Indie t-shirt designers 410BC are channelling Descartes in their spring collection, with a brain emblazoned t-shirt that declares ‘I think therefore I am’.
Not a bad shirt for $15 dollars I think you’ll agree, especially if you’re hip to 17th century French philosophers.
The phrase “I think therefore I am” originated because Descartes wanted to know about what sort of things existed in the world, but realised he couldn’t trust his senses because they could be fooled.
He imagined the most extreme example he could think of, where an evil demon was keeping him in a Matrix-style universe in which everything he perceived was an illusion. He asked the question, if he couldn’t trust his senses, what could he truly know.
Descartes came to the conclusion that he could doubt everything except the fact he was doubting and therefore concluded that his ability to doubt, and consequently his thought, was proof of his existence – summed up in has famous phrase “I think therefore I am”.
In part, this also led him to believe that thought was not part of the physical universe, and that thought and matter were separate entities. In fact, he believed thoughts were part of the soul but interacted with the body through the pineal gland – a small structure which occupies a central position in the brain.
Descartes’ proposal that thought and matter (or mind and brain) are separate entities is known as as Cartesian dualism and is now much derided.
One difficulty is that while few people deny that both mind and brain exist in the physical world, it’s difficult, and some would say impossible, to talk about them in the same way.
For example, it’s easy to answer the question ‘what colour are your neurons?’ but impossible to answer the question ‘what colour are your thoughts?’
This causes all sorts of merry hell for cognitive scientists and leads to the rather bizarre tendency for people to think that every explanation that includes the mind needs to be reduced to brain function for it to be valid.
Philosophers, who tend to be much more able to think about these things without panicking, tend to favour what’s called property dualism, which says that while we accept everything happens in the physical world, we can’t always match every aspect of one level of description to another, even if both are both completely coherent on their own level.
I’m hoping that the 410BC autumn collection will have a similar t-shirt that says “I think, but that doesn’t mean I believe that properties that I ascribe to my thoughts on level of mental description will necessarily be reducible to the theories of neurobiology, although I agree that the scientific endeavour to discover which properties have reliable neural correlates will be an important part of any complete theory of the human mind, bearing in mind that reduction is not an answer in itself and will have to be complemented by theories that span all levels of explanation”.
However, I also think they might need a few more attractive blonde models to boost sales on that one.