I’m on a bit of a “knock Descartes” tear, but this isn’t a bad thing. Of course, this Frenchie is someone people love to hate; it’s cliché to pick apart the problems in his “Western” mode of thought. Still, there is often, perhaps subconsciously, a train of thought that runs through my mind as follows: “You don’t want to believe in Descartes’ ideas and conclusions because it would mean that you cannot and will never really know anything for sure; and you don’t like that idea, do you?” Therefore, when I arrive at real issues with Rene, I chose to write them out; and since I’m writing them out, I may as well post them on the blog.
Let me get back to the Cartesian cogito. There is nothing incredibly wrong or illogical in saying, “I think; therefore, I am;” there’s nothing quite incorrect in saying that our cognition is a possible mode for proving our personal existence. However, what the cogito does not prove is that cognition is the only mode of proving things exist, that cognition is necessary for existence – or that cognition is what gives value to existence. Now, I don’t think Descartes thought that these were the case; however, it seems to be a byproduct of his intellectual endeavors. If cognition is necessary to prove existence – which I’m not saying is true; but Descartes thought so – then we can’t be sure of the existence of anything else without cognition. What happens here is an undue focus put on cognition. We can value it too highly; we can end up thinking that cognition is somehow necessary for the sake of value itself. This is logically false.
Here’s a faulty and probably stupid analogy. Let’s imagine that I have taken my undergraduate at Seton Hall University. One of the major modes of proof for this fact is my transcript. I can take this information and convince others and myself that I have indeed attended Seton Hall for 4 years, from the years 2001-2005, and that I earned a college degree. But is there any real connection between this piece of paper and my actual 4-year experience at Seton Hall? Not very much: the piece of paper simply happens to be a decent mode of proving that I was actually at Seton Hall for 4 years. Let me apply this to the cogito. Cognition is a nice mode of proving that I exist. However, there’s no real connection between my existence and my cognition. Yes, cognition is part of my existence, but only in the sense that it is one part of my present state of being. If I went into a coma tonight and lived for 5 more years, I would be existing without cognition.
I think the modern world unconsciously accepts some of this Cartesian falseness. How can we, as a global community that is moving toward equability and recognition of human value and freedom, be so callously ignorant in our discussion of the unborn? Somehow since the baby is out of sight and unable to think and reason, it is easier for us to think its existence isn’t proven – or, to be more appropriate, its value as a human person is not proven, since it has no cognition.
Let’s look at the other groups of people we tend to disvalue: the elderly, the handicapped, and the terminally ill. In many of these cases, cognition is hugely lacking. Old people who can’t think: Is this even life, we ask? But value does not come from cognition. One of the fears of accepting this fact is accepting that value comes elsewhere. When we think value comes from the chemical and biological processes involved in the brain that ensure consciousness, we have no need to look for value in anything that isn’t material. We have rightfully placed even value within a material category. Recognizing this error means either accepting the nihilism of valuelessness, or looking beyond the material for the sake of value.