French Philosopher, Rene Descartes, in a bid to guarantee certainty in the content of his knowledge decided on a method of doubting everything. After operating thus for a while he said he discovered that while he was thinking and doubting he was sure that he was and was a thinking thing. This led to his now well-known aphorism (strangely, more known in its Latin form than in French), cogito ergo sum, ‘I think therefore I am’.
In introductory philosophy classes students are encouraged to find weaknesses in Descartes’ line of reasoning. One popular criticism has been that Descartes’ ability to be thinking is not adequate enough proof of his existence because a brain in a vat could do likewise. It continues to puzzle and bemuse me that this criticism became so popular when it should have been shot down logically as flawed.
The brain-in-a-vat notion is really silly because it takes more than a brain to generate thinking. There must be an ‘I’ that is using the brain to do mind work or think and there is none in the vat. I use my brain to do mind work or think and so do you.
Without conjunction with a person or centre of consciousness a brain is simply a piece of meat and can do no mind work, no thinking. Put more philosophically, a brain may be necessary for mind work or thinking but it is not sufficient for mind work or thinking.
Which brings me to an un[der]-recognized flaw in deism (the belief in a non-personal absolute mind as god and thus creator of the universe). Standard or hard deism allows only one creative act to god, causing the universe to come into being with built in cause/effect potencies then leaving it to run on its own.
Deism is as flawed as the brain-in-a-vat notion because there is no person or centre of consciousness to exercise volition and give causal efficacy to mind.
Now concerning the origin of the universe, Philosopher William Lane Craig advises,
“…as Richard Swinburne points out [in The Existence of God], there are two types of causal explanation: scientific explanations in terms of laws and initial conditions and personal explanations in terms of agents and their volitions… Now a first state of the universe cannot have a scientific explanation, since there is nothing before it, and therefore it cannot be accounted for in terms of laws operating on initial conditions. It can only be accounted for in terms of an agent and his volitions, a personal explanation.”
A supportive argument for the necessary personal nature of the first cause is the acknowledged time gap between the origin of the universe and the origin of life. This is a reality whether one is operating from an evolutionary perspective or from a biblical one. This time gap requires more than one creative act (contrary to deism) and since the first cause has to be eternal (whatever that cause may be like) then the universe must be seen as a temporal effect arising from an eternal cause.
As Craig further explains “…[N]ow this is exceedingly odd. The cause is in some sense eternal and yet the effect which it produced is not eternal but began to exist a finite time ago. How can this be? If the necessary and sufficient conditions for the production of the effect are eternal, then why isn’t the effect eternal? How can all the causal conditions sufficient for the production of the effect be changelessly existent and yet the effect not also be existent along with the cause? How can the cause exist without the effect?…
There seems to be only one way out of this dilemma, and that is to say that the cause of the universe’s beginning is a personal agent who freely chooses to create a universe in time. Philosophers call this type of causation ‘agent causation’, and because the agent is free, he can initiate new effects by freely bringing about conditions which were not previously present.” (see his online blog at winteryknight.wordpress.com/2014/02/21)
Without getting deeply into the mind/brain controversy a basic point may help. Though there is a necessary dependent relationship between a mind and a brain brain events and mental events are not identical and both require conjunction with a person or centre of consciousness for thoughts to be generated.
Philosophically, if two things are identical, anything that’s true of the one will of logical necessity be true of the other. But I can imagine or think about a blue elephant but if a neurosurgeon is examining my brain at the time that I am having this thought she would not find any blueness in my brain. Mental events though related to, are thus not identical to brain events.
Critical thinking is an ongoing necessity and prompts us at times to question answers beyond answering questions.