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“I Think, Therefore I Am”: The Root of a Modern Trend Towards Nihilism

“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.