Tuesday, June 21, 2022

The cogito and time-delay

I’ve been thinking about how well Descartes’ cogito argument works given the following plausisble thesis:

  1. Every perception, including introspection, has a time delay.


  1. I am in pain.

  2. If I am in pain, then I exist.

  3. So, I exist.

Supposedly, (2) is clear and distinct. But wait (!). By (1), I only introspect premise (2) with a time delay. In other words, by the time I introspect premise (2), the pain is over. It is one thing to be in pain—obviously, when I am in pain, I am in pain—but it is another to be aware that I am in pain.

In other words, at the present moment, if I am to stick to the indubitable, all I get to say is:

  1. I was in pain.

  2. If I was in pain, then I existed.

  3. So, I existed.

Now, if eternalism or growing block is true, I still get to conclude that I exist simpliciter, but not indubitably so (since I need to rely on the arguments for eternalism or growing block).

But there is an even more serious problem. Once we accept the time delay thesis (1), we no longer have indubitability in our introspection of pain. For suppose the time delay from being in pain to being aware that one is in pain is a microsecond. But now consider the half-microsecond hypothesis that the universe came into existence, fully formed, half a microsecond ago. If so, I would still have the introspective awareness of being in pain—without having had a pain! The half-microsecond hypothesis is crazy, but no crazier than the evil demon hypothesis that Descartes cares so much about. So now we don’t have indubitability about (2) or (5).

And what goes for pain goes for any other conscious state, i.e., for anything that Descartes calls “thought”.

We might now want to deny the time-delay thesis (1), and say that:

  1. Whenever I have a conscious state Q, I am immediately thereby aware of having state Q.

But a bit of introspection shows that (8) is false. For being aware is itself a conscious state, and so if (8) were true, then whenever I have a conscious state, I have an infinite sequence of conscious states of meta-awareness. And I clearly do not.

Indeed, introspectively reflecting on the states of meta-awareness shows that sometimes the time-delay thesis is true. Let’s say that I am aware that I am in pain. It takes reflection, and hence time, to become aware that I am aware that I am in pain. So the time-delay thesis is at least sometimes true.

Now it might be that we are lucky and the time-delay thesis is false for introspection of first-order conscious states, like being in pain. I am a little sceptical of that, because I suspect a lot of non-human animals are in pain but don’t even have the first meta-step to perceiving that they are in pain.

So let’s grant that the time-delay thesis is false for introspection of first-order conscious states. Now it is no longer true that, as Descartes thought, his cogito could be run from any conscious states. It can only be run from the ones for which the time-delay thesis is false. But it’s worse than that. Even if the time-delay thesis is false for some introspective perceptions, it is not indubitable that it is false for them. The claim that these introspections lack time-delay is far from indubitable.

Yet all that said, isn’t it true that even in the half-microsecond world, I exist? Even if I didn’t have the pain that I think I had, surely to think that I had it requires that I am! Yes, but I only become aware that I think I had a pain with a time-delay from my thinking that I had a pain, because the time-delay thesis is empirically true at all the meta-levels.

This is all very strange. Maybe one can save something by supposing that awareness of a conscious state Q is always partly constituted by Q, and even with a time-delay we have indubitability. Maybe in the half-microsecond world, I couldn’t be aware of having had a pain when I didn’t have the pain, because the second-order awareness is partly constituted by the occurrence of the first-order awareness, be that occurrence past or present. Maybe, but the partial constitution thesis seems dubitable. And once we get to some meta-levels it seems implausible. Couldn’t I be mistaken in thinking that I aware that I am aware that I am aware that I am aware of Q, while in reality I only had two meta-levels?

I am feeling disoriented and confused now.


William said...

Worse still, existence itself probably requires some minimum duration that varies by the object.

Alexander R Pruss said...

I don't know about that. Couldn't God create a person for an instant?

Walter Van den Acker said...


What is the duration of an instant
If it has no duration, in what way does the person exist?

Zsolt Nagy said...

I can relate to William here. Existence might be only properly defined for non-empty open intervals of time or in other words for time durations as being continuous for function might only be properly defined for functions on non-empty open sets.

William said...

God could make the ways things exist any way at all, but I am speaking of existing in an "ordinary" way without a special act by deity for that particular object. It seems that a planet that exists only for a second never is a real planet, since it never orbits.

Sam Harper said...

What if we said, "If I have ever had a conscious state, then I have existed"? Even if we are having a false memory of having been in pain, that memory itself ia a conscious state. So to think at all, whether presently or in the past, seems to entail that you have existed at some point.

Alexander R Pruss said...

Sam: Agreed. And if eternalism is true, then it follows that you exist simpliciter.