The Importance of Contradiction

For something to be valid, or at the very least, arguable, it must be open for discussion.

You’re probably thinking — well isn’t everything technically “open for discussion”? There may not be any tangible result or action created but discourse is generally always an option.

I disagree.

Arguments are sometimes made with unfalsifiable claims. These are arguments that don’t allow for any valid opposing ideas. This effectively stops any rational conversation from taking place. Even speculation is pretty much put to bed.

The problem with this is that contradiction is where it’s at. The only way to seek higher truth, assuming that’s the goal of learning or a conversation, is to engage in asking questions and hypothesizing answers.

In learning about Rene Descartes, I found myself questioning the validity of some of his arguments. Considering I found holes in his ‘rationalist’ argument is a little bit ironic. Allow me to elaborate…

“I think, therefore I am.”

There is room for subjectivity here. Shocking — considering how brief it is.

What does it mean to “think”?

Descartes basically argues freedom of thought. He says, if we are able to think, to have any thoughts, we must exist.

This is the first instance where I disagree. The definition of “think” to me suggests some sort of originality in thought. It signals a degree of autonomy.

This idea of autonomy is something Descartes touches upon, but again, I find it slightly problematic.

He mentions that perhaps there is some demon who controls our lives or our semblance of “life”. He thought of the Matrix before it was mainstream.

The problem with this is that it is unfalsifiable. Again, operating within his defined argument, he suggests that because we can think and even begin to question a Matrix-like reality means we exist.

This is going to sound unprecedented but bear with me for a second.

What if that’s what the monster wants you to think? What if the demon wants you to think you’re thinking of your own volition when that’s also part of the simulation?

Do you see the problem here?

There is no empirical evidence to verify what the boundaries are of the suggestion. There is no way of determining if my outlandish contrarian point is more valid than his argument.

Another really popular argument of Descartes’ is his argument about why God exists. He says everything we can imagine or think of must be founded in some real experience. For example, we can imagine a circle. Very clearly. We’ve encountered circles in life.

If someone were to ask you to imagine a colour that didn’t already exist, you wouldn’t be able to. You haven’t encountered this thing that doesn’t exist.

Therefore, that we can think of a God must mean someone, somewhere, did and was able to elaborate and the idea proliferated.

My initial reaction was, well, we know dragons aren’t real, but we can imagine them. What makes us think we aren’t just using our creativity to think of an omniscient being?

But again — the issue of unfalsifiable arguments and undefined boundaries.

How do we know that dragons don’t exist?

How do we know if maybe, someday, somewhere, someone encountered a dragon but decided not to mention it to anyone and that dragon happened to be the only of its kind and died?

It sounds ridiculous and outlandish — but it’s a potential fictitious argument against his logic…meaning his initial argument restricts contradiction.

The argument actually just questions whether human creativity exists. Is everything fictitious based on some truth?

That’s a whole other argument.

The last thing I’ll mention is the mismatch of tools that seems to happen.

I think Descartes was an incredible thinker. The bias of presentism helps us disregard that back then, it wasn’t as easy to share or even create original opinions. There didn’t have as many empirical facts as we do now thanks to technology and science. Things we deem obvious now were not so before.

Anyway, I think his attempt at first principles and rationalizing life is admirable. That would be incredibly hard. And also probably flawed. And incorrect.

It takes a curious mind to wonder about the things he did.

Something I wonder about, however, is if this attempt at ultimate rationality even makes sense? Can we explain away everything?

Are there things in life that just are irrational?

For example, the fallacy of composition; believing that what is true of a part is true of the whole. A contextual example, having a bad experience with a rabid dog and thinking all dogs are rabid.

To better explain this train of thought, here’s a quick analogy

Imagine trying to measure a body of water with a measuring tape.

The attempt is not incorrect. It is possible, generally speaking, to measure a body of water. However, the tool is not the best one. It probably won’t even work. You’d probably be better suited to using a tank or scale to measure its volume. Point is — there are better tools out there.

This is kind of how I think of Descartes’s attempt to rationalize something as unscientific as the existence of a God or higher being. Rationality may not be the best tool.

Perhaps, empiricism wins this one.

It also makes me wonder — at what point do we stop questioning things?

Truly, the difference between “believing” and “knowing” is simply based on whether we have empirical evidence or facts.

However, at some point, do we not first have to choose to believe the facts we have available to us? It kind of goes back to the Matrix world and questioning we actually know anything.

Maybe Bertrand Russel was right, and the world was created five minutes ago.

We choose to believe that’s not the case because we choose to believe that the evidence we have of science and history is correct. That those are facts.

In reality — isn’t everything a belief? Isn’t everything, to a large extent, unfalsifiable?

To sleep at night, we must accept certain pieces of information as the truth. As fact.

This is why I think the study of philosophy is such a noble one. Thinking of these questions is difficult. Living with the fact that there may not ever be an answer can also be difficult, but it can also be incredibly necessary for us to realize what we can and cannot control — what we do and do not choose to believe.

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Ruhani Walia

Ruhani Walia

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econ + statsci lover, curious writer, learner and emerging tech enthusiast.