Descartes Cogito Argument Essay Ideas

1. Conception of Knowledge

Analysis of Knowledge

Famously, Descartes defines knowledge in terms of doubt. While distinguishing rigorous knowledge (scientia) and lesser grades of conviction (persuasio), Descartes writes:

I distinguish the two as follows: there is conviction when there remains some reason which might lead us to doubt, but knowledge is conviction based on a reason so strong that it can never be shaken by any stronger reason. ( letter to Regius, AT )

Elsewhere, while answering a challenge as to whether he succeeds in founding such knowledge, Descartes writes:

But since I see that you are still stuck fast in the doubts which I put forward in the First Meditation, and which I thought I had very carefully removed in the succeeding Meditations, I shall now expound for a second time the basis on which it seems to me that all human certainty can be founded.

First of all, as soon as we think that we correctly perceive something, we are spontaneously convinced that it is true. Now if this conviction is so firm that it is impossible for us ever to have any reason for doubting what we are convinced of, then there are no further questions for us to ask: we have everything that we could reasonably want. … For the supposition which we are making here is of a conviction so firm that it is quite incapable of being destroyed; and such a conviction is clearly the same as the most perfect certainty. (Replies 2, AT –45)

These passages (and others) clarify that Descartes understands doubt as the contrast of certainty. As my certainty increases, my doubt decreases; conversely, as my doubt increases, my certainty decreases. The requirement that knowledge is to be based in complete, or perfect certainty, amounts to requiring a complete absence of doubt — an indubitability, or inability to undermine one's conviction. Descartes' methodic emphasis on doubt, rather than on certainty, marks an epistemological innovation. This so-called ‘method of doubt’ is discussed below (Section 2).

The certainty/indubitability of interest to Descartes is psychological in character, though not merely psychological — not simply an inexplicable feeling. It has also a distinctively epistemic character, involving a kind of rational insight. During moments of certainty, it is as if my perception is guided by “a great light in the intellect” (Med. 4, AT ). This rational illumination empowers me to “see utterly clearly with my mind's eye”; my feelings of certainty are grounded — indeed, “I see a manifest contradiction” in denying the proposition of which I'm convinced. (Med. 3, AT )

Should we regard Descartes' account as a version of the justified true belief analysis of knowledge tracing back to Plato? The above texts (block quoted) are among Descartes' clearest statements concerning the brand of knowledge he seeks. Yet they raise questions about the extent to which his account is continuous with other analyses of knowledge. Prima facie, his characterizations imply a justified belief analysis of knowledge — or in language closer to his own (and where justification is construed in terms of unshakability), an unshakable conviction analysis. There's no stated requirement that the would-be knower's conviction is to be true, as opposed to being unshakably certain. Is truth, therefore, not a requirement of Descartes' brand of strict knowledge?

Many will balk at the suggestion. For in numerous texts Descartes writes about truth, even characterizing a “rule for establishing the truth” (Med. 5, AT , passim). It might therefore seem clear, whatever else is the case, that Descartes conceives of knowledge as advancing truth. Without denying this, let me play devil's advocate. It is not inconsistent to hold that we're pursuing the truth, even succeeding in establishing the truth, and yet to construe the conditions of success wholly in terms of the certainty of our conviction — i.e., wholly in terms of internalist criteria. Thus construed, to establish a proposition just is to perceive it with certainty; the result of having established it — i.e., what gets established — is the proposition's truth. Truth is a consequence of knowledge, rather than its precondition. Note again that Descartes says, of the perfect certainty he seeks, that it provides “everything that we could reasonably want,” adding (in the same passage):

What is it to us that someone may make out that the perception whose truth we are so firmly convinced of may appear false to God or an angel, so that it is, absolutely speaking, false? Why should this alleged “absolute falsity” bother us, since we neither believe in it nor have even the smallest suspicion of it? (Replies 2, AT –45)

On one reading of this remark, Descartes is explicitly embracing the consequence of having defined knowledge wholly in terms of unshakable conviction: he's conceding that achieving the brand of knowledge he seeks is compatible with being — “absolutely speaking” — in error. If this is the correct reading, the interesting upshot is that Descartes' ultimate aspiration is not absolute truth, but absolute certainty.

On a quite different reading of this passage, Descartes is clarifying that the analysis of knowledge is neutral not about truth, but about absolute truth: he's conveying that the truth condition requisite to knowledge involves truth as coherence. Harry Frankfurt defended such an interpretation in his influential work, Demons, Dreamers, and Madmen. Yet, in a follow-up paper he retracted the view:

I now think, however, that it was a mistake on my part to suggest that Descartes entertained a coherence conception of truth. The fact is that there is no textual evidence to support that suggestion; on the contrary, whenever Descartes gives an explicit account of truth he explains it unequivocally as correspondence with reality. (, 36f)

More recently, Ernest Sosa (a) and Michael Della Rocca () have helped revive interest in whether Descartes should be read as holding some form of coherence theory.

A definitive interpretation of these issues has yet to gain general acceptance in the literature. What is clear is that the brand of knowledge Descartes seeks requires, at least, unshakably certain conviction. Arguably, this preoccupation with having the right kind of certainty — including its being available to introspection — is linked with his commitment to an internalist conception of knowledge.

Internalism and Justification

One way to divide up theories of justification is in terms of the internalism-externalism distinction. Very roughly: a theory of epistemic justification is internalist insofar as it requires that the justifying factors are accessible to the knower's conscious awareness; it is externalist insofar as it does not impose this requirement.

Descartes' internalism requires that all justifying factors take the form of ideas. For he holds that ideas are, strictly speaking, the only objects of immediate perception, or conscious awareness. (More on the directness or immediacy of perception in Section ) Independent of this theory of ideas, Descartes' methodical doubts underwrite an assumption with similar force: for almost the entirety of the Meditations, his meditator-spokesperson — hereafter referred to as the ‘meditator’ — adopts the methodological assumption that all his thoughts and experiences are occurring in a dream. This assumption is tantamount to requiring that justification come in the form of ideas.

An important consequence of this kind of interpretation — namely, a traditional representationalist reading of Descartes — is that rigorous philosophical inquiry must proceed via an inside-to-out strategy. This strategy is assiduously followed in the Meditations, and it endures as a hallmark of many early modern epistemologies. Ultimately, all judgments are grounded in an inspection of the mind's ideas. Philosophical inquiry is, properly understood, an investigation of ideas. The methodical strategy of the Meditations has the effect of forcing readers to adopt this mode of inquiry.

In recent years, some commentators have questioned this traditional way of understanding the mediating role of ideas, in Descartes' philosophy. Noteworthy is John Carriero's outstanding commentary on the Meditations (), an account providing a serious challenge to traditional representationalist interpretations (as are often assumed in the present treatment).

Indefeasibility in Context

In characterizing knowledge as “incapable of being destroyed,” Descartes portrays knowledge as enduring. Our conviction must be, he writes, “so strong that it can never be shaken”; “so firm that it is impossible for us ever to have any reason for doubting.” Descartes wants a brand of certainty/indubitability that is of the highest rank, both in terms of degree and durability. He wants knowledge that is utterly indefeasible. (Sceptical doubts count as defeaters.)

This indefeasibility requirement implies more than mere stability. A would-be knower could achieve stability simply by never reflecting on reasons for doubt. But this would result in mere undoubtedness, not indubitability. Referring to such a person, Descartes points out that although a reason for “doubt may not occur to him, it can still crop up if someone else raises the point or if he looks into the matter himself” (Replies 2, AT ).

Many readers conclude that Descartes' standards of justification are too high, for they have the consequence that almost nothing we ordinarily count as knowledge measures up. Before jumping to this conclusion, we should put the indefeasibility requirement into context.

Descartes is a contextualist in the sense that he allows that different standards of justification are appropriate to different contexts. This is not merely to say the obvious: that depending on the context of inquiry, knowledge-worthy justification will sometimes be needed, but other times not. It's to say something stronger: that depending on the context of inquiry, the standards of knowledge-worthy justification might vary. For example, a contextualist might accept that ‘knowledge’-talk is equally appropriate whether one is describing the best achievements of empirical science, or the best achievements of mathematics, while acknowledging that the former rest on weaker standards of proof than the latter. This example is potentially misleading, in that Descartes appears loath to count mere empirical evidence as knowledge-worthy justification. But upon ramping up the standard to what he finds minimally acceptable, the standard admits of context dependent variation.

Descartes' minimum standard targets the level of certainty arising when the mind's perception is both clear and distinct. (For Descartes, clarity contrasts with obscurity, and distinctness contrasts with confusion.) He allows that judgments grounded in clear and distinct perception are defeasible (at least, for those who've not yet read the Meditations). But he regularly characterizes defeasible judgments at this level of certainty using terminology (e.g., ‘cognitio’ and its cognates) that translates well into the English ‘knowledge’ (and its cognates).

In the context of inquiry at play in the Meditations, Descartes insists on indefeasibility. (Typically, he reserves the term ‘scientia’ for this brand of knowledge, though he uses ‘cognitio’ and its cognates for either context.) Descartes' aim is, once and for all, to lay a lasting foundation for knowledge. To achieve this, he contends that we “cannot possibly go too far in [our] distrustful attitude” (Med. 1, AT ). Better to have a standard that excludes some truths, than one that justifies some falsehoods.

An interesting thesis emerges — call it the ‘No Atheistic Knowledge Thesis’. Descartes maintains that though atheists are quite capable of impressive knowledge, including in mathematics, they are incapable of the indefeasible brand of knowledge he seeks:

The fact that an atheist can be “clearly aware [clare cognoscere] that the three angles of a triangle are equal to two right angles” is something I do not dispute. But I maintain that this awareness [cognitionem] of his is not true knowledge [scientiam], since no act of awareness [cognitio] that can be rendered doubtful seems fit to be called knowledge [scientia]. Now since we are supposing that this individual is an atheist, he cannot be certain that he is not being deceived on matters which seem to him to be very evident (as I fully explained). (Replies 2, AT )

Hereafter, let us refer to the indefeasible brand of knowledge Descartes seeks as ‘Knowledge’ (uppercase ‘K’).

Methodist Approach

How is the would-be Knower to proceed in identifying candidates for Knowledge? Distinguish particularist and methodist responses to the question. The particularist is apt to trust our prima facie intuitions regarding particular knowledge claims. These intuitions may then be used to help identify more general epistemic principles. The methodist, in contrast, is apt to distrust our prima facie intuitions. The preference is instead to begin with general principles about proper method. The methodical principles may then be used to arrive at settled, reflective judgments concerning particular knowledge claims.

Famously, Descartes is in the methodist camp. Those who haphazardly “direct their minds down untrodden paths” are sometimes “lucky enough in their wanderings to hit upon some truth,” but “it is far better,” writes Descartes, “never to contemplate investigating the truth about any matter than to do so without a method” (Rules 4, AT ). Were we to rely on our prima facie intuitions, we might suppose it obvious that the earth is unmoved, or that ordinary objects (as tables and chairs) are just as just as they seem. Yet, newly emerging mechanist doctrines of the 17th century imply that these suppositions are false. Such cases underscore the unreliability of our prima facie intuitions and the need for a method by which to distinguish truth and falsity.

Descartes' view is not that all our pre-reflective intuitions are mistaken. He concedes that “no sane person has ever seriously doubted” such particular claims as “that there really is a world, and that human beings have bodies” (Synopsis, AT ). But such pre-reflective judgments may be ill-grounded, even when true.

The dialectic of the First Meditation features a confrontation between particularism and methodism, with methodism emerging the victor. For example, the meditator (while voicing empiricist sensibilities) puts forward, as candidates for the foundations of Knowledge, such prima facie obvious claims as “that I am here, sitting by the fire, wearing a winter dressing-gown, holding this piece of paper in my hands, and so on” — particular matters “about which doubt is quite impossible,” or so it would seem (AT ). In response (and at each level of the dialectic), Descartes invokes his own methodical principles to show that the prima facie obviousness of such particular claims is insufficient to meet the burden of proof.

Innate Ideas

Descartes' commitment to innate ideas places him in a rationalist tradition tracing back to Plato. Knowledge of the nature of reality derives from ideas of the intellect, not the senses. An important part of metaphysical inquiry therefore involves learning to think with the intellect. Plato's allegory of the cave portrays this rationalist theme in terms of epistemically distinct worlds: what the senses reveal is likened to shadowy imagery on the wall of a poorly lit cave; what the intellect reveals is likened to a world of fully real beings illuminated by bright sunshine. The metaphor aptly depicts our epistemic predicament given Descartes' own doctrines. An important function of his methods is to help would-be Knowers redirect their attention from the confused imagery of the senses to the luminous world of the intellect's clear and distinct ideas.

