Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Contra Michael Shermer on Near Death Experiences

Ever since Raymond Moody’s book Life After Life, published in 1975, the subject of Near Death Experiences (henceforth NDEs) has been at the forefront of speculations regarding the nature of consciousness and the afterlife; in fact, before these experiences became widely publicized, all we could do, at the moment, was speculate. However, the nature of NDEs has brought new information and research to shed light on the aforementioned topics. While those who consider themselves mind-body dualists have zealously encouraged such information, those who consider themselves part of the skeptic community have been, well, skeptical.

One such well-known skeptic is none other than atheist Michael Shermer. Shermer believes that NDEs are nothing more than tricks of our brain, and that all aspects will eventually be absorbed into a materialistic worldview. Yet, before we examine Shermer’s supposed refutations regarding the validity of NDEs, we need to examine exactly what characterizes an NDE.

According to professor of psychiatry and neurobehavioral sciences Bruce Greyson, “Near-Death Experiences are profound psychological events with transcendental and mystical elements, typically occurring to individuals close to death or in situations of intense physical or emotional danger.”  While the events experienced during an NDE vary, there are aspects that are common to many of them (the following list was formulated with assistance from Moody’s Life After Life):

1)      The ineffability of the experience

2)      A feeling of peace and quiet; pain is gone

3)      The awareness of being dead

4)      An out-of-body experience

5)      A tunnel experience

6)      The perception of an unearthly environment

7)      Meeting and communicating with deceased relatives

8)      Seeing a bright light or a being of light

9)      Experiencing unconditional acceptance and love

10)  A panoramic life review

11)  A life preview

12)  The perception of a border that cannot be crossed

13)  The conscious return to the body

There are other aspects reported during NDE’s, but the above are the most commonly reported. Now, it stands to reason that anyone who claims that such NDEs can be accounted for in naturalistic terms must be able to account, even in principle, for all of the above characterizations of NDEs.

Let us now see how Shermer attempts to evaluate these characteristics—all of Shermer’s contentions will be taken from his book The Believing Brain, of which he devotes a total of 13 pages to NDEs. Shermer begins by attempting to account for 1), 2), 5), and 8) by analyzing the findings of studies undertaken to fight g-force induced loss of consciousness in pilots:

[T]he majority of pilots experienced[…] brief episodes of tunnel vision, sometimes with a bright light at the end of the tunnel, as well as a sense of floating, sometimes paralysis, and often euphoria and a feeling of peace and serenity when they came back to consciousness.

 In order to explain the advent of the feeling of peace and serenity, Shermer claims (quoting a medical doctor and neuroscientist) that these “are likely to have been produced by the increased release of various neurotransmitters such as endorphins, serotonin, and dopamine.”

Shermer then brings forth scientific studies performed by Swiss neuroscientist Olaf Blanke, who was able to produce quite lucidly seeming out-of-body experiences—perhaps a potential explanation of 4). The patients of the studies claimed to be able to see themselves lying in bed as they floated towards the ceiling.

Moreover, Shermer looks to discoveries by neuroscientists whereby damage to the posterior superior parietal lobe--what is called the orientation association area (OAA)--can cause people to experience feelings of spiritual transcendence. The reason for this is that the OAA is responsible for orienting the body in physical space. Therefore, damage to the OAA makes it difficult for individuals to differentiate between themselves and something separate to them. Moreover, it leads to a “blurring between reality and fantasy, between feeling in body and out of body” Shermer claims.

Shermer’s last line of argumentation is to take a look at hallucinogenic drugs. Shermer lists a number of said drugs (e.g., MDA and DMT) and claims that they can produce effects such as the sense of floating and flying, out-of-body experiences, and the bringing back of long forgotten memories—perhaps accounting for 10).

