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Author Topic: When Descartes said "I think, therefore I am", was he right?  (Read 4344 times)

Offline pantodragon

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Descartes arrived at his famous dictum, ‘I think, therefore I am’, by taking up a position of extreme doubt.  He found that he could doubt everything, from the existence of the real world, his own senses and feeling and sensations and intuitions and everything else he could think of, right down to last-man-standing, which were his own thoughts, or, rather, his own thinking.

I cannot help but have my suspicions about this.  I mean, when I see a philosopher telling me that the ‘good’ life, the ‘best’ life, is that of a thinker, or philosopher (Socrates), then I think, ‘Well you would say that, wouldn’t you?  Then I would go on to re-assess all his work in terms of: this is someone driven by self-interest, someone who will warp and twist the truth and use trickery of every kind in order to make something that serves his own ends.  And the same if I see a philosopher designing an ideal society which puts philosophers in charge (Plato).

So what has Descartes done?  He has found that the only thing that one can trust, can believe in, is the thing philosophers do: thinking.  So I have to doubt Descartes authenticity and intentions and suppose he was just contorting the truth to make it suit himself.

At this point someone might say to me, “Well, if you think their work is flawed, then go and read it, find the flaws, and prove your case.”  My reply would be to say, “No.  That would be to take the fight onto their territory, and every good commander knows you do not do that.”

People fall for this trick time and time again.  I see, e.g. the likes of Richard Dawkins do a TV series (Quite a while ago now) where he is gunning for astrologers, spiritualists and all those ‘alternative’ whatevers.  In every argument he simply drew them onto his own territory, science, and they naively followed and duly got shot down.

So, no, one does not argue one’s case by engaging the philosophers on their own territory.  One has to find neutral ground.

But to return to Descartes and self-doubt: the biggest problem I have with this sort of self-doubt is that it is asking for trouble.  Every time you doubt the evidence of your own senses, every time you doubt your own feelings, intuitions, thoughts, memory, ‘gut’ or whatever, then you loose a bit of yourself, loose a little of your self-confidence.  If you were to do what Descartes did, and do it ‘for real’, then you would end up psychotic or worse, and if you maintained the position you would end up mentally disabled and then dead.  And what was Descartes’ health like, I wonder?

That last question is not trivial.  I rather incline to the view that if you want to know how to live well then you ask someone who looks like they know; i.e. someone who looks healthy and happy and who is living a full and fulfilling life.  (Actually, there are problems with ‘looks’ healthy, but I won’t go into that.)

I think that is I was to ask Socrates why he advocated the life of a thinker as the ‘good’ life, he would probably claim moral superiority and justify it using reason and logic – with a bit of sophistry thrown in!  He would not talk of personal experience, and would not say, “For ME philosophising is the good life, but for YOU it may be different.”

But to return to Cartesian doubt: to deny your intuition or feelings or sensations or any of the rest is to kill a little bit of yourself each time you do so – quite literally, because intuition and feeling and sensations are as much a part of you as your arms and eyes and digestive system and they will only keep working if you keep using them.  For example, if you take to a wheel chair for a while your legs will weaken and begin to wither -- this is a problem faced by astronauts who do not need to use their legs in zero gravity.  So, to fail to use part of your mind is to disable that part of it.

Then one has to ask, “What is life?”  I would answer that it is being alive (i.e. using ALL your senses, feelings, sensations etc) and engaging with the world as fully as possible – which implies that you do not let someone else do your thinking for you or tell you what you should be feeling or what to believe.  In the words of a famous Sinatra song:

“For what is a man, what has he got,
If not himself, then he has nought.”

What each of us has is our “self”, and all the rich possibilities of interacting with the world and other people through our feelings and senses and sensations and intuition and all the rest which that self enables.

This brings me to science which, while not advocating quite the same extremes of self-doubt as Descartes, nevertheless teaches us that there is a sort of universal truth such that, whatever you may experience, whatever you may think or feel about things, whatever intuitive insights you might arrive at, unless they accord with science, or pass scientific scrutiny, they are untrustworthy and most likely unsound.

