Mind and Body:
From René Descartes to William James

Writing Descartes:
I Am, and I Can Think, Therefore ...

Story Evolution
Paul Burgmayer/Grobstein

an exchange triggered by Grobstein's Writing Descartes ...

Burgmayer followed by Grobstein


(9 July) Sharon passed this link on to me and I have been thinking about what you wrote for a couple of days. Here are two questions...

1) If he had written "I feel, therefore I am," would you object so much to the statement?

I don't actually "object so much" to "I think, therefore I am" as think it is at this point in need of updating. No, I don't think it would help to replace "think" with "feel". For several related reasons ...

By "feel" I understand the experiences one has that one can't fully account for, things like emotion, intuition, what Freud called the "oceanic experience", what others call direct experience with something larger than oneself. I think these all can, and do, make valuable contributions to inquiry, but I don't think they provide a "solid foundation" for it, in the sense of being things of which one should not be skeptical, any more than does thinking (or logic, sense data, authority, the revealed word).

My skepticism on this score derives in part from the obvious fact that different people have different feelings and from the common (I think) experience of most people that acting on "feeling" sometimes works but other times gets one into trouble. But it also, and perhaps more significantly, has to do with the argument I use for dethroning "thinking". Just like "thinking", "feeling" seems to be rooted in a whole set of unconscious processes ("treeness") of which we are (usually) unaware. It is my guess that "feeling" is a form of communication from "treeness" to "consciousness". Regardless, it doesn't make sense to me to simply take the unconscious processes as a given, to "trust" them and so not treat them as subject to the same kind of doubt one uses for inquiry into anything else.

To put it differently, I don't think it makes sense to rely unskeptically on "feeling", any more than it does on "thinking". While many people tend to oppose the two, my own sense is that the two are better seen as inter-related and complementary activities, with neither alone providing the sought for "solid foundation".

2) Why does this question matter so much to you (not in the abstract)? I thought of this because you are always emphasizing the idea of personal stories. So what in your personal story makes this important to explore?

Nice question. Which several others have also asked, and which I've answered in several ways in several different contexts. I'd like to think they are all versions of the same thing, but maybe that story too will change because of these conversations. In any case, it does have to do with "personal stories" and, of course, mine in particular. What I've always enjoyed, and what has also always made me feel most secure/comfortable (this is not, I think, exactly the same thing), is exploring and explorers.

Wherever I