Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Think Therefore I Am?

To my son Tommy,

I am on one of my philosophical kicks today.  With my humble understanding and limited brain power, I have been thinking about thinking.  When you think about thinking, I automatically think about Descartes.  Just to warn you if you want a simple letter from your dad today, and one that won't hurt your brain pan, turn away now.

Rene Descartes went on a philosophical journey in search of reality and arrived at the proposition of "cogito ergo sum" or most commonly translated as "I think therefore I am".  He was sent on this journey with the realization that all that we know, that all knowledge could simply be a figment of our imagination or a trick of a mind.  It is a brilliant little exercise in stripping down all the extras and questioning everything to try to arrive at the basics. It was funny that so many great minds would be so skeptical of who, I would say, is the father of all skeptics in philosophy.  He was attacked 200 years later, using his own methodic doubt, by minds like Nietzsche and Kierkegaard saying "Hey that whole argument supposes there is an I" and other such nonsense that probably made Descartes roll over in his grave and say "There is no pleasing some jerks".

There is a not so funny joke (unless you are a student of philosophy) that illustrates the whole concept of being a skeptic and searching for only that you can prove.  An engineer, a scientist, a mathematician, and a philosopher are hiking through the hills of Scotland, when they see a lone black sheep in a field.
The engineer says, "What do you know, it looks like the sheep around here are black." The scientist looks at him skeptically and replies, "Well, at least some of them are." The mathematician considers this for a moment and replies, "Well, at least one of them is." Then the philosopher turns to them and says, "Well, at least on one side."
It also illustrates how philosophers (and would be philosophers like your old man) can be a right pain in the butt.  The thoughts that cross a philosopher's mind can be quite annoying to the philosopher himself.  That is why I must examine today's thought and how it fits in (or doesn't fit) with Descartes proposition.

Like you know I have been thinking about habits and daily life and chores and joy and such.  The science of the brain and what creates a habit has always intrigued me.  It is easy to create a habit of, for example, eating ice cream everyday.  The body tells the mind that sugar is a reward and the mind believes it and starts craving it.  Much less easy is to create a habit of, for example, eating an apple a day.  We have to convince ourselves of the reward and how the reward is better than sugar.  We have to spend effort to reason with our mind and brain.

The brain can be easily tricked.  If you tell yourself something often enough, you brain will soon accept it as fact.  The world created little sayings like "An apple a day keeps the doctor away" to do just that, to convince ourselves that the good habit has a good reward.  Many can use these types of tricks to convince yourself of all types of things (good and bad) and the effect is obvious.  Usually this effort to convince your mind comes from exterior forces, commercials, politics, the pulpit, your friends and family, basically others in general.  But here is the rub, you can trick your own mind.  With no other external forces, I can convince myself of something.

This begs the question of who is doing the arguing in my mind.  How can I knowingly and so obviously trick my own mind?  On purpose no less!  This is not an illusionist or other trickster that sets out to trick my mind by bending light and sleight of hand.  No, I know all the tricks I am about to pull and am fully aware of what is happening, yet it still works.  If I say it enough and convince myself an apple a day is good, then I will think an apple a day is good and a good habit is created.  If everyday I clap my hands and say out loud that I am having (make sure to use present tense) a good day, then somewhere deep in my mind, in my psyche, something changes and my attitude changes and the opportunity for enjoying the day increases tenfold.  I actually trick myself into believing I am having a good day and thus have a good day.  It is amazing!  The list of mental manipulations is long but not complicated, being mostly filled with the simplest of techniques.

So, (and here is where I attempt to combine two seemingly unrelated concepts which will result in a philosophical train wreck in my mind that I swear is not drug induced) if my thoughts are proof of existence, where is the force coming from to manipulate my thoughts?  Am I having an argument between the two hemispheres of my brain?  Does that mean that since one side can use thought to change the thought of the other that I am in fact living in dual existence?  Multiple personalities? Perhaps thought, and thus my existence, is an ever evolving object that remains in an amorphous state adjusting itself through a series of self manipulations and self politicking?  Or is this proof of a soul, separate from the mind, that can control and influence my thoughts from some deeper realm of existence?

As always, I end up with more questions than answers whenever I start getting too philosophical.  I think that is why I love philosophy.  It is one of the only disciplines where a question can be answered with an unanswered question and everyone is okay with that.  As you grow up in our family my son, I will teach you to challenge what you know, to think critically, to think skeptically, to look for truth and what really exists.  I will also teach you how to trick your mind into making yourself a better person no matter which realm of existence this stems from.

Sincerely with love from your dad,

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