(Just an side, but I think of modern science as having started with Kepler and Newton, with the introduction of maths into the ‘equation’ and all the possibilities that that offered.   Also, I get the feeling that that was when the ‘real’ world became irrevocably established, and Descartes and Newton – though perhaps not so much Kepler, were ‘breathing’ the same air, inspired by the same miasma of the times.)

Science, therefore, is a killer, a destroyer of life.  It seems to me that science should carry the same sort of health warning as cigarettes: science kills.  In other words, I would not deny the INDIVIDUAL their right to participate in science, but they should do so with their eyes open.

Then consider creativity.  Creativity comes from taking things that seem totally at odds with each other and finding ways of reconciling them.  That is, in the extreme, it comes from identifying with other people who seem totally alien to oneself, who think and feel and perceive the world totally differently from oneself.  To find out what the world looks like from where someone else is standing, and why, is a very mind-expanding and enriching experience.

Science goes in the opposite direction.  Instead of ‘going abroad’ to learn what it is like to be someone else, it goes abroad to teach others science.  The non-scientific are ‘primitive’ or uneducated or deluded and will be dissected and explained away.  Thus the scientific mentality is closed-minded and uncreative.  Science puts its practitioners in a cage.

It is easy to be impressed by science – scientists work hard to make sure science looks impressive – but, e.g. it is also easy to be impressed by computers, and for the same reason: because scientific hype suggests that computers might eventually match, or even exceed, human capabilities, make up for human ‘weaknesses’.  But come from the other direction and point out that computers can be built from beer cans: you can construct switches by running water through beer cans, and all a computer is, essentially, is a stack of millions of switches.  The only real difference would be that a computer constructed from beer cans would take up a whole aircraft hangar just to be able to do what a small computer can do, and it would work several orders of magnitude slower.

Really, all you can say about computers is, “aren’t they clever with what they’ve been able to do with a set of switches!”  But, good grief, talk about doing things the hard way!  (Of course, it’s because they are built from switches that they have a two word language: binary = 1,0 = on, off = open, closed.  I mean, how intelligent can something be that has a 2 word language?) 

So, for all science, too, looks so impressive, it is all on the surface, and so, lift the lid and you see something quite different.

Then again, having called science a killer because it denies the human faculties of the individual, one can turn things around and say: it humanity is in decline, if it is actually LOSING the use of its faculties, as in succumbing to the likes of autism, then it may be that science is necessary as a way of dealing with the world for those who have already lost their faculties to the extent that they are no longer capable of dealing with the world for themselves.
« Last Edit: 17/07/2016 15:23:45 by chris »


 

Offline yor_on

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Re: The Shadow World of Cartesian Self-doubt
« Reply #1 on: 15/01/2013 14:38:29 »
Sounds as you are arguing for a intuitive approach to life. And also that you are a little scared of all the modern behavioristic views that came into play, reducing humans to behaviors and statistics.  What one have to remember is that statistics isn't about individuals, but about a conglomerates of peoples behavior in which trends are possible to define. Some expect that to be representative of the individual too, but I can't agree on that.
 

Offline pantodragon

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Re: The Shadow World of Cartesian Self-doubt
« Reply #2 on: 17/01/2013 14:30:42 »
Sounds as you are arguing for a intuitive approach to life. And also that you are a little scared of all the modern behavioristic views that came into play, reducing humans to behaviors and statistics.  What one have to remember is that statistics isn't about individuals, but about a conglomerates of peoples behavior in which trends are possible to define. Some expect that to be representative of the individual too, but I can't agree on that.

You're right about intuition, though there is rather more to it than just intuition, and what I understand by intuition is something rather more sophisticated and useful than what is generally understood by that term.

As to being scared of modern behaviouristic etc., - too right, in fact it's actually scared of modern scientists because they are they are so very misguided, corrupt, and yet science is more and more coming to dominate the lives of people in the developed world.  (Actually, I say scared, but I'm not actually scared because someone whose mind is free and able and who is able to use intuition has nothing to fear from those whose minds are disabled by their own corruption.)
 

