An exploration of the foundation of Cartesian Dualism, resulting in a rationalization for mysticism.


"Occam’s Razor, Dulled: Occam might tell us how to split a hair; but as to what we feel while doing so, Occam can tell us nothing." - Aphorisms, 3:5(ii)

When a student first learns about philosophy, often the student learns about Descartes’ statement "Cogito, ergo sum." This is a very sad condemnation of humanity's greatest art. In truth, Descartes' famous phrase cogito ergo sum has caused more confusion than any other single sentence in the history of Western philosophy.

Why is this such a tragic state of affairs? Most people believe that the phrase means "I think, therefore I am," and that is a fundamentall and important misconception.

Cartesian philosophy, as it has come to be called, starts in doubting everything. One can doubt whether there really is a material world, whether other people really exist, but one cannot doubt that one is doubting. As proof, Descartes postulates a malicious demon, whose job is nothing but to deceive:

"Suppose there is some deceiver, very powerful and very cunning, who employs all his ingenuity in deceiving me. Then without doubt I exist also if he deceives me. Let him deceive me as much as he will. He can never cause me to be nothing as long as I think I am something!" (René Descartes, Meditation II).

Put in other words, we can doubt anything we like, but we cannot doubt that we doubt, because by doubting that we doubt, we prove that we are doubting. Clever, right?

As doubting is the same as other types of thinking, Descartes then argues that doubting proves that I can think, and therefore I must exist. The assumption here is that doubting is just like any other thought. According to Descartes, feeling and doubting are both types of thinking. Thus, Descartes does not argue "I think, therefore I exist." He really argues that "I doubt, therefore I think," the Latin for which is dubio ergo cogito, and now you know why that is the title of this topic.

The weak part of this argument is that doubting is not necessarily the same as other types of thinking. For example, doubting and feeling may not be the same type of thing. In fact, the technique Descartes used to reach the fact we cannot doubt that we doubt is called "Occam's Razor:" removing facts that are unnecessary for a logical deduction.

But then, he casts the razor aside and makes a generalization that doubting and feeling are both kinds of thought. Can we really believe it is necessarily true that doubt and feeling are smilar kinds of thoughts? Hardly so. Occam's razor is dulled: it might tell us how to split a hiar; but as to how we feel when doing so, on that topic, Occam tells us nothing.

Some Universalists believe that we can only know the universe by feeling it. Spiritualists, pantheists, and transcendentalists all endorse this brand of thought. Similarly, Taoists identify themselves as part of a stream; to the Taoist, mind and matter are indistinguishable elements in a flowing chaotic order. To these opponents of Cartesian epistemelogy, one first brings one’s soul in harmony with an underlying force; then one can understand the nature of reality; and the nature of the self is better known through the "unself;" being without egocentric awareness.

Such Universalist concepts are not acknowledged by the Cartesian pattern of thought. Descartes instead holds that thought is some supreme entitity, to which feelings and doubts are subservient. Descartes uses this concept to prove his existence. First he observes his doubt, and argues that he cannot doubt the existence of doubt. Then, Descartes argues that doubt is the same as feeling and other types of thought, and therefore he thinks, and because he thinks, he exists. This long and circuitous argument rests on the assumption that doubt and feeling are both types of thinking. But that is not ncessarily true.

"So what," you might say, "if most people misunderstand cogito ergo sum? Philosophy is dead. Science has killed it." It's true that philosophy is no longer what it once was. Philosophy has been many things too many people. But philosophy is not dead: any attempt to kill philosophy causes it to be reborn. That's the inherent nature of philosophy itself. It is a phoenix, continually created from its own ashes. Moreover, all scientific thought is founded on Western empirical materialism, which itself is founded on Cartesian dualism; and Cartesian dualism is based on the argument of "Cogito, Ergo Sum."

Does that mean science is wrong? There are many people who argue that. But in fact, sicience does provide a fantastic model for the nature of the metaverse in which we live. From its perspective, Cartesian philosophy is simply a bedrock.

Mystics indicate that the bedrock is not so solid. There are cracks and schisms in it. One such schism is the above fact: doubt and feeling may not necessarily be the same. We can only be absolutely sure that we exist when we are doubting; at other times, maybe we, as self-aware souls, don't really exist in the physical world as we commonly think of it. Maybe we are just temporarily working like mechanical machines, in response to some simple set of instructions, at which times maybe "we" don't really have separate consciousness, because we are simply not self aware at those times.

Similarly, when seeking transcendental inspiration, we can let go of our concept of self being separate from other souls, and instead experience ourselves as linked withing some greater spiritual being. Christian mystics acknowledge this, calling the higher spiritual force which links us the "Holy Spirit," one of the three aspects of the divine. It is sad perhaps, when Descartes was called to provide the existence of God, he could not acknowledge such spiritual states, because he had already denied their existence in the foundation of his meditations, "Cogito. Ergo, Sum!"

It was recognition of this flaw in Cartesian dualism which led to my interest in other approaches to understanding reality, which I refer to as pataphysics and metaspirituality. But those are other topics.

-E.L. Meyer, 2002; revised 2011