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The Finite Cogito

As Archimedes once proclaimed, if only he had a point that was firm and immovable, only then would he be able to move the Earth. It is a search for a foundation — one on which all products of both, epistemology and the physical world, can be established and built. Rene Descartes expresses comparable motivations by searching for certainty in the realm of the cogito.1 In his Meditations, Descartes denies all his previously established knowledge after suspecting that everything was built on shaky foundations.2 By doing so, Descartes ruthlessly destroyed all the prejudices established by him in the past. He ended up in a realm of the abyss, where one might not know what to grab onto. Descartes was not confounded for long, he discovered his own Archimedean foundation point by proclaiming: I think, therefore I am. This is the underlying foundation on which the cogito and reason are established and built.

The ability to rationalize through the faculty of the cogito, is what allows the affirmation of certain truths. But how safe is it to assume that all products of the mind have a high degree of certainty? Can rationalization be a mere product of free will, which leads one to deceivingly affirm the existence of reality, even when it does not exist? Perhaps it is outside the abilities of the cogito to realize that one is being deceived. Perhaps free will is just be a placebo — an obstruction imposed on a subject, that impedes his/her ability to affirm that he/she is being deceived. Descartes affirms that ideas are products of the intellect, not just because they are perceived, but because they are understood.3 It may be coherently argued that this Cartesian understanding of ideas, is a consequence of the free will’s deceptive likeness. Ultimately, there are numerous implications when a finite being is allowed to exercise its free will. Free will, is an act that can conceal the inherent deceptions, which may be infinitely complex and impossible for a finite being to even comprehend. It thus, may require a subject with infinite amount of comprehending faculty, to be able to affirm the underlying deceptive qualities of reality. It can be argued that even the cartesian affirmation I think, therefore I am is a deception — a product of the free will, or just another brick built on a shaky foundation.

To be aware of the I, is what can be referred to as the pinnacle of the cogito, the presence of which, allows the existence of a self-aware being. But the cogito also serves an important rationalizing function; some ideas can only be conceived through the function of the cogito, since not all ideas can be perceived or inferred through the senses. For example, an idea of a perfect triangle is a product of the cogito; a plane figure with three straight sides and three angles who’s sum is 180°. In the physical world, the idea of perfect triangle is nonexistent, but the idea of it, can nevertheless be conceived and rationalized. Otherwise, if it were not an idea that can be rationalized, the idea of a triangle would remain inconceivable. This rationalization of an idea of a triangle, is a product of the cogito. It is a foundation for a self-aware being, not only for his/her ability to project rationale onto external bodies, but also affirm the existence of its self.

Descartes proclaims that he is a true thing, one that truly exists and therefore is a self. Thinking, unlike the sense, cannot be stripped away, not for as long as one is a thinking being.4 This is the foundation that constitutes the cogito. It is an extending faculty that allows one to perceive the essence and the qualities of the self and external bodies. Cogito proves that bodies are neither products of the senses nor the imagination, but of the intellectual faculty alone. It allows the formation of the cognitione (knowledge), the most distinct quality of perception. A thinking thing is one that doubts, affirms, and denies thanks to the presence of the cogito, and a reliable reference on the cognitione.5 But this also illustrates the finite qualities of the cogito, where the cognitione entirely relies on the former’s finite faculty of rationalization. It is a form of rationalization nevertheless, just one that is finite.

If the essence of an idea can be perceived through the cogito, how is the existence of the idea translated? Descartes affirms that only the idea itself can translate its own likeness and nothing else.6 If the idea is not there, nor anywhere, then the idea would remain incomprehensible. It is thus argued that the idea of a God is comprehendible because God actually exists. Descartes even affirms that there is no falsehood in the act of imagining a Chimera.7 The essence of this argument suggests that conceiving an idea of a Chimera, would not be possible if the attributes that define a Chimera where unimaginable. Yet, since a Chimera can be imagined, it gives more actuality to its idea than something non-existent. A Chimera can be put somewhere in the the spectrum between God and nothingness, where it does not seem to touch either of the boundaries.8 The same argument entails the idea of a triangle, an idea that would be impossible to define if geometric attributes of a triangle where not true. The idea entails a certain form of actuality which is not nothing. Same follows for the idea of a supreme being, which would not be conceivable if God did not exist.