Offline kasparovitch

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Re: The Shadow World of Cartesian Self-doubt
« Reply #3 on: 20/06/2016 23:30:08 »
1.   Descartes’ dictum is still one of the most important conclusions of all times in the Theory of Knowledge. Centuries after his death, Descartes continues to be a subject of  attacks ad hominem, but no one could refute his philosophical ideas to this day.

2.   Socrates and Plato [and Aristotle, amongst others], however selfish one may think they were, arbitrarily  or not, left such an advanced philosophical work that is still discussed today, more than 2,000 years after their departure, to no benefit for either of them.

3.   Dr. Richard Dawkins, unlikely to any mentioned philosophers, fights outside his area, as he has only certified education in sciences (Zoology). Also, he’s a fundamentalist whose ideas, if there’s anything innovative and accurate in them, won’t last long after his death.

4.   Cartesian doubt kills as much of oneself life as the certainty of death kills the reason for living.

5.   Creativity, or Art, is something that barely interacts with science, like many more areas, like Religion or the substance of Ethics, for instance.

6.   For the rest, science suffers from the same defects as humankind suffers, and shares that with any other human area.

7.   Perhaps you think that humanity evolved a lot since the median age. I don’t think that so much.

8.   Each one has his own options and they’re not in conflict with anyone other’s options, unless a fundamentalist way of life is assumed.
« Last Edit: 21/06/2016 00:01:23 by kasparovitch »
 

Offline jerrygg38

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Re: The Shadow World of Cartesian Self-doubt
« Reply #4 on: 17/07/2016 14:56:05 »
   As a bipolar with an inner mind and an outer mind I cannot say that I trust my own thinking. During a hyper manic state audio/visual  flows from my inner mind to my outer mind. My inner mind acts authoritatively, my outer mind has doubts. For difficult problem solving the data from my inner mind always works. It is a superior problem solver and never failed to get me less than 100 percent on any science tests. It has great calculating abilities so that I can write the answers down and then try to work backwards. Often I cannot provide the steps necessary but people merely think I use witchcraft to solve all the difficult engineering problems.
   Yet where does the information come from such that I can correct textbooks as I read them? My outer mind is ordinary but my inner mind is brilliant. My inner mind thinks in terms of God and spirituality while my outer mind sees atheism as closer to the truth. So I am always half believer half atheist.
  And I think therefor I am is not necessarily true since we could be controlled robots although we do not believe this. This has a low probability but we could be sometimes controlled from a flow of data external to us and entering our inner minds. Alternately some of us may be controlled some of the time and history is guided by external spiritual forces which control mankind. How can we tell for sure?
 

Offline jeffreyH

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I think therefore I am doesn't imply that anything external to the self actually exists.
 
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Offline puppypower

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Re: The Shadow World of Cartesian Self-doubt
« Reply #6 on: 17/07/2016 16:06:54 »
Intuitions and feelings can be natural, they can be conditioned by experience, they can be learned and defined by culture. This is why you question them to make sure you know which is which. It does not mean you can't trust them, but rather you need to sort these until you have a set that is useful and rational.

For example, a couple of decades back was a fad called the pet rock. Essentially a rock was sold as a pet. It came with feeding and care instructions. This sounds silly, yet millions of people trusted their feelings and intuitions and bought one or more. Others, like myself, trusted my feelings and intuitions and said this was stupid, who would pay for a rock and make it a pet?

Which was correct? There is no right answer, since each person's feelings and intuitions about the pet rock depended on deeper levels of motivation, they may or may not even be aware of. Are you motivated by reason, or are you motivated by belonging to the herd. The same feeling of conviction, can move a person in different ways.
 

The children wanted to run with the cool kids; cutting edge, and be not be left out. Peer pressure played a role in their feelings and intuitions about owning a pet rock. Their mothers wanted their children to be happy and  less vulnerable to the school bullies who will rub the pet rock in their face. Dad saw this as a waste of money, which should go to practical needs, so he felt differently about a pet rock. They are all right for their own needs, but there no universal consistency. 

