How does a Conservative differ from a Secularist? – Part 3 (Cogito Ergo Sum)
Updated: Apr 11
In Part 2 I began to argue why scientism—a belief generally associated with secularism—is unreasonable. Scientism is the view that genuine knowledge of reality can be obtained through the scientific method of observation and experimentation only. While I listed several reasons why we should be suspicious of this view in Part 2, I will tackle one of the most compelling reasons in this post: your self-awareness.
Cogito Ergo Sum
Cogito Ergo Sum (“I think, therefore I am”) may well be the most recognizable phrases from the field of philosophy. The idea behind cogito ergo sum is that it would be impossible for us to doubt our own existence because the act of doubting implies we exist. And, while musings on whether or not we can doubt our own existence might strike you as reason enough to never get into a conversation with a philosopher, this bit of seemingly useless trivia carries with it an important corollary: if we know we exist because we cannot doubt our own existence, then we have managed to obtain some knowledge using something other than science.
While the phrase itself was popularized by French philosopher René Descartes, he was hardly the first to come to the realization that our self-awareness provides special insight into the nature of reality. Nearly 1,200 years before Descartes, St. Augustine employed a similar argument:
"But who will doubt that he lives, remembers, understands, wills, thinks, knows, and judges? For even if he doubts, he lives. If he doubts where his doubts come from, he remembers. If he doubts, he understands that he doubts. If he doubts, he wants to be certain. If he doubts, he thinks. If he doubts, he knows that he does not know. If he doubts, he judges that he ought not rashly to give assent. So whoever acquires a doubt from any source ought not to doubt any of these things whose non-existence would mean that he could not entertain doubt about anything."
Personally, I prefer Descartes’ concise “Cogito Ergo Sum”.
Knowing Requires a Knower
While the scientific method can provide us knowledge, there is some knowledge it cannot provide. How do you know you exist? Philosopher and theologian J. P. Moreland offers a thorough explanation in his book Scientism and Secularism:
“Whereas a description of a physical object (state, process, property, relation) must be completely relayed from within a third-person perspective, using commonsense language (e.g., being solid, large, located near the door, at rest) or the language of the hard sciences (has negative charge, has mass, is a neuron, is a synapse, is a calcium ion), descriptions of a state of consciousness require an approach from within the first-person point of view, and the nature of these states cannot be captured using physical language. How do you know what consciousness is and what its various states are? You know this by having those states (e.g., being in pain) and by simply attending to them through first-person introspection.”
In order for us to know there must be a knower. The statement “something that does not exist is thinking” is meaningless because the act of thinking implies existence. “Brain states can occur without conscious states occurring as they do in us,” continues Moreland, “But mental states necessarily have an owner, a self that has them. Since something is true of mental states that is not true of physical states, they aren’t the same thing.”
Your self-awareness isn’t limited to a physical state. Science can give us powerful insight into what is happening in our brains but not what is happening in our minds. The brain is physical, the mind is not. And, as we covered in Part 2, science isn’t equipped to guide us in the nonphysical. Science can tell us all sorts of interesting things about certain sensations (such as pain) and how it impacts our bodies and brains, but it cannot sufficiently explain what pain is. That knowledge comes through experience only. A machine may be designed to mimic these sensations to such an infinitesimal degree that no human could tell the difference, but that doesn’t mean the machine would be capable of feeling pain. The most important element of pain is what it is, not what it does.
Even if we were plugged into a Matrix-style reality where everything around us—from inanimate objects to other people—were nothing more than a figment of our programed imagination, that doesn’t take away from the fact that we exist, that we are aware of our existence and ability to experience sensations such as pleasure or pain, and that we arrived at this particular knowledge through nothing more than self-reflection.
I’ll Take My Reality without Religion, Please
Many theologians have taken our self-awareness to the next level to suggest that it demands an explanation beyond the limitations of a purely materialistic reality. “The emergence of consciousness seems to be a case of getting something from nothing,” Moreland argues, “Space and consciousness sit oddly together. How did spatially arranged matter conspire to produce nonspatial mental states?”
While theists often use this line of reasoning to argue for the existence of a Creator, that is a diversion too ambitious for this short series. What I hope to have demonstrated so far is that the claims of scientism—that genuine knowledge of reality can be obtained through the scientific method of observation and experimentation only—is most assuredly false. Personal introspection, reasoning, logic, philosophical inquiry, and even religious tradition or divine revelation are non-scientific means of obtaining knowledge about the reality in which we exist.
I should stress that while I have been attributing scientism to the secularist worldview, not all secularists would hold this view—or at least not in the way I’ve described it. I have many secular, non-religious friends who reject religious revelation as a means of obtaining truth, but they nonetheless are quite happy to keep introspection, reasoning, logic, and philosophical inquiry in their toolkit. At the risk of oversimplifying, I’m going to reduce these tools to one word: Reason.
To many secularists, reason and the scientific method are all we need. In fact, many would describe religious truth claims as not only nonsensical, but destructive to the form of modern, Western society we live in today. The conservative staunchly disagrees with this notion. For, while conservatism isn’t a religion, it is interested in conserving things of value in our culture (among which are certain religious traditions). That is, the conservative defends religious convictions not out of some sense of loyalty or nostalgia, but because the conservative believes religious convictions play an important role in the formation of culture and—even more importantly—comport to reality.
But before we turn to how religion and divine revelation are important tools in the quest for genuine knowledge, we must first address the secularist’s assertion that reason and science are all one needs to get on. And that is where we’ll turn in Part 4.