Skepticism and Cogito Ergo Sum May29


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Skepticism and Cogito Ergo Sum

“Cogito Ergo Sum” is latin for “I think, therefore I am.”  Most people immediately identify with this phrase, seeing immediately the awkwardness of doubting one’s own existence. But this phrase implies much more than existence — it stands for the inherent human need to rely on principles that avoid self-refutation and self-denial.  This need, and its related presumption of cogent reality, form the basis of all human reason and of all rational human action.  Most people could easily detect hypocrisy if another should approach, point his finger, and cry out “You do not exist!”  The proper response is obviously, “Then who are you pointing at, and who are you yelling at?”  Unfortunately, however, most people fail to identify the same fallacy in its other manifestations, such as “There is no right or wrong!” or “There is no objective reality!” or “There is no truth!”  The proper responses to these assertions are “Then why are you asserting what is right?” and “Then why are you asserting an objective reality?” and “Then why are you asserting a truth?”  To say “There is no right or wrong” is to say, in effect, “I am right to believe that there is no right or wrong, and you are wrong to believe that there is a right and wrong.”  In short it is to assert a right and a wrong.  To say “There is no truth” is to say, in effect, “I know the truth, that there is not truth.”  In short it is a contradictory assertion of a truth. But these assertions do more than unwittingly refute themselves — they would deny to others the prerogative of exercising the same right that they themselves are exercising.  Once the hypocrisy is clear, namely, that they are in fact doing what they deny, then it also becomes clear that, to say “There is no right or wrong!” is also to say, in effect, “My right and wrong is the only right and wrong.”  It also becomes clear that, to say “There is no truth” is also to say, in effect, “My truth is the only truth.”  Thus we see that hypocrisy is also self-aggrandizing, whether intentional or not, and would refuse to others the very right it retains unto itself.  In essence, it is the statement, “Do as I say, but not as I do,” adding the further caveat that, “Only I can say, you just do what I say.”  Here we see the subtle but sure connection between bad reasoning, pride, and tyranny.

But there is yet another subtle connection that must be here observed.  If we define God as representing the embodiment of that universal and cogent reality, upon which our faith, our rationality, and our behavior so completely depend for justification, then what can we say about the assertion that, “There is definitely no God!”  In this case, the asserting party is saying, in essence, “I have searched all of existence and have not found a God,” a patently ludicrous statement.  Or how about less certain assertion, “There is no God,” usually said to mean, “God cannot exist, because he is not acting as I believe God should act.”  In this case, the asserting party is essentially placing himself in a God-like state of knowing just how the universe should work.  Or how about the mere assertion that “I do not believe there is a God,” or “I do not believe anybody can know there is a God.”  In this case, the asserting party is essentially saying that “I can have a justified belief that there is no God, but you cannot have the justified belief that there is a God,” or “I have the ability to deduce from reality that there is no God, but you lack the ability to deduce from reality that there is a God.”  So again we see the hypocritical and self-aggrandizing nature of such assertions.  Furthermore, the believer can rationally point to a discernible, cogent reality (which the skeptic unwittingly acknowledges by even participating in the reasoned debate) as a support for his belief in a God, while the skeptic could not rationally argue his non-belief in a God, absent a survey of the entire universe to prove his absence (but even that is in question, because the skeptic, to be consistent, should doubt whether he can even survey reality).  In other words, it is more becoming of humanity to believe until proven wrong, as a believer does, then to deny until proven wrong, as the skeptic does.  Belief leads to discovery, and disbelief to stagnation; for why would a skeptic seek a God whose existence he doubts?  Indeed the skeptic is regressive, but the believer is progressive.

It is precisely this untoward level of skepticism that Descartes, the philosopher of “Cogito Ergo Sum,” was trying to refute.  Descartes began his philosophical journey by doubting everything, by assuming that some malignant devil was out to deceive him in every respect.  Descartes concluded that the only thing that he could surely know in such a condition is the following: That if he could be deceived, then he (or his thought) must exist to be deceived.  But to know this one truth is suddenly to know a lot more — it is to know the limits of skepticism.  The skeptic, like Descartes, assumes that everything is deceiving.  And yet even the Skeptic, like Descartes, cannot doubt while at the same time denying the ability to doubt, without undermining the foundation of all human reasoning and analysis, namely, the law of non-contradiction.  To acknowledged the ability to doubt is also to acknowledge the ability to reason, and reason presumes a discernible existence, and existence must imply truth before it can ever imply the very fallacy and deception which Skeptics seek.  In short, Skeptics fail to see, and sometimes even deny, the Truth that is the a priori condition to their ability to even doubt.  Consider this statement by St. Augustine: “[B]y not positively affirming that they are alive, the skeptics [hope to] ward off the appearance of error in themselves, [because] one cannot err who is not alive; but that we [and the skeptics] live is…not only true, but it is altogether certain as well; [so the Skeptics still] make errors simply by showing themselves alive [while not affirming the truth of it.]”

The miracle of “Cogito ergo sum” is that it can help us to realize the all or nothing proposition of our search for truth.  Either discernible reality exists and we have only yet to discover it, or everything is completely non-sensical, including the assertions of the skeptics, whose efforts must then be deemed to be just as useless, pointless, and meaningless as those of a believer.  But assuming that a cogent reality exists and is discernible, the believer will progress in life and truth much more quickly than a skeptic, and the skeptic will only be, at best, a hindrance to those more noble pursuits of believers.  So, believers, be proud of your faith — yours is a good and promising hope, and a blessing to all mankind.