Further comparisons arise with Plato's doctrine of recollection. The Fifth Meditation meditator remarks — having applied Cartesian methodology, thereby discovering innate truths within: “on first discovering them it seems that I am not so much learning something new as remembering what I knew before” (Med. 5, AT ). Elsewhere Descartes adds, of innate truths:

[W]e come to know them by the power of our own native intelligence, without any sensory experience. All geometrical truths are of this sort — not just the most obvious ones, but all the others, however abstruse they may appear. Hence, according to Plato, Socrates asks a slave boy about the elements of geometry and thereby makes the boy able to dig out certain truths from his own mind which he had not previously recognized were there, thus attempting to establish the doctrine of reminiscence. Our knowledge of God is of this sort. ( letter To Voetius, AT 8b–67)

The famous wax thought experiment of the Second Meditation is supposed to illustrate (among other things) a procedure to “dig out” what is innate. The thought experiment purports to help the meditator achieve a “purely mental scrutiny,” thereby apprehending more easily the innate idea of body. (Med. 2, AT –31) According to Descartes, our minds come stocked with a variety of intellectual concepts — ideas whose content is independent of experience. This storehouse includes ideas in mathematics, logic, and metaphysics. Interestingly, Descartes holds that even our sensory ideas involve innate content. On his understanding of the new mechanical physics, bodies have no real properties resembling our sensory ideas of colors, sounds, tastes, and the like, thus implying that the content of such ideas draws from the mind itself. But if even these sensory ideas count as innate, how then are we to characterize the doctrine of innateness? Importantly, the formation of these sensory ideas — unlike purely intellectual concepts — depends on sensory stimulation. On one plausible understanding, Descartes' official doctrine has it that ideas are innate insofar as their content derives from the nature of the mind alone, as opposed to deriving from sense experience (cf. Newman ). This characterization allows that both intellectual and sensory concepts draw on native resources, though not to the same extent.

Though the subject of rationalism in Descartes' epistemology deserves careful attention, the present article generally focuses on Descartes' efforts to achieve indefeasible Knowledge. Relatively little attention is given to his doctrines of innateness, or, more generally, his ontology of thought.

Further reading: For a contrary understanding of Descartes' conception of scientia, see Jolley (). On the internalism-externalism distinction, see Alston () and Plantinga (). For a partly externalist interpretation of Descartes, see Della Rocca (). For coherentist interpretations of Descartes' project, see Frankfurt (), Sosa (a), and Della Rocca (); for a reply to such interpretations, see Frankfurt () and Newman (). For a stability interpretation of Descartes, see Bennett(). On the indefeasibility of Knowledge, see Newman and Nelson (). On contextualism in Descartes, see Newman (). On the methodism-particularism distinction, see Chisholm () and Sosa (). On analysis and synthesis, see Smith (). On Descartes' rationalism, see Adams (), Jolley (), Newman (), and Nelson ().

2. Methods: Foundationalism and Doubt

Of his own methodology, Descartes writes:

Throughout my writings I have made it clear that my method imitates that of the architect. When an architect wants to build a house which is stable on ground where there is a sandy topsoil over underlying rock, or clay, or some other firm base, he begins by digging out a set of trenches from which he removes the sand, and anything resting on or mixed in with the sand, so that he can lay his foundations on firm soil. In the same way, I began by taking everything that was doubtful and throwing it out, like sand … (Replies 7, AT )

The theory whereby items of knowledge are best organized on an analogy to architecture traces back to ancient Greek thought — to Aristotle, and to work in geometry. That Descartes' method effectively pays homage to Aristotle is, of course, welcome by his Aristotelian audience. But Descartes views Aristotle's foundationalist principles as incomplete, at least when applied to metaphysical inquiry. His method of doubt is intended to complement foundationalism. The two methods are supposed to work in cooperation, as conveyed in the above quotation. Let's consider each method.


The central insight of foundationalism is to organize knowledge in the manner of a well-structured, architectural edifice. Such an edifice owes its structural integrity to two kinds of features: a firm foundation and a superstructure of support beams firmly anchored to the foundation. A system of justified beliefs might be organized by two analogous features: a foundation of unshakable first principles, and a superstructure of further propositions anchored to the foundation via unshakable inference.

Exemplary of a foundationalist system is Euclid's geometry. Euclid begins with a foundation of first principles — definitions, postulates, and axioms or common notions — on which he then bases a superstructure of further propositions. Descartes' own designs for metaphysical Knowledge are inspired by Euclid's system:

Those long chains composed of very simple and easy reasoning, which geometers customarily use to arrive at their most difficult demonstrations, had given me occasion to suppose that all the things which can fall under human knowledge are interconnected in the same way. (Discourse 2, AT ).

It would be misleading to characterize the arguments of the Meditations as unfolding straightforwardly according to geometric method. But Descartes maintains that they can be reconstructed as such, and he expressly does so at the end of the Second Replies — providing a “geometrical” exposition of his central constructive steps, under the following headings: definitions, postulates, axioms or common notions, and propositions (AT ff).

As alluded to above, the Meditations contains a destructive component that Descartes likens to the architect's preparations for laying a foundation. Though the component finds no analogue in the method of the geometers, Descartes appears to hold that this component is needed in metaphysical inquiry. The discovery of Euclid's first principles (some of them, at any rate) is comparatively unproblematic: such principles as that things which are equal to the same thing are also equal to one another (one of Euclid's axioms) accord not only with reason, but with the senses. In contrast, metaphysical inquiry might have first principles that conflict with the senses:

The difference is that the primary notions which are presupposed for the demonstration of geometrical truths are readily accepted by anyone, since they accord with the use of our senses. Hence there is no difficulty there, except in the proper deduction of the consequences, which can be done even by the less attentive, provided they remember what has gone before. … In metaphysics by contrast there is nothing which causes so much effort as making our perception of the primary notions clear and distinct. Admittedly, they are by their nature as evident as, or even more evident than, the primary notions which the geometers study; but they conflict with many preconceived opinions derived from the senses which we have got into the habit of holding from our earliest years, and so only those who really concentrate and meditate and withdraw their minds from corporeal things, so far as possible, will achieve perfect knowledge of them. (Replies 2, AT –57)

Among Descartes' persistent themes is that such preconceived opinions can have the effect of obscuring our mental vision of innate principles; that where there are disputes about first principles, it is not “because one man's faculty of knowledge extends more widely than another's, but because the common notions are in conflict with the preconceived opinions of some people who, as a result, cannot easily grasp them”; whereas, “we cannot fail to know them [innate common notions] when the occasion for thinking about them arises, provided that we are not blinded by preconceived opinions” (Prin. –50, AT 8a). These “preconceived opinions” must be “set aside,” says Descartes, “in order to lay the first foundations of philosophy” ( letter to Voetius, AT 8b). Unless they are set aside, we're apt to regard — as first principles — the mistaken (though prima facie obvious) sensory claims that particularists find attractive. Such mistakes in the laying of the foundations weaken the entire edifice. Descartes adds:

All the mistakes made in the sciences happen, in my view, simply because at the beginning we make judgements too hastily, and accept as our first principles matters which are obscure and of which we do not have a clear and distinct notion. (Search, AT )

Though foundationalism brilliantly allows for the expansion of knowledge from first principles, Descartes thinks that a complementary method is needed to help us discover genuine first principles. As Gary Hatfield writes, “the problem is not to carry out proofs (which might well be assented to, given the definitions and axioms), but to discover the axioms themselves, (which are hopelessly obscured by the prejudices of the senses)” (, 71). Descartes therefore devises the method of doubt for this purpose — a method to help “set aside” preconceived opinions.

Method of Doubt

Descartes opens the First Meditation asserting the need “to demolish everything completely and start again right from the foundations” (AT ). The passage adds:

Reason now leads me to think that I should hold back my assent from opinions which are not completely certain and indubitable just as carefully as I do from those which are patently false. So, for the purpose of rejecting all my opinions, it will be enough if I find in each of them at least some reason for doubt. (AT )

In the architectural analogy, we can think of bulldozers as the ground clearing tools of demolition. For Knowledge building, Descartes construes sceptical doubts as the ground clearing tools of epistemic demolition. Bulldozers undermine literal ground; doubt undermines epistemic ground. Using sceptical doubts, the meditator shows us how to find “some reason for doubt” in all our preexisting opinions.

Descartes' ultimate aims, however, are constructive. Unlike “the sceptics, who doubt only for the sake of doubting,” Descartes aims “to reach certainty — to cast aside the loose earth and sand so as to come upon rock or clay” (Discourse 3, AT –29). Bulldozers are typically used for destructive ends, as are sceptical doubts. Descartes' methodical innovation is to employ demolition for constructive ends. Where a bulldozer's force overpowers the ground, its effects are destructive. Where the ground's firmness resists the bulldozer's force, the bulldozer might be used constructively — using it to reveal the ground as firm. Descartes' innovation is to use epistemic bulldozers in this way. He uses sceptical doubts to test the firmness of candidates put forward for the foundations of Knowledge.

According to at least one prominent critic, this employment of sceptical doubt is unnecessary and excessive. Writes Gassendi:

There is just one point I am not clear about, namely why you did not make a simple and brief statement to the effect that you were regarding your previous knowledge as uncertain so that you could later single out what you found to be true. Why instead did you consider everything as false, which seems more like adopting a new prejudice than relinquishing an old one? This strategy made it necessary for you to convince yourself by imagining a deceiving God or some evil demon who tricks us, whereas it would surely have been sufficient to cite the darkness of the human mind or the weakness of our nature. (Objs. 5, AT –58; my italics)

Here, Gassendi singles out two features of methodic doubt — its universal and hyperbolic character. In reply, Descartes remarks:

You say that you approve of my project for freeing my mind from preconceived opinions; and indeed no one can pretend that such a project should not be approved of. But you would have preferred me to have carried it out by making a “simple and brief statement” — that is, only in a perfunctory fashion. Is it really so easy to free ourselves from all the errors which we have soaked up since our infancy? Can we really be too careful in carrying out a project which everyone agrees should be performed? (Replies 5, AT )

Evidently, Descartes holds that the universal and hyperbolic character of methodic doubt is helpful to its success. Further appeal to the architectural analogy helps elucidate why. Incorporating these features enables the method to more effectively identify first principles. Making doubt universal and hyperbolic helps to distinguish genuine unshakability from the mere appearance of it.

Consider first the universal character of doubt — the need “to demolish everything completely and start again right from the foundations” (Med. 1, AT ). The point is not merely to apply doubt to all candidates for Knowledge, but to apply doubt collectively. Descartes offers the following analogy:

Suppose [a person] had a basket full of apples and, being worried that some of the apples were rotten, wanted to take out the rotten ones to prevent the rot spreading. How would he proceed? Would he not begin by tipping the whole lot out of the basket? And would not the next step be to cast his eye over each apple in turn, and pick up and put back in the basket only those he saw to be sound, leaving the others? In just the same way, those who have never philosophized correctly have various opinions in their minds which they have begun to store up since childhood, and which they therefore have reason to believe may in many cases be false. They then attempt to separate the false beliefs from the others, so as to prevent their contaminating the rest and making the whole lot uncertain. Now the best way they can accomplish this is to reject all their beliefs together in one go, as if they were all uncertain and false. They can then go over each belief in turn and re-adopt only those which they recognize to be true and indubitable. (Replies 7, AT )

That even one falsehood would be mistakenly treated as a genuine first principle — say, the belief that the senses are reliable, or that ancient authorities should be trusted — threatens to spread falsehood to other beliefs in the system. A collective doubt helps avoid such mistakes. It ensures that the method only approves candidate first principles that are unshakable in their own right: it rules out that the appearance of unshakability is owed to logical relations with other principles, themselves not subjected to doubt.

How is the hyperbolic character of methodic doubt supposed to contribute to the method's success? The architectural analogy is again helpful. Suppose that an architect is vigilant in employing a universal/collective doubt. Suppose, further, that she attempts to use bulldozers for constructive purposes. A problem nonetheless arises. How big a bulldozer is she to use? A light-duty bulldozer might be unable to distinguish a medium-sized boulder, and immovable bedrock. In both cases, the ground would appear immovable. The solution lies in using not light-duty, but heavy-duty tools of demolition — the bigger the bulldozer, the better. The lesson is clear for the epistemic builder: the more hyperbolic the doubt, the better.

A potential problem remains. Does not the problem of the “light-duty bulldozer” repeat itself? No matter how firm one's ground, might it not be dislodged in the face of a yet bigger bulldozer? This raises the worry that there might not be unshakable ground, as opposed to ground which is yet unshaken. Descartes' goal of utterly indubitable epistemic ground may simply be elusive.

Perhaps the architectural analogy breaks down in a manner that serves Descartes well. For though there is no most-powerful literal bulldozer, perhaps epistemic bulldozing is not subject to this limitation. Descartes seems to think that there is a most-powerful doubt — a doubt than which none more hyperbolic can be conceived. The Evil Genius Doubt (and equivalent doubts) is supposed to fit the bill. If the method reveals epistemic ground that stands fast in the face of a doubt this hyperbolic, then, as Descartes seems to hold, this counts as epistemic bedrock if anything does.

Hence the importance of the universal and hyperbolic character of the method of doubt. Gassendi's suggestion that we forego methodic doubt in favor of a “simple and brief statement to the effect that [we're] regarding [our] previous knowledge as uncertain” misses the intended point of methodic doubt.

