In his second meditation of Meditations on First Philosophy, Descartes drowns himself in doubt:

“It is as if I had suddenly falled into a deep whirlpool; I am so tossed about that I can neither touchbottom with my foot, nor swim up to the top.”

This doubt is, he claims, the most extreme possible doubt. He strives to doubt everything that can possibly be doubted to any degree. He rejects any certainty of the senses and even of the ability of his cognition to properly understand mathematical demonstrations. Descartes’ goal is to find anything undoubtable, save a certainty that nothing is certain.

After moving his considerations to higher and higher abstractions of experience, he comes to a crucial question: “Do I exist?” In more general terms: “Does the self exist?”

Descartes continues: Well, no, surely not for certain. It is possible that the self does not exist. If all is in doubt, then why should the self escape unscathed? The moment-to-monent experience of there being an agent who experiences, and perhaps wills, is merely an experience itself and lends no credence to the existence of the objects it projects any more than the senses render certain the existence of one’s hands and feet (as was previously considered as a ready target for the doubt). “There are only thoughts,” Descartes concludes. “there are thoughts, but there is no ‘I’.”

Of course, this last paragraph is a lie. That is not at all what Descartes concludes in his second meditation. Rather, he expresses the opposite sentiment: “I think, therefor I exist.” He reflects on the fact that, throughout his meditation so far, he has been thinking, doubting, assenting, rejecting, imagining, etc. To reflect on these experiences, there must be a common subject. In order to have the thoughts of doubt about the content other thoughts, there must have been a subject for both thoughts. “I think, therefor I am.”

But why did I present the second-previous paragraph? To mislead the reader? Yes, but not only that. My point is that, at that point in his meditation, there were two paths open to Descartes. He could either assent to the existence of the self, or he could withold such assent, keeping that existence in doubt. This desicion by Descartes, I argue, was optional.

First, consider the consideration presented in the third-previous paragraph: the self is doubtable. This leads to a sort of Buddhist approach to introspection, where one realizes that there is no persistent self, and that there are only instantaneous experiences. In this view, a concept of “the self” is completely superfluous, for no evidence of it is anywhere to be found in such a meditation. Any evidence forced into view, such as the common appearance of a persistent self, can be easily doubted and discarded as being contrived and unnatural.

Second: consider the consideration presented in the third-previous paragarph: the self is undoubtable. For after all, if the self was doubtable, who would it be doubtable by? This yeilds the following options: either the self is doubtable by some unspecified doubter, or undoubtable by the self on the other. An easy solution is to just call the “unspecified doubter” by “the self”. This is similar to the thought experiment where one does not have one’s own thoughts but merely has some other thinker’s thoughts. Under Descartes’ doubt thus far, there is no way to distiguish this hypothetical “other thinker” from the self.

Under Descartes’ doubt, he has to additionally take the step to reflect on the previous thoughts in order to reach the self. In this move, is Descartes inventing a new entity where none existed before? Is he merely contriving a superfluous concept that rests above his basic experience? No. As Descartes realizes it, the self is a purely basic experience and not a constructed entity. However, the self is indeed a new entity that exists where none existed before. The self is self-reflection. Through the meditation, Descartes became aware of an entity whose existence is exactly that awareness. This recursive relationship between the self and itself is the essence of the self. When Descartes later goes on to observe what sort of thing the self is — “I am a thinking thing” — he is observing not only that the self has thoughts but that the those thoughts are about the self.

The option to realize the self, to self-reflect, is indeed optional. Suppose there is a dog that never has the experience of understanding that it is a self that is the haver of its thoughts (I judge this is a conceivable scenerio). Then does there exist a self for this dog? No. There is no need to say anything above that there are dog-experiences of which I wouldn’t know much how to explain. Is there a point of view to these experiences? Sure. The experience of sight has a spacial perspective, and similarly with all other aspects of experience. But if there is no self-reflection, there is no experience of the self, and thus no self.

In a similar way, suppose there is a Buddhist monk that rejects the existence of the self. When the monk introspects, observes thoughts and observes that those experiences have perspecgives, then need not go any further than notice that. So they have no experience of a self, and thus have no self

The options are:

  • to accept the self; to self-reflect and find something new.
  • to reject the self; to reflect on experience and not find anything new.