How do you find a working set, so you feeling and intuitions begin to have universal consistency? One way may be to reason all that you think and believe. The goal is to make reason the underlying foundation of your feelings and intuitions. It is not about being cool, appeasing the feelings of children, saving money, but its this rational or not?
 

Offline jerrygg38

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I think therefore I am doesn't imply that anything external to the self actually exists.
That may be true because he did not believe such a thing. However he could have been controlled externally when he made these statements. We like to believe that we are in control of our own thoughts but there is no guarantee that this is true.
Nor is there any reliable evidence that it is false. So we are left with possibilities.
 

Offline jerrygg38

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Re: The Shadow World of Cartesian Self-doubt
« Reply #8 on: 17/07/2016 21:07:15 »
Intuitions and feelings can be natural, they can be conditioned by experience, they can be learned and defined by culture. This is why you question them to make sure you know which is which. It does not mean you can't trust them, but rather you need to sort these until you have a set that is useful and rational.

For example, a couple of decades back was a fad called the pet rock. Essentially a rock was sold as a pet. It came with feeding and care instructions. This sounds silly, yet millions of people trusted their feelings and intuitions and bought one or more. Others, like myself, trusted my feelings and intuitions and said this was stupid, who would pay for a rock and make it a pet?

Which was correct? There is no right answer, since each person's feelings and intuitions about the pet rock depended on deeper levels of motivation, they may or may not even be aware of. Are you motivated by reason, or are you motivated by belonging to the herd. The same feeling of conviction, can move a person in different ways.
 

The children wanted to run with the cool kids; cutting edge, and be not be left out. Peer pressure played a role in their feelings and intuitions about owning a pet rock. Their mothers wanted their children to be happy and  less vulnerable to the school bullies who will rub the pet rock in their face. Dad saw this as a waste of money, which should go to practical needs, so he felt differently about a pet rock. They are all right for their own needs, but there no universal consistency. 

How do you find a working set, so you feeling and intuitions begin to have universal consistency? One way may be to reason all that you think and believe. The goal is to make reason the underlying foundation of your feelings and intuitions. It is not about being cool, appeasing the feelings of children, saving money, but its this rational or not?
  You bring me back to 1956 when I started working for Con Edison in NY at age 17.5 and got a room in Gramercy Park near Union Square Park. I spent my evenings in the part and a man with a talking coconut in a box debated the people. He said the coconut talked to him. they said it did not. They wanted proof. All he could give them was what the coconut said to him.
  Likewise we had debates between Christians and Atheists, Protestants and Catholics, etc.
  Did he really believe the coconut talked to him or did it really talk to him? To me it was funny. But do the pet rocks talk to some of the people? If a person believes strongly enough that God speaks to them, then surely a rock will speak to them or a Coconut. If you believe something so strongly, the inner mind may turn that belief into reality. thus people who talk to God may very well have set up a section in their brain that becomes God to them. And they hear the voice of God and they believe it is God. So in my own case, I have to determine if the voice comes from my own inner mind or God. And yet it is always possible that our inner mind is an interface with the mind of God. So we hear our own mind but the data comes from God. Thus we can never be sure of things. All we can say is that the most probably encounter is between our outer mind and the image of God that we created in our inner mind. And thus for the spiritually sensitive we have the talking coconut or the pet rock.
 

Offline Bored chemist

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I think therefore I am doesn't imply that anything external to the self actually exists.
That may be true because he did not believe such a thing. However he could have been controlled externally when he made these statements. We like to believe that we are in control of our own thoughts but there is no guarantee that this is true.
Nor is there any reliable evidence that it is false. So we are left with possibilities.
It doesn't matter what- if anything- exists external to the self. If there's a thought that thought exists.
It's possible that all I am is that thought- but I still exist. It's possible that I'd not remotely recognise the real "me" but that "me" must exist. Descartes was right (also, if he wasn't someone would probably have noticed before)
 