Descartes' method of doubt has been subject to numerous objections — some fair, others less so. Rendered in the terms Descartes himself employs, the method is arguably less flawed than its reputation. Let us consider some of the common objections. Two such objections are suggested in a passage from the pragmatist Peirce:

We cannot begin with complete doubt. We must begin with all the prejudices which we actually have when we enter upon the study of philosophy. These prejudices are not to be dispelled by a maxim [viz., the maxim that the philosopher “must begin with universal doubt”], for they are things which it does not occur to us can be questioned. Hence this initial skepticism will be a mere self-deception, and not real doubt … A person may, it is true, in the course of his studies, find reason to doubt what he began by believing; but in that case he doubts because he has a positive reason for it, and not on account of the Cartesian maxim. Let us not pretend to doubt in philosophy what we do not doubt in our hearts. (, f)

The procedure of the Meditations is not that universal doubt is supposed to flow simply from adherence to a maxim; to the contrary, the doubt is supposed to flow from careful attention to positive reasons for doubt. Descartes introduces sceptical arguments precisely in acknowledgement that we need such reasons:

I did say that there was some difficulty in expelling from our belief everything we have previously accepted. One reason for this is that before we can decide to doubt, we need some reason for doubting; and that is why in my First Meditation I put forward the principal reasons for doubt. (Replies 5, appendix, AT 9a)

A second objection is suggested by Peirce's reference to a “doubt in our hearts.” Distinguish two kinds of doubt, in terms of two kinds of ways that doubt can defeat knowledge. Some doubts purport to undermine one's conviction or belief — call these ‘belief-defeating doubts’. Other doubts purport to undermine one's justification (whether or not they undermine belief) — call these ‘justification-defeating doubts’. What Peirce calls a ‘doubt in our hearts’ is suggestive of a belief-defeating doubt. Is Peirce therefore right that only belief-defeating doubts can undermine knowledge? Longstanding traditions in philosophy acknowledge that there may be truths we believe in our hearts (as it were), but which we do not know. This is one of the intended lessons of methodic doubt. The sceptical scenarios are supposed to help us appreciate that though we believe that 2+3=5, and believe that we're awake, and believe that there is an external world, we may nonetheless lack Knowledge. As already noted, Descartes writes — of external world doubts — that “no sane person has ever seriously doubted” such matters. Justification-defeating doubts are sufficient to undermine Knowledge, and this is the sort of doubt that Descartes puts forward.

A related objection has the method calling not merely for doubt, but for disbelief or dissent. One of Gassendi's objections reads in this manner. He seems to take Descartes to be urging us, quite literally, to “consider everything as false,” a strategy which, as he says to Descartes, “made it necessary for you to convince yourself” of the sceptical hypotheses (Objs. 5, AT –58). Based on Descartes' most careful statements, however, his method does not require us to dissent from the beliefs it undermines. Rather, the method urges us to “hold back [our] assent from opinions which are not completely certain and indubitable just as carefully as [we] do from those which are patently false” (Med. 1, AT , cf. AT ).

Finally, a common objection has it that the universality of doubt undermines the method of doubt itself, since, for example, the sceptical hypotheses themselves are so dubious. Descartes thinks this misses the point of the method: namely, to extend doubt universally to candidates for Knowledge, but not also to the very tools for founding Knowledge. As he concedes: “there may be reasons which are strong enough to compel us to doubt, even though these reasons are themselves doubtful, and hence are not to be retained later on” (Replies 7, AT –74).

Further reading: On foundationalism: for Descartes' treatment, see Discourse, First Meditation, and Seventh Objections and Replies; for its treatment by ancients, see Euclid () and Aristotle (Posterior Analytics); by interpreters of Descartes, see Sosa (a) and Van Cleve (). On Cartesian inference, see Gaukroger () and Hacking (). On methodical doubt: for Descartes' treatment, see Rules, Discourse, First Meditation, and Seventh Replies; by commentators, see Frankfurt (), Garber (), Newman (), Williams (), and Wilson (). On needing reasons for doubt (contrary to direct voluntarism), see Newman (). On the analysis-synthesis distinction (closely related to issues of doubt and methodology): see the Second Replies (AT ff); see also Galileo (, 50f), Arnauld (, –3), Curley (), and Hintikka ().

3. First Meditation Doubting Arguments

Dreaming Doubt

Historically, there are at least two distinct dream-related doubts. The one doubt undermines the judgment that I am presently awake — call this the ‘Now Dreaming Doubt’. The other doubt undermines the judgment that I am ever awake (i.e., in the way normally supposed) — call this the ‘Always Dreaming Doubt’. A textual case can be made on behalf of both formulations being raised in the Meditations.

Both doubts appeal to some version of the thesis that the experiences we take as dreams are (at their best) qualitatively similar to those we take as waking — call this the ‘Similarity Thesis’. The Similarity Thesis may be formulated in a variety of strengths. A strong Similarity Thesis might contend that some dreams are experientially indistinguishable from waking, even subsequent to waking-up; a weaker thesis might contend merely that dreams seem similar to waking while having them, but not upon waking. Debates about precisely how similar waking and dreaming can be, have raged for more than two millennia. The tone of the debates suggests that the degree of qualitative similarity may vary across individuals (or, at least, across their recollections of dreams). Granting such variation, dreaming doubts that depend on weaker versions of the Similarity Thesis are (other things equal) apt to be more persuasive. Let us consider a textually defensible formulation that is relatively weak. (Note, however, that some texts suggest a strong thesis: “As if I did not remember other occasions when I have been tricked by exactly similar thoughts while asleep” (Med. 1, AT ).)

The relatively weak thesis is this: that the similarity between waking and dreaming is sufficient to render it thinkable that a dream experience would seem realistic, even when reflecting on the experience, while having it. As Descartes writes: “every sensory experience I have ever thought I was having while awake I can also think of myself as sometimes having while asleep” (Med. 6, AT ). This version of the Similarity Thesis is endorsable by those who never recollect dreams that seem, on hindsight, experientially indistinguishable from waking; indeed, it's perhaps endorsable even by those who simply do not remember their dreams to any significant degree.

This weak Similarity Thesis is sufficient to generate straightaway the Now Dreaming Doubt. Since it is thinkable that a dream would convincingly seem as realistic (while having it) as my present experience seems, then, for all I Know, I am now dreaming.

Recall that Descartes' method requires only a justification-defeating doubt, not a belief-defeating doubt. The method requires me to appreciate that my present belief (that I'm awake) is not sufficiently justified. It does not require that I give up that belief. (I might continue to hold it on some merely psychological grounds.) Nor does the belief need to be false — I might, in fact, be awake. The Now Dreaming Doubt does its epistemic damage so long as it undermines my reasons for believing I'm awake — i.e., so long as I find it thinkable that a dream would seem this good. The First Meditation makes a case that this is indeed thinkable. As Descartes writes: “there are never any sure signs by means of which being awake can be distinguished from being asleep” (Med. 1, AT ).

The conclusion — that I don't Know that I'm now awake — has widespread sceptical consequences. For if I don't Know this, then neither do I Know that I'm now “holding this piece of paper in my hands,” to cite an example the meditator had supposed to be “quite impossible” to doubt. Reflection on the Now Dreaming Doubt changes his mind. He comes around to the view that, for all he Knows, the sensible objects of his present experience are mere figments of a vivid dream.

Much ado has been made about whether dreaming arguments are self-refuting. According to an influential objection, similarity theses presuppose that we can reliably distinguish dreams and waking, yet the conclusion of dreaming arguments presupposes that we cannot. Therefore, if the conclusion of such an argument is true, then the premise stating the Similarity Thesis cannot be. Some formulations of the thesis do make this mistake. Of present interest is whether all do — specifically, whether Descartes makes the mistake. He does not. Interestingly, his formulation presupposes simply the truism that we do in fact distinguish dreaming and waking (never mind whether reliably). He states his version of the thesis in terms of what we think of as dreams, versus what we think of as waking: “every sensory experience I have ever thought I was having while awake I can also think of myself as sometimes having while asleep” (Med. 6, AT ). This formulation avoids the charge of self-refutation, for it is compatible with the conclusion that we cannot reliably distinguish dreams and waking.

Does Descartes also put forward a second dreaming argument, the Always Dreaming Doubt? There is strong textual evidence to support this (see Newman ), though it is by no means the standard interpretation. The conclusion of the Always Dreaming Doubt is generated from the very same Similarity Thesis, together with a further sceptical assumption, namely: that for all I Know, the processes producing what I take as waking are no more veridical than those producing what I take as dreams. As Descartes writes:

[E]very sensory experience I have ever thought I was having while awake I can also think of myself as sometimes having while asleep; and since I do not believe that what I seem to perceive in sleep comes from things located outside me, I did not see why I should be any more inclined to believe this of what I think I perceive while awake. (Med. 6, AT )

The aim of the Always Dreaming Doubt is to undermine not whether I'm now awake, but whether so-called “sensation” is produced by external objects even on the assumption that I am now awake. For in the cases of both waking and dreaming, my cognitive access extends only to the productive result, but not the productive process. On what basis, then, do I conclude that the productive processes are different — that external objects play more of a role in waking than in dreaming? For all I Know, both sorts of experience are produced by some subconscious faculty of my mind. As Descartes has his meditator say:

[T]here may be some other faculty [of my mind] not yet fully known to me, which produces these ideas without any assistance from external things; this is, after all, just how I have always thought ideas are produced in me when I am dreaming. (Med. 3, AT )

The sceptical consequences of the Always Dreaming Doubt are even more devastating than those of the Now Dreaming Doubt. If I do not Know that “normal waking” experience is produced by external objects, then, for all I Know, all of my experiences might be dreams of a sort. For all I Know, there might not be an external world. My best evidence of an external world derives from my preconceived opinion that external world objects produce my waking experiences. Yet the Always Dreaming Doubt calls this into question:

All these considerations are enough to establish that it is not reliable judgement but merely some blind impulse that has made me believe up till now that there exist things distinct from myself which transmit to me ideas or images of themselves through the sense organs or in some other way. (Med. 3, AT –40)

The two dreaming doubts are parasitic on the same Similarity Thesis, though their sceptical consequences differ. The Now Dreaming Doubt raises the universal possibility of delusion: for any one of my sensory experiences, it is possible (for all I Know) that the experience is delusive. The Always Dreaming Doubt raises the possibility of universal delusion: it is possible (for all I Know) that all my sensory experiences are delusions (say, from a God's-eye perspective).

Evil Genius Doubt

Though dreaming doubts do significant demolition work, they are light-duty bulldozers relative to Descartes' most power sceptical doubt. What further judgments are left to be undermined? Following the discussion of dreaming, the meditator tentatively concludes that the results of empirical disciplines “are doubtful” — e.g., “physics, astronomy, medicine,” and the like. Whereas:

[A]rithmetic, geometry and other subjects of this kind, which deal only with the simplest and most general things, regardless of whether they really exist in nature or not, contain something certain and indubitable. For whether I am awake or asleep, two and three added together are five, and a square has no more than four sides. It seems impossible that such transparent truths should incur any suspicion of being false. (Med. 1, AT )

In the final analysis, Descartes holds that such transparent truths — along with demonstrable truths, and many judgments of internal sense — are indeed Knowable. To become actually Known, however, they must stand unshakable in the face the most powerful of doubts. The stage is thus set for the introduction of another sceptical hypothesis.

The most famous rendering of Descartes' most hyperbolic doubt takes the form of the Evil Genius Doubt. Suppose I am the creation of a powerful but malicious being. This “evil genius” (or deceiving “God, or whatever I may call him,” AT ) has given me flawed cognitive faculties, such that I am in error even about epistemically impressive matters — even the simple matters that seem supremely evident. The suggestion is perhaps unbelievable, but not unthinkable. It is intended as a justification-defeating doubt that undermines our judgments about even the most simple and evident matters.

Many readers of Descartes assume that the Evil Genius Doubt draws its sceptical force from the “utmost power” attributed to the deceiver. This is to misunderstand Descartes. He contends that an equally powerful doubt may be generated on the opposite supposition — namely, the supposition that I am not the creature of an all-powerful being:

Perhaps there may be some who would prefer to deny the existence of so powerful a God rather than believe that everything else is uncertain. … yet since deception and error seem to be imperfections, the less powerful they make my original cause, the more likely it is that I am so imperfect as to be deceived all the time. (Med. 1, AT ).

Descartes makes essentially the same point in a parallel passage of the Principles:

[W]e have been told that there is an omnipotent God who created us. Now we do not know whether he may have wished to make us beings of the sort who are always deceived even in those matters which seem to us supremely evident … We may of course suppose that our existence derives not from a supremely powerful God but either from ourselves or from some other source; but in that case, the less powerful we make the author of our coming into being, the more likely it will be that we are so imperfect as to be deceived all the time. (Prin. , AT 8a:6)

Descartes' official position is that the Evil Genius Doubt is merely one among multiple hypotheses that can motivate the more general hyperbolic doubt. Fundamentally, the doubt is about my cognitive nature — about the possibility that my mind is flawed. Descartes consistently emphasizes this theme throughout the Meditations (italics added):

God could have given me a nature such that I was deceived even in matters which seemed most evident. (Med. 3, AT )

I can convince myself that I have a natural disposition to go wrong from time to time in matters which I think I perceive as evidently as can be. (Med. 5, AT )

I saw nothing to rule out the possibility that my natural constitution made me prone to error even in matters which seemed to me most true. (Med. 6, AT )

What is essential to the doubt is not a specific story about how I got my cognitive wiring; it's instead the realization — regardless the story — that, for all I Know, my cognitive wiring is flawed. In this vein, Carriero helpfully refers to the doubt under the heading, ‘imperfect-nature doubt’ (, 27). Even so, I regularly speak in terms of the evil genius (following Descartes' lead), as a kind of mnemonic for the more general doubt about our cognitive nature.

