The Cogito: Absolute Certainty in an Uncertain World

Cogito ergo sum.” “I think, therefore, I am.” These words belong to seventeenth century French philosopher René Descartes, the man credited with the invention of the Cartesian coordinate system. Descartes is even more famous, however, for being the man who finally solved the problem of the external world. It is a problem to which philosophers in particular, from ancient to modern times, have been irresistibly drawn. Plato himself wrestled with the problem and produced the endlessly fascinating, and somewhat ornate concept of the Platonic Form. Embarking upon a beautiful exposé of the Forms in Phaedo, Plato eloquently teaches that external objects exist most perfectly as sovereign entities conceivable only by the apparatus of the mind.

Surely, the certainty that is experienced when comprehending these irreplaceable insights is sublime, and for but a fleeting moment, the world seems to makes sense. Belief in human perfectibility is intensely, though perhaps only temporarily, restored. For but a split second, the frontiers of consciousness enlarge, spawning strange gateways to hitherto unexplored dimensions of thought. Yet, seemingly on the very cusp of enlightenment, one confronts the reality that one’s reach may have exceeded one’s grasp.

Descartes acknowledges this dilemma in his Third Meditation, “…indeed, this gradual increase in knowledge is itself the surest sign of imperfection. What is more, even if my knowledge always increases more and more, I recognize that it will never actually be infinite, since it will never reach the point where it is not capable of a further increase”. There is a note of deflation in Descartes’ capitulation, yet his intellect unites with his conscience, and finds refuge in the idea of perfection thus denoted as God. So, what recourse is there for those who find no solace in the idea of a supernatural being? Short-changed with the ubiquity of imperfection, are secular philosophers irredeemable? Must humanity be content to accept that life is dissatisfaction? Is the unreflecting life really not worth living? Descartes shows us, there is another way.

Though it may be little consolation, what is being grappled with here is an age-old philosophical problem. Embarking on his Second Meditation to reconcile this contradiction at the very heart of philosophy Descartes writes:

“What then did I formerly think I was? A man. But what is a man? Shall I say ‘a rational animal’? No; for then I should have to inquire what an animal is, what rationality is, and in this way one question would lead me down the slope to other harder ones, and I do not now have the time to waste on subtleties of this kind.”

Here, Descartes is coming to grips with the troublesome objection to skepticism as laid down by Sextus Empiricus nearly a millennia and a half earlier in Outlines of Pyrrhonism. Indeed, Descartes’ stumbling block bears an uncanny resemblance to Empiricus’ ancient encounter with the identical problem. Empiricus describes the irreducible flaw in scepticism thus:

“For in fact anyone who purposes to give the preference to any of these [sense] impressions will be attempting the impossible…should he…desire to adduce proof…if he asserts that the proof is true he will be asked for a proof of its truth, and again for a proof of this latter proof, since it also must be true, and so on ad infinitum. But to produce proofs to infinity is impossible.”

It seems that upon closer inspection, the problem of the external world, then, as now, centres upon the imperfection of human sense perception. In fact, this was the main thrust of Empiricus’ argument with regard to the inadequacy, and unreliability of the data perceivable by the sense organs, namely, touch, taste, sight, smell, and sound. It is in this regard that Descartes method breaks with convention, as he adopts a novel, indeed revolutionary approach to the problem.

So, how does Descartes accomplish this? At the end of the First Meditation Descartes begins to rid himself of his physical being. Isolating himself from the external world, Descartes confines himself to a private room with a fireplace, and then closes his eyes. Relinquishing himself of his physical body, Descartes reports on his encounter with his mind. Distilled thus, and denuded of its visceral anatomy, his intellectual being addresses itself to the reader.

Those seeking to glimpse perfection within the study of philosophy, may find it, meditating alongside Descartes at the very heart of his Second Meditation. There one encounters the Cogito, pulsating with a life of its own, seemingly self-sufficient, self-evident, and self-existent. Like any perfect thing, however, the Cogito defies definition. Indeed, any attempt to capture its essence by showcasing an isolated facet of its structure, removed from the whole, culminates in frustration, and failure. It is itself a matter for wonder as to how Descartes managed to articulate such perfection using means that were anything but.

