Descartes’ other error

One of my Friendly correspondents has reminded me that, back in February, I addressed some of the concerns of the previous post from the perspective of my alter-ego Walhydra’s hopeful skepticism.

In “The Virgin of Hollywood, Florida,” Walhydra groused at length about the gullibility of “the masses,” who blithely toss their belief after every tabloid headline, urban legend, or political sound bite.

Yet she found herself wondering: “How does one move from scorn for the credulous to a working, sustaining faith for oneself?”

I thank my correspondent for sending me back to read this piece again. Becoming audience to my own writing jolted me back into the present moment for which I’ve been longing.

This morning, I got a welcome jolt from another direction.

Elsewhere I’ve referred to Antonio Damasio’s book Decartes’ Error, the first of a remarkable trilogy of books in which the author explicates the field of neurobiology’s current understanding of how human consciousness works.

In this first book, Damasio demonstrates how Descartes’ famous cogito ergo sum misses the organic reality of the workings of the brain. The brain, in fact, must make direct use of the information it receives through the emotions in order to be able to do any sort of reasoning.

In other words, the West’s classic elevation of reason as higher than and independent of emotion does not match biological reality. The two must and do work in tandem.

My jolt this morning, however, comes from a different writer’s take on Descartes. In New Seeds of Contemplation, Thomas Merton writes the following:

Nothing could be more alien to contemplation than the cogito ergo sum of Descartes. “I think, therefore I am.” This is the declaration of an alienated being, in exile from his own spiritual depths, compelled to seek some comfort in a proof for his own existence (!) based on the observation that he “thinks.” If his thought is necessary as a medium through which he arrives at the concept of his existence, then he is in fact only moving further away from his true being.

At the same time, by also reducing God to a concept, he makes it impossible for himself to have any intuition of the divine reality which is inexpressible. He arrives at his own being as if it were an objective reality, that is to say he strives to become aware of himself as he would of some “thing” alien to himself. And he proves that the “thing” exists. He convinces himself: “I am therefore some thing.” And then he goes on to convince himself that God, the infinite, the transcendent, is also a “thing,” an “object,” like other finite and limited objects of our thought!

Contemplation, on the contrary, is the experiential grasp of reality as subjective, not so much “mine” (which would signify “belonging to the external self”) but “myself” in existential mystery. Contemplation does not arrive at reality after a process of deduction, but by an intuitive awakening in which our free and personal reality becomes fully alive to its own existential depths, which open out into the mystery of God.

For the contemplative there is no cogito (“I think”) and no ergo (“therefore”) but only SUM, I AM. Not in the sense of a futile assertion of our individuality as ultimately real, but in the humble realization of our mysterious being as persons in whom God dwells, with infinite sweetness and inalienable power. (9-10)

Damasio might well highlight this clause: “If his thought is necessary as a medium through which he arrives at the concept of his existence….”

From the perspective of neurobiology, thought is an organic process of the brain which does, indeed, create the construct of a “self,” in order to map and make more efficacious use of the higher order information it stores. The self only “exists” as the transient constellation of these maps of information…and ceases when the body ceases.

For me this morning, the jolt was in the second clause of that sentence: “…then he is in fact only moving further away from his true being.”

When I do manage to center down through my own noise, what remains is a consciousness, an awareness, an awakeness. The brain simply watching and waiting. 

I am not saying that this awakeness is itself God.

Yet I suspect—and Merton seems to be suggesting—that for any and all of us who experience it, this non-selfconscious awareness is the “space” wherein we come closest to That which we tend to call “God.”

I don’t want to analyze this too much right now. As Merton writes, the key is experience, not analysis.


And so it is.

Blesséd Be,

5 comments On Descartes’ other error

  • Michael, thank you for your observations. As I sat in sweat lodge last Saturday I remembered the prayer I offered to open the ceremony, to each direction I asked to abide in the unknown, unknowable gifts of that direction, that we allow those gifts to fill us without needing to know why or how or what or when. Instead of the usual prayers to the directions where we act as though we know what they bring. Such limits. Belief is thinking. Sitting in sweat lodge I find I don’t believe anything. I felt closer to God there than I have before. Some has followed me. Your comments on Descartes’ errors made me feel that experience again. I sat with that feeling in meeting for worship with attention to business last Sunday and it worked there too. Perhaps without the separation we don’t know enough to look for more, to sit more deeply with our mystery.

  • Michael Austin Shell

    Jim B,

    Your comment is very helpful to me, particularly this:

    “Belief is thinking. Sitting in sweat lodge I find I don’t believe anything. I felt closer to God there than I have before.”

    Although I value thinking—including thinking about belief—very highly, the deep personal challenges of the past year or so have forced me to seek something much more basic, more intrinsic, more “always there,” in order to be open to receiving the sustaining grace of God’s presence.

    I’m working on a companion post to this one, which I will most likely publish today or tomorrow.

    Meanwhile, thanks for your thoughtful words.


  • Another wonderful post. That passage on Descartes explains what’s wrong with “What Would Jesus Do” or intelligent design theories.

    One doesn’t think about what is the right thing to do, one simply acts from the ground of all being. Only when we fail to act from that authenticity, “that of God” as the Quakers say, it is then that it all turns out wrong.

    The gift of discernment is not about deductive logic.

    I think discernment is higher than reason, because it is a synthesis of wisdom and thinking.

  • Michael Austin Shell


    How delightful! It hadn’t occurred to me to apply this to either “WWJD?” or “intelligent design.”

    I do agree. In fact, for me that term “authenticity” and it’s cousin “integrity” are central to discerning whether anything one believes or does is True.

    Feelings and thoughts are information which the body gathers and manipulates with its brain. They can both contain empirical data, but they are also higher-level “interpretations” by the brain of what the body senses and what the neurons “remember.”

    Reason can parse a lot of it…but only so much as it can name.

    It’s that business of naming that’s the bug in the ointment of faith and practice.

    To allow geniune, “thoughtless” action of the most blessed and blessing sort, we have to allow the Nameless to act through us.

    Thanks again,

  • Pingback: Am I a nontheist…? (Part III) « The Empty Path ()

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