Having introduced the Evil Genius Doubt, the First Meditation program of demolition is not only hyperbolic but universal. As the meditator remarks, I “am finally compelled to admit that there is not one of my former beliefs about which a doubt may not properly be raised” (Med. 1, AT ). As will emerge, the early paragraphs of the Third Meditation clarify a further nuance of the Evil Genius Doubt — a nuance consistently observed thereafter. Descartes clarifies, there, that the Evil Genius Doubt operates in an indirect manner, a topic to which we return (in Section ).

Further reading: On Descartes' sceptical arguments, see Bouwsma (), Curley (), Larmore (), Newman (), Newman and Nelson (), Williams ( and ). For a contrary reading of the Evil Genius Doubt, see Gewirth () and Wilson (). For a more general philosophical treatment of dreaming arguments, see Dunlap () and Williams ().

4. Cogito Ergo Sum

The First Item of Knowledge

Famously, Descartes puts forward a very simple candidate as the “first item of knowledge.” The candidate is suggested by methodic doubt — by the very effort at thinking all my thoughts might be mistaken. Early in the Second Meditation, Descartes has his meditator observe:

I have convinced myself that there is absolutely nothing in the world, no sky, no earth, no minds, no bodies. Does it now follow that I too do not exist? No: if I convinced myself of something then I certainly existed. But there is a deceiver of supreme power and cunning who is deliberately and constantly deceiving me. In that case I too undoubtedly exist, if he is deceiving me; and let him deceive me as much as he can, he will never bring it about that I am nothing so long as I think that I am something. So after considering everything very thoroughly, I must finally conclude that this proposition, I am, I exist, is necessarily true whenever it is put forward by me or conceived in my mind. (Med. 2, AT )

As the canonical formulation has it, I think therefore I am. (Latin: cogito ergo sum; French: je pense, donc je suis.) This formulation does not expressly arise in the Meditations.

Descartes regards the ‘cogito’ (as it is standardly referred to) as the “first and most certain of all to occur to anyone who philosophizes in an orderly way” (Prin. , AT 8a:7). Is the great certainty of the cogito supposed to attach to the “I think,” the “I am,” or the “therefore” (i.e., their logical relation)? Presumably, it must attach to all of these, if the cogito is to play the foundational role Descartes assigns to it. But this answer depends on whether the cogito is understood as an inference or an intuition — an issue addressed below.

Testing the cogito by means of methodic doubt is supposed to reveal its unshakable certainty. As earlier noted, the existence of my body is subject to doubt. The existence of my thinking, however, is not. The very attempt at thinking away my thinking is indeed self-stultifying.

The cogito raises numerous philosophical questions and has generated an enormous literature. Let us try, in summary fashion, to clarify a few central points.

First, a first-person formulation is essential to the certainty of the cogito. Third-person claims, such as “Icarus thinks,” or “Descartes thinks,” are not unshakably certain — not for me, at any rate; only the occurrence of my thought has a chance of resisting hyperbolic doubt. There are a number of passages in which Descartes refers to a third-person version of the cogito. But none of these occurs in the context of establishing the actual existence of a particular thinker (in contrast with the conditional, general result that whatever thinks exists).

Second, a present tense formulation is essential to the certainty of the cogito. It's no good to reason that “I existed last Tuesday, since I recall my thinking on that day.” For all I Know, I'm now merely dreaming about that occasion. Nor does it work to reason that “I'll continue to exist, since I'm now thinking.” As the meditator remarks, “it could be that were I totally to cease from thinking, I should totally cease to exist” (Med. 2, AT ). The privileged certainty of the cogito is grounded in the “manifest contradiction” (cf. AT ) of trying to think away my present thinking.

Third, the certainty of the cogito depends on being formulated in terms of my cogitatio — i.e., my thinking, or awareness/consciousness more generally. Any mode of thinking is sufficient, including doubting, affirming, denying, willing, understanding, imagining, and so on (cf. Med. 2, AT ). My non-thinking activities, however, are insufficient. For instance, it's no good to reason that “I exist, since I am walking,” because methodic doubt calls into question the existence of my legs. Maybe I'm just dreaming that I have legs. A simple revision, such as “I exist since it seems I'm walking,” restores the anti-sceptical potency (cf. Replies 5, AT ; Prin. ).

Fourth, a caveat is in order. That Descartes rejects formulations presupposing the existence of a body commits him to no more than an epistemic distinction between the ideas of mind and body, but not yet an ontological distinction (as in so-called mind-body dualism). Indeed, in the passage following the cogito, Descartes has his meditator say:

And yet may it not perhaps be the case that these very things which I am supposing to be nothing [e.g., “that structure of limbs which is called a human body”], because they are unknown to me, are in reality identical with the “I” of which I am aware? I do not know, and for the moment I shall not argue the point, since I can make judgements only about things which are known to me. (Med. 2, AT )

In short, the success of the cogito does not presuppose Descartes' mind-body dualism.

Fifth, much of the debate over whether the cogito involves inference, or is instead a simple intuition (roughly, self-evident), is preempted by two observations. One observation concerns the absence of an express ‘ergo’ (‘therefore’) in the Second Meditation account. It seems a mistake to emphasize this absence, as if suggesting that Descartes denies any role for inference. For the Second Meditation passage is the one place (of his various published treatments ) where Descartes explicitly details a line of inferential reflection leading up to the conclusion that I am, I exist. His other treatments merely say the ‘therefore’; the Meditations treatment unpacks it. A second observation is that it seems a mistake to assume that the cogito must either involve inference, or intuition, but not both. There is no inconsistency in claiming a self-evident grasp of a proposition with inferential structure. It is indeed widely held among philosophers today that modus ponens is self-evident, yet it contains an inference. In short, that a statement contains an inference does not entail that our acceptance of it is grounded in inference — a fact applicable to the cogito. As Descartes writes:

When someone says “I am thinking, therefore I am, or I exist,” he does not deduce existence from thought by means of a syllogism, but recognizes it as something self-evident by a simple intuition of the mind. (Replies 2, AT )

Whatever the cogito's inferential status, it is worth noting a twofold observation of Barry Stroud: “a thinker obviously could never be wrong in thinking ‘I think’”; moreover, “no one who thinks could think falsely that he exists” (, ).

Finally, Descartes' reference to an “I”, in the “I think”, is not intended to presuppose the existence of a substantial self. In the very next sentence following the initial statement of the cogito, the meditator says: “But I do not yet have a sufficient understanding of what this ‘I’ is, that now necessarily exists” (Med. 2, AT ). The cogito purports to yield certainty that I exist insofar as I am a thinking thing, whatever that turns out to be. The ensuing discussion is intended to help arrive at an understanding of the ontological nature of the thinking subject.

More generally, we should distinguish issues of epistemic and ontological dependence. In the final analysis, Descartes thinks he shows that the occurrence of thought depends (ontologically) on the existence of a substantial self — to wit, on the existence of an infinite substance, namely God (cf. Med. 3, AT ff). But Descartes denies that an acceptance of these ontological matters is epistemically prior to the cogito: its certainty is not supposed to depend (epistemically) on the abstruse metaphysics that Descartes thinks he eventually establishes.

If the cogito does not presuppose a substantial self, what then is the epistemic basis for injecting the “I” into the “I think”? Some critics have complained that, in referring to the “I”, Descartes begs the question by presupposing what he means to establish in the “I exist.” Among the critics, Bertrand Russell objects that “the word ‘I’ is really illegitimate.” Echoing the 18th century thinker, Georg Lichtenberg, Russell writes that Descartes should have, instead, stated “his ultimate premiss in the form ‘there are thoughts’.” Russell adds that “the word ‘I’ is grammatically convenient, but does not describe a datum.” (, ) Accordingly, “there is pain” and “I am in pain” have different contents, and Descartes is entitled only to the former.

One effort at reply has it that introspection reveals more than what Russell allows — it reveals the subjective character of experience. On this view, there is more to the experiential story of being in pain than is expressed by saying that there is pain: the experience includes the feeling of pain plus a point-of-view — an experiential addition that's difficult to characterize except by adding that “I” am in pain, that the pain is mine. Importantly, my awareness of this subjective feature of experience does not depend on an awareness of the metaphysical nature of a thinking subject. If we take Descartes to be using ‘I’ to signify this subjective character, then he is not smuggling in something that's not already there: the “I”-ness of consciousness turns out to be (contra Russell) a primary datum of experience. Though, as Hume persuasively argues, introspection reveals no sense impressions suited to the role of a thinking subject, Descartes, unlike Hume, has no need to derive all our ideas from sense impressions. Descartes' idea of the self does ultimately draw on innate conceptual resources.

But how could ideas deriving from the subjective character of experience justify a substantive metaphysical conclusion about the existence of a real self? On one plausible line of reply, Descartes does not yet intend to be establishing the metaphysical result; rather, the initial intended result is merely epistemic. Early in the Third Meditation, Descartes says that the epistemic basis of the cogito is, at this juncture, simply that it is clearly and distinctly perceived. Yet the truth of what is clearly and distinctly perceived has yet to be established. The cogito initially establishes merely that we cannot but assent to our existence; the stronger, metaphysical result is established only upon demonstrating the veracity of clear and distinct perception. This line of interpretation does, of course, imply that the cogito does not initially count as full-fledged Knowledge — an issue to which we now turn.

But is it Knowledge?

There are interpretive disputes about whether the cogito is supposed to count as indefeasible Knowledge. (That is, about whether it thus counts upon its initial introduction, prior to the arguments for God.) Many commentators hold that it is supposed to count, but the case for this interpretation is by no means clear.

There is no disputing that Descartes characterizes the cogito as the “first item of knowledge [cognitione]” (Med. 3, AT ); as the first “piece of knowledge [cognitio]” (Prin. , AT 8a:7). Noteworthy, however, is the Latin terminology (‘cognitio’ and its cognates) that Descartes uses in these characterizations. As discussed in Section , Descartes is a contextualist in the sense that he uses ‘knowledge’ language in two different contexts of clear and distinct judgments: the less rigorous context includes defeasible judgments, as in the case of the atheist geometer (who can't block hyperbolic doubt); the more rigorous context requires indefeasible judgments, as with the brand of Knowledge sought after in the Meditations.

Worthy of attention is that Descartes characterizes the cogito using the same cognitive language that he uses to characterize the atheist's defeasible cognition. Recall that Descartes writes of the atheist's clear and distinct grasp of geometry: “I maintain that this awareness [cognitionem] of his is not true knowledge [scientiam]” (Replies 2, AT ). This alone does not prove that the cogito is supposed to be defeasible. It does, however, prove that calling it the “first item of knowledge [cognitione]” doesn't entail that Descartes intends it as indefeasible Knowledge.

Bearing further on whether the cogito counts as indefeasible Knowledge — prior to having refuted the Evil Genius Doubt — is the No Atheistic Knowledge Thesis (cf. Section above). Descartes makes repeated and unequivocal statements implying this thesis. Consider the following texts, each arising in a context of clarifying the requirements of indefeasible Knowledge (all italics are mine):

For if I do not know this [i.e., “whether there is a God, and, if there is, whether he can be a deceiver”], it seems that I can never be quite certain about anything else. (Med. 3, AT )

I see that the certainty of all other things depends on this [knowledge of God], so that without it nothing can ever be perfectly known [perfecte sciri]. (Med. 5, AT )

[I]f I did not possess knowledge of God … I should thus never have true and certain knowledge [scientiam] about anything, but only shifting and changeable opinions. (Med. 5, AT )

And upon claiming finally to have achieved indefeasible Knowledge:

Thus I see plainly that the certainty and truth of all knowledge [scientiae] depends uniquely on my awareness of the true God, to such an extent that I was incapable of perfect knowledge [perfecte scire] about anything else until I became aware of him. (Med. 5, AT )

These texts make a powerful case that nothing else can be indefeasibly Known prior to establishing that we're creatures of an all-perfect God, rather than an evil genius. These texts make no exceptions. Descartes looks to hold that hyperbolic doubt is utterly unbounded — that it undermines all manner of propositions, including therefore the proposition that “I exist.”

By contrast, other texts seem to support the interpretation whereby the cogito counts as indefeasible Knowledge. For example, we have seen texts making clear that it resists hyperbolic doubt. Often overlooked, however, is that it is only subsequent to the introduction of the cogito that Descartes has his meditator first notice the manner in which clear and distinct perception is both resistant and vulnerable to hyperbolic doubt: the extraordinary certainty of such perception resists hyperbolic doubt while it is occurring; it is vulnerable to hyperbolic doubt upon redirecting one's perceptual attention away from the matter in question. This theme is developed more fully in the next Section.

As will emerge, there are two main kinds of interpretive camps concerning how to deal with the so-called Cartesian Circle. The one camp contends that hyperbolic doubt is utterly unbounded. On this view, the No Atheist Knowledge Thesis is taken quite literally. The other camp contends that hyperbolic doubt is bounded; that is, that the cogito, and a few other special truths, are in a lockbox of sorts, utterly protected from even the most hyperbolic doubt. This view allows that atheists can have indefeasible Knowledge. These two kinds of interpretations are developed in Section 6.

Further reading: For important passages in Descartes' handling of the cogito, see the second and third sets of Objections and Replies. In the secondary literature, see Beyssade (), Broughton (), Carriero (), Cunning (), Curley (), Frankfurt (), Hintikka (), Kenny (), Markie (), Peacocke (), Sarkar (), Stroud (), Vendler (), Vinci (), Williams (), and Wilson ().

