Am I Who I Am?

You imagine that you know yourself better than anyone else in the world, but do you really know who you are?

Questions like this are what Descartes discusses in his two meditations, where readers are led to question everything. In his first meditation, Descartes focuses on doubt. To do so, he states how he must forget everything he has ever known “and start again from the foundations” (Descartes, 1). The overall focus of the first meditation is that Descartes talks about a “malicious, powerful, cunning demon” that deceives him (Descartes, 3). This demon inputs dreams that trap Descartes’ judgments and make us wonder: if  when we are dreaming, are we just dreaming while we’re asleep, or is all of life a dream?  I suppose that it is possible that a demon can be controlling our lives, but I don’t see why some demon would be doing this.

It is fair to say that one is doubtful of these claims. If one believes this theory, in order to have a justified true belief, S must contain strong evidence that supports such P. I suppose that this situation could be possible in another world, but there isn’t much to any evidence that supports this idea in this world.

Descartes goes onto his second meditation and discusses the human mind. He starts off stating that “everything [he sees] is fictitious. [He] will believe that [his] memory tells [him] nothing but lies. [He] has no senses. Body, shape, extension, movement and place are illusions. So what remains true? Perhaps just the one fact that nothing is certain” (Descartes, 4). He, next, chooses to discuss the senses and how valid they are by focusing on a piece of wax. The senses led to the mind drawing conclusions that the solid and liquid wax forms were the same, but this is not the case. In addition, if you were holding a piece of ice, you would conclude that the ice is cold because that is the answer you get from your sense of touch/feel. According to Descartes, we don’t really know that the ice is cold (Pynn, 1-2); our senses cannot be trusted at all times because there are instances when they can fool us. How do I know that I am actually feeling the back of my desk chair right now, or my fingertips pressing against the keyboard? This could all be a lie.

Bostrom’s essay about post-human simulations contradicts Descartes views on the mind. Where Descartes argues that the mind is the only thing that truly exists, Bostrom discusses the possibility of our minds possibly being run as an ancestor-simulation “rather than among the original biological ones” (Bostrom, 1). How do we know whether or not this is the case? One can wonder for all of his or her life, but will there ever be evidence to prove this is the case? Would those in control of our minds ever allow us to notice such evidence? Therefore, we cannot know that this is the case. Also, our “thoughts” would not truly be our own if we are being controlled by others, so is our mind even uniquely ours? The justified true belief account requires evidence and it is unclear if we will ever have that. I have to see Bostrom’s theory as a possibility because who knows? In another possible world, this could be the case, or even in our own world. We wouldn’t know any different unless those controlling us made us aware.

For all we know, we could all just be brains in vats being controlled and none of these experiences of life are reality. Like the Doubtful viewpoint in the first meditation, “this discovery makes me dizzy…” (Descartes, 2)

Other Sources:

Handout 2: The First Meditation (Professor Geoff Pynn):

3 thoughts on “Am I Who I Am?

  1. I think you draw an interesting contrast between these two articles. I’m curious to know if anyone has ever tried to reconcile the differences between the two conclusions that Bostrom and Descartes draw from their individual reflections. On one hand, I can see how the two might slightly be in congruence with one another: Descartes posits that he is without limbs, a body, or anything physical and is just his thoughts. A great deceiver is the controlling force behind his alleged perception of this world. This might fit with Botstrom’s idea that we are products of ancestor simulations and that we are in a post-human era where programs are capable of producing “human thought.” In this way the great deceiver might be taking the form of a computer program or some other inorganic entity simulating everything around us. This is a bit of a stretch, but your comparison between the two articles caused me to think of in what ways our two readings from last week might have been related.

  2. I have to agree here, I think that Descartes struggled to deal with his false beliefs therefore blaming them on some type of a demon. While, Bostrom is using numbers to prove his point that it is probable that we are brains in vats. He shows how the numbers that appear so large to us now, would be extremely easy to compute to computers as society advances. I think that, after our lectures, it has become more reasonable to say(or believe) that our thoughts may very well not be our own, and that the people around us might be zombies. For me personally, this goes against my intuitions but the evidence that Bostrom uses and the approach that Descartes shows, make these claims seem to be more and more real.

  3. I want to comment on your reference to Descartes’s demon comment. Bostrom argues in his paper that the world could very likely be a computer simulation, and as such we would all be simulations capable of conscious thought. We would still be able to form judgments and beliefs on things, yet it would all be for naught as we are all computer simulations controlled by a ‘higher order’ of scientists. This ‘higher order’ could be considered omnipotent by the simulated world and thus (depending on the view one takes of their manipulative actions on the world) could be considered demons. The Demon as we said in class is a very powerful, very smart creature capable of controlling and manipulating your senses and perceptions of the world around you. I’m stating this because Descartes’s view of a demonic force could tie in nicely with Bostrom’s stipulation that we live in a simulated world. I also want to disagree with your statement about dreaming in that yes, you are aware of dreaming only while asleep. While asleep and in REM mode, you experience images (typically of places/ people already known) and Descartes claims that they can be misconstrued with reality. That isn’t the case, as you can PERCEIVE the dream, but not SENSE it. there is no sensing of the dream going on in your mind, it’s an entirely mental process going on as your brain sifts through information. Therefore there is no smelling, feeling, tasting, touching, and most importantly seeing going on. Just perceiving. If it occurred in the real world, we would be able to sense it therefore it is not a dream, it is reality

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