Just like the ideas previously mentioned, the idea of a God is not a spontaneous idea, nor a fiction or a creation on its own.9 The idea of a God is affirmed through the function of the cogito. The affirmation according to Descartes is also “the greatest form of contemplation that we can afford in this life”.10 But even Descartes challenges any conceived ideas, including the one that he argues for, namely, the existence of God. Any idea must be challenged and the truths and falsities must be distinguished. It seems coherent to state that God exists because the idea of him is conceivable, but how coherent can the supposition be that God is not a deceiver? One of the reasons for which Descartes makes such a supposition, is that God intentionally makes us prone to error. But Descartes dismisses this as not a deception, but a deprivation from perfection insofar as we are finite. Following this, two important aspects of the cogito are defined:11

  1. Faculty of acquiring cognitione (knowledge).
  2. Faculty of choosing and free will.

These two qualities of the cogito depend on the intellect’s rationalizing faculty, but it once again, exposes its limits. It is also affirmed that the ability to conceive a supreme being such as God, is a product of the free will.12 But free will may also turn out to be an act that conceals the inherent deceptions, which may be infinitely complex and impossible to comprehend for a finite being. But at the same time, it is affirmed that God cannot be a deceiver, for the act of deception presupposes some shortcoming in God’s nature, which does not seem to be a quality inherent in a supreme being.13

The argument against this affirmation, is that God, insofar as he is an infinite being, does not necessarily have to have shortcomings to be a deceiver. Having no shortcomings, does not necessarily make God a non-deceiving being. On the contrary, it can make him an infinitely capable deceiver. Since God is infinite, he can build infinitely complex deceptions which may require an infinite faculty of comprehension to understand. Since the cogito is a limited faculty, it will never have the ability to comprehend something of such a complexity. A God has the ability to deceive in a manner which will force any finite being, even one with cognitione and free will, to affirm that it is not being deceived. But this would be a product of a lacking ability to comprehend an infinitely complex deception.

If the cogito does not permit one to affirm an act of deception, how can a subject safely affirm that God is not a deceiver? As was affirmed by Descartes, the idea of a supreme being is also a product of the free will as much as it is a product of the cogito.14 Free will is a faculty given to a finite being with a finite faculty of the cogito. But say it is to God’s advantage to entail a subject with free will and a finite cogito, for the sake of allowing it to affirm the existence of a benevolent God, when in fact, such as God may be a deceiver. This scenario seems to be entirely possible, since the act of free will, supposes one’s ability to exercise the cogito. But the cogito, as was pointed out previously, is a limited faculty. This is how a supreme being can be conceived, but a being with such a limited faculty, is not able to affirm whether it is being deceived by an infinite force, or not. Any opinion on this manner would remain a mere product of the free will, insofar as it is an opinion made by a finite being.

While Desecrates makes an argument for the existence of the cogito, a faculty that allows one to perceive the essence and the qualities of external bodies; the same cannot be said about ideas that are mere products of the free will. Free will, allows one to conceive a God, but does not allow one to affirm whether God is a deceiver or not. It was thus argued that even the cartesian affirmation I think, therefore I am is built on a somewhat shaky foundation, but nevertheless shaky. To allow a complete affirmation that God is not a deceiver, would require a foundation with infinite dimensions and strength — something that neither a finite cogito, nor the faculty of free will, can provide.

  1. Descartes, René, and John Cottingham. Meditations on First Philosophy: With Selections from the Objections and Replies. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1986. Print. 

  2. Ibid, 17 

  3. Ibid, 33 

  4. Ibid, 27 

  5. Ibid, 35 

  6. Ibid, 39 

  7. Ibid, 37 

  8. Ibid, 54 

  9. Ibid, 51 

  10. Ibid, 53 

  11. Ibid, 55 

  12. Ibid, 57 

  13. Ibid, 52 

  14. Ibid, 57