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On Philosophizing: How Dogs Refute Descartes

By Patrick O'Hannigan

Frankly, I think Patrick O'Hannigan ought to be out there making a bazillion dollars from his writing; he expresses himself so beautifully and is such an original thinker. However, since we live in reality, where philosophy hasn't got much of a market -- even philosophy delivered with quirky charm, like that which follows, Wolfe's Lodge gets to print Patrick's work for our usual fee ($00.00). Lucky Lodge! Patrick says of this piece, "I'm sure you'll note that despite its whimsical tone, it rests on an utterly serious regard for truth and beauty. Streetcorner philosophy of the kind I'm doing here won't at first blush have anything to do with freedom, but (as you well know), political freedom does not exist in a vacuum, and in this piece I've tried to strike a small blow for freedom from error. It was also nice to poke fun at Descartes without using a philosophical vocabulary that I don't have. Enjoy!"

Groucho Marx once observed that "Outside of a dog, a book is probably man's best friend; inside of a dog, it's too dark to read." That mischievous remark hints at a thesis I want to explore here. Like thoughtful books, dogs facilitate metaphysical musing. To the right frame of mind, dogs can be catalysts for thought as well as parachutes from it. The chance to spend time thinking each day is one of several reasons why I patrol my neighborhood with an American Eskimo named Partner and a Border Collie/McNabb mix named Guinness. Both dogs are medium-sized, brown-eyed, and smart.

Partner affects the role of elder statesman, and would be mortified to learn that his head smells like angel food cake. He has soft white fur with a matte finish. In spite of that and his pompom tail, Partner considers himself tough. He sleeps in a straight line, favors a regal posture, and cycles his ears through three positions (relaxed, alert, or annoyed) to communicate his moods.

Guinness is a broom-tailed puppy with glossy fur. Her head smells like mocha latté. Caramel forelegs and white paws accessorize her black topcoat, and all three colors meet amiably around her freckled muzzle. When she is not cuddling her teddy bear or wrestling Partner, Guinness makes rounds holding a bone in her mouth or naps like a recumbent comma, on her back with her paws in the air.

Every morning, Partner, Guinness, and I watch blue shadows recede before the rising tide of day as the sun clambers skyward to bathe houses in warm yellow. In the minutes after sunrise when pale light flattens everything it touches, nearby hills fit shards of sky like puzzle pieces. Partner and Guinness sample smells while I think or look for Western Bluebirds. By the time mailbox racks throw tined shadows to the ground and stronger light gives vivid depth to sun-glazed terrain, we are well into our version of dawn patrol.

At twilight we take another walk together, zigzagging up asphalt-dipped dunes that pass for roads. I keep one eye on the dogs and the other on the translucent column of amber that bisects Morro Bay while the sun burrows into the horizon, rappelling off the rim of the world on a long golden rope. We turn for home as the sky shades from orange to pink behind cirrus clouds that look like wisps of dryer lint.

I owe the dogs for that analogy, not because they gave it to me but because they made it possible. Similarly, it was they who reintroduced me to questions long buried in my pre-canine experience. Now I know what Pope John Paul II means when he says in Fides et Ratio that we are all philosophers.

Which came first, the chicken or the egg? You have to stand on a hilltop at dawn with dog breath misting in vaporous puffs around your knees before you're ready to confront that question. Even then you must first admit that it would have been smarter to linger in bed than to brave the morning chill. Properly humbled, you may begin to notice that in spite of their frequently muddy paws and inexplicable fondness for cat poop, dogs live in the moment. They seize the day. These things happen naturally, without prompting from bumper stickers, twelve-step programs, or stress management gurus. In their own way, dogs know what they do not know, and seem willing to investigate it. Any species-specific reminder that (in Clint Eastwood's paraphrase of Socrates) "a man's got to know his limitations" would be superfluous for them.

