Below you will find my argument for this contention. It is a paper I wrote for an epistemology class in 2005, entitled "No Cogito". The entire content of the essay is fully copyright protected. Also, some of the formatting was lost copying the text from Word to Markdown, so bare with me and pretend that anything in Latin that isn't in English is in italics.
I. Descartes' Mistake
In “Meditations 1 & 2”, Descartes attempts to reevaluate all of the beliefs that he intuitively holds to be true. His purpose is to discern which beliefs are subject to doubt and which beliefs are necessarily true. Descartes refers to the necessarily true beliefs as “certain” (49). Although the “Meditations” do not offer an explicit definition of certainty, Descartes does describe and imply the characteristics necessary for certainty. For the purposes of this essay, the term certainty describes any proposition where there is no conceivable situation in which the proposition could be false.1
Descartes particularly addresses two different classes of belief: a priori and a posteriori. A priori beliefs include methods of reasoning and thoughts that are “logically independent of experience”2. Descartes’ assessment postulated that a priori beliefs were certain. A posteriori beliefs require a basis on empirical perceptions. They cannot exist independently of experience. Descartes concludes that empirical beliefs are not certain, because he can conceive of situations in which his perception is mistaken by deception or confusion.
Now that I have presented a concise explanation of the basis for Descartes’ reasoning, I can discuss the intended purpose for evaluating his argument. Descartes famous Cogito states, “I think, therefore I am”. This paper will contend that the assertion of the Cogito assumes more than is certain. While a priori knowledge does seem to be capable of determining that there is thought, Descartes’ appears to falter when he postulates the presence of a Self – the “I”. This paper will not argue against the plausibility of the existence of Self or the intuitive belief that there is a Self, but instead will assert that the notion of Self does not possess Cartesian certainty. In other words, there are conceivable and logically possible situations where there is no Self.
II. The Intuitive Value of "Self"
Although this essay argues against calling the existence of Self certain, it is only fair to investigate the reasons for believing that Self is beyond doubt. It seems that people naturally believe in their own personal identity. Therefore, intuition is the primary reason for believing that Self is certain. It doesn’t require much more than introspection and examination of language to determine that any person believes he is an individual. In order to provide an accessible illustration of this intuition, I will personally demonstrate my own intuitive belief in myself. At this moment, it seems to me that I am writing a paper. I am also experiencing thoughts, emotions and sensations. It appears clear to me that I am the one having these experiences and thinking these thoughts. I even use the word “I” when I discuss things, which I believe are happening. So, even though I am being skeptical about the certainty of Self I quite naturally believe that I have personal identity.
There are two significant problems with an inference from an intuitive belief in Self to an assertion of the certainty of Self. The first problem is that intuition does not prove anything more than a prima facie plausibility, and even if a possibility is plausible it does not follow that it is true. For example, the belief that the earth was flat was quite plausible at one time. People saw a flat ground and determined that the earth must be flat. This is obviously not the case, however. Furthermore, I will reiterate that I do not argue that the non-existence of Self is plausible, but possible. The second problem with Descartes’ reliance on intuition is that he has already indirectly disregarded the possibility of intuitions as certain. The belief in “I”, like other intuitive beliefs, rely on empirical perceptions. If I had never experienced the world, I would not be able to distinguish between thing that are internal and things that are external. All things would be the same. This correlates to the notion that our ancestors would not have believed in a flat earth if they had never seen a flat ground. Therefore, the argument against the certainty of Self with respect to intuition is as follows.
- Descartes can be deceived about a posteriori beliefs.
- If P is an intuitive belief, then P is an a posteriori belief.
- The existence of Self is an intuitive belief.
- The existence of Self is an a posteriori belief. (2,3)
- Descartes can be deceived about the notion of Self. (1,4)
From this, one can plainly see that the existence of Self is not certain. My next step will be to offer examples in which the Self does not exist. This counterexample will further clarify that the existence of Self is not certain.
III. Where the Existence of Self is False
The process of providing a conceivable situation in which there is no Self requires several steps. I will begin by presenting a situation in which someone is confused about the nature of his own Self, and his Self will not in fact be his own. I will then broaden this new notion of Self to a universal, and eventually will entirely abandon the notion of Self. Once this is done, I will defend my counterexample against possible objections and it will thus be proven that the existence of Self is not certain.
To begin I will talk about my friend, Charles. Charles is a very confused and probably insane individual. Charles believes that his foot can think. Though he only has one mind, he unknowingly associates this mind with two different identities: his foot and himself (in the traditional way). So as not to get confused, I will call the traditional mind of Charles by the name Chucky, and the foot-associated mind of Charles by the name Matilda. Matilda has relatively simple thoughts. Whenever Charles puts a sock on, Matilda believes that it is nighttime, and when Charles takes a shower Matilda believes it is raining and wonders why that body to which she is attached won’t give her the Nike raincoat she likes. Chucky is completely unaware of the thoughts that Matilda seems to be having. Likewise, Matilda does not know that she is only an imaginary by-product of Charles’s abnormal psychosis.
In the case of Charles, Matilda believes that she is just like anyone else. She believes that she is an individual and therefore has a Self. However, it is obvious that Matilda is not an individual. Matilda doesn’t even exist. The foot exists because it is a physical part of Charles. The thoughts that Matilda seems to have exist as well, however they are not Matilda’s but Charles’s. It would be ludicrous to think that Charles’s foot is actually having thoughts. Now, one of the beliefs that Matilda had was that she had a Self. This is not the case, because something that does not exist cannot have an existent Self.
