Monday, March 20, 2006

Descartes' Dogma - Soul Searching

17th century philosopher, mathematician and scientist René Descartes once stated - "Cogito, ergo sum" meaning, "I am thinking, therefore I exist."

Implied in the first part of René's statement ("I am thinking") is the existence of a thinker apart from thought. Is this an actual fact? Is it a fact that "I" think and "you" think? Or is the thinker simply another sliver - a sliver not essentially different than other slivers within the whole fragmented process of thinking?

Obviously, different brains have gone through different experiences. Therefore, different brains - different organisms, have been conditioned with different knowledge. But this does not address the assumption of a personal psyche. Is there a thinker? There are conditioned brains, but is there an actual thinker - a "me", an "I", a central psyche, an experiencer of thoughts? Or is the thinker simply another fragment that many believe refers to something foundational, something solid, something centralized round which the process of thinking occurs? Surely Descartes was not referring to the "I" in a conventional, factual sense. Surely Descartes did not mean, as he pointed to his head, "This brain thinks."

Seeing that the concept of a thinker apart from thought is on shaky ground, many then project a soul - an immortal part of man that acts as the enabler of thought. Is there a soul? Or is the belief in a soul the vehicle used to escape from fear? Thought fears death. Or rather, thought irrationally fears the unknown - labeling it as 'death' and placing it in opposition to life. Thought, which is limited - always fractured, always based on the past - cannot possibly bring the unknown into the known. But rather than staying with its limitation, thought has invented and projected the 'soul' or 'higher-self' - a belief concerning the unknown which it uses as an escape from fear.

Fear is a part of what we are. It's a part of our whole house. Yet do we thoroughly explore this basic fact? We spend much time adding and subtracting superficial 'knowledge' to this so-called 'self.' We declare ourselves as christians, jews, muslims, and atheists. We add knowledge of our nationality, race, and culture to the 'thinker'. We expend a great deal of energy accumulating and modifying knowledge about the "me" and then declare this accrued, personalized encyclopedia as 'self-knowledge'. But fear must be watched and understood, not sidestepped through identity or belief. The watching of how the "me" relates to and reacts to life's challenges is essential. Knowing why the "me" identifies, rather than with what it identifies, is infinitely more important. Surely that is what it means to know oneself for such knowledge is not of time.


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