Why I blog and what Descartes is all about
I’ve been neglecting this blog over the last few weeks. There have been a lot of things going on that I would have liked to cover, but a combination of pressures at work and at home have simply left me without the time or the energy to do so. Rather than fight a losing battle with real life or go through the motions for a while, I found it easiest just to drop everything until I could find a bit of time to really focus on it. Sorry for the sudden and unexplained absence.
One of the side-effects of this impromptu sabbatical was that the added distance led me to consider why I blog and what I get out of it. I like having a space for organising my thoughts, both serious and frivolous, and I like the back-and-forth exchange of ideas. But this morning, I realised that above all else, what motivates me is a desire to challenge and correct errors.
I usually manage to avoid Radio 4’s Thought For The Day, but something went wrong this morning, and I accidentally ended up listening to it. The speaker was Catherine Pepinster, the editor of The Tablet, a Catholic newspaper, delivering her little sermonette on the broad theme of Nelson Mandela and the evils of apartheid. You’d think that would be a nice, easy and popular message to deliver, but by the time her three minutes were up, I could hardly contain the urge to tear it apart.
The opening passage must either have been drafted by a skilled satirist or someone with no sense of irony. Yes, apartheid was a terrible thing because it marginalised much of the population, denying them proper opportunities to shine, and treated them as if they were inferior. But given Rome’s official positions on homosexuality and the ministry of women, for example, this point might have had more force coming from a different speaker.
But that was just a wryly amusing lack of self-awareness, of a kind that can be seen on a regular basis all over the world. This was what really stirred me up:
The French philosopher Descartes thought it was the existence of the mind that makes one a person: “I think, therefore I am.” But in an era of medical technology which can keep someone alive whose cognitive abilities are profoundly impaired, I’m not sure that is quite right. Is the man in a coma really no longer a person?
There’s obvious equivocation here, both on the nature of thinking and the nature of existence. Cognitive impairment doesn’t mean someone can’t or doesn’t think at all, and there’s a clear distinction between the fact of existence and the recognition of personhood, a distinction which is neglected here.
But the more alarming failure is the most basic logical fallacy. The whole thrust of Descartes’ iconic proposition is entirely back to front in this bizarre tangent. He isn’t offering a definition of what constitutes a person, but rather identifying a conclusion that can be drawn from the fact of being able to think.
Even accepting the equivocations and that people in comas don’t think yet do exist and are people, that has no bearing on the truth of Descartes’ proposition. He states A (I think), therefore B (I am), but nothing can be determined from this in the event that A is not true. We can say that “A therefore B” implies “Not_B therefore Not_A”, but despite a superficial resemblance, that has no connection to the argument being made here.
In more applied terms, Descartes clearly doesn’t deny the existence of tables, stones or asparagus, despite their obvious inability to think. But if something doesn’t exist (Not_B), it’s not at all controversial to say that non-existent things are incapable of thinking (Not_A). However, anything that doesn’t think may or may not exist, and anything that exists may or may not think.
There are subtle and persuasive challenges to Descartes’ famous cogito ergo sum, but this isn’t one of them. In fact, it manages to completely misunderstand the very nature of the phrase. Then again, seeing that Pepinster concluded her talk by saying that we’d all be nice and respectful to each other if we just believed in God, I’m not exactly surprised.