5. Epistemic Privilege and Defeasibility

The extraordinary certainty and doubt-resistance of the cogito marks an Archimedean turning point in the meditator's inquiry. Descartes builds on its impressiveness to help clarify further epistemic theses. The present Section considers two such theses about our epistemically privileged perceptions. First, that clarity and distinctness are, jointly, the mark of our epistemically best perceptions (notwithstanding that such perception remains defeasible). Second, that judgments about one's own mind are epistemically privileged compared with those about bodies.

Our Epistemic Best: Clear and Distinct Perception and its Defeasibility

The opening four paragraphs of the Third Meditation are pivotal. Descartes uses them to characterize our epistemically best perceptions, while clarifying also that even this impressive epistemic ground falls short of the goal of indefeasible Knowledge. This sobering realization leads to Descartes' infamous efforts to refute the Evil Genius Doubt, by proving an all-pefect (and therefore non-deceiving) God.

The first and second paragraphs portray the meditator attempting to build on the success of the cogito by identifying a general principle of certainty: “I am certain that I am a thinking thing. Do I not therefore also know what is required for my being certain about anything?” (AT ). What are the phenomenal marks of this impressive perception — what is it like to have perception that good? Descartes' answer: “In this first item of knowledge [cognitione] there is simply a clear and distinct perception of what I am asserting” (ibid.).

The third and fourth paragraphs help clarify (among other things) what Descartes takes to be epistemically impressive about clear and distinct perception, though absent from external sense perception. The third paragraph has the meditator observing:

Yet I previously accepted as wholly certain and evident many things which I afterwards realized were doubtful. What were these? The earth, sky, stars, and everything else that I apprehended with the senses. But what was it about them that I perceived clearly? Just that the ideas, or thoughts, of such things appeared before my mind. Yet even now I am not denying that these ideas occur within me. But there was something else which I used to assert, and which through habitual belief I thought I perceived clearly, although I did not in fact do so. This was that there were things outside me which were the sources of my ideas and which resembled them in all respects. Here was my mistake; or at any rate, if my judgement was true, it was not thanks to the strength of my perception. (Med. 3, AT )

The very next paragraph (the fourth) draws an epistemically important contrast with external sense perception (as just characterized). External sense perception does not admit of any great “strength of perception,” quite unlike clear and distinct perception. As earlier noted (Section ), the certainty of interest to Descartes is psychological in character, though not merely psychological. Not only does occurrent clear and distinct perception resist doubt, it provides a kind of cognitive illumination. Both of these epistemic virtues — its doubt-resistance, and its luminance — are noted in the fourth paragraph:

[Regarding] those matters which I think I see utterly clearly with my mind's eye … when I turn to the things themselves which I think I perceive very clearly, I am so convinced by them that I spontaneously declare: let whoever can do so deceive me, he will never bring it about that I am nothing, so long as I continue to think I am something; or make it true at some future time that I have never existed, since it is now true that I exist; or bring it about that two and three added together are more or less than five, or anything of this kind in which I see a manifest contradiction. (Med. 3, AT )

The contrast drawn in the third and fourth paragraphs gets at a theme that Descartes thinks crucial to his broader project: namely, that there is “a big difference” — an introspectible difference — between external sense perception, and perception that is genuinely clear and distinct. The external senses result in, at best, “a spontaneous impulse” to believe something — an impulse we're able to resist, even while it occurs. By contrast, clear and distinct perception is utterly irresistible while occurring: “Whatever is revealed to me by the natural light — for example that from the fact that I am doubting it follows that I exist, and so on — cannot in any way be open to doubt.” (Med. 3, AT ) As Descartes repeatedly conveys: “my nature is such that so long as I perceive something very clearly and distinctly I cannot but believe it to be true” (Med. 5, AT ; cf. , , , 8a:9).

Because of the epistemic impressiveness of clear and distinct perception (notably, as exhibited in the cogito), the meditator concludes that such perception will issue as the mark of truth, if anything will. He tentatively formulates the following candidate for a criterion of truth: “I now seem [videor] to be able to lay it down as a general rule that whatever I perceive very clearly and distinctly is true” (Med. 3, AT ). Let us call this general principle the ‘C&D Rule’. The announcement of the candidate criterion is carefully tinged with caution (videor), as the C&D Rule has yet to be subjected to hyperbolic doubt. Should it turn out that clarity and distinctness — as an epistemic ground — is shakable, then, there would remain some doubt about the general veracity of clear and distinct perception. In that case, when reflecting back on having perceived something clearly and distinctly, it would not seem so impressive, after all — it “would not be enough to make me certain of the truth of the matter” (ibid.). This cautionary note anticipates the sobering realization of the fourth paragraph, that, for all its impressiveness, even clear and distinct perception is in some sense defeasible, at this stage of the inquiry.

In what sense defeasible? Recall that the Evil Genius Doubt is, fundamentally, a doubt about our cognitive natures. Maybe my mind was made flawed, such that I go wrong even when my perception is clear and distinct. As the meditator conveys in the fourth paragraph, my creator might have “given me a nature such that I was deceived even in matters which seemed most evident,” with the consequence that “I go wrong even in those matters which I think I see utterly clearly with my mind's eye” (AT ). The result is a kind of epistemic schizophrenia:

Moments of epistemic optimism: While I am directly attending to a proposition — perceiving it clearly and distinctly — I enjoy an irresistible cognitive luminance and my assent is compelled.

Moments of epistemic pessimism: When no longer directly attending — no longer perceiving the proposition clearly and distinctly — I can entertain the sceptical hypothesis that such feelings of cognitive luminance are epistemically worthless, arising from a defective cognitive nature.

The doubt is thus indirect, in the sense that these moments of epistemic pessimism arise when I am no longer directly attending to the propositions in question. This indirect operation of hyperbolic doubt is conveyed not only in the fourth paragraph, but in numerous other texts, including the following:

Admittedly my nature is such that so long as I perceive something very clearly and distinctly I cannot but believe it to be true. But my nature is also such that I cannot fix my mental vision continually on the same thing, so as to keep perceiving it clearly; and often the memory of a previously made judgement may come back, when I am no longer attending to the arguments which led me to make it. And so other arguments can now occur to me which might easily undermine my opinion, if I were unaware of [the true] God; and I should thus never have true and certain knowledge about anything, but only shifting and changeable opinions. For example, when I consider the nature of a triangle, it appears most evident to me, steeped as I am in the principles of geometry, that its three angles are equal to two right angles; and so long as I attend to the proof, I cannot but believe this to be true. But as soon as I turn my mind's eye away from the proof, then in spite of still remembering that I perceived it very clearly, I can easily fall into doubt about its truth, if I am unaware of God. For I can convince myself that I have a natural disposition to go wrong from time to time in matters which I think I perceive as evidently as can be. (Med. 5, AT –70; cf. AT –65; AT 8a:9–10).

Granted, this indirect doubt is exceedingly hyperbolic. Even so, it means that we lack fully indefeasible Knowledge. Descartes thus closes the fourth paragraph as follows:

And since I have no cause to think that there is a deceiving God, and I do not yet even know for sure whether there is a God at all, any reason for doubt which depends simply on this supposition is a very slight and, so to speak, metaphysical one. But in order to remove even this slight reason for doubt, as soon as the opportunity arises I must examine whether there is a God, and, if there is, whether he can be a deceiver. For if I do not know this, it seems that I can never be quite certain about anything else. (Med. 3, AT )

The leading role played by the cogito in this four paragraph passage is easily overlooked. Not only is it (in paragraph two) the exemplar of judging clearly and distinctly, it is listed (paragraph four) among the propositions that are compellingly certain while attended to, though undermined when we no longer thus attend. The implication is that cogito, like 2+3=5, is something to which we cannot but assent while attending clearly and distinctly, but which we can later doubt in moments of epistemic pessimism, when no longer attending clearly and distinctly.

What next? How does Descartes think we're to make epistemic progress if even our epistemic best is subject to hyperbolic doubt? This juncture of the Third Meditation (the end of the fourth paragraph) marks the beginning point of Descartes' notorious efforts to refute the Evil Genius Doubt. His efforts involve an attempt to establish that we are the creatures not of an evil genius, but an all-perfect creator who would not allow us to be deceived about what we clearly and distinctly perceive. Before turning our attention (in Section 6) to these efforts, let's digress somewhat to consider a Cartesian doctrine that has received much attention in its subsequent history.

The Epistemic Privilege of Judgments About the Mind

Descartes holds that our judgments about our own minds are epistemically better-off than our judgments about bodies. In our natural, pre-reflective condition, however, we're apt to confuse the sensory images of bodies with the external things themselves, a confusion leading us to think our judgments about bodies are epistemically impressive. The confusion is clearly expressed (Descartes would say) in G. E. Moore's famous claim to knowledge — “Here is a hand” — along with his more general defense of common sense:

I begin, then, with my list of truisms, every one of which (in my own opinion) I know, with certainty, to be true. … There exists at present a living human body, which is my body. This body was born at a certain time in the past, and has existed continuously ever since … But the earth had existed also for many years before my body was born … (, 32–33)

In contrast, Descartes writes:

[I]f I judge that the earth exists from the fact that I touch it or see it, this very fact undoubtedly gives even greater support for the judgement that my mind exists. For it may perhaps be the case that I judge that I am touching the earth even though the earth does not exist at all; but it cannot be that, when I make this judgement, my mind which is making the judgement does not exist. (Prin. , AT 8a:8–9)

Methodical doubt is intended to help us appreciate the folly of the commonsensical position — helping us to recognize that the perception of our own minds is “not simply prior to and more certain … but also more evident” than that of our own bodies (Prin. , AT 8a:8). “Disagreement on this point,” writes Descartes, comes from “those who have not done their philosophizing in an orderly way”; from those who, while properly acknowledging the “certainty of their own existence,” mistakenly “take ‘themselves’ to mean only their bodies” — failing to “realize that they should have taken ‘themselves’ in this context to mean their minds alone” (Prin. , AT 8a:9).

In epistemological contexts, Descartes underwrites the mind-better-known-than-body doctrine with methodic doubt. For example, while reflecting on his epistemic position in regards both to himself, and to the wax, the Second Meditation meditator says:

Surely my awareness of my own self is not merely much truer and more certain than my awareness of the wax, but also much more distinct and evident. For if I judge that the wax exists from the fact that I see it, clearly this same fact entails much more evidently that I myself also exist. It is possible that what I see is not really the wax; it is possible that I do not even have eyes with which to see anything. But when I see, or think I see (I am not here distinguishing the two), it is simply not possible that I who am now thinking am not something. (Med. 2, AT )

Other reasons may motivate Descartes as well. For the doctrine may be closely allied to a representational theory of sense perception. Accordingly, our sense organs and nerves serve as literal mediating links in the perceptual chain: they stand between (both spatially and causally) external things themselves, and the brain events that occasion our perceptual awareness (cf. Prin. ). In veridical sensation, the objects of immediate sensory awareness are not external bodies themselves, nor are we immediately aware of the states of our sense organs or nerves. Rather, the objects of immediate awareness are — whether in veridical sensation, or in dreams — the mind's own ideas. Descartes indeed holds that the fact of physiological mediation helps explain delusional ideas, because roughly the same kinds of physiological processes that produce waking ideas are employed in producing delusional ideas:

[I]t is the soul which sees, and not the eye; and it does not see directly, but only by means of the brain. That is why madmen and those who are asleep often see, or think they see, various objects which are nevertheless not before their eyes: namely, certain vapours disturb their brain and arrange those of its parts normally engaged in vision exactly as they would be if these objects were present. (Optics, AT ; cf. Med. 6, AT ff; Passions 26)

Various passages of the Meditations lay important groundwork for this theory of perception. For instance, one of the messages of the wax passage is that sensory awareness does not reach to external things themselves:

We say that we see the wax itself, if it is there before us, not that we judge it to be there from its colour or shape; and this might lead me to conclude without more ado that knowledge of the wax comes from what the eye sees, and not from the scrutiny of the mind alone. But then if I look out of the window and see men crossing the square, as I just happen to have done, I normally say that I see the men themselves, just as I say that I see the wax. Yet do I see any more than hats and coats which could conceal automatons? I judge that they are men. (Med. 2, AT )

Descartes thinks we're apt to be “tricked by ordinary ways of talking” (ibid.). In ordinary contexts we don't say that it seems there are men outside the window; we say we see them. Nor, in such contexts, are our beliefs about those men apt to result from conscious, inferentially complex judgments, say, like this one: “Well, I appear to be awake, and the window pane looks clean, and there's plenty of light outside, and so on, and I thus conclude that I am seeing men outside the window.” Even so, our ordinary ways of speaking and thinking often mislead. Descartes' view is that the mind's immediate perception does not, strictly speaking, extend beyond itself, to external bodies. This is an important basis of the mind-better-known-than-body doctrine. In the concluding paragraph of the Second Meditation, Descartes writes:

I see that without any effort I have now finally got back to where I wanted. I now know that even bodies are not strictly [proprie] perceived by the senses or the faculty of imagination but by the intellect alone, and that this perception derives not from their being touched or seen but from their being understood; and in view of this I know plainly that I can achieve an easier and more evident perception of my own mind than of anything else. (Med. 2, AT )

Related is a Third Meditation remark. Discussing sense perception and our ideas of external things, Descartes writes that the mind's sensation extends strictly and immediately only to the ideas: “the ideas were, strictly speaking, the only immediate objects of my sensory awareness [solas proprie et immediate sentiebam]” (Med. 3, AT ). The theme that ideas are the only immediate objects of awareness repeats itself elsewhere in Descartes' writings. As he tells Hobbes: “I make it quite clear in several places … that I am taking the word ‘idea’ to refer to whatever is immediately perceived by the mind” (Replies 3, AT ).

