By Alex P. Vidal
One morning inside our philosophy class at the Central Philippine University many years ago, our professor pointed his finger at a crowd of more than 50 students in attendance: “You, the man in red, who are you?”
Everyone hurriedly checked the color of their dress and it was only me wearing a red polo shirt. I looked at the professor’s eyes and confirmed I was the target of that philosophical challenge. I stood up.
“My name is Alex P. Vidal; I wear a red polo shirt, yes; and I think, therefore I am.”
There was eerie silence and everyone anxiously waited for the professor to further rib me or anybody–regardless of the color of dress–with further questions.
I told the professor I borrowed that famous line from Rene Descartes, who was a driving force behind the intellectual revolution of the 17th century, and is known as the father of modern philosophy. He was also a great mathematician, I elaborated further.
Thinking I was prepared to engage him, modesty aside, in a showdown on the subject matter, the professor, who was always dependent on his book, did not make a follow up question; and held his book tightly for the rest of the class like a priest holding the Bible while reading scriptures in the pulpit.
On the night of November 10th 1619, Descartes (1596-1650) had a vision of the way he might construct a precise system of knowledge that could embrace all areas of human learning. This remained his project for the rest of his life.
While some of the arguments he used have come under criticism, Descartes’ method has had an enormous influence on subsequent thought. Like Socrates, he decided to work out his own philosophy. Descartes was a mathematician and wanted to use the “mathematical method” even for philosophising.
He sets out to prove philosophical truths in the way one proves a mathematical theorem — by the use of reason, since only reason can give us certainty. It is far from certain, said Descartes, that we can rely on our senses.
There seemed to be nothing of which he could be sure. But Descartes tried to work forward form this zero point. He doubted everything, and the was the only thing he was certain of.
But something struck him: one thing had to be true, and that was that he doubted. When he doubted, he had to be thinking, and because he was thinking, it had to be certain that he existed. Or, as he himself expressed it: Cogito, ergo sum. Which means “I think, therefore I am.”
Descartes thought that minds and ideas were not physical things. The Englishman Thomas Hobbes, a contemporary of Descartes, completely disagreed. Hundreds of years after Descartes, the mind/body debate is still a central problem of philosophy. Is the mind a purely physical thing? And if it is not, how can it interact with the physical body?