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Rene Descartes — Cogito Ergo Sum

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Rene Descartes

Rene Descartes (1596-1650) in an engraving from the 1800s. Engraved by W. Holl and published in London by Wm. S. Orr & Co.

The first writing assignment for incoming Biodesign students was the simple, yet potentially profound question, “Who Am I?” I thought it was an important way for the students to begin their life-long quest of self-actualization. They weren’t alone.

Sometime, around 1600 A.D., Rene Descartes asked himself, “Who am I” and discovered that everything he knew or believed was the product of someone else’s thinking. He vowed to discard everything he had learned and intellectually rebuild himself, based only on facts, concepts and ideas that he could prove empirically.

At one point in his search, he was in a “sweat-room” when he had three visions and was certain that a divine spirit revealed a new philosophy to him. Upon exiting the room, he had formulated “analytical geometry,” which was a necessary bridge to Newton’s discovery of Calculus. He also got the idea of applying the mathematical method to philosophy.

He concluded from these visions that the pursuit of science would prove to be the pursuit of true wisdom and a central part of his life's work. He also saw very clearly that all truths were linked with one another, so that finding a fundamental truth and proceeding with logic would open the way to all science.

By so doing, Descartes became known as the father of modern philosophy, the father of analytical geometry and was a major player in the “scientific revolution.” From the simple question, “Who am I,” Descartes altered the course of human history.

During his methodical, deliberative process, he reasoned that it was impossible to believe in nothing, not only in a material way, but in a philosophical way as well. In order to fully believe in nothing would mean that he simply did not exist.

This led to his classic observation: “cogito-ergo-sum,” I think therefore I am. This led to the logical conclusion that no created object, including himself, could be more advanced or creative than The Creator. In his theology, he insists on the absolute freedom of God's act of creation.”

Descartes’ reasoning converged with the wisdom of the 8th Century B.C., Old Testament prophet, Isaiah:

“Yet you are our Father

We are the clay; you are the potter;

We are the work of your hand.”

The Biodesign Class was not concerned with Descartes’ theology, but three other ideas became the foundation that the class was built on.

1) The importance of questioning and examining the power and influence that other people had in their lives.

2.) The importance of considering all authors, ideas and concepts with a fresh, new perspective that was their intellectual right. Descartes inferred that life is a grand smorgasbord of ideas and the ideas and values they selected would shape the person they would become.

3) The challenge of considering Descartes’ idea that mathematics, music, art, science and religion are all part of a universal philosophy, literally, “love of knowledge.”

Although the debate over “original sin” has raged for 6,000 years, it was not an appropriate topic of discussion for Biodesigners. However, in Matthew Fox’s, “Original Blessings,” he builds a case that an allegorical Adam and Eve were endowed with values and consciousness along with their newly acquired free will.

Although their origins remain scientifically enigmatic, Dr. Roger Sperry, Nobel laureate and human physiologist, asserted that they are the essence of humanity. This being so, they have become a biological and not exclusively theological issue.

Furthermore, Sperry’s triad is supported by Descartes’ conclusions that humans alone have the ability to integrate mathematics, letters, arts, science and metaphysics.

John Muir echoed this approach when he wrote: “Everything is so inseparably united. As soon as I try to describe a flower or a tree or a storm or a chipmunk, up jumps the whole of heavens and earth and God himself in one inseparable glory.”

After her mom read a children’s version of “The Garden of Eden,” our 8-year-old granddaughter commented, “I think they should have eaten the apple, it made their lives more interesting.”

I think that Descartes, Matthew Fox, Roger Sperry and John Muir would all agree.

Calistogans outdo themselves with costumes in the 2021 Halloween Parade.

Lowell H. Young is the author of “Biodesign Out For A Walk.” He lives in St. Helena. This originally appeared on his blog,

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