Complicating an understanding of such passages is that Descartes scholarship is divided on whether to attribute to him some version of an indirect theory of perception, or instead some version of a direct theory. According to indirect perception accounts, in normal sensation the mind's perception of bodies is mediated by an awareness of its ideas of those bodies. By contrast, direct perception interpretations allow that in normal sensation the mind's ideas play a mediating role, though this role doesn't have ideas functioning as items of awareness; rather, the objects of direct awareness are the external things, themselves. On both accounts, ideas mediate our perception of external objects. On direct theory accounts, the mediating role is only a process role. By analogy, various brain processes mediate our perception of external objects, but in the normal course of perception we are not consciously aware of those processes; and likewise for the mind's ideas, according to direct perception accounts. On one recent version of an indirect perception interpretation, sensory ideas mediate our perception of the external bodies they're of, in much the same way that pictures (or other representational media) mediate our perception of what they portray (Newman ). More generally, Descartes seems to view all ideas as mental pictures, of a sort. As he writes: “the term ‘idea’ is strictly appropriate” only for thoughts that “are as it were the images of things” (Med. 3, AT ); he adds that “the ideas in me are like {pictures, or} images” (Med. 3, AT ).

“But how can I, an amateur, be expected to settle a question which the philosophers have not yet ceased to argue?” (W. Somerset Maugham. The Summing Up)

I am happy to represent our Society for the Integration of Science and HumanValues, based in the Department of Pali & Buddhist Studies at the University of Peradeniya, Sri Lanka, at this annual conference of the Metanexus Institute. I am particularly happy that the themes for this conference are included in an essay that I began writing a few years ago, on the famous statement of RenÈ Descartes - Cogito, ergo sum. While I am not a scholar in Buddhist philosophy, I must necessarily make extensive borrowings from discussions on the Buddhist literature.

This presentation includes topics that were identified as relevant to the conference – can objective science give a complete analysis of first-person subjective experience? It discusses briefly the neurophysiological findings of Newberg and his colleagues on the role of the normal brain in the creation of the concept of “I”; can it tell us how to live ourlives, how to seek virtue, how to live together; many references are made to ideas in Buddhism because “…in the Buddhist view, bothin the case of the individual and in the case of social institutionsa theory of absolute identity is neitherepistemologically defensible nor practically useful”. The central questions on which many statements of Buddhist ideas are quoted, are other conference topics including; Is there a soul? and Is there an essential relation between “I” and “Other”?

This essay is on a perennial question, which occurred to Descartes (Anscombe & Geach, ): “But I do not yet sufficiently understand what is this ‘I’that necessarily exists”. Descartes ascribed it to a soul: “Further, that I am nourished, that Imove, that I have sensations (sentirÈ), that I am conscious (cogitarÈ); these acts Iassigned to the soul”. It deals with the origin of the notion and significance of “I”. This essay proposes that instead of Descartes’ Cogito, ergo sum (I think, therefore I am), the statement Cogito, sed non sum (I think, but I am not) provides a view that arises from a synthesis of some ideas of modern biology and correlates it with one of the core ideas of Buddhism, that of Anatta- the absence of a soul, that antedated these modern biological ideas by twenty-five centuries.

“One Sunday morning in March 19 years ago, as Dr. James Austin waited for a train in London, he glanced away from the tracks towards the river Thames. The American neurologist, who was spending a sabbatical year in England, saw nothing out of the ordinary: the grimy Underground station, a few dingy buildings, some pale gray sky. He was thinking, a bit absent-mindedly, about the Zen Buddhism retreat he was headed toward. And then, Austin suddenly felt a sense of enlightenment unlike anything he had ever experienced. His sense of individual existence, of separateness from the physical world around him, evaporated like morning mist in a bright dawn. He saw things “as they really are”, he recalls. “The sense of ‘I, me, mine’disappeared”. (Religion and the brain. Sharon Begley. Science & Technology section. Newsweek. May 14, ).

While, on the one hand, Austin’s experience was through intuition brought about by meditation, this essay is a theoretical argument that re-interprets a similar conclusion arising from an attempt to link the views of Dawkins () to the findings of Andrew Newberg et al. () while it recalls one of the basic tenets of Buddhism – the Anatta doctrine – that bears on the central problem which this essay deals with; the origin of the concept of “I”.

The argument in this essay begins with the humans as a species; it then dethrones, through a refutation of the existence of Descartes’ “I”, the individual as a special autonomous entity who represents that species; and finally it considers the gene that determines the individual in the context of its strategy for having itself perpetuated, in relation to its carrier, the individual, and then to the larger scene of its species. These views were expressed earlier by Samuel Butler, C.H. Waddington and by Edward O. Wilson and then expanded by Richard Dawkins in his popular work The Selfish Gene. Their views draw our attention to biological parallels of the Buddhist idea of anatta – the absence of a soul - that is discussed below.

A hen is only an egg’s way of making another egg”-  Samuel Butler (quoted by Wilson ). Butler’s famous aphorism, has been modernized: “the organism is only DNA’s way of making moreDNA” (Wilson ).
“Survival does not, of course, mean the bodily endurance of a single individual, outliving Methuselah. It implies, in its present day interpretation, perpetuation as a source for future generations”. C. H. Waddington quoted by Koestler ().
“…. in evolutionary time, the individual organism counts for almost nothing… Its primary function is not even to reproduce other organisms: it reproduces genes, and it serves as their temporary carrier…” Edward O. Wilson ().
Arthur Keith () predated these authors in having said that “Man has the seeds of immortality in him, but the gift is for the race, not for the individual”. Their comments imply that the individual is not the primary concern in the biological world or in biological evolution.

Richard Dawkins’ popular book () The Selfish Gene expressed the view that the obsession of the gene is its ultimate purpose of having itself perpetuated, for which is it uses us, each individual, as its carrier. While that is the fulcrum that I will consider for this essay, he had a wider perspective: he posed some questions that are in the vein of this conference – Is there a meaning to life? What are we for? What is man?

It is postulated in this essay that this function of perpetuating our genes could only be achieved if the organism has a concept of “self” which seeks to perform the function of procreation. Self-preservation is the basis for this function and for the expression of this function, and the body has to be so programmed. It is this assertiveness, with the drives of survival, for the appeasement of hunger and sex, that ultimately leads to the acquisition of a family, and then to procreation – and thereby, ultimately, to the propagation of the selfish genes. In the human, there are those highly individualized sublime, notions of ‘my family’, ‘my own offspring’ andthe carewithwhich the offspring are nurtured. As Newberg et al. wrote: “The goal of every living brain, no matter what its level of neurological sophistication, from the tiny knots of nerve cells that govern insect behavior on up to the intricate complexity of the human neocortex, has been to enhance the organism’s chances of survival by reacting to raw sensory data and translating it into a negotiable rendition of a world”. This is the crucial link, that the creation of the notion of “I”, a self, that this essay considers to be the obligatory pre-requisite for Dawkins’s perpetuation of the gene. Wilson () stated Dawkins’ idea in more physiological terms, that: “More to the point, the hypothalamus and limbic system are engineered to perpetuate DNA…. The hypothalamico-limbic complex of a highly social species, such as man, ‘knows’ or more precisely it has been programmed to perform as if it knows, that its underlying genes will be proliferated maximally only if it orchestrates behavioural responses that bring into play an efficient mixture of personal survival, reproduction and altruism.”. Wilson’s statement leads us to the work of Andrew Newberg et al. ().

The links that this essay seeks to establish are between the idea that Wilson () expressed as “…personal survival…”, the views of Dawkins () on the ulterior motive of the gene of its propagation, and the creation of the concept of “I” that Newberg et al. () derived from their neurophysiological work, only through which “…personal survival…” and the propagation of the gene can be established. Through sophisticated neurophysiological exploration of the brain and its activity in Buddhist monks in meditation and Christian nuns at prayer, Newberg et al. () commented: “(T)he primary job of the OAA” (Orientation Association Area of the brain) “is to orient the individual in physical space – it keeps track of which end is up, helps us judge angles and distances, and allows us to negotiate safely the dangerous physical landscape around us. To perform this crucial function, it must first generate a clear, consistent cognition of the physical limits of the self. In simple terms, it must draw a sharp distinction between the individual and everything else, to sort out the you from the infinite not-you that makes up the rest ofthe universe(accentuation added)……” In simpler terms, the left orientation area creates the brain’s special sense of self, while the right side creates the physical space in which that self can exist”……”The point is that the only way the mind can know the self, and experience the difference between the self and the rest of reality, is through the elaborate, restless efforts of the brain”.

In the chapter on Personality in Lakshmi Narasu’s book The Essence of Buddhism of a hundred years ago, it was written: In being conscious of myself I at the same timebecome conscious of something not myself. No inner perception is apprehended as such without distinguishing it from a simultaneous outer perception and setting it in antithesis to this. No inner experience is possible without the simultaneous construction of outer experience.

It is necessary in considering the unity of the body and the mind, and the integration of the psyche with physiology, to point out that the concept of “self” exists also in a physical plane. It is remarkable that this mental process of self-identification has a close parallel in the functioning of the immune system which is essentially a physical system designed to maintain the physical integrity of the individual. It is central to the organization of the immunological mechanisms through which an individual organism recognizes itself as distinct from other organisms, for the maintenance of the integrity of its physical body a function that first expressed itself in primitive organisms. While this mechanism for self-identification and self-assertion operates even in the unicellular organisms it is most sophisticated in the mammals. It features in transplantation immunology, immunological tolerance and in its breakdown that results in autoimmune diseases. The distinctiveness of an immunological self is as vital as the distinctiveness of the psychological self for the preservation of the integrity and survival of the individual. This parallel has its limits because in the immune system, the identification of ‘self’ is directed solely to the rejection of what is not ‘self’ and which could be harmful to that self. The ‘self’ identified by the individual’s mind however externalizes this identity leading not only to aggrandisement of the ‘self’ and, according to Buddhism, the perpetuation of the cycle of births and deaths while it also brings one into conflict with others in society.

On the topic of Personality, Lakshmi Narasu () wrote; the ‘…man inside the man is the soul”, a view that, in one form another, is accepted by Brahmanism, Jainism, Christianity and Islam. These religions teach that a man’s personality or self is his soul”. “while the existence of a substantive, changeless and enduring self is summarily rejected by Buddhist thinkers, the ‘self’ as ‘person’ and what it stands for … arevariously conceived in the major schools of Indian Buddhism” and Rao () discussed these interpretations. What the Buddha was rejecting is not so much a metaphysical self but the psychological self with the primary functions of the ego”; the metaphysical self was a concern of the Hindu thinkers ……in the over all architecture of the universe (Rao ). The Buddha rejected the notion of a metaphysical self too. He pointed outthat there is no self in any one of the five aggregates or apart from them (Premasiri , personal communication). Buddhism as a philosophy “…transcended ritual and polytheistic venerationinvolving the worship of anthropomorphic deities, turned towards a search for the inner reality of the individual self and its predicament in a world characterized by change and mutability” (Premasiri ). It is for this reason that Buddhistic ideas are relevant to the themes of this conference. A predominant idea is that of Anatta (An = without; Atman = soul). The Buddha’s reasons for this view are that nothing is permanent, that epistemologically, a person cannot know that a substantial psychological entity within himself exists; a practical reason for denouncing the view of a permanent ‘soul’ is that itis a hindrance to liberation from the cycle of births (Premasiri , personal communication). There are several problems that need to be resolved if the idea of the absence of a soul is valid. Such resolution is akin to the validation of a scientific theory; the theory must explain observations that appear to refute it, if it is sustainable as a valid theory. One problem that needs consideration is that of re-birth that is implied in the Buddhist doctrines.

There is found in several places in the (Buddhist) Canon the following formula-

  1. On account of ignorance, the sankharas
  2. On account of the sankharas, consciousness
  3. On account of consciousness, name and form
  4. On account of name and form, the six provinces (of the six senses)
  5. On account of the six senses, contact
  6. On account of contact, sensation
  7. On account of sensation, craving
  8. On account of craving, attachment
  9. On account of attachment, becoming
  10. On account of becoming, birth………..

(Rhys Davids, a). These form the idea of Dependent Origination, Paticca Samupp·da, which is in agreement with the ideas of Newberg et al on the origin of the idea of the ‘self’ by sensations derived from the external world: "Eventually, those various independent functions - thoughts, emotions, intentions, actions and memories - are all categorized as a single, distinct, meaningful, construct. In other words, they become reified into the specific, familiar, enduring and highly personalized 'self' ".