This returns us to the chicken or egg question, a Poultry Puzzle where chickens are subjects but dogs provide clues. Once addressed by intellectual heavyweights like Thomas Aquinas and René Descartes, the puzzle has since fallen into neglect. Even before urban sprawl all but obliterated the puzzle's agrarian reference point, Aquinas and Descartes hastened the demise of the barnyard metaphor at its heart by recasting it in the uptown vocabulary of professional thinkers. For them and for lesser philosophers, "chicken" and "egg" became "being" and "mind." Only people whose drawings are routinely posted under refrigerator magnets by their proud parents seem drawn to the Poultry Puzzle now. This is unfortunate, because to answer that chicken or egg question properly is to embrace one worldview and reject another. Given that most Americans live some distance from chicken farms, it is no small thing that one can also solve the Poultry Puzzle by observing dogs. More about that in a minute.

It was Descartes who coined the boneheaded but memorable phrase, "I think, therefore I am." He need not have bothered. Four centuries before, Aquinas had already observed what should have been self-evident: "I am, therefore I think." Aquinas (who took the Socratic advice) had sense enough to know that "being" is a prerequisite for "doing." In other words, as Sister Joan Spaulding, CSJ often remarked to my eighth-grade English class, "we are human beings, not human doings."

The problem for Cartesians is that dogs bark. Had Descartes been correct -- if what we do was more deserving of emphasis than who we are -- we might sensibly say "barks dog," and the primordial egg would predate the primordial chicken. But even the Book of Genesis refutes this hypothesis.

Adam names animals, not embryos, as they are brought before him. A few generations later, Noah rescues wildlife from the impending deluge by reserving space on the Ark for adult pairs of male and female creatures. Both events hint at inadequacy in the Cartesian statement that is brought more forcefully to light by observing dogs.

By exalting the intellect over everything else, Descartes ratified scientific reasoning but severed his otherwise admirable hold on reality. This influential mistake is partly responsible for the sorry state of modern philosophical inquiry, which the pope notes has abandoned "the investigation of being" to concentrate instead upon "human knowing." In fact, because Descartes made "being" hostage to thinking, his epigram can be used to justify even abortion and euthanasia on the grounds that non-thinkers are nonentities.

Shielded by the carapace of his own skepticism, Descartes never used his famous phrase as a license to kill. As Daniel P. Moloney has pointed out, however (First Things, November 1998), modern skeptics seldom remember what Descartes well knew: that we assent daily to hundreds of unproved claims. Few of our assumptions are subject to what could be called a "sniff test." In dogdom, where noses are diagnostic tools, a lapse like this is unthinkable.

One consequence of the widespread failure to verify assumptions is that many "New Age" people take Cartesian regard for thought as evidence that we create our own reality. They do not always mean that Gnostic wizardry or sheer willpower can summon afternoon light, or cause us to leap from a car faster than a puppy anticipating a game of fetch, but neither are they careful to make such distinctions. While both New Age (read "warped Cartesian") and Thomist camps agree that we reap what we sow, only Thomists point out that this is a matter of conforming to reality, not creating it. Dogs bark, we insist, and the words in that observation cannot trade places with impunity. To put it another and more controversial way, the evidence for my existence is not so much that I think but that God does.

To mix theology and philosophy under cover of chickens and dogs is to invite criticism from people who see conflicts where there are none. Any temptation to call the chasm between latter-day Thomists and Cartesians a clash between faith and reason should be resisted. G.K. Chesterton tells us why: "Saint Thomas Aquinas was one of the great liberators of the human intellect," he said. "It was the very life of the Thomist teaching that Reason can be trusted." Indeed, for Aquinas, the cooperation of Faith and Reason is what makes theology possible. It is precisely because Aquinas and Descartes both exalt the human mind that the chicken or egg question can be answered definitively and any observant person can refute the Cartesian epigram.

In any case, the chickens -- whether literal or metaphorical -- always come home to roost. When the balloon of my own thoughts drifts into clouds of whimsy or confusion, I count on Partner and Guinness to bring me back to earth. Abstractions collapse when Partner sniffs a fledgling pine, or Guinness cocks her head to one side, waiting pointedly to rocket after the tennis ball in my hand. With all due respect to Groucho Marx, inside of a dog may be too dark to read, but outside and next to a dog is a fine place to think. Descartes would have done well to take advantage of this. Aquinas, God bless him, saw it clearly from the first.

(c) 1999 Patrick O'Hannigan

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22 November, 1998