Shermer has, no doubt, kept up with the scientific literature. He seems to have provided quite plausible explanations for many aspects of NDEs; and while many of these explanations only explain aspects of NDEs one at a time, it is not far-fetched to say that whatever is going on neurologically, these aspects could all be accounted for by one neurological process. Yet, this might only be the case if science could explain all aspects of NDEs, albeit even piecemeal. However, I maintain that Shermer’s findings have not done this—for at best Shermer has only accounted for half of the aspects listed above--and that Shermer has side-stepped the most cogent and compelling arguments in favor of the validity of NDEs. It is to these arguments, along with some qualms regarding Shermer’s contentions, that we now turn.

Let us begin with Shemer’s claims that the feelings of peace and bliss can be accounted for by neurotransmitters such as endorphins. While this might seem prima facie plausible, it turns out to be misleading. Cardiologist Pim Van Lommel explains:

Endorphins can indeed get rid of pain and cause a sense of peace and well-being. However, the effects of endorphins usually last several hours whereas the absence of pain and the sense of peace during an NDE vanish immediately after regaining consciousness.

So while Shermer’s explanation seems to be plausible, it has a very difficult time explaining why all the individuals who experience NDEs often retain none of those experiences (e.g. peace and bliss) after they have “been brought back to their body”, so to speak.

Let us now look at aspects of NDEs that Shermer ignored, and which provide the most compelling case for the validity of NDEs. I see no better place to begin than with, probably one of the most famous NDEs, the case of Pamela Reynolds. Reynolds was diagnosed with an aneurysm and underwent brain surgery in 1991. During the operation her body temperature was lowered to 50 degrees Fahrenheit and all the blood was drained from her head. The electrical activity of her brain was under full observation during the whole surgery, and there was no activity whatsoever. Cardiologist Michael Sabom explained that Reynold’s “brain was found dead by all three clinical tests.” Reynolds also had “clicking devices” put in her ears to help monitor the brain, and therefore could not hear even if she was, per impossible, conscious.

Now, during the operation Reynolds experienced an NDE, which began with an out-of-body perception. During the latter experience she witnessed the surgeons working on her and, subsequently, witnessed a drill that she described looked like an electric toothbrush , that was used to during the operation. Then Reynolds witnessed the surgeons discussing a problem regarding the size of her arteries, followed by the surgeons moving toward the lower half of her body to work. All of these experiences Reynolds witnessed were confirmed by her neurosurgeon, as well as a confirmation that it was simply impossible for Reynolds to have been able to see or hear anything she described during her surgery. Her neurosurgeon Dr. Robert Spetzler explains:

I don’t have an explanation for it. I don’t know how it’s possible for it to happen, considering the physiological state she was in.

These types of veridical experiences regarding NDEs are very common. In Pim Van Lommel’s book ConsciousnessBeyond Life--which was largely based on his own comprehension eight year study of Dutch NDEs whereby he investigated 344 patients, with controls, who had undergone cardiac arrest resuscitation--he describes case after case of individuals who had NDEs whereby they explained events during their cardiac arrest that were later verified. Moreover, in the book The Handbook of Near-Death Experiences, it was found that out of 93 reports of potentially verifiable out-of-body experiences, “92 percent were completely accurate, 6 percent contained some error, and only one was completely erroneous.”

Notice that the above hypotheses of Shermer fail to account for such facts. He claims to account for the experience of out-of-body perceptions, yet these hypotheses cannot explain how an extremely high percent of these experiences are veridical and have been verified by doctors and nurses et al. But NDEs have even more cogent evidence to put forth, namely, that of individuals meeting relatives that they had no idea were deceased, or had never met before.

Here are two accounts of individuals that had NDEs which were recorded as part of Lommel’s comprehensive study:

During my NDE following a cardiac arrest, I saw both my dead grandmother and a man who looked at me lovingly but whom I didn’t know. Over ten years later my mother confided on her death-bed that I’d been born from an extramarital affair; my biological father was a Jewish man who’d been deported and killed in World War II. My mother showed me a photograph. The unfamiliar man I’d seen more than ten years earlier during my NDE turned out to be my biological father.