Offline jerrygg38

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I think therefore I am doesn't imply that anything external to the self actually exists.
That may be true because he did not believe such a thing. However he could have been controlled externally when he made these statements. We like to believe that we are in control of our own thoughts but there is no guarantee that this is true.
Nor is there any reliable evidence that it is false. So we are left with possibilities.
It doesn't matter what- if anything- exists external to the self. If there's a thought that thought exists.
It's possible that all I am is that thought- but I still exist. It's possible that I'd not remotely recognise the real "me" but that "me" must exist. Descartes was right (also, if he wasn't someone would probably have noticed before)
Wow now we are down to a thought. I have not thought of that one. But then we could be a thought in someone else's mind. Then we are reduced to data within a complex computer mind. So no one really exists apart from the machine that holds the data.
   I really don't believe such things but they are possible. then we are reduced to a small probability of possible existence. And all of our life this split second could be a computer memory. And we could be erased in the next split second. So we only think we exist.
 

Offline alancalverd

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"Cogito ergo sum" is not a particularly useful starting point for an analysis of the world. You can look at a brick and say "non cogitat, sed est" and what have you achieved? Or consider a corpse "est sed non cogitat". It's pretty obvious that whilst thought may be a property of some things that exist, it isn't essential to all things that exist, so it is a cosmically and philosophically trivial attribute and "ergo" is not justified.
 

Offline JimBob

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It's pretty obvious that whilst thought may be a property of some things that exist, it isn't essential to all things that exist, so it is a cosmically and philosophically trivial attribute and "ergo" is not justified.

But it "isn't essential to all things that exist" is also wrong. To be to real or to exist is to necessarily be observed by something. GOD ??  by something. This is not trivial.
 

Offline jerrygg38

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"Cogito ergo sum" is not a particularly useful starting point for an analysis of the world. You can look at a brick and say "non cogitat, sed est" and what have you achieved? Or consider a corpse "est sed non cogitat". It's pretty obvious that whilst thought may be a property of some things that exist, it isn't essential to all things that exist, so it is a cosmically and philosophically trivial attribute and "ergo" is not justified.
What does this response refer to? Perhaps the initial message?
 

Offline alancalverd

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Of course.

"I think therefore I am" is a possibly valid test of the thinking entity's existence but as it doesn't test the existence of things that can't, don't or used to think but obviously exist, it isn't a very useful one. Cosmically, thinking is a trivial and apparently highly localised and transient consequence of existence.
 

Offline Tim the Plumber

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I am therefore i drink.
 

Offline jerrygg38

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Of course.

"I think therefore I am" is a possibly valid test of the thinking entity's existence but as it doesn't test the existence of things that can't, don't or used to think but obviously exist, it isn't a very useful one. Cosmically, thinking is a trivial and apparently highly localised and transient consequence of existence.
Thanks. So a person who is brain dead and cannot think still exists. In that case only the breathing and heart beat works but the thought process is gone. Some jellyfish have no brains and therefore cannot think but they can still poison you. So it appears that what you say makes sense and thinking is secondary to existing. That would imply that first life (bacterial) came about from a thoughtless state and that thinking developed slowly and evolved over huge amounts of time. So billions of years passed before Descartes could utter his famous words. This is rather interesting is that we came from a thoughtless process.
 

Offline alancalverd

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This is rather interesting is that we came from a thoughtless process.

That's why science is interesting and religion and philosophy aren't!
« Last Edit: 19/07/2016 16:45:49 by alancalverd »
 

Offline jerrygg38

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This is rather interesting is that we came from a thoughtless process.

That's why science is interesting and religion and philosophy aren't!
I find all three very interesting. Science tends to be cold blooded facts which is fine when you are building a bridge. Philosophy tries to explain many concepts which are beyond science. Religion appeals to the emotions and tries to explain why we are here. And if we come from a thoughtless process we then get evolved religions and evolved Gods. so from that point of view, in the beginning was nothing and the earth formed and life formed and intelligence formed and God as a collective form of intelligence formed. So for that case all of us are a little part of the evolved God.
 

Offline alancalverd

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Philosophy tries to explain many concepts which are beyond science.
I am unaware of any such, though I have come across a lot of bad philosophy. 
Quote
Religion......tries to explain why we are here.
And there's its weakness: the wholly groundless assumption of purpose.
 