On the idea of dependent origination of the personality through the six senses, Narasu quoted the response of a Buddhist Bhikshuni: “….personality consists of the fiveelements of life impulse…” and continued that “Man is an organism built up of the five skandas, namely rupa, vedana, vignana, samjna and samskara. Each of these skandas is agroup of psychical processes. Rupa represents the totality of sensations and ideaspertaining to one’s body; vedana the momentary emotional states; vignana the thoughts; samjna the conceptions and abstractions; and samskara the dispositions, inclinations andvolitions. Premasiri () pointed out that this analysis of a person “…differed from thatof the materialists who considered an individual to be identical with the physical body which was merely a collection of material elements”. It is onRupa,the physical body, with which the five senses interact recalling the similar view of Newberg that the delusory “I” is created by sensory inputs into the circuitry of the normal brain. Narasu quotes Kant: “… whenever I contemplate what is inmost in what I call myself, I always come in contact with such or such special perception as of cold, heat, light, or shadow, love or hate, pleasure or pain. I never come unawares on my mind existing in a state void of perceptions”.

The ever-changing personality of the individual suggests again the absence of a permanent entity the “I”. This again is in line with the Buddhist view; Rev. K. Dhammananda () wrote: “The Buddha taught that what we take to be as something eternal is merely a combination of changing psycho-physical forces or energy. The process of these psycho-physical forces (the Panchaskanda) is not static but constantly becoming and passing away… Buddhism does not totally deny the existence of a personality in an empirical sense. It denies, in an ultimate sense, an identical being of a permanent entity; but it does not deny a continuity of process”.

“If the existential dream we are all engaged in living, with its persistent urge towards self-affirmation, be that which binds us to the wheel of birth and death in continually renewed succession….” (Pallis ); it is that self-affirmation which is expressed by the “I”. Conversely, as the Buddhists believe, liberation from this delusion of “I”, and the termination of the cycle of re-birth, is brought about by the Buddhist path, notably that of meditation: “During the intense concentration of meditation, you prevent the brain from forming the distinction between self and not-self”(Begley ).

The absence of an essential, real identity of an “I” would thus be in line with Buddhist thought. It appears that believers in Judeo-Christianity and Abrahamic religions have literally accepted the idea of a creator God, and a soul; “The greatest obstacle, therefore, to the emancipation and deliverance of mind proclaimed by the Buddha, is the Self, that unitary and coherent Soul which Christians, Moslems, Jews, and Hindus believe to be a permanent and eternal entity”(Jacobson ). But is it possible that the allegories in Christian teachings when re-interpreted or restored to their pristine state, do actually imply, as Buddhism does, that the soul is a mere construct that should be de-constructed if ‘enlightenment’ is to be attained?: “…the most suggestive parallel with the anatta teaching to be found outside Buddhism, namely Jesus Christ’s declaration that ‘if any man would come after me, let him deny himself’. The word itself as commonly usedhas become so impoverished as to be near to contradicting the Gospel phrase from which it originated” (Pallis ).

To complete the historiography of the idea of the absence of a permanent soul, it is necessary to interpolate here some statements of Jacobson () who discussed parallels between the ideas of David Hume, the Scottish philosopher ( – ), and that of the Buddha who lived years ago: This position on the illusory nature of the self is also found in David Hume who was oriented to the philosophizing of theclassic Greek and Roman tradition and had no knowledge of Buddhism at all;….there is no thinker but the thoughts, no perceiver but theperceptions, no craver but the cravings…. The similarity is striking” (Jacobson ).

A reference to this Buddhist idea of Anattabecomes necessary when considering the views of Newberg et al. that (a) the concept of “I” is an artifact that arises from the functioning of a normal brain, and (b) the concept of “I” arises from sensory inputs into the brain, as stated in Buddhism. These ideas are expressed in the Buddhist doctrine as Dependent Origination that was referred to earlier.

Before discussing the implications of the doctrine of Anatta, another matter that is relevant to the existence or non-existence of a soul needs to be mentioned, and that is the putative existence after death of the intact memories and personality of a deceased, or discarnate entityas termed by James Alcock, as cogently documented by the researches and writings of, for example, John G. Fuller, physicist Sir Oliver Lodge, and the case records in the Society for Psychical Research, London. Despite the impossibility of direct scientific exploration, it is my opinion that, as with comments on other putative paranormal phenomena by eminent investigators such as Nobel laureate Professor Brian Josephson, Cambridge University, Professor Alan Turin, Professor Arthur Eddington, Jesicca Utts, Professor Hans Eysenck, University of London, and John Beloff, such phenomena cannot be dismissed as nonsense, mistakes or fraud, but need to be explored with a proper scientific attitude if the legitimate goal of its intellectual endeavour is the understanding of Nature. My question is, what is this ‘discarnate entity’ in relation to Descartes’ “soul” or the Buddhist “Skandas”?. The psychic or psychological aspects are difficult for conventional scientific exploration, while of the material aspects, R. Smith wrote (The Mind-Body relation; Dictionary of the History of Science, MacMillan, London. Eds William Bynum et al. ): “Materialist solutions to the mind-brain problem were therefore popular for a while, but many scientists recognized their ignorance of the physical basis of psychological processes and the size of the philosophical problems in formulating a coherent materialism”.

The Buddha’s view of anatta, is next discussed in the context of another idea in Buddhism, the cycle of births. It is the notion of identity of the self that, according to Buddhism, leads to the cycle of re-becoming or rebirth. The term reincarnation or transmigration which implies the rebirth in another body of a previous soul is considered invalid in the Buddhist doctrines. Lakshmi Narasu () wrote: Without a soul there could be no recompense for one’s deedsby metempsychosis; and without transmigration how would it be possible to account for the differences between man and man in endowments, character, position and fate? W. Somerset Maugham used the popular but incorrect term Transmigration when he wrote in his The Summing Up that an explanation that appealed equally to my sensibility and to my imaginationwas the doctrine of the transmigration of souls and in such a process an integral basis is that of Karma, though he said he could not understand how it operates; Karma is of course an integral part of the idea of rebirth. This is the most difficult point to explain on the idea that a permanent soul does not exist. It could be speculated that the cumulated force or energy of one’s life (karma) - the actions, the thoughts - are stored in some form, to find re-expression in another physical life. It is as much as when energy is stored, unseen, as potential energy in a body at a height, or as electrical energy in a battery terminal, which are expressed when the opportunity arises and some visible work is done; or as a record of a script or picture on a computer disc which can be reproduced to be seen or heard. I have to speculate again; if the accumulated karma is stored in some form of energy for re-activation later, then Bagley’s comments (, personal communication) on the work at the PEAR group at Princeton University, are probably relevant: “The theories of electromagnetic influence which flow from and between individuals also provide a possible model for astrological researchers who try and explain how and why small electrical forces can influence neonataldevelopment at crucial periods of growth”. This comment is particularly relevant to, and might even explain the cases described by Ian Stevenson as showing physical characteristics which seemed to have been a carry-over, or an operation of karmic consequences of former deeds in a previous birth (see Arseculeratne ).

According to Buddhism, it is possible to end this cycle of birth and death through the paths described by the Buddha that lead to liberation from the delusion of ‘self’.. In parallel terms: “During the intense concentration of meditation, you prevent the brain from forming the distinction between self and not-self” (Begley, ) which is the prescribed goal in Buddhism. The idea of re-incarnation was apparently entertained in early Christian thought (Gruber & Kersten ). In the early Christian communities “… belief in reincarnation was taken for granteduntil it fell victim to historical error in , being declared to be a heretical belief at the Fifth Ecumenical Council in Constantinople, and remained banned from the Christian faith up to the present day…. In later centuries the church devoted great efforts to suppressing all New Testament references to the idea of reincarnation without being able to eliminate them completely”.

The question, then, is what is it that re-born, if there is no soul?; this problem has occurred to others as well: “When asked once by one of his Western students puzzling over Buddhist teachings of egolessness, ‘Well then, if there is no self, what is it that reincarnates?’ the Tibetan lama Chogyam Trungpa laughed and answered without hestitation. ‘Neurosis’ he replied” (Epstein ). But the lama’s reply does not enlighten me. “Nevertheless, the absence of a belief in a soul does not precludeBuddhism from accepting a human being who has past and future Samsaric existence and whose tenure in Samsara is not terminated at death” (Tilakaratne, ). Omvedt () recorded that B.R. Ambedkar was also bothered by this quandary; Ambedkar “asserts that a ‘terrible contradiction’ exists between the doctrines of karmaand rebirth, and the Buddha’s denial of the existence of the soul” (p 4). On this quandary, Rao () too commented: “What about personal identity, the self-sameness. Is there no enduring agent of action, how can we attribute merit and demerit and account for their consequential influence and effects on one’s being and behaviour, as Buddhists believe?”

The following is from a commentary (Arseculeratne ) on Ian Stevenson’s studies on some remarkable cases: “The contribution of certain congenital abnormalities to the mind-brain problem”:“Story in his essay ‘The case for rebirth’ () also wrote: ‘The thought-force of a sentient being, generated by the will-to-live, the desire to enjoy sensory experiences, produces after death another being who is the causal resultant of the preceding one. Schopenhauer expressed the same idea when he said that in re-birth, which he called ‘Palingenesis’, ‘it is the will, not an ego-entity which re-manifests itself in a new life’ ….Buddhism maintains that the physical universe itself is sustained by this mental energy derived from living beings, which is identical with their karma”. It is the Kamma Niyama that refers to the order of action and result which is one of the five Niyamas that determine a life. As pointed out above, Maugham provided a view that expresses this need of procreation that results in Dawkins’ perpetuation of the gene through the cycle of births; “…[i}t is the craving within me, which is in every man, to preserve in my own being; it is the egoism that we all inherit from that remote energy which in the unplumbed past first set the ball rolling; it is the need ofself-assertion which is in every living thing and which keeps it alive” (Maugham ).

Nyanatiloka in his lucid essay “Essence of The Buddha’s Teaching” provided insights in resolving this quandary:

“ In the absolute sense(Paramatta) no individual, no person is there to be found, but merely perpetually changing combination of physical states, of feelings, volition and states of consciousness…that which we call a ‘being’ or ‘individual’ or ‘person’ is nothing but a changing combination of physical and mental phenomena, and has no real existence in itself……The words ‘I’, ‘you’, ’he’ etc are merely terms found useful in conventional or current (vohara) speech, but do not designate realities (paramattha-dhammas). For, neither do these physical and mental phenomena constitute a reality, an absolute Ego-entity, nor yet does there exist, outside these phenomena, any Ego-entity, self or soul, who is the possessor or owner of the same. Thus, when the Buddhist scriptures speak of persons, or even rebirth of persons, this is done only for the sake of easier understanding, and is not to be taken in a sense of ultimate truth. This so-called ‘being’, or ‘I’, is in the absolute sense nothing but aperpetually changing process. Therefore also, to speak of suffering or a ‘person’, or ‘being’ is in the absolute sense incorrect. For it is not a ‘person’ but a physico-mental process that is subject to transiency and suffering.

Thus it is said that Buddhism on the one hand denies the existence of the soul, whilst on the other hand it teaches transmigration of the soul. Nothing could be more mistaken than this. For Buddhism teaches no transmigration at all. The Buddhist doctrine of rebirth – which is really the same as the law of Causality extended to themental and moral domain – has nothing whatever to do with the Brahmin doctrine of re-incarnation, or transmigration. There exists a fundamental difference between these two doctrines…. According to Brahmanical teaching, there exists a soul, independently of the body, which after death, leaves its physical envelope and passes over into a new body, exactly as one might throw off an old garment and put on a new. Quite otherwise, however, it is with the Buddhist doctrine of Rebirth. Buddhism does not recognise in this world any permanent existence of even mindapart from matter. All mental phenomena are conditioned through the six organs of sense, and without these they cannot unendingly exist. According to Buddhism, mind without matter is an impossibility. And, as we have seen, the mental phenomena, just as all bodily phenomena, are subject to change, and no persisting element, no Ego-entity, no soul, is there to be found. But when there is no real unchanging entity, no soul, there one cannot speak of the transmigration of such a thing.

How then is rebirth possible without something to be reborn, without an Ego or soul? Here I have to point out that, even the word ‘rebirth’, in this connection, is really not quite correct, but used as a mere makeshift. What the Buddha teaches, is correctly speaking, the Law of Cause and Effect working in the moral domain. For just as everything in the physical world happens in accordance with law, as the arising of any physical state is dependent on some preceding state as its cause, in just the same way must this law have universal application in the mental and moral domain too. If every physical state is preceded by another state as its cause, so also must this present physico-mental life be dependent upon causes anterior to its birth. Thus according to Buddhism, the present life-process is the result of this craving for life in a former birth, and for craving for life in this birth is the cause of the life-process that continues after death.

Nothing ‘transmigrates’ from this moment to the next, nothing from one life to another life. This process of perpetual producing and being produced may best be compared with a wave on the ocean. In the case of a wave there is not the smallest quantity of water that actually travels over the surface of the sea. The wave-structure that seems to hasten over the surface of the water, though creating the appearance of one and the same mass of water, is in reality nothing but a continued rising and falling of continued but ever new masses of water. And the rising and falling is produced by the transmission of force originally generated by wind. Just so the Buddha did not teach that it is an Ego-entity, or a soul, that hastens through the ocean of rebirth, but that it is in reality merely a life-wave which, according to its nature and activities, appears here as man, there as animal, and elsewhere as invisible being".