The implication of the Charles example is that in the same way Matilda was mistaken about having a Self, Charles could be mistaken about having a Self. Perhaps Charles doesn’t really exist, but his thoughts result from the Godfrey’s mental confusion in the same way that Matilda’s thoughts resulted from Charles’s mental confusion. I would also like to point out that while I did choose to use a physical entity to associate with Matilda, it is not necessary. I did this merely for simplicity and understanding. Matilda could have just as easily not been associated with anything physical at all. So, Descartes did not necessarily have to have a Self in the same way that Matilda did not have a Self, despite the instance of his thoughts. The obvious argument against this contention is that there is still a Self. It may not be of the same nature in which Descartes thought, but all of the confusion does end up being part of someone’s confused Self. Nevertheless, if Matilda were to evoke the Cogito argument it would fail, because by “I think” she would refer to Matilda, not Charles. The next objection is that even if there are some instances in which the Cogito fails, there must be instances in which it succeeds. While I do believe that even with this objection Self is no longer certain, I will strengthen my case by providing an example in which no Self exists.
It is clear that there is something that exists and I will agree with Descartes that this “something” is thought. The task is to conceive of a situation in which there can be a thought with no thinker. I have already given an example in which a thought exists but is associated with a different Self than would be immediately obvious. Let us examine the following conceivable example. There are two people 3: Herman and Gertrude. Herman and Gertrude are not acquainted with each other and might as well live in different continents. The relation between Herman and Gertrude is that they share the same thought-wave sequence. Thought waves work just like sound waves, except much faster. They travel at a rate so fast that they can go from Asian Herman to South American Gertrude and back, without any realization of an instance in which he had no consciousness. These waves are very similar to brain waves in the relationship with Herman and Gertrude, except that they are not limited to existing within one person. Every thought that Herman has is really just a point on the waveform. There is an association of the thought wave with Herman in the same way that thoughts associated with Matilda in the previous example, but it seems that Herman does not have an individual Self.
Now, imagine that these waves do not only comprise the minds of Herman and Gertrude but all of the minds in existence. This would entail that each person’s thoughts do not associate with a Self or personal identity, but actually are a miniscule part of one infinitely extensive waveform. “Where would this wave come from?” one might ask. It might appear that it would still have to emerge from some massive Self, just like Matilda’s thoughts emerged from Charles’s Self. However, it is conceivable that the wave existed without a Self. On a smaller level imagine that a neurologist is able to determine the precise part of the brain that creates brainwaves. He then extracts that piece of the brain from a person and supports its functionality by synthetic means. Now, he has a brain that produces waves and exists independently of any person. A piece of a brain that produces waves would not necessarily have and identity. Even more clear, suppose that this brain’s function is duplicated to a computer. The waves result from something that has no chance whatsoever of being associated with a Self. However these waves do exist. Magnify this example and combine it with the example of the larger scale waveform. What follows is a situation in which every thought of every person in existence is a point on a wave, which originates from a computer. A computer here is something that does not associate with the notion of Self.
This example should prove beyond doubt that the existence of Self is not a certain concept. I foresee the potential for this argument to be presented with two specific objections. First, one might argue against the plausibility of this argument. Suppose that a skeptical reader tells me that he can provide a parallel argument that is extremely implausible. “What if thoughts are really peanuts?” the skeptical reader asks me. “What if every time I have a thought I am encountering a peanut? Surely nothing about seeing a peanut implies self?” I have several things to say about such an example. For starters, there is nothing that would make one think thoughts are peanuts. However, there are real instances in which our perceptions are actually waves; for example, sound. Secondly, I am not arguing for the plausibility of the argument I have presented. My task was merely to prove that I could conceive of a situation in which the proposition that a Self necessarily exists is false. I have done so. And, while it might be extremely absurd to imagine that thoughts are peanuts and hence there is no Self, it is possible to conceive of it. Therefore, such an opposition actually strengthens my argument by offering another counterexample to Descartes. The second opposition that I foresaw was an argument against a necessary premise for my example, which states that the mind associates with something physical (i.e. brainwaves). This argument does not hold much weight as can be seen when the proposed counterargument is more closely examined. I argue that there is no Self in part because the mind is the brain. The counterargument is that the mind is not the brain, because it is actually something else, which is related to a non-physical Self. This unquestionably begs the question, and is therefore not valid.
The argument I have presented makes plain that the existence of Self is not certain by Cartesian standards. Consequently, Descartes’ Cogito has been refuted and can be reduced to the following. There is thought, therefore thought exists. This claim is much less interesting than the Cogito but much more concrete.
- 1 “The proposition P is certain for S if and only if S cannot conceive of a situation in which it is false that P” – Witmer, Gene. “The First Meditation: A Close Look”. February 4, 2005.
- 2 A Priori. Oxford American Desk Dictionary and Thesaurus. © 2001 Oxford University Press.
- 3 To avoid any criticisms that would arise as a result of word choice I feel it is necessary to clarify that by this use of the word “people” I do not imply that each person has a self. What is meant here by “people” is that they have the characteristics that we perceive in people – independently of the question of Self. For all intents and purposes “people” can mean no more than living bodies in this instance.