Offline hamdani yusuf

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I think the reasoning that leads Descartes to that statement is acceptable.

 A fuller form, dubito, ergo cogito, ergo sum ("I doubt, therefore I think, therefore I am"), aptly captures Descartes' intent.

Quote

(English:) Accordingly, seeing that our senses sometimes deceive us, I was willing to suppose that there existed nothing really such as they presented to us; And because some men err in reasoning, and fall into Paralogisms, even on the simplest matters of Geometry, I, convinced that I was as open to error as any other, rejected as false all the reasonings I had hitherto taken for Demonstrations; And finally, when I considered that the very same thoughts (presentations) which we experience when awake may also be experienced when we are asleep, while there is at that time not one of them true, I supposed that all the objects (presentations) that had ever entered into my mind when awake, had in them no more truth than the illusions of my dreams. But immediately upon this I observed that, whilst I thus wished to think that all was false, it was absolutely necessary that I, who thus thought, should be something; And as I observed that this truth, I think, therefore I am,[c] was so certain and of such evidence that no ground of doubt, however extravagant, could be alleged by the Sceptics capable of shaking it, I concluded that I might, without scruple, accept it as the first principle of the philosophy of which I was in search.[e][f]

More detail can be rad here https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cogito_ergo_sum
 

Offline Scott Mayers

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pantodragon,

Descartes, "I think, therefore I am" was precisely doing what you seem to believe is necessary: to trust one's senses. To do so though first requires treating everthing from scratch upon investigating by ASSUMING NOTHING.

Then and only then does he propose a minimal unquestionable assumption based on his (and the reader's) interpretation of their own existence. This is the method: (1) Assume nothing (his 'doubt' of ANYthing); (2) then determine the most minimal factor that any person could NOT doubt, their own existence.

Your concern is lacking justification.


On your suspicion of motivation of others to draw them into one's home space to argue has certain rationality. But there is no 'forum' of which you can be certain is "neutral" either. I think it is wise for all of us to delve into the territory of your opponents to at least understand where they are coming from and allow them the comfort as your sacrifice if you want to prove some point. But Socrates had done this as his place of philosophizing was NOT his home territory but to those he wanted to challenge. He was also in the relative minority with respect to the democracy taking place in his day.

Regardless of which 'forum' space you go to, it should be acceptable to question anyone. This is often not welcome to those with MORE strict closure on the issue and are themselves suspect to assume things of outsiders that are not true.

NOTE that Descartes was NOT the first to begin this way in inquiring about reality. Almost all religions originated by a similar initial process of questioning nature and often have had some stage where one comes along to assume, "I am". For instance, "Jesus" literally meant "I am" in the same likely philosophical stance by many people in time after time. "YHWH" == "Ye owah" == "Je ova" == "I am (the source)" where the word for any source of life or reality by many was as to an egg (ova) or to the SHAPE as such, the sun.
 

Offline Blame

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Turn it around.

Plenty don't think. Does that mean they are not?

Wishful thinking.
 

Offline jerrygg38

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Philosophy tries to explain many concepts which are beyond science.
I am unaware of any such, though I have come across a lot of bad philosophy. 
Quote
Religion......tries to explain why we are here.
And there's its weakness: the wholly groundless assumption of purpose.
If we have no purpose then everything would be meaningless. Then the next statement would be "Why bother existing? Then we have no basis for anything. Yet we all strive to find some meaning to our lives and religion right or wrong satisfies our quest for meaning. Why do you exist? What purpose do you serve? Perhaps to question those who believe in something!
 

Offline Blame

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Ok. I have thought about this and Descartes is wrong.

Self existence requires more than thought.... it requires an identity. There must be a meaningful "I". Thought can exist in a computer, or better still on the internet, without ether self awareness of  identity or anybody else's awareness. Worse, if it is the result of interaction between programs Identity might be utterly confusing to the point where a meaningful answer never could be given.

In short "I think but I haven't a clue who is"
 

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