There’s a particular reading of Descartes, somewhat fanciful, that I’ve arrived at, which has powerfully influenced my thinking. I don’t know if I’m the first person to come up with it; probably not. But I also have no idea to whom I could point in support of it.
It’s a reading of Descartes that is actually informed and inspired by a tired old refutation. Of course the one I have in mind is this: “But you’re assuming you know what the ‘I’ is! Don’t you realize that selfhood is incredibly complex and contentious and uncertain?” I don’t actually give much credit to this old takedown. I think there are plenty of resources within the plain sense of Descartes’s own argument for making short work of it.
However, with that said, I think it’s also possible to read Descartes in a different light, and very profitably, if we imagine that the smug old objection has indeed managed to land a meaningful blow against Descartes’s argumentation. “Goodness me,” says Descartes, “you’re quite right. Even the self cannot be indubitable. The thinking thing, the doubting thing, is itself not enough of a thing to be affirmed or even to merit being denied.” Let’s imagine, then, that the next step of Descartes argument as we have it in the Meditations, is a concession to this admission.
Whatever thing or things might be doing the doubting, we cannot say or know. What we refer to by words like “self” or “I” is a many-sided, ever-changing thing. It is many things, and it is never the same things. But at the very least, it is not nothing.
We cannot affirm the immediate thingness of the self, perhaps. But we must admit that self, even if it is only an illusion, still in its illusory being must signify or represent or indicate that there is something, and not nothing, although we can’t necessarily say what that something is.
But then how does that help us? Those fleeting, insubstantial somethings that we’ve indirectly discovered can be set aside without a second thought, for all the good they will do us. They aren’t nothing, but they almost might as well be.
And yet, if we can know without doubt that there is something contingent, conditioned, multiple and changing, then in that same instant and with the very same confidence, we can know that there is an unconditioned, absolute, necessary, unitary, changeless origin, standing just out of view. The former cannot be thought meaningfully apart from the latter, and if the former is known then the latter is equally known. There can be no changeable without the changeless, no contingent without the necessary, no multiplicity without a first unity. The former by its nature is dependent on the latter, cannot exist without the latter, cannot precede the latter, cannot even be thought or defined or explained without the latter. It is not a syllogism; this is a realm of thought that is above and prior to the segmented, orderly work of logic and mathematics, as Descartes has already made very clear. This is something much closer to mysticism. It is the original, immediate, self-grounding knowledge that overflows itself and breathes meaning and comprehensibility and connection into everything else that is.
This knowledge is the basis of all knowledge. The senses can be doubted, the material world, even the reasoning of the mind. None of them are able to stand on their own, to sustain themselves as their own ground. There is something more primal than any of these things. It is a sort of knowledge that is never entirely absent from our thinking, but is only very rarely noticed for itself. Perhaps it is a thing that can never be believed by a person if it is not yet intuited, and yet, once intuited, could hardly be again denied.
I don’t think there’s anything seriously problematic in the portion of Descartes’s argument that begins with doubt and leads up to the point of confidence in God’s existence. However, to imagine that there might be a problem with it is worthwhile, in that it gives a window into another beautiful and deep truth of human existence and human thought.
Ever since I realized the possibility of this second reading, I have said to friends on occasion, without any hint of irony, that I would sooner doubt my own existence than I could doubt God. I can’t see that changing anytime soon.