The Raving Theist

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August 15, 2006 | 24 Comments

Descartes’ “I think, therefore I am” (Principles of Philosophy, Part 1:VII) has been called the “Mona Lisa” of philosophy. His proof of why we can’t be deceived about whether we exist is probably at least Whistler’s Mother:

But there is I know not what being, who is possessed at once of the highest power and the deepest cunning, who is constantly employing all his ingenuity in deceiving me. Doubtless, then, I exist, since I am deceived; and, let him deceive me as he may, he can never bring it about that I am nothing, so long as I shall be conscious that I am something. So that it must, in fine, be maintained, all things being maturely and carefully considered, that this proposition, I am, I exist, is necessarily true each time it is expressed by me, or conceived in my mind.

(Meditation II).

As it turns out, the arguments weren’t original. A leser known, but constantly pointed out secret, is that St. Augustine said essentially the same thing over a thousand years earlier:

[I]n order that we may take our start from the most obvious things, I ask you whether you yourself exist, or whether you think you may be under an illusion as to that; although surely if you did not exist, you could not possibly have an illusion.

(On Free Choice of the Will, II:3.7).

I am not at all afraid of the arguments of the Academicians, who say, What if you are deceived? For if I am deceived, I am. For he who is not, cannot be deceived; and if I am deceived, by this same token I am. And since I am if I am deceived, how am I deceived in believing that I am? for it is certain that I am if I am deceived.

(City of God, XI:26).

Peter Hankins of Conscious Entities doesn’t know whether Descartes came up with the “cogito” thing independently, but wonders “if St Augustine came up with it first, why aren’t we all talking about St Augustine’s cogito?”

The reason, I think, is that the argument was of no great importance to St. Augustine. He was in pursuit of faith, not doubt, and was more interested in God’s existence than his own. He puts no particular stress on the cogito argument, and readers who aren’t particularly looking out for it could easily read it without noticing its signficance. For Descartes, by contrast, everything depended on it. He needed a point of certainty from which to begin the construction of his metaphysics: St Augustine already had a source of certainty in God. Descartes also turned to God as a guarantor of knowledge, of course, but in his case, unprecedentedly, God did not come first. In this respect, modern philosophers are mostly in the same boat as Descartes, and if they want certainty, they have to undertake a similar exploration.

Atheists sometimes get suspicious of cogito-talk because, as seen above, it often ends up as part of one God argument or another. Or, at the very least, it suggests the conclusion that only minds are provable, which raises the uncomfortable spectre of disembodied things like spirits or souls — which, even if they aren’t God, might cause trouble by inhabiting fetuses. Anyway, if you can just get over the last word of the last sentence, try to focus on whether you’ve ever come across some atheist argument which uses the cogito as a building block. All I could find was this I Think, Therefore I Am An Atheist site, which compares reason to wings and fins and other “physical and chemical tricks” necessary to maximize survival of the “herd.”


24 Responses to “Cogito”

  1. June
    August 15th, 2006 @ 3:15 pm

    Coito Ergo Sum

  2. a different tim
    August 15th, 2006 @ 3:36 pm

    Nothing evolves to maximise the survival of “the herd”. Really, if you’re going to talk about evolution, you should at least try to understand it.

    I assume that this is related to the posts of a couple of weeks back. I see you have still not bothered to read any biology or neuroscience. Oh, yeah, I forgot, you can deduce from first principles the conclusions of their disciplines better than they can discover them.

    You want to talk about consciousness? You could mention Blackmore, Penrose/Hammeroff, Dennett, Crick, Ramachandram, Searle, Wegner….even our own dear Scathach on the forums. Hell, you don’t even have to name them, just maybe betray some kind of familiarity with their arguments. Searle’s Chinese room, for example, might be the sort of thing you’re looking for. Some of them agree with you, some of them don’t, all of them have more interesting things to say about it than this, because they all base their arguments on actual observation rather than a priori horseshit. The debate has moved on. It is no longer the province of armchair speculation, and hasn’t been for some time.

    RA, this is getting irritating and arrogant. If you’re going to post on this then you should at least be arsed to find out something of what you’re talking about.

  3. Dada Saves
    August 15th, 2006 @ 3:41 pm

    I Think, Therefore I Am An Atheist site, which compares reason to wings and fins and other “physical and chemical tricks” necessary to maximize survival of the “herd.”

    The website is actually that of The Atheist Foundation of Australia, and an article titled “I think therefore I am,” happens to be on the front page. An excerpt:

    ‘All creatures specialize in some way to maximise survival. Some by having wings, others by the use of fins and a multitude of differing physical and chemical tricks. Our “trick” is the ability to reason. The catch is that this marvellous mechanism can be very selectively used.

    To be convinced that we are “special” creatures of a creator produces a false impression that our rational thinking is innate and total, as a god had planned. So wrong!

    Humans can be very logical but more often than not are swayed from its use by many traps. Our long evolutionary history of reliance on the “herd” has compromised rational thought in favour of going along with consensus of opinion.’