At the age of sixteen I had a serious motorcycle accident. I was in a coma for nearly three weeks. During that coma I had an extremely powerful experience…and then I came to a kind of iron fence. Behind it stood Mr. Van der G., the father of my parents’ best friend. He told me I couldn’t go any further. I had to go back because my time hadn’t come yet…When I told my parents after waking up, they said to me that Mr. Van der G. had died and been buried during my coma. I couldn’t have known that he was dead.

These types of examples abound. A man from Holland, Evert Tabeek, had an NDE during cardiac arrest. During this NDE Tabeek had a panoramic life review and came across a woman and a boy, neither of which he recognized. Tabeek claims that they told him that he had abandoned them. When he was released from the hospital, Tabeek thought about the encounter constantly and tried to dig deep into his memory. Finally he recognized the woman he had seen; it was a woman he had had a relationship with long ago. He tracked down the woman and found her grave. Yet, he also found out something shocking: he had a son with this woman and didn’t even know it. Subsequently he found out that the son had been dead for thirty years. It was this woman and his son, whom he had never met nor even knew existed, that he claims he saw during his NDE.

Notice once more that Shermer’s hypotheses have no explanatory power regarding instances such as these. His hypotheses might be able to explain the “illusion” of meeting relatives and experiencing panoramic life reviews, yet such speculations say absolutely nothing regarding individuals who learn things during these NDEs that they could not possibly have known. However, we’re not done with Shermer yet, for there are still NDEs that are even more compelling than anything we’ve seen so far. Let us now turn to one of these.

Vicki Noratuk was born blind due an extremely high level of oxygen concentration in her incubator. This high concentration of oxygen caused Vicki to suffer atrophy of the eyeball and optic nerve. As a result, her visual cortex did not develop and, therefore, Vicki cannot see and cannot imagine, dream, nor hallucinate things visually. Vicki states, “I’ve never seen anything, no light, no shadows, no nothing…I don’t see anything at all. And in my dreams I don’t see any visual impressions.”  In 1973 Vicki was in a car accident and suffered a skull fracture which rendered her comatose. During this period she experienced a NDE.

The next thing I recall I was in Harborview Medical Center and looking down at everything that was happening. And it was frightening because I’m not accustomed to seeing things visually, because I never had before. And initially it was pretty scary! And then I finally recognized my wedding ring and my hair…As I approaching this area, there were trees and there were birds and quite a few people, but they were all, like, made out of light, and I could see them, and it was incredible, really beautiful, and I was overwhelmed by that experience because I couldn’t really imagine what light was light.

Vicki’s case does not stand alone. There have been numerous individuals that have had the same experience as Vicki. While cases such as this provide one with a sense of awe, they also put to bed hypotheses like Shermer’s above.

While Shermer has cited many scientific investigations demonstrating that people can experience different aspects of NDEs, his hypotheses lose all plausibility in the face of the above accounts. He tried to account for the vision of the tunnel. Yet, the tunnel vision is usually the first aspect experienced in his example of pilots going through g-force training, whereas the experience of going through a tunnel usually comes after the out-of-body experience in NDEs. Furthermore, while Shermer has given explanations regarding how out-of –body perceptions can be produced through scientific experiments and hallucinogenic drugs, his hypotheses cannot, even in principle, account for NDEs where people have veridical experiences, meet deceased relatives they didn’t even know existed, and where people without the cognitive faculties for visual stimuli nevertheless experience visual perceptions. So, while it might have seemed initially plausible that science might shed some light on NDEs, it seems, rather, that science is in the dark here.

So, while Shermer’s argumentation initially accounted for half of the above aspects of NDEs, we now see that Shermer has nothing to salvage any longer. His hypotheses are weak, and he simply ignores the most cogent lines of evidence regarding the nature of NDEs. Thus, we are free to conclude that we have warrant to dismiss Shermer’s contentions as untenable and illogical.

So, where does the skeptic go from here? Well, there are usually two options that will be favored by them: 1) dismiss the above evidence in favor of NDEs as pure anecdote, or 2) insist that science will one day be able to explain NDEs—this is Shermer’s last refuge: “just because we do not have a 100 percent completely natural explanation for all of the experiences that people have near death does not mean that we will never understand death, or that there is some other mysterious force at work. It certainly does not mean there is life after death.” Yet, both of these options rest on pure dogmatic naturalistic assumptions.