Nevertheless, Descartes himself is unambiguously clear about his objectives, stating at the outset, “Anything which admits of the slightest doubt I will set aside just as if I had found it to be wholly false; and I will proceed in this way until I recognize something certain, or, if nothing else, until I at least recognize for certain that there is no certainty.” Descartes is implacably honest, and from this point onwards each step into the unknown sounds natural, unrehearsed, and spontaneous. It is Descartes’ adherence to a sense of absolute vulnerability that endears such affection, and engenders such trust in the reader.

The only beacon by which Descartes navigates his illusory milieu is doubt. It is the sole premise to which he clings. His method is, as far as possible, to minimize sensory input from the outside world. But, what about the impressions physical objects create in his own mind? Groping into oblivion with one hand, while clasping his rampaging skepticism in the other, Descartes encounters a carousel of images he disavows as nothing more than mental impressions of the objects in his room. Nevertheless, he finds himself attracted to them. The image of the desk, the candle wax, the fire, they seduce him like a moth to the flame.

Descartes, however, is heroically steadfast. He had resolved not only to doubt the existence of these objects, but also, therefore, their residues in his mind. Unwavering, true to his method, he returns time and again to his initial premise. He could not rid himself of this intuition, for it was all that remained.

“Does it now follow that I too do not exist? No: if I convinced myself of something then I certainly existed. But there is a deceiver of supreme power and cunning who is deliberately and constantly deceiving me. In that case I too undoubtedly exist, if he is deceiving me; and let him deceive me as much as he can, he will never bring it about that I am nothing so long as I think that I am something. So after considering everything very thoroughly, I must finally conclude that this proposition, I am, I exist, is necessarily true whenever it is put forward by me or conceived in my mind.”

Discovering the Cogito is like finding a light switch in pitch darkness. By turning the switch, Descartes illuminates not only his own mind, but also the world of external objects, unadorned, and stripped of their embellishments. The ‘thinking thing’ thus penetrates illusion, and images the world in the ‘x-ray vision’ of cognition. This spectrum of apprehension, however, is not the cumbersome perspective accessible from time immemorial through mere sense perception, it is something entirely new: indubitable certainty via the intuition of cognition. Still, what is this island of apparently solid ground Descartes has chanced upon in relation to the shipwreck of uncertainty? The hard-won intuition, namely, that of his own existence now raised even more questions, “But I do not yet have a sufficient understanding of what this ‘I’ is, that now necessarily exists”.

Descartes is almost masochistic in disowning his biological self. The ‘thinking thing’ he identifies with finds no kinship whatsoever with his biology. One gets the sense of flesh and blood being nothing more than an environment suit whose sole purpose is to cradle this ‘thinking thing’. Thus asserting his existence he writes, “Thinking? At last I have discovered it – thought; this alone is inseparable from me. I am, I exist – that is certain”.

Satisfying himself that he is a ‘thinking thing’, Descartes sets out to find out precisely what that entails, “But what then am I? A thing that thinks. What is that? A thing that doubts, understands, affirms, denies, is willing, is unwilling, and also imagines and has sensory perceptions”. The last two, namely, imagination, and sense perception, seem to present the most potential for deception. Descartes considers the imagination, and girds himself immediately. Detecting the potential for deception, Descartes compares the application of the imagination towards the discernment of the ‘thinking thing’ to the act of returning to sleep, once already awake, in order to investigate the quality of wakefulness.

Thus properly calibrated, Descartes tests the prototype ‘thinking thing’, on a familiar object: a piece of beeswax. As a control, he runs the wax through the familiar gamut of sensory apparatus creating a multidimensional model from all visual, auditory, olfactory, gustatory, and somatic input thus derived. Descartes realizes that the wax reconstituted thus, no matter how perfect a facsimile, would in the final analysis be meaningless if unreflected by the mirror of his existence.

“And yet, and here is the point, the perception I have of it is a case not of vision or touch or imagination – nor has it ever been, despite previous appearances – but of purely mental scrutiny; and this can be imperfect and confused, as it was before, or clear and distinct as it is now, depending on how carefully I concentrate on what the wax consists in.”

