Cogito Ergo Sum

Rene Descartes

“I think, therefore I am, I think.”

-The Moody Blues

 

Rene Descartes, the 17th century French mathematician and philosopher decided to question absolutely everything he believed in and start his philosophy from scratch. The very first thing he questioned was his own existence, which resulted in his famous postulate, Cogito, ergo sum, which translates into English as, I think, therefore I am.   He concluded that because he was capable of thought, he must exist. Nothing more was required. His ability to generate thoughts was enough to prove to him that he was real.

I recently watched a TED Talk in which the lecturer said that we have a mind-boggling 70,000 thoughts a day. Only 3% of our thoughts are new, though. According to the lecturer, 97% of our thoughts are just repeats of previous thoughts we’ve had. Be that as it may, it still indicates to me that we have 2,000 new thoughts every day. That was encouraging.

On a less encouraging note, another TED lecturer said that despite all this thinking, we really don’t know much. Each of us, in fact, knows very little. We have the mental ability to store only about one gigabyte of information. I have a flash drive smaller than my thumb that can store 64 gigabytes of information. The little knowledge we have is only because we have access to the collective knowledge of mankind, and most of us don’t really understand much of that knowledge. We have a general idea from what we’ve been told or read, but we’re really fuzzy on the details.

One example he gave was the Solar System. Not too long ago, we were told that the Earth was the center of the universe, so, back then, everyone “knew” that the Earth was the center of the universe. Then the invention of the telescope led scientists to discover that not only were we not at the center of the universe, Earth wasn’t even at the center of our own Solar System. The sun was. We’re on one of a number of planets that revolve around the sun. Thanks to the knowledge gathered by those scientists, most of us now know this, though we may argue over whether or not Pluto deserves to be called a planet.  The point that the lecturer made, though, was that we get the general idea, but only a very few of us actually understand the Astronomy or Physics involved. I’m not one of them. I didn’t even learn enough Astronomy to get a Boy Scout merit badge, and I completely flunked Physics 101.

I know that gravity keeps us in orbit around the sun, but I don’t really know very much about gravity or planetary orbits. I don’t own a telescope, and I haven’t done any studies of my own. What little I do know is thanks to what the collective knowledge of mankind has taught me. Like Newton so modestly said years ago, “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.”  During my life, I’ve picked up a few bits of information about various subjects from books, teachers, TV, and lectures, but the only thing I really know is that in the grand scheme of things, I don’t know very much. Physics wasn’t the only subject I failed.

I still try to learn. Just the fact that I’m watching TED Talks indicates that I’m interested in learning more. Some of the things I’m learning are discouraging, though. I’ve learned that once we develop an opinion, it’s very hard to change our minds. Most of us have strong opinions on Politics, Religion, Global Climate Change, Immigration, Homeland Security, Income Inequality, Abortion, Conservation, and War. Very few of us will change our opinions on these subjects no matter how much “evidence” we are shown to refute what we already believe. Studies that support our opinions will elicit praise. Studies that do not support our opinions will be dismissed as being absurd.

For example, it’s an election year and politicians will literally spend hundreds of millions of dollars to try to sway people’s opinions. However, most Democrats will remain Democrats, and most Republicans will remain Republicans. Another example is the mountain of scientific evidence on Global Climate Change.  It fuels the opinions of those who view it as a problem, but only leads those who don’t view it as a problem to worry about what the heck is wrong with today’s scientists, and what are they smoking.

No amount of data, less than an actual personal appearance by a Deity, would sway me away from Atheism, but by the same token, no amount of data would convince a Bible Belter that there wasn’t a God or that Noah’s ark didn’t save two of every animal from dying in a great flood. Do you believe in Evolution or Intelligent Design? How much data would be required to get you to change your opinion on these two controversial subjects?  Probably, nothing would sway you.

I was watching a Martin Scorsese movie called Silence. In it, Liam Neeson has a line in which he says that the Japanese have an expression, “Mountains and rivers can be moved, but man’s nature can not be moved.” In a similar vein, the Jesuits say, “Give us a child till he’s seven and we’ll have him for life.”

Many opinions formed, or given to us by our parents, very early in life, often stay with us for our entire life, and the older we get, the more set in our opinions we get. (At least that’s my opinion.) We are capable of thinking, so according to Descartes, we exist, but 97% of our thinking just reinforces what we already believe and doesn’t lead to any new ideas. They don’t change our opinions or improve our lives. However, we do have 2000 new thoughts a day. That’s 2000 opportunities to go beyond merely existing and find a way to grow, to learn, to make ourselves and our world better. We have 2000 new chances every single day, and, if you think about it, it really only takes one good idea to make a big improvement in your life. Those are pretty good odds, I think. What do you think?

Think about it.

 

Peace & Love, and all of the above,

Earl

 

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