For there is a third option: admit the cogency of NDEs and adjust your worldview accordingly. However, this is the last thing the skeptic would ever consider. The skeptic, who prides himself as a catalyst of reason, is no more than an individual with a naturalistic presupposition, who will do anything to salvage said presupposition. When the evidence is overwhelming the naturalist does not change his point of view, but, rather, simply clings to his beloved science and hopes that all will be well in the end (and only the religious engage in wishful thinking?). Naturalists are stuck with a box that all their beliefs must fit in; yet, when beliefs don’t fit, they simply claim that such beliefs are illusory or, rather, that one day they will indeed fit in the box.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Interview: Dale Allison on the existence of Jesus

Dale C. Allison (Ph.D, Duke University) is a prominent New Testament scholar and historian of Christian origins. He is currently the Richard J. Dearborn Professor of New Testament Studies at Princeton Theological Seminary. In this interview (with, arguably, one of the best NT scholars today) I have asked Allison to elaborate on why it is that the existence of a historical Jesus is the most plausible thesis to uphold--contrary to the recent Jesus mythicist revival--and why scholars such as himself are warranted in such a conclusion. I thank Dale for accepting the interview.

1) As of late a majority of (mostly) internet “skeptics” have become convinced by the thesis that the existence of Jesus of Nazareth should be questioned, and even subsequently denied. This thesis is commonly referred to as Jesus mythicism. What is your prima facie reaction, and the reaction of the scholarly community, to such a thesis?

Informed New Testament scholars will have a sense of déjà vu. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, several books argued that Jesus was a myth. Prominent proponents of the thesis were Arthur Drews and John M. Robertson. Their books and similar volumes generated a large response among mainstream liberal German scholars, including Adolf Jülicher, Erich Klostermann, Paul Schmiedel, Harmann von Soden, and Johannes Weiss. Albert Schweitzer provided an overview of the debate; see his The Quest of the Historical Jesus (first complete English edition, 2001), chapters 22 and 23. The consensus has always been that the skeptics lost, and so work has gone on from there.

Given this, and if I may presume to speak for the scholarly community, my guess is that most New Testament scholars are more annoyed than anything by the renewed debate. It's always a pain to reopen things you learned as a graduate student and that you've taken for granted your whole career: you don't want to entertain the possibility that you've built on a faulty foundation. Too scary. So it's natural to assume or hope or wish that nothing terribly new is being said. My guess is that, for this reason, the new books are not being much read. I'd also guess that many are relying on Bart Ehrman's volume, the idea being that Bart is hardly a conservative, and if he thinks that the new contributions aren't convincing, then they probably aren't worth wrestling with.

Speaking now for myself rather than for the guild, I've paid no attention to the recent contributions on this topic. I haven't even read Ehrman. That's because I've written my books on Jesus and wish to go to other things. In other words, I'm not reading what anybody these days is saying about Jesus. I've done the best that I can with the topic and want to investigate other things, and I find it impossible to do that if I'm still trying to keep up with the latest publications.

One more observation on the recent resurgence of the mythical point of view. It may be driven in part by the internet. In the past, most of the gatekeepers of the discipline—acquisitions editors—wouldn't have been interested in the topic. The internet, for better and worse, has changed this. It's now possible for a movement to make itself felt independently of the big publishers.

2) In your writings, especially in your commentary on the gospel of Matthew, you have demonstrated that the gospels—again, mostly Matthew—make much use of Old Testament narratives to illustrate the story of Jesus. Some mythicist scholars have claimed that such use of OT themes instead lends credence to the view that most of Jesus’ life, as presented in the gospels, was completely fabricated as a sort of midrashim based on the OT. What is your opinion regarding the plausibility of such a thesis?

