Descartes’ ?Cogito Ergo Sum’ (I am, I exist) argument is a complex one. In many ways, he constructs a convincing argument for the existence of the self, and for the process of the thinking being, the essence of that self. In this meditation on his philosophy, Descartes on numerous attempts tries to convince both the readers, as well as himself, of his theory that we must reject all of our present ideas and beliefs and start from nothing. He believes that the only thing that has any certainty at this point is “his own existence as a thinking being”. Everything else, which he has learned throughout his entire life and believed in, is to be thrown out because it is not known “clearly and distinctly”. Descartes’ method and theory on knowledge was well planned and carefully thought out. It is evident that he spent a great deal of time determining the principles that he would use as determinants for judging whether a specific idea was justified and true.
In my opinion, there are some flaws contained in Descartes’ argument. Among these flaws are Descartes’ apparent determination to prove his theory on his individual existence in the world and the existence of G-d to backup and prove himself and his theories.
At the beginning of meditation two, Descartes is ?stuck in the middle of nothingness’. He has nothing, nothing to believe in and everything around him he regards as false. This is because he cannot believe what he has learned and he is also
unable to trust his senses due to the fact that they deceive him. He feels like he is ?drowning in a whirlpool and cannot reach the top and get out nor can he put his feet on the bottom and stand’. Everything in the world at this point he has called into doubt, including himself. Everything that he has ever seen, learned or thought is now external from what he deems to be true and he is beginning his knowledge from non-existence. Descartes although is certain of one thing, nothing (but to be certain of nothing is still to be certain of something?).
Descartes is a rational thinker and he rationalizes through his studies that nothing in the world is known. He decided to re-start his belief process and call everything he has ever believed in, into doubt. He is debating complex ideas in his head, changing his mind and objectively making decisions, so his existence in a world has to be a certainty. The fact that he is having these thoughts, whether right or wrong proves mental capacity. Descartes then states with certainty ?Cogito ergo sum’ (I am, I exist). This is the first accurate idea that Descartes knows with any conviction, he knows that he is a “thinking being”. Descartes still does not know what he is, he says “but what then am I? A thing that thinks. What is that? A thing that doubts, understands, affirms, denies, wills, refuses, and that also imagines and senses”. He is aware of his mental capacity and knows he thinks, deliberates and makes decisions, but he still rejects his body and his senses.
One major flaw found in Descartes’ argument is that while critically examining, and then rejecting, mostly everything in the world around him, he maintained that he could prove the existence of G-d, beyond a shadow of a doubt. For thousands of years,
people have been trying to prove G-d’s existence but he has yet to be successful. It seems to me that Descartes showed a display of arrogance in supposing that he could devise a method of proving the existence of G-d, doing so without a great deal of difficulty. At one point in his discourse on method, Descartes sets out a code of morals, which he plans to abide by. Descartes states that he plans to “obey the laws and the customs of my country, constantly holding on to the religion in which, by G-d’s grace, I had been instructed from my childhood…” . It is quite apparent from this passage, that Descartes had accepted and embraced the idea of G-d long before he even began to question it. With this pre-judgement of G-d’s existence, he could not possibly have made a fair and accurate conclusion as to whether or not G-d really exists. The fact that he was so ready and willing to accept G-d’s existence, while being so critical of everything else around him illustrates how careful he was to prove a G-d of power and benevolence. He then used his idea of G-d to explain and justify his existence and everything else he wants to prove as “clearly and distinctly” in his argument. If Descartes were to have rejected the ideas of G-d and religion, he would have had a much harder time proving his own existence and the existence of elements which he believed to be true. Had this not been the case, I see no way in which Descartes could have come to feel that he had been able to provide such a secure proof of G-d and his own existence.
At times, Descartes is unnecessarily critical of many ideas. Descartes clearly states that he perceives it to be quite necessary to question everything in the world around him, and that we should never believe anything we learn from our senses. In his Discourse, Descartes states “I learned not to believe anything to firmly of which I had been persuaded only by example and customs: and thus I little by little freed myself of many errors that can darken our natural light and render us less able to listen to reason. (pg. 15, part 1).” In sternly following his philosophies, Descartes must have missed out on many wonderful things in his lifetime. True as it may
be, that our senses can sometimes deceive us, those deceptions can be beautiful and powerful things. The feelings we get when looking at a beautiful sunset, or the colours of the leaves changing in the fall are no less important or meaningful to us just because they may not be completely accurate portrayals of reality. I think they are our reality. If at every instance of life we questioned reality and could not just relax and take in the moment, life may not be worth living because happiness would always be questioned. I happen to feel that many of life’s greatest pleasures are in those things that we can perceive only through our senses. Love and religion are perfect examples of things we appreciate by blind faith and trust without the use of reason. To go through life without knowing and experiencing things such as these, would simply be a shame. One would be missing out on a number of worthwhile experiences if they were to question and doubt everything to the point where they could no longer appreciate life’s simple pleasures. I would like to think that perhaps there are more important things in life than questioning and denouncing everything that one has been told, simply because it may not be based on the most secure knowledge possible. I suggest that Descartes should have substituted “I feel, therefore I am” for his famous “I think, therefore I am”. Conceivably our senses are not the most secure basis for knowledge, but they provide us with many wonderful sensations that I personally would not be prepared to give up, simply for the knowledge that I really exist.
Possibly not every idea needs to be examined, and subsequently accepted or rejected. Conceivably there is such a thing as “gut reaction”. What is true for one person is not necessarily true for another. If refusing to question and call into doubt everything that one knows and holds to be important equals remaining ignorant, then I
would prefer to be ignorant. I would elect to continue to experience feelings brought upon me by things which I have observed through the use of my senses and instinct, than to appreciate only those few things which can be proved to be absolutely true. A life of obsessional questioning of every single thing imaginable would be incredibly tedious and would wipe out the wonder of enjoyment of invisible joys and gifts of nature. Descartes must have been a very one-dimensional human being and one has to pity him for his lack of ability to enjoy the world around him. On the surface, he appears to be very confident that his argument bears validity, but my personal impression is that he was actually very insecure after all. This proves to me that his theories and the manor in which he proves his theories not to be valid and concrete in any definite way.