One of the most common quotes taken from any philosopher is that of Descartes, who said; “I think; Therefore, I am.” He posited the statement around the philosophical themes of a 17th century view of reason and rationalism. It was a new idea at the time. But I’ve always thought it to be a bit of a stretch to conclude, without limitations, this declaration to be categorically true.
I think most people would agree that our ability to think does, in fact, prove we are not just mere matter. It proves, for instance, that we are different from, say, rocks or vegetables. Descartes would say that matter itself has to have an essential attribute of extension, meaning that it has to be capable of undergoing change. With the possible exception of humans, everything we could classify as matter has a fixed duration, i.e., it exists from one moment in time to another moment in time. In the case of rocks and minerals, or even atoms, this duration may be eons. In the case of plants and animals, it is but a season.
But in the case of humans, we hold a rather arrogant view that our ability to think yields for us the possibility that material substance may not be defined by time. Rather, we are the product of reason. And this takes us to an understanding of God.
To forge an idea of God in one’s mind requires the ability to think, analyze and reason. Of course, we know that thought alone does not distinguish man from animals because we know that animals have some reasoning ability. They can be cunning, sly, selfish, sharing, like my cats; they can solve elementary logic puzzles, they can learn the like/dislikes of their owners/caretakers, and they are even aware that some things will occur before they actually happen. The essential difference between animals and humans, however, is that humans alone seem to have the ability to use concepts acquired through the process of learning and direct these toward goals which exist beyond themselves. The mental processes of animals are confined to thinking only in rigid terms, without qualifications and without sensitivity to the subtleties of an issue. Only humans have the innate ability to infer that because something is true to the extreme, then something contrary to it must be false.
And this is the distinction Descartes made. “I think; therefore I am.” Man alone seems to have the ability to think cosmically; to reason that his mind is separate from his body; that he has a soul which can move beyond matter by the will of God; that a part of him can stay with him forever by the grace of God. Therefore he cannot merely be matter.
Of course, if this is indeed true, then we are all faced with another question. Does a belief in God rescue us from an existential predicament?
It might, but only if there is a God and a part of us is immortal; i.e., we have the ability to transcend the human condition. Existentialism is based on the tragedy of the human condition. This idea was advanced by Kierkegaard on the basis that the 19th century had created an age of mediocrity by exalting conformity of group behavior over the creative impulse and intelligence of the individual. The 19th century existentialist would argue the resulting melancholy and despair of individuals in the population who happen to be individualists or nonconformists is due to their feeling of aloneness in the world.
However, the modern view of existentialism is that the individual himself has no essential nature, no self-identity—he just exists. Existential philosophy concerns itself with human predicaments associated with such things as alienation, anxiety, depression, inauthenticity, death, etc. In this worldview, the world can provide no rational direction or scheme which can move man beyond his predicaments. Moral principles are simply human constructs which are tied to the level of responsibility humans take by their own actions.
This is the reason some kind of Savior, or God, is needed to raise a man out of his physical environment. Some form of metaphysical experience is required for man to overcome himself.
Everything will then work out fine if there indeed is a God; provided, of course, that such a God is benevolent enough to come to our rescue. The obvious problem is that there is no proof that such a God exists. And, if God does exist, there is no assurance that the human predicament will be reconciled by death alone. After all, an afterlife might well bind a person to another human condition—or worse. And some people believe that we must ask for forgiveness before God will listen and act on our frailties. If this is true, then the soul is no more immortal than the body. Without metaphysical grace, it could well die with the body.
Since we really have no way knowing the outcome of all this, the best assurance humans can have of reconciling an existential predicament is to work on overcoming themselves while they are mere mortals. Indeed, humanistic existentialism suggests this to be the path of reason. All things are contingent on something else; nothing is decreed to occur. All meaning, order, and harmony are given reality by consciousness alone. There is no reality apart from consciousness.
So the path of man is to raise himself to higher levels of consciousness.
Now, in spite of which path we choose for accomplishing this lofty task, our essential work in this life is to prepare our soul for rescue. The Kabbalist would say we should climb the Tree of Life. The Buddhist would claim we can purify our mind only through silence and detachment. The Hindu and Christian would argue we need a personal relationship with some intermediary, a part of which is divine, in order to know ultimate reality. The Mason would suggest we take on the mantels of virtue and morality together and make these the resounding focus of our life’s purpose.
The point of all this is that, regardless of how things will reveal themselves to us in the end, one thing is certain. We must prepare our soul by what we do in the here and now.
Self improvement may not get us to heaven, but it will certainly give us less for which to be embarrassed if there is a judgment day. Faith alone is not enough to insure a positive outcome for our soul’s future; or to take us out of the human predicament.