by John Dillon
‘I think, therefore I am’ is universally acknowledged as a brilliantly succinct ‘proof’ of existence. After all, something must exist to do the thinking. ‘Get out of that one,’ thought Descartes one night sitting by his fireside in his dressing gown. Whether or not his was a solipsistic concept is not a consideration here. At least he believed that he existed. In his Meditations, he also considered how we might tell whether we are awake or dreaming, and whether the mind and body are a singularity or a duality. Of course, no philosopher worth their salt would just sit there and take his syllogism for granted. Nearly four hundred years later many of them earn a living hotly debating this subject.
What has this to do with atheism, you ask? Well, accompanying his conclusion about thinking, Descartes tried to prove the existence of god. He tested an assumption that all human perception might be illusory but concluded that since the I-am-ness of thought must be irrefutable, the existence of the world around us must be also. Furthermore, he believed that god would not deceive us about it. In other words, he conceived the notion of a seventeenth century version of WYSIWYG*. This led him to assert that god was the guarantor of certainty.
The Contradictions: If we can conceive of something does that mean it exists?
Descartes further believed that since he personally had a clear concept of existence, and that his perception of god included the property of existence, necessarily god existed. He tried to deploy the medieval distinction between ‘essence’ and ‘existence’ to support this reasoning on the grounds that defining the essence of something is a precursor to establishing its existence. Having the prior idea of god, the essence, was therefore sufficient proof. All of this, of course, was wonderfully circular and delusional. Nietzsche pointed out that Descartes’ justification was wrong because merely basing an assumption upon a premise is not a guarantee of truth or knowledge.
So, what is the purpose of the foregoing discussion? To reveal the self-deception that even the greatest of thinkers practise in order to hold onto their absurd notion of a supreme, supernatural being. Personally, I like to suppose that Descartes’ axiom puts my own existence beyond reasonable doubt. No god is required to accept such a maxim. However, his extension of that thought process to support god’s existence absolutely fails to pass the ‘true, justified belief’ test used by philosophers to establish knowledge. In his Second Meditation he asks, ‘But what, then, am I?’ and answers: ‘A thing that thinks.’ That’s good enough for me. How about you?
*What You See Is What You Get