A Thinking Thing

This is, in part, a continuation of a line of thought I was developing in The Truth by Reason Project, Detached Subjectivity, and Symbolic Unreality, At the time I was working with the language of Kant, then Jacob Kline, and now more so with Descartes.

For tutorial we’ve been reading Descartes Meditations. That’s the one where he imagines that there is an evil genius bent upon deceiving him, and concludes that even if he can know nothing about the reality of the things perceived, at least he knows that there is reality to himself as an ‘I;’ as a “thinking thing.” I put some quotes from the Meditations in my last post. It’s very difficult for me to follow how into the realm of ‘I’ as only a thinking thing with no extension in space at all, but perhaps I can follow somewhat better by means of analogy. It’s difficult for me to give less credit to the senses than to my mind. This is not true, however, for one sense, or something like a sense — what Christians call the noetic sense. With that one it’s easy enough to take “I had an experience of something” to mean something much more like Descartes’ understanding of sense in the second meditation: I felt the fire and had a sensation of heat; it does not necessarily follow that the fire itself it is hot. It does not even necessarily even follow that there is a “fire itself,” except as an object of perception.

There’s a cartesian split between the object as something that is sensed (which is equally true of dream objects and “real” ones), and an object as a “thing in itself.” We can talk about the former, and those doing the perceiving, but not about the latter. We cannot, in Aristotle’s language, talk with any certainty about the ousia of something; only of ourselves. And the being of ourselves is, for Descartes, the “thinking thing.” In a lot of ways we moderns seem to inhabit a very cartesian world. The truth of objects as material bodies are not so much encountered directly with the senses as known through the intellect and described in terms of laws, internal motion, molecular structure, atomic structure, and so on.

To use Descartes example, this piece of wax I’m holding near the fire is not, in a primary sense, something cool, in the shape of a honeycomb, with a smell of honey and a certain color and flexibility; if I were to move it nearer the fire it would lose that shape, become softer, of greater extension, darker, smell less sweet, and so on. What it really is (for me) is something primarily grasped through the intellect; it is an extended body with a certain structure, within which there is greater movement when it is warm than when it is cool. We tend to mean by a subjective understanding of a thing something more like the honeycomb; something particular and experienced by our senses directly, and by something objective, a thing more like the scientific description of beeswax as such; a substance with extension and a certain internal composition; a kind of atom arranged into a kind of molecule arranged into a kind of structure with certain properties that change in a predictable way according to things like heat and pressure. Descartes doesn’t seem willing even to ascribe to that second sense of “wax” certain reality; the reality lies in that being the way in which “wax” is understood by the intellect (and therefore as an object of thought rather than as a thing in itself).

Even Descartes admits, however, that it’s very difficult to hold to that manner of thought in actual life. Only crazy people can actually devote that much effort to thinking at every moment: that is not actually a windmill, but is in fact a figment of my imagination in the form of a giant cleverly disguised by an evil wizard to look like a windmill. This is where the difficulty of belief, faith, and proof come in. We can, of course, see and still disbelieve. I can disbelieve in the existence of Descartes if I want to. As he demonstrates, I’ll be hard pressed to disbelieve in the existence of my own consciousness, though if I really want to I can say that what seems to me to be consciousness is really just a certain arrangement of cells with various electrical connections. Descartes, oddly enough, says that the purpose of indulging in hyperbolic doubt of this kind is to prove the existence of God. We’ve yet to see how he succeeds with that.


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