Thursday, January 25, 2007

Thought and Being

As I read St. Augustine's Enchiridion recently, I noticed a parallel with Descartes' famous dictum, cogito ergo sum. Augustine writes:
It is a question whether we ought to argue with those who profess themselves ignorant not only about the eternity yet to come but also about their present existence, for they [the Academics] even argue that they do not know what they cannot help knowing. For no one can "not know" that he himself is alive. If he is not alive, he cannot "not know" about it or anything else at all, because either to know or to "not know" implies a living subject.
-Enchiridion, VII, 20
Now, obviously I'm not the first to notice this. Today, having returned to Thomas Martin's book on Augustinian spirituality, Our Restless Hearts, I read Martin's account of the parallel, which was commented upon by Descartes' contemporaries, particularly his supporters. There are also parallels, I'm told, in Augustine's On Free Will and City of God. Apparently Descartes himself denied any direct dependency on Augustine. But Martin observes, "An irreparable breach would have been created in his argument by suggesting that he discovered the principle elsewhere than in the 'thinking self,' Descartes' thinking self, of course."

This is a really fascinating idea. I've always been pursuaded by Descartes' argument, but if the thought that "I am" comes from outside the self, then perhaps I am not, or at least the "I" that is may be much bigger than "I" think.

I'm quite curious about the concept of collective intelligence, and I may write more about this soon. The evidence seems quite strong that our thoughts are heavily conditioned by our experience and even our seemingly original thoughts are constructed from prior materials. All of which leads me to ponder what is truly fundamental to reality.

Augustine, addressing God, answers in the Confessions:
We, therefore, see these things which You made, because they are, but they are because You see them.

No comments: