“I Think, therefore I Am”: the root of a modern trend towards nihilism

i think island

“Cognito, ergo sum” (I think, therefore I am), set the tone for Western thought for the last 400 years. When Descartes first penned these words in 1637 he meant to establish a sure ground on which to develop a method for finding truth. What could be more beyond doubt than the phenomenon of one’s own cognition?

Descartes argued that even if his belief in his own existence was the deceptive work of an all-powerful demon, he (Descartes) would still know that he existed since he would need to exist in order to be deceive by the demon in the first place.

Thus, “I think, therefore I am” seemed to Descartes, and to the untold millions who followed him, a sure ground for truth. And it is not a stretch to say that on this ground much of modern science and philosophy owes a great debt.

What is tragic about this early move in the sciences and philosophy is that it took the “I am” of the ego off the stand, out of the dock of cross-examination, and placed it in a position where no question could be put to it at all. To question it would undermine the sure foundation of knowledge. It was not until much later that philosophers began to challenge this bedrock. Heidegger in his metaphysics took aim at this Cartesian stance with some profound moments. Here’s an example of such a moment:

Man in the ground of his essence is someone in the grip of an attack, attacked by the fact ‘that he is what he is’, and already caught up in all comprehending questioning. Yet being comprehensively included in this way is not some blissful awe, but the struggle against the insurmountable ambiguity of all questioning and being.

Heidegger helps to expose an unforeseen consequence of Descartes famous dictum, that is, it displaced being with ego as the ground of reality. To me it is no coincidence that being as understood from the time of the ancient Greeks through the Medieval age was almost completely erased from popular thought starting around the time of Descartes. Today almost nobody thinks in terms of being as they did during, say, the time of Thomas Aquinas when he developed his 5 cosmological arguments for God. Being was understood not merely as the total aggregate of existing objects in the known universe, but rather that which gave existing objects their existence. And below this layer of being was yet another layer that was “beyond being” — that which made being possible at all. One doesn’t get far in understanding orthodox Christian theology without a grip on how the ancients understood being. One can readily detect that the unknowable God, who is beyond both existence and being, is the God declared in historic Christianity (much of modern atheism rests on the misunderstanding of God as an existing object among all other objects).

When people set their sights on finding meaning in the world, but start off with a mindset that their own ego is the all-important, all-revealing, essential ground of knowledge, they begin from a foundation of what Orthodox Christian theologian Paul Evdokimov calls a “demonic solipsism.” They begin from a foundation grounded in the great “I am” of the individual, rather than the great “I am” of God.

The problem with grounding oneself in oneself, as Heidegger claims, is that it turns out to be a torture for man. Again, “Man in the ground of his essence is someone in the grip of an attack… attacked by the fact that he is what he is,” and what he is (outside a religious context), is a contingent being grounded in pure ambiguity. The fact that one exists is no solace in the face of an otherwise meaningless existence. Descartes perhaps overlooked this problem since he himself was a devout Christian who intended to answer the question “can I know?” and not “Why do I know?”

There is only so much that science, philosophy, and distraction via modern tech can do to satiate the soul in the “grip of an attack.” Give a moderner enough time alone in a room without a cellphone and they are liable to come face-to-face with the very nihilism that had, up to that point, been set to ‘low-hum’ below the surface of their frenzied daily life. When that happens, the “torture” is finally felt.

Paul Evdokimov, mentioned above, traces the Greek and Hebrew words for hell – hades and sheol –as designating “a darkened place where solitude reduces a person to the extreme emptiness of demonic solipsism where no one’s look crosses another’s.”

From a historic Christian point of view this “demonic solipsism” is the very essence of hell. One need not wait for the afterlife; he can start his personal hell immediately in this life. Cognito, ergo sum seems, historically, to be a direct invitation into this demonic solipsism. It creates a mindset that truth is vested in one’s ego, that doubting everything except one’s own existence is a required staging ground to access all other truths. If one begins with the foundation that one’s existence is the only knowable thing, then one effectively builds hell as his foundation for knowledge.

All this said, I will leave it to the reader to decide if it is fair to extract from ‘cognito, ergo sum’ the roots of an “extreme emptiness” and a “demonic solipsism”. There are certainly good arguments against it, I only hope that my arguments for it are as sound on paper as they seem in my head.

Thanks for reading.

5 thoughts on ““I Think, therefore I Am”: the root of a modern trend towards nihilism

  1. Rene Descartes’ Cogito22 holds part of the answer. He held that the conviction of one’s own existence as real – that you cannot help but have it – is a coincidence of both faith and reason. Or, in Collingwood’s words: ‘In the certainty of my own existence I have a conviction which is rational in the sense that it is universal and necessary, but a matter of faith in that it rests not on argument, but on a direct conviction.’
    Your existence does not depend on proof to be believed, that is for sure. It is a fact that it cannot be denied. It is a performative contradiction to do so. If you try and deny you exist, your thought or utterance regarding this confirms your very existence. This is precisely why we know we exist.
    Again from Collingwood: ‘Descartes has shown that our knowledge of our own existence is of exactly the same kind as this direct knowledge of God by faith, with this difference, that it can never desert us when we acquire its presence.’

  2. To be more precise: in either acknowledging that I exist or trying to deny it, reason and faith coincide. My belief that I exist rests on faith arrived at by intuition but also via reason, in the sense that it is a universal necessity and cannot be denied by any thinking being. When you think, you presuppose you. It is unlike first principles in that are all deniable, and there are as many of these as there are points of view. All natural rights – for example, the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, as enshrined in the constitution of the United States as first principles – can be denied. Different starting points can be inserted, depending upon the authors’ subjective preferences – for example, the right to freedom of speech, religion and private property rights. However, Descartes Cogito, ‘I think therefore I am’, cannot be denied; it is held via reason. But we also hold onto it by total unquestioning faith – even though it would appear to be a ‘given’ at first glance.

  3. Those two quotes I have left you, or from an online book I published here https://tobybaxendale.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/10/Does-God-Exist-The-Rational-Approach-1.pdf I don’t think Descartes was meaning what you attribute to him. As you can never prove your own existence, but you can hold it as a universal truth, this means that you must have faith, to hold it so. Reason is the handmaiden of faith, and Faith is the fundamental ground for being that allows you to adhere to the universal truth that Descartes is outlines. Thank you for your Monday essay, it was very thought-provoking.

    • Toby Baxendale, forgive me for a very late response. After writing the article life picked up the pace and I was highly distracted from the blog. Thank you for a very thoughtful response. You clearly have a good handle on Descartes and I could learn a lot from you. To clarify my position, I was speaking more to the result stemming from his maxium on society and what seems to be its ongoing legacy, irrespective of his actual intent. The masses are not usually apt to use the insights of philosophers for their intended purposes.

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