I think, therefore, I am?


René Descartes walked into a bar. The bartender asked him if he wanted a drink.

René Descartes replied, “I think not.”

And he ceased to exist.

René Descartes was a 17th-century French philosopher. In his philosophical musings, he developed a doctrine known as Cartesian Doubt, a systematic process of being skeptical about the truth of one’s beliefs — to the point of even questioning his own existence.

Descartes’ attempt to apply the method of doubt to the existence of himself spawned the proof of his famous saying, “Cogito, ergo sum” (I think, therefore I am). That is, Descartes tried to doubt his own existence but found that even his doubting showed that he existed since he could not doubt if he did not exist.

At least that’s the common interpretation.

Others have looked at this process of doubt and come to other conclusions.

Jean-Paul Sartre examined Descartes statement and came to the following conclusion:

“One can ask why the I has to appear in the cogito {Descartes’ argument, “I think therefore I am.}, since the cogito, if used rightly, is the awareness of pure consciousness, not directed at any fact or action. In fact, the ‘I’ is not necessary here, since it is never united directly to consciousness. One can even imagine a pure and self-aware consciousness which thinks of itself as impersonal spontaneity.”

This is a brilliant insight. Awareness and cognition do not require an “I”. The “I” of Descartes exists only as an illusion of consciousness. The awareness of the “I” is a deeper level of consciousness.

The error of Descartes was more clearly illustrated by Eckhart Tolle in the Power of Now:

“The philosopher Descartes believed he had found the most fundamental truth when he made his famous statement: “I think, therefore I am.”

He had, in fact, given expression to the most basic error: to equate thinking with Being and identity with thinking.

The compulsive thinker, which means almost everyone, lives in a state of apparent separateness, in an insanely complex world of continuous problems and conflict, a world that reflects the ever-increasing fragmentation of the mind.”

If I were to restate Descartes maxim, it would be as follows:

Awareness exists, therefore existence is irrefutable.

When an “I” is inferred from awareness and existence, the philosophical disagreements start.

Most beings with self-awareness impute an “I” on this existence. Most religions and philosophical systems argue this “I” exists intrinsically as a soul or some other permanent and indestructible entity. Buddhism teaches that the “I” is merely an imputation of the awareness of data from the aggregates and has no existence apart from the aggregates.

So which answer is correct?

Consider these answers:

Those who think they know something do not yet know as they ought to know.

1 Corinthians 8:2

He who thinks he knows, doesn’t know. He who knows that he doesn’t know knows.

Joseph Campbell

As a practicing Buddhist, I believe the “I” is a mere imputation, an illusion caused by awareness. I don’t believe this because I’m convinced it is a fact “out there” in some objective reality. I believe it because I find the belief useful as it helps me find peace in a world of suffering. Am I right? I don’t know.

The wise man is one who knows, what he does not know.

Lao Tzu – Tao Te King

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I am Anattā. Not my real name, of course, but that’s the point. I selected the moniker Anattā because in Buddhism, my primary spiritual practice, the term anattā refers to the doctrine of “non-self”. In more practical terms, I chose the name Anattā because by writing anonymously, it’s far easier to be completely candid and honest. Further, there is no danger of my writing becoming tainted by any desire for self-aggrandizement. I write primarily to improve my own understanding of these topics, but my deepest desire for writing on this site is to help others.