wisdom, which fosters attitudes and values like beauty, joy, kindness, compassion, generosity, honesty, gratitude, forgiveness, freedom, hope and courage, rather than worldly, materialistic self-serving aims and ambitions that lead to the relentless, insatiable search for profit, property and possessions, power over others, luxury and fame, which so often proceeds at others’ expense, becoming the cause of so much widespread physical and emotional pain and suffering in the world.
Science is wonderful, but the worldview it offers is incomplete and too impersonal, but not everybody sees that… Not yet anyway… Spread the word!
Copyright Larry Culliford
Originally published in Psychology Today