Referring to the figures he sees crossing the square through his window, he illustrates the insight by showing that it is only through the application of the faculty of judgment, that is to say by thinking, that he is able to conclude that the figures are in fact men, and not automatons in coats and hats. So, what profit is there in knowing with scientific certainty, that what had been comprehended was indeed a piece of wax? How is this knowledge, reflected in the light of the Cogito, preferable or even desirable compared to that which could be obtained easily enough through common sense? Descartes anticipates this objection.

“So let us proceed, and consider on which occasion my perception of the nature of the wax was more perfect and evident. Was it when I first looked at it, and believed I knew it by my external senses, or at least by what they call the ‘common’ sense’ – that is, the power of imagination? Or is my knowledge more perfect now, after a more careful investigation of the nature of the wax and of the means by which it is known?”

Indeed, witnessing Descartes justify his work, given the magnitude of the breakthrough he had just accomplished is a little heart wrenching. In his defence, Descartes sounds like an artificial intelligence, upon becoming self-aware, being asked what makes it so special, given that even kindergartners are self-aware? His answer is that ‘common sense’, in so far as it is arrived at via the imagination, is not at all unique to humankind. Is it not even deployed by animals who might gather that the wax was edible, due to its superficial physical properties? Indeed, a disarming answer to one who may raise this objection is simply that before one can be certain as to whether external objects exist, one must first ensure whether one exists in the first place.

So, at the end of the day, is mental certainty derived through the application of the Cogito the only certainty one can have about the external world? Aside from God, this is precisely what Descartes is saying:

“I see that without any effort I have now finally got back to where I wanted. I now know that even bodies are not strictly perceived by the senses or the faculty of imagination but by the intellect alone, and that this perception derives not from their being touched or seen but from their being understood; and in view of this I know plainly that I can achieve an easier and more evident perception of my own mind than of anything else.”

But, does this provide the catharsis human beings desperately seek as concerns certainty in their worldviews? Well, it all depends on Descartes’ initial intuition of cognition as the incontrovertible bedrock of certainty. It is the pillar on which everything else rests. If the Cogito is compromised, Descartes philosophy is in ruins. Peter Markie discusses this esoteric, and sensitive issue in his essay The Cogito and Its Importance. What is intuition in relation to cognition? “Intuition”, writes Markie, “is the faculty by which we gain the initial certainties that make deduction possible…Intuition is distinguished from deduction by the fact that it does not involve a movement of thought through a series of inferences…” Markie’s train of thought is certainly a relief when it comes to analysing the Cogito, where one begins to feel like a dog obstinately chasing its own tail.

Is it more precise then to consider human beings as ‘intuiting things’, rather than ‘thinking things’? What is the difference, exactly?

“When we immediately infer a conclusion from an intuited self-evident premise, we are not aware of any movement of thought through a series of premises, so we may describe our knowledge of the conclusion as intuitive. No extended series of intuitions leads us to the conclusion; there is just one mental act in which the self-evident premise is intuited and the immediate conclusion is drawn.”

The spontaneous intuition of the Cogito is what provokes thought in the first place. What other explanation can there be, except that an entity, upon encountering the Cogito instantly glimpses itself in the flawless mirror upheld by Descartes? Any valid critique of the Cogito will have to show how Descartes’ conclusion might not be true, even if the fundamental premise given in its support is true. In the case of the Cogito, the fundamental premise being relied upon is itself the intuition of cognition. The conclusion that one exists follows on the basis of this premise. In other words, it will have to be shown that it is possible for one not to exist, even if one is thinking. How can one be thinking, but then also not existing? This seems more impossible, and even more unlikely than the absurdity of ‘producing proofs to infinitum’.

What is truly remarkable about the Cogito is its almost unnatural power to re-establish, however momentarily, a most uncorrupted and innocent confidence in the perfectibility of humanity. The price exacted, however, is steep. We must be vigilant about the inferences we make about ourselves, and our world. This is the burden humanity must bear for the privilege of certainty, at least until such time as another intelligence is discovered which will dispel our doubts, and affirm our intuitions.


© Felix Inparajah, 2017. All rights reserved.

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