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Clarification

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Posted by Paul R. Martin on July 11, 2003 21:24:38 UTC

Hi Carl,

Thank you for responding to my post.

Why is it that "thought happens" is more true than "I exist"?

I don't know why it is, or even that it is. I made no such claim. What I said was that "Thought happens" is undeniable whereas "I think" can be doubted, or at least it is more easily misunderstood.

The claim that "I exist", in the form of "I am", is the conclusion of the Cogito and not the premise. The premise is simply "I think". We must assume the premise is true in order to accept the truth of the conclusion.

So, starting with Decartes' premise, "I think", I thought about in what sense the statement could be true and in what sense it could be false, if at all. The first question is, Who is being referred to by the "I"? One candidate is Descartes himself. When he uttered or wrote that premise, he was probably referring to himself. But, of course he is dead now, so the claim at this point is probably false: Descartes probably no longer thinks.

Another candidate is me, the guy keying this sentence into a particular keyboard at 2:25 PM PDT. Yet another candidate is a person who is reading this sentence at this (the moment of reading) very moment.

My choice is me, the guy doing the keying. And, since it seems that the guy keying this sentence is the same as the guy who keyed in the assertion, "If you remove any assumptions about the nature of the "I", you are left simply with "Thought happens". In my view, that is the only undeniable assertion one can make." a couple posts ago, the choice should reasonably be up to him, don't you think?

If that is the interpretation of the term "I", then I, (the guy keying), is in a very privileged position to judge the nature of the experiences "I" am having. There is no doubt that "I" have some direct knowledge of something happening that "I" have come to associate with aspects of mentality, one of which is connoted by the term 'thought'. It is also very doubtful that anyone else has any direct knowledge of my mental experience.

Now, as you point out, Carl, words by themselves are meaningless, and in order to make any meaning of them, a whole bunch of other words and sentences and conversations and thoughts need to be put together and thought about in order for any meaning to arise. But this is only in the context of two or more thinkers in order that one's thoughts can be conveyed in a "meaningful" way to another.

As long as I am thinking about my own experience and not attempting to describe it to anyone else, words and sentences are not necessary. For example, I can be listening to music, having a deeply personal experience as a result, without needing to describe the experience in words.

Similarly, when I cogitate on the Cogito, even though I might be thinking about words, those words do not have to be defined to anyone else's satisfaction. As long as I have a set of words which to me are identified with the personally experienced ideas I am thinking about, I can come up with sets of words I choose to use to identify with what I know is happening. And, using the terminology I use internally in that way, I know thought happens. I can choose other words to identify the things I call 'thoughts', and I can choose other words to refer to changes in time which I called 'happening', but the experience of thoughts occurring and changing is undeniable by me.

I make no claim of proof. That is, I don't claim that my knowledge of thought happening in any way constitutes a proof to someone other than me that I think. Nor does my claim transfer to others so that I can conclude that anyone else thinks. The only thing I know for sure is that thought happens, and anyone who quibbles with what those words means is either playing sophist games or they don't experience thought.

But, remember, going into this, I made a big assumption about the identity of the "I". How can I be justified in assuming that just because I am in command of this particular keyboard, I can claim to be the thinker? I can't. And so, that introduces doubt which makes "I think" more doubtful than "Thought happens". And, going beyond that doubt to draw the inference that because "I think" therefore "I exist" adds even more doubt. First because we can't be sure the inference is valid, and second because we have introduced a new term, 'existence', which brings with it another whole group of questions.

I hope that clears up at least some of the confusion.

Warm regards,

Paul

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