I understand the reasoning, which is at the heart of Strauss' great book on Jesus, wherein he argues again and again from typology to fiction. I agree with him about some things. But not everything. We should be careful here. People can engage in typological interpretations of themselves. Martin Luther King, Jr., presented himself sometimes as akin to Moses, at other times akin to Lincoln. Alexander the Great thought of himself as being like Achilles. Julius Caesar thought of himself as being like Alexander. Napoleon thought of himself as being like Caesar. General Santa Anna thought of himself as being like Napoleon. Obama went to his first inauguration by train and created parallels between himself and Lincoln. Eusebius, when recounting Constantine's victory over Maxentius at the battle of the Milvian bridge, cast the latter in the role of Pharaoh, the former in the role of Moses, which does not mean they fought no such battle. John Bunyan, writing of his own conversion, drew heavily upon the New Testament accounts of Paul becoming a Christian, which scarcely entails that Bunyan's recollections are free of facts. Paul himself seems to have seen himself in Jeremiah and Deutero-Isaiah. One could go on and on. Sometimes typologies grow out of autobiographical interpretation. This is my view about Jesus and the NT Moses typologies: he probably thought of himself as the prophet like Moses, an idea that the tradition then developed. In any case, you can tell a story in multiple languages, and Scripture is a sort of language. In fact, I doubt that some of the early Christian leaders could have said much of anything without borrowing scriptural language.

One also should beware of assuming that people can't have large self-conceptions. History is full of human beings who have aspired to greatness, who have sought to lead others, and who have imagined themselves to be at the center of what they believed the gods or God were doing. That the NT gives Jesus roles and titles from the OT doesn't logically entail that all those roles and titles were foreign to his own thought.

3) How can the abundance of attestation to Jesus of Nazareth be compared to the attestation of other historical figures of antiquity?

It's not great compared with those who have left us written texts. It's not bad compared with most people who didn't leave written texts. It's better for example than most of the Jewish political figures we know about from the turn of the era, and better than any of the rabbis or Bar Kockba or any of the so-called false prophets in Josephus.

4) Many mythicists label the gospels as “untrustworthy” on the grounds that they contain discrepancies. This leads to their belief that the gospels cannot be utilized for historical material regarding Jesus of Nazareth. Does the reality of such discrepancies in the gospels render this claim warranted? Is a text either completely trustworthy or untrustworthy, or are there varying levels of reliability when dealing with historical texts?

Most decent historical sources are neither completely trustworthy nor completely untrustworthy but a mixed bag. Just think about contemporary biographies of modern figures, which often disagree radically. Just go out and read ten different biographies of JFK or Bill Clinton. They often disagree about small historical particulars, and they often disagree in terms of general evaluation. Famous and important people provoke different reactions. The goal of the historian is to sort and weigh probabilities, on the assumption that none of our sources is infallible.

Re memory: My wife and I disagree about our memories all the time. About things that happened years ago, months ago, weeks ago, days ago, or hours ago. It happens so often that it's a standing joke, and we've reconciled ourselves to the fact that, when there is no third witness, we can't figure out who is right and who is wrong. Heck, sometimes we both must be wrong. But we're not mythographers, because what we are almost always misremembering is related to something that happened. It's faulty memory, not no memory.

Socrates is to the point here. Plato's view of him is very different than Xenophon. Many of the details and impressions differ. There is much here for scholars to wonder about and debate. But Socrates wasn't a myth.

It's also worth thinking about conflicting testimony in court. When people disagree on their recollections of an accident or crime scene, we don't conclude there was no accident or no crime. We just say that memories are frail and then try to find the true story behind the disagreements. I've argued in Constructing Jesus that we can try a similar approach with the sources for him.

5) A problem that is commonly stated against the cogency for the existence of Jesus is that there is no contemporary attestation of Jesus’ existence. We have the writings of Paul that date to a couple of decades after Jesus lived and then we have the gospels that come towards the latter half of the first century. But, none of these writings were written by people who were eye-witnesses to Jesus’ life—and, therefore do not provide the desired contemporary evidence. What are your opinions regarding the efficacy of such an argument? Are there other historical figures attested in antiquity that lack contemporary attestation?

Yes, we are at least once removed from Jesus since he wrote nothing extant and since I don't think Matthew wrote Matthew or John wrote John or Peter wrote 1 Peter or James wrote James or Jude wrote Jude. This—just like the frailty of memory and so much else—makes our work hard. But for me this is history, which means that we weigh probabilities and try to find the best working hypothesis. It's not a question of certainty. You can doubt everything if you want to. It's a question of what's more plausible, and it's my sense of things that positing an historical Jesus leaves us with fewer problems than the alternative.

6) How integral is the attestation of Paul to the existence of Jesus? What aspects of Paul’s writings are of value in determining the existence of Jesus?

I'd think an historical Jesus more likely than not even if we just had the first-century gospels. But Paul greatly adds to the probability. Here I can't say anything beyond what Weiss argued a century ago, that Paul claims to have known brothers of Jesus and to have spoken to at least one of them and also to have known a guy named Peter/Cephas who is everywhere else remembered as a follower of Jesus.

7) What sort of sources does a historian ideally look for that can attest to the existence and life of an individual in antiquity? Do the sources that attest to Jesus satisfy such a search?

I don't work with ideals. I just work with what we have and see no point in wishing for what we don't have. The evidence for me is enough to show that Jesus existed and enough for us to say some interesting things about him. Other cases—I think e.g. of Zoroaster and Buddha—are much harder in my opinion.

8) It is no doubt that the sources that attest to Jesus are colored by theological bias. Does this tendentiousness on behalf of the sources render them as invalid for historical inquiry? 

If we had only pro-Mormon sources, if all other traces of Joseph Smith had disappeared, we'd still have good reason to infer that Joseph Smith was an historical figure. The same for Muhammad. The same for Jesus, although I do think Josephus (not a Christian) said a few things about him even if it's impossible to reconstruct the original. Anyway, aren't most sources for most famous ancient people from biased observers, from people who are cheering or booing?

9) What would, ideally, be the nature of the evidence, or lack of evidence, that could possibly convince you that a figure like Jesus, though his existence is attested, didn’t in fact exist?

Nothing if he were like Jesus, because Jesus was an historical figure. Otherwise: if positing a pure fiction explained more data than positing an historical figure, then you go for the fiction. Tobit. Daniel. Noah. Job. Enoch.

But perhaps by "figure like Jesus" you mean somebody who is presented as a sort of wonder-working deity. This brings up the problem of miracles. My claim is that whether anything miraculous or paranormal ever occurs or has occurred isn't germane here. All that matters is that the world is full of first-hand accounts of miracle stories—Craig Keener's recent book has that right—and that there are such things as charismatic healers and wonder-workers. Lots of miracle stories circulated about Sabbati Sevi while he was still alive; so too the Baal Shem Tov; and some of them came from people who knew them. Heck, however you explain it, thousands of people testified to having been healed by Oral Roberts. This doesn't mean we can just trust the miracle stories in the gospels. Strauss probably did account satisfactorily for some of them. Moreover, I don't know how you could ever e.g. argue that some pigs once ran off a cliff after an exorcism near the Sea of Galilee in the time of Jesus. 

Nonetheless, miracles miracles everywhere can't in itself be an argument against Jesus having existed. If it were, then what would we do with Francis of Assisi and Kathryn Kuhlman? It's safer to infer that Jesus was a miracle worker.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

I think therefore I am, and that's it?

The doubt of Descartes
Even if one is largely ignorant when it comes to philosophy, they have no doubt heard the famous conclusion of the French philosopher and mathematician Rene Descartes: cogito ergo sum—that is, I think therefore I am. The rationality behind such a statement seems self-evident and beyond denial: if I am aware of my own thinking, then there must be an I (known as the ego) doing such thinking who, therefore, exists; in contrast, in order to deny such a statement there must be an I who is denying it and, therefore, thinking, and subsequently existing.

However, most people are unaware of what drove Descartes to arrive at such a bare and seemingly tautological conclusion.

Descartes began to embark on an epistemological—one’s epistemology is their theory of how knowledge is acquired--journey. He ideally wanted to build a theory of knowledge from the bottom up, and to do so would require the foundations of said theory to be so strong as to be unmovable and unquestionable; for if the foundations of one’s theory are shown to be invalid then the theory itself comes tumbling down into destruction. So, Descartes felt that he should begin by doubting everything he felt could be possibly doubted—e.g. the reality of the external world, the reliability of sense perception etc. The reasons behind such doubts were fueled by the possibility of an evil deity or demon: if it is even possible that there is an evil demon deceiving me in all the objects brought to my consciousness, then all objects are open to doubt. Thus, the endeavor that Descartes embarked on seemed geared towards disaster: what can constitute foundations of knowledge if everything can be doubted?

But there was one last epistemological hold out for Descartes: his own existence. The one aspect Descartes felt that the demon could not reach him was with regards to his own being. Might the external world be an illusion? Maybe. Might my senses be deceiving me continually? Possibly. But, might I ever be deceived that I do in fact exist? Not at all, thought Descartes. Thence emerges the famous cogito ergo sum, and from there began the foundation of Descartes epistemology.
But, was Descartes correct? Can everything be doubted, only to be left with the small shelter of belief in one’s own existence? Or, are there not other statements and beliefs that can be upheld with the certainty Descartes upheld his own existence with?

Descartes’ double standard
It turns out that, by Descartes own standards, his cogito ergo sum is not as resilient to doubt as he believed. For, cognition is simply the act of objects being presented, voluntarily or involuntarily, to the conscious subject; this is true with regards to introspection as well. My perceiving the computer sitting on my lap is simply the act of the sense datum of the computer being presented to my consciousness. My remembering the vacation I took last year is simply the act of the memorial imprints of said vacation being presented to my conscious awareness. These are the types of objects that Descartes claimed might not represent what we take them to represent.

But, what exactly is different with regards to being conscious of our own being? To engage in consciousness of my own being is simply for my consciousness to be presented with particular objects—i.e. my own thoughts, feelings, emotions. To participate in introspection is to bring the self, or ego, to the forefront of my consciousness. But, how do we know that this object (the ego) present to our consciousness is indeed a reality? Well, by Descartes’ standards, we don’t! The late Scholastic philosopher Peter Coffey articulates:
[W]e cannot assert the “self,” of which we become aware in all conscious activity to be real, or to exist really, without asserting the reality of the object revealed through this awareness; for we become aware of the thinking subject or self, not as a subject, but as an object[.]
But though Descartes was wrong regarding his epistemological convictions—or wrong about what grounds these convictions--we can still use his reasoning behind the cogito to build a bigger foundation for a theory of knowledge.

I think therefore I am, and more!
To reiterate, by affirming the cogito ergo sum, Descartes was making a specific judgment: he believed that the very fact of the “I the thinking subject” being an object of his consciousness implied that such an object had its being in reality. But, if Descartes could assert the objective existence of one such object present to his awareness, then why could he not assert the existence of other objects also present to his awareness in the same vein? The former can be doubted just as cogently as the latter. But if Descartes did indeed doubt the former (the reality of his own existence) then his epistemology would be self-defeating—i.e. “I am led to the conclusion that I doubt my own existence, yet such a statement ‘I do not exist’ can only be uttered by one who exists.” So, it seems that we must affirm that the object of the ego presented to the awareness of the subject exists; and, therefore, we now have reason to uphold the fact that objects present to a subject’s consciousness have an objective being in reality; for, if we can make such a judgment about one object, then there is nothing stopping us from making similar judgments about other objects, since the presentation of said objects is the same. May we misinterpret such objects? Sure. Might we occasionally make mistakes regarding the nature of said objects? Yes. But, we have no reason whatsoever, and all the reason to the contrary, to doubt that objects presented to a subject’s awareness have an objective existence in reality.

So, not only can we safely conclude that “I think, therefore I am”, but the reasoning behind such an inference also leads us to conclude judgments like “I have a computer on my lap” and “I went to Atlanta last November.” Ironically, Descartes implicit inferences lead us to affirm most of what he denied.