    The writer is right about one thing: TRA ‘selective uses’ his reason to try make others look ridiculous — although now he only seems to target atheists . (He rather selectively uses this poor bastard’s quotes, too.)

  4. realityhack
    August 15th, 2006 @ 6:03 pm

    I was not aware that anyone had demonstrated that reasoning was a direct survival trait. In fact I thought the prevailing theory was it probobly was not at the time it developed.

  5. Godthorn
    August 15th, 2006 @ 10:35 pm

    I don’t know what the prevailing theory is, but since survival is elementary, I would think that reason would at first, and for some time, have been employed exclusively in the service of survival. But I would be interested to hear the contrary theory.

  6. Kreme
    August 16th, 2006 @ 12:25 am

    You’re right RA. Perhaps a robot does have spirits, and perhaps there is a ghost in your car’s engine making it work. Or perhaps the plastic bag in American Beauty dances with its soul going about this way, and that. Afterall, how can you be certain there is anything beyond your personal perception? Certainly not through empirical research; that stuff doesn’t account for a soul. No RA, everything exists only because you yourself can perceive it. We are all apparitions of your mind. So quit dicking around with yourself, and solve all your percieved wrongs! Stop deceiving yourself!

  7. Forrest Cavalier
    August 16th, 2006 @ 12:54 am

    Can any argument that starts by using Cogito as a foundation provide much Truth applicable in everyday life? Does anyone need to formally prove to themselves they exist before they can wake up in the morning?

    Dada Saves, in #3, pointed out that Reason is employed selectively in everyday life. Of course! Reason is not our only “trick”, and Reason is often the least good approach when one or more of 4 serious real-world limitations are present:

    1. Incomplete and insufficient observation of initial conditions.
    2. Inaccuracies in predictive modelling.
    3. Finite processing power.
    4. Hard deadlines.

    So….deciding when asked “one lump or two?” is almost never better done by Reason alone.

    Reason has its place, to be sure. But life is so richly complicated that one of the above limits (and most likely more than one) is going to be present in every decision, and that severely impacts the effectiveness of deciding by Reason alone. In that case it is best to find Truth using a different approach. (By Truth, I mean something that leads you to better choices.)

    Here are examples of good, but IRRATIONAL, strategies when one of the above limits is present.

    1. We can’t always know through observations the motivations and actions of those around us, but it is often helpful to assume that our family members intend to help us, and that some strangers intend to do us harm, without asking. Prejudices aren’t all bad.

    2. Even if we could observe everything, there are limitations in the accuracy with which we can predict that initial conditions lead to outcomes. (Even weather is forecasted only very approximately.) But this is counteracted quite well by dogma (self-reasoned or indoctrinated.) We have favorite supermarkets, brands, habits, beliefs because we concluded that choosing them again is LIKELY to lead to the same good outcomes as in the past, even though we cannot prove it.

    3. If a situation is so complex that one human brain can’t provide enough thinking to get through it, asking others for advice or copying their actions is a great strategy. CLose confidants, Bandwagon behaviors, and keeping up with the Joneses often get rewarded.

    4. If the need to choose is constrained primarily by the hardness of the deadline (immediate harsh consequences), then reflexive instinct (“fight or flight”) serves well. Of course, informing that instinctual choice with insight and observation and even pre-training is going to be even better, as much as the deadline allows.

    There. I think that nicely summarizes my anthropomorphic explanation that dogmatic belief systems, including atheism, are worthwhile to internalize and pursue. They lead to Truth (i.e. better choices.)

    And it nicely summarizes why pure atheism and rationalism are incomplete: they can be employed to bootstrap dogma and belief systems, but they cannot be employed directly in very many decision-making situations.

    I’d also posit that any system of beliefs worthwhile to internalize is unceasingly being improved, and helps us not only employ the irrational strategies themselves, but also helps us recognize situations that have one of the limits, and guides us to use which decision-making strategy when Reason alone would fail. I am convinced that this Enlightenment is a life-long task, requiring a multi-faceted approach to learning, experience, self-reflection, relationships, etc.

    Besides reading and writing here at TRA, what are other paths people follow to attain that kind of irrational wisdom and Truth?

  8. Kreme
    August 16th, 2006 @ 2:16 am

    Besides reading and writing here at TRA, what are other paths people follow to attain that kind of irrational wisdom and Truth?

    What you speak of is conditioned ritual, of which survival, and good feelings are reward. Once you realize this bit of rationality, then you can proceed to other forms of rationality. Nothing irrational about it; unknown, random, yet to be discovered unknowns? Yes.

  9. hagiograph
    August 16th, 2006 @ 6:35 am

    I never actually thought of the cogito as having anything _necessarily_ to do with God. But that being said, Descartes obviously suffered from the “ghost in the machine” and ultimately ended up with the pituitary being the “universal joint” between the mind and the body. But I don’t necessarily see that as proof of “disembodied issues” like spirit or soul or what have you. It merely points to the minds ability to think about itself.