After death, it is not the “I” as a distinct personality that is re-born but the forces generated by karma that creates another, but not identical, being. T.W. Rhys Davids views are relevant to that view: “In the Buddhist adaptation of this theory, no soul, no consciousness, no memory goes over from one body to the other…. It is the grasping, the craving, still existing at the death of one body that causes the new set of skandhas, that is, the new body with its mental tendencies and capacities, to arise. How this takes place is nowhere explained. (Rhys Davids b).

If the self is a construct of pre-determined causes, then there are limits to the choices that it could be make. This brings us to a consideration of the question, or as Gilbert Ryle termed it, a dilemma, of Free-will versus Determinism. This topic was the subject of a Dialogue of our Society for the Integration of Science and Human Values. Free-will is the state of mind which enables us to choose a particular course of action when other courses of action are available to us; we claim to be free to choose whatever course of action we take. Determinism claims on the other hand that we have no Free-will of this sort and that our actions have been determined by a variety of causes. This dilemma relates to the behaviour of an individual in his society – again, a topic of interest to this conference. In the ultimate sense what is thought of as our Free-will could therefore be subject to a very fundamental consideration – the principle of causality. This is indeed a fundamental philosophical debate; are mental states, like physical states, subject to the laws of Causality, beginning with genetic determinants and later conditioning which is a basic biological fact of life?.We need to go back to Dawkins andto the topics relevant to this conference: can it tell us how to live our lives, how to seekvirtue, how to live together?. Dawkins wrote:Be warned that if you wish, as I do, to build a society in which individuals cooperate generously and unselfishly towards a common good, you can expect little from biological nature. Let us try to teach generosityand altruism, because we are born selfish”. His statement underlines the view that I discuss later on the seeming predominance of Determinism in ourselves, in this case genetic determinism and conditioning that biological entities are subject to. We have tode-condition ourselves, of freeing ourselves by deconstructing our ego, and the Buddhistic path, discussed above, might be the path through which this could be achieved. The artefactual nature of the self, the “I” entails the question whether this entity has any degree of autonomy which would equip it to make free choices in ethical decision making. The Buddha engaged in a dialogue on this question when he was asked – If there is no self, if the body is not self, if sensations are not self, if volitions are not self, then what entity is involved in questions of moral responsibility? It is a question that tries to draw implications that are not warranted from his teachings, and the Buddhist tradition gives a logical answer. Moral responsibility becomes a problem only if there is a persistent self entity, eternally pure; and then there is nothing to do about it. If it is a permanent, defiled entity then nothing one does can make any difference. The possibility of moral transformation of a personcan be conceived only if there is a changing self”  (Premasiri ; personal communication).

It was considered that the resolution of this dilemma on Free-will versus Determinism, however unsatisfactory, lies with the concept of “Compatibilism” (Searle ) wherein a degree of Free-will is accommodated within a larger frame-work of Determinism. The evidence from many considerations indicates that, basically, Determinism predominates with determinants ranging from foetal life through genetics, to infancy through conditioning – the sort that J. B. Watson spoke about, – to social determinants ranging from religion to politics or whatever. The idea of Determinism is abhorrent to many, as it was to the late Professor Ian Stevenson (Department of Psychiatry, University of Virginia, USA) despite the cogent evidence I gave him that events in the lives of contemporary people had been foretold centuries before. So it was to Sir Arthur Keith (): “If by determinism is meant that we have no power to do thisrather than that – that man has no power to choose – then I am not a determinist. For every day - almost every hour – alternative modes of action arise; after due consideration, I take the one way rather than the other. The choice is often ethical in its nature – as to whether I should satisfy self or sacrifice self. It is sophistry to say that my choice was already determined”. These views were also discussed in the presentations on Free-will and Determinism at our Society’s Dialogue and despite the evidence that indicated a predominance of Determinism over Free-will, it was tempting to accept, as appealing and desirable, the option of Free-will in the choices we have to make.

On this problem A. J. Ayer wrote (): “It seems that if we are to retain this idea of moral responsibility, we must either show that men can be held responsible for actions which they do not do freely, or else find someway of reconciling determinism with the freedom of the will”. Searle’s () question is topical: “[I]s it ever true to say of a human being that he could have done otherwise?…. Is all behaviour determined by suchpsychological compulsions?”. Searle answers the second question negatively; and therein lies the hope that individuals are flexible enough to cope with the stresses and strains in society, because there could be scope for Free-will as well if one considers the successes of hypnosis, counselling, psychotherapy, courses in anger management and above all, meditation, in the de-conditioning of individuals. This hope is what Dawkins expressed: ”We are built as gene machines and cultured as meme machines, but we have the power to turn against our creators, We alone on earth, canrebel against the tyranny of selfish replicators”. Rao () expressed a similar view: “We are told (in Buddhism) that we can overcome congenital ignorance, break the simmering samskaras in the unconscious and act free to know the truth and conquer suffering. We are not born free, but we can grow to be free”. If this debate is intractable to resolution, could at least the compromise of “compatibilism” (Searle ) give us any relief, though Searle thought it was an inadequate solution to the problem. In relation to the causative determinants referred to above, and the possibility that there exists some degree of free-will and autonomy, it is encouraging that Ayer () considered that: “The formation of his character may narrow his freedom; he may, through physical or social conditioning, or as the consequences of his own free actions, be deprived of the power to make choices that he was once able to make: but except, when the man ceases to be a responsible agent, his freedom of choice never vanishes altogether” (emphasis added).

If, on the one hand, there be some degree of Free-will through which choices in ethical behaviour can be made, and on the other hand social and cultural determinants contribute to the conditioning of an individual, a further problem arises – that of Moral Relativism or one aspect of it, Cultural Relativism, which if valid, would influence moral choices; this would make it unreasonable to question alternative codes of behaviour across different cultures. Cultural Relativism too was the subject of a Dialogue in our Society. It was pointed out that the identification of a Universal Code of Ethics might encounter difficulties given the reality of Cultural Relativism, that we recently showed as existing between Asian and Western societies, in medical ethical decision-making, confirming many opinions in the literature from the East as well as the West that presumed, without proof, the existence of Cultural Relativism. It needs mention that despite the reality of Cultural Relativism in ethical opinions, there is the possibility, as Levy () pointed out, that the acceptance of its reality is a matter of concern to persons who view as unacceptable, the actions of other groups of people who would justify them according to their own standards of morality.

The denial of a soul in Buddhist philosophy “…was not considered …  to involve a renunciation of moral responsibility. Most of the practical teachings of Buddhism were concerned with self-improvement and self-development and the improvement of the social institutions within which anindividual is a significant element.” (Premasiri ). The reason for this approach was that Buddhism considered “Notions of identity (that) created strong craving and clinging (that) were considered as the source of conflicts both within the individual self and in the larger society in which the individual was an essentialcomponent” (Premasiri ). This conference asks the question whether an analysis of the first person tells us how to live together. This brings us to the societal implications of the delusion of the self-identity as discussed in Buddhism. Premasiri () considered this question: “….notions of self-identity did not seem to be confined to interaction between individuals. They were clearlyseen to manifest in the form of group identities as well…. The Buddha was aware that human beings lacking in insight were prone to conceive of social entities in the same was in which they conceived the self. According to the Buddha, social identities such as caste, class, race, ethnic group, religion etc., (and one can extrapolate this to the clash ofcivilizations that Huntington wrote about) were a product of dependent arising (that was described earlier). The Buddha pointed out that there were no absolute distinctions among human beings and whatever distinctions they had made among themselves were based on convention…. Whoever became a victim to such psychological dispositions (the obsession with the ego), acquired the tendency to come in conflict with others…”; the route through which this obsession interferes with the individual’s peaceful co-existence in his society is because “The tendency of the human mind is to create an absolute dichotomy of self and not-self, resulting in extremely acquisitive tendencies expressed as an intense urge to expand as much as possible the domain of what belongs to the self. It generates greed, craving, miserliness, and insensitivity to the needs and desires of others” (Premasiri , personal communication). As Rao too () wrote: “A person’s self-concept has profound implications for her behaviour and how she experiences the world and participates in it. It has equally far reaching implications for society, culture, and all kinds of interpersonal relationships”. The concept of a self identity is enlarged with a social identity of many sorts and the complexities of social identity especially in multi-cultural or pluralistic societies was discussed by Rao () and in view of the interactions of personal and social identity in a multicultural society, he suggested, as an intervention measure, “… strategies for the development of multicultural competence at an early age”.

If there is great controversy on the large questions on life that provides us with no clear or ready answers to the problems that I referred to which confront us, what should be our individual stance in life and in our interactions with fellow beings in our social contract?. I finally turn to the views of the biologist Arthur Keith. He confessed that he, as did “…most inquiringbiologists” who have arrived at the conception concerning the structure of the brain andthe nature of mind and thought” , had to turn away from his early beliefs and having been a biologist who considered the findings of science in contradistinction to orthodox religious beliefs, he wrote (): “Once we have acceptedour humble origin and the heritage it has brought us, we are prepared to discipline ourselves and to behave with tolerance, sympathy, and charity to all others”. His words might imply the hope of a Universal Ethic but perhaps the reality of Cultural or Moral Relativism might throw some doubt on whether Keith’s idealism might work out at all. A. J. Ayer () also considered this question that is related to this conference’s themes that include religion and morality, and the question of free-will that is now added to these in this discussion: “… can life be seen ashaving any meaning?. The simple answer is that it can have just as much meaning as one is able to put into it. There is indeed, no ground for thinking that human life in general serves any ulterior purpose but this is no bar to a man’s finding satisfaction in many of the activities which make up his life, or to his attaching value to the ends which he pursues….”. More succinctly was Bryson’s () reference to the apparently pointless life of lichens on which he quoted Attenborough: “They simply exist”. Bryson commented: “It is easy to overlook this thought that life just is. As humans we are inclined to feel that life must have a point”.

References and Recommended Reading

Anscombe, Elizabeth, & Geach, P.T. , Descartes. Philosophical writings. London, Nelson.

Arseculeratne, S.N. A commentary on Professor Ian Stevenson’s case studies –“The contribution of certain congenital abnormalities to the ‘mind-brain’ problem. In Trends in Rebirth Research. erixt.euweb.czyake ed., Ratmalana, Sarvodaya Visvalekha Press.

Ayer, A. J. , Philosophical Essays. London, Macmillan. pp /7.

Ayer, A. J. , The Central Questions of Philosophy. Harmondsworth, Penguin.

Begley, Sharon. NEWSWEEK. May (Science & Technology section).

Bryson, Bill. A Short History of Nearly Everything. London, Blackswan Books

Dawkins, R. The Selfish Gene. Herts., Granada Publishing.

Dhammananda, The Ven K. Do you believe in Rebirth?, Kuala Lumpur, The Buddhist Missionary Society.

Epstein, Mark. . Going to Pieces without falling apart: A Buddhist perspective onwholeness, lessons from Meditation and Psychiatry. New York, Broadway Books.

Gruber E.R & Kersten, Holger. ,The original Jesus. Shaftesbury. Element.

Jacobson, N.P. Buddhism.The religion of analysis, London, George, Allen & Unwin. pp 18,

Jacobson, N.P. , The possibility of Oriental influence in Hume’s Philosophy, Philosophy East and West, 19, No.1 (January – March), p

Keith, Arthur. In: I Believe: the personal philosophies of twenty-three eminent menand women of our time. London, George Allen & Unwin.

Koestler, Arthur. , Janus, London. Hutchinson.

Levy, Neil. ,  Moral Relativism. A Short Introduction. Oxford, Oneworld

Maugham, W. Somerset, The Summing Up. New York, Mentor Books.

Narasu, P. Lakshmi. The Essence of Buddhism, Madras, India.

Newberg, A., D’Aquili, E. & Rause, V. Why God won’t go away: Brain science &the biology of belief. New York, Ballantine Books.

Omvedt, Gail. Buddhism in India: Challenging Brahmanism and Caste, New Delhi, Sage Publications

Pallis, Marco. , Buddhist Spectrum, London, George Allen & Unwin.

Premasiri, P. D. Implications of Buddhist perspectives on the notions of identity and differences in social relationships. In: Identity and Difference; essays onSociety &Culture in Sri Lanka. Kandy, ISLE Program.

Rao, K. Ramakrishna. The relevance of philosophy to life in the 21st century World Philosophy Day , National Science Foundation, Colombo

Rhys Davids, T.W. a. Early Buddhism. Asian Educational Services, New Delhi. p 84/

Rhys Davids, T.W. b. Early Buddhism. Asian Educational Services, New Delhi. p

Searle, John. Minds, brains and science. The Reith Lectures. London, BBC.

Story, F. , The case for rebirth. Kandy, The Buddhist Publication Society.

Tilakaratne, A. , Beyond the metaphysics of commonsense: Ethics and Beyond the metaphysics of commonsense. Eds, Zoysa, Y. Karunadasa, C. Ranawaka & A. Tilakaratne. Colombo, Vidyartha & Postgraduate Institute of Pali & Buddhist Studies.

Wilson, Edward O. , Sociobiology. Cambridge, Mass., Harvard University Press.

Wilson, Edward O. , Sociobiology. The abridged edition. Cambridge, Mass., Harvard University Press.


I am deeply indebted to Professor P. D. Premasiri (University of Peradeniya, Sri Lanka) for having enlightened me on the philosophy of Buddhism concerning the notion of self and its implications.

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