Rene Descartes originally wrote, “Je pense donc je suis,” in his native French in Discourse on Method (1637). He later uses a Latin version including “Cogito ergo sum” in the Principles of Philosophy (1644).
I think therefore I am.
I’ve been thinking about this phrase a lot lately. It has been used and misused many times, paraphrased to make completely different points on other occasions, but largely, I fear, ignored.
I wonder sometimes how much most of us think. We seem so intent to go through life doing what we always do, even when we’ve been complaining that we don’t want to do it that way anymore. We parrot talking points without stopping to think if there is any veracity to the point being parroted. Worse, we parrot them even when they have been proven to be false. Still worse, we parrot them even when they make absolutely zero sense, logically or in any other way.
In other words, we don’t think.
By now some of the people who started reading have lost interest and clicked away. This to a large degree supports my thesis. They simply do not want to think. Thinking is hard, and requires taking responsibility for our actions, our decisions, and our words.
There are others who are on the verge of labeling this as the pedantic musings of a self-absorbed intellectual elitist. I thank them for getting this far and ask that they stay a little longer and take to heart the point that I’m hoping to get across.
My point, of course, is that I am deeply concerned that we appear to have decided that thinking is a bad thing; that we appear to take pride in ignorance. Think for a second. What is ignorance? It’s not so much the lack of knowledge because we can never know everything. Rather it is the willful refusal to acquire new knowledge. The more information we have, the more we can evaluate, assimilate, and integrate it into our thinking. And yet, the more we know the harder it is to think through the information, and the harder it is to make an informed decision. In this era of instant access to millions of inputs, knowledge can become overwhelming.
Herein lies the problem. We all have our daily lives…our work, our family, our faith, our priorities…and it is easier to simply go with the flow. Changing our routines, built over years of rote learning, can be disruptive. More information takes more time to assimilate, so we avoid more information. It’s too hard to think. It takes too much time.
Which is why the “sound bite” generation has taken hold. We “don’t have the time” to watch an entire interview, so we seek a sound bite to latch on to as “representative information.” Unfortunately, single lines taken out of context can easily be misinterpreted. And since new information may lead down a different path than that we are predisposed to take, assimilating it can cause internal conflict. New information often requires us to rethink our previous conceptions. It requires us to think. Therefore, we tend to focus on those sound bites that appear to support our predetermined view, and the networks dutifully feed us the sound bites we want to hear.
And we accept them without thinking.
The trick, of course, is to stop long enough to think. Social writing sites prevalent on the internet now allow people to create their own sound bites. Most blog articles are short and superficial because people tend not to focus long enough to read through the more informative ones. Comments are often short as well, and too often they reflect the predetermined opinions, biases, and even prejudices of the commenter and have nothing to do with the article itself. Often the commenters don’t read the article, including the short ones; we prefer to parrot our favorite rehearsed talking point without thinking.
Needless to say I thank anyone who has read this far. I suspect that only a few people would be curious enough at the foreign title to click on the article in the first place. And of those who did come here, I suspect only a small percentage will read the entire post.
I’ll conclude with a plea for all of us to think a little more. Let us break away from the sound bite mentality. Let us stop…long enough to question what we see and hear and read. Don’t take everything (or perhaps anything) at face value. Think about what the question meant – was it a “gotcha” question like “Do you still beat your wife?” in which no answer can be made? Think about the answer – was it a simple parroting of the talking point – or did it show that the person understood the multiple viewpoints and deeper ramifications of the issue?
Let us all take just a little bit of time to think.
I think therefore I am.
[The above is a somewhat revised version of a piece I wrote for a social writing site in 2008. Contrary to my expectations the post actually received more than 1100 views (average views by other posters was <100 views).]
David J. Kent is a science traveler and the author of Lincoln: The Man Who Saved America, in Barnes and Noble stores now. His previous books include Tesla: The Wizard of Electricity (2013) and Edison: The Inventor of the Modern World (2016) and two e-books: Nikola Tesla: Renewable Energy Ahead of Its Time and Abraham Lincoln and Nikola Tesla: Connected by Fate.