    And if I recall, the main question Descartes was trying to understand was, how do I know everything around me isn’t some construct of a cosmic demon trying to trick me? That he came up with the fact that he was an observer (a mind) didn’t necessarily obviate the need for some physical (even if the mind didn’t know what it was) basis for the brain and chemistry that IS the mind.

    But its been a long time since I sat in Philosophy class.

    August 16th, 2006 @ 6:49 am

    “St. Augustine said essentially the same thing over a thousand years earlier …”

    And many, many millennia before that one of the first primate philosophers proclaimed:


  11. Kreme
    August 16th, 2006 @ 7:33 am

    And many, many millennia before that one of the first primate philosophers proclaimed:


    If I recall from evolutionary records, that branch of primate was killed off by recently evolved humans. Its intellect was too much a threat to the homosapien idea of magical talking snakes.

  12. Paul
    August 16th, 2006 @ 9:27 am

    Why should anyone expect that an argument for atheism might use cogito as a bulding block? What necessary connection is there between cogito and any evidence for God?

    RA is trying to insinuate some critique of atheism, but you might as well critique atheism for not being founded on macro-economic theory. What does one have to do with the other?

    RA is losing his intellectual edge.

  13. June
    August 16th, 2006 @ 11:14 am

    Socrates supposedly uttered the Modus Tollens form of Cogito as “I know that I do not know anything”. Can we assume he used that to support the atheism for which he was sentenced to death? In that case, Socrates beat Augustine, so what prize do I get?

    In any case, I like much better what TRA said in July 2002:
    “… god is … logically impossible, for numerous reasons …”

  14. Kreme
    August 16th, 2006 @ 1:51 pm

    Can we assume he used that to support the atheism for which he was sentenced to death?

    Was Socrates sentenced to death for atheism?

  15. June
    August 16th, 2006 @ 7:46 pm

    According to Wikipedia, Meletus accused Socrates of being “a doer of evil, who corrupts the youth; and who does not believe in the gods of the state, but has other new divinities of his own.” (Source: Plato’s Apology)

  16. ak
    August 16th, 2006 @ 8:15 pm

    Okay, I am. Excellent.

    Now what on Earth does that have to do with having an insubstantial spirit floating inside my body? I don’t see any contradiction between my mind being the the electrical and chemical outputs of my brain, and me having a mind. In fact, I’d say that A explains B, not contradicts it.

  17. Godthorn
    August 17th, 2006 @ 2:43 am

    Forrest C, “one lump or two?” is decided by the gut; one plus one is determined by the intellect, a different function of the amazing mind.

    “Reason has its place, to be sure.” Yes, to be sure, just “as long as they know [as it knows] their place.” The quesion, “One lump or two?” is determined initially by the gut; then the mind, perhaps, intervenes, and the reasoner decides that one lump is the wiser choice.

    You are right–you are justified–in challenging reason. It is so infrequently exercised. But it is never “best to find Truth using a different approach.” What approach, FC? I have had three large concoctions of Wild Turkey and ginger ale, followed by four generous glasses of Merlot, and I can hardly walk but I find I can still think, and not being a slave to Christian “faith,” or a dupe of occultism or any other “ism,” I can assure you (or I can at least insist) that in spite of earnest effort, I have been unable to find a “different approach,” to truth. One plus one is two; nothing else is true. Tackle that, FC. Good night, and good luck. -Thorngod

  18. "Q" the Enchanter
    August 18th, 2006 @ 10:52 am

    The cogito argument obviously presupposes what it purports to prove–the “I” that thinks. Right?

  19. "Q" the Enchanter
    August 18th, 2006 @ 10:52 am

    The cogito argument obviously presupposes what it purports to prove–the “I” that thinks. Right?

  20. "Q" the Enchanter
    August 18th, 2006 @ 10:52 am

    The cogito argument obviously presupposes what it purports to prove–the “I” that thinks. Right?

  21. Thorngod
    August 18th, 2006 @ 1:14 pm

    Cogito cogito, “Q,” ergo cogito sum!

  22. June
    August 18th, 2006 @ 2:07 pm

    COITO Ergo Sum captures life’s essence more profoundly somehow.

    COITO existed for millions of centuries before COGITO evolved and generated the brain farts we now ponder so seriously.

  23. spinozista
    August 20th, 2006 @ 6:48 pm

    IIRC, Ambrose Bierce used the “I think that I think, therefore I think that I am” line somewhere in the Devil’s Dictionary.

    Descartes’ argument fails (as it was meant to) because, once you’ve dug yourself into that deep a metaphysical hole, you really can never climb back out again by yourself to find the rest of reality. It always takes God (the Christian God, needless to say) to do the heavy lifting.

    But fortunately I’m a Spinozist, so it’s not a problem that Descartes was wrong.

  24. Wayne VanWeerthuizen
    September 4th, 2006 @ 6:31 pm

    One problem is that members of other possible worlds also consider “I think, therefore I am” – do they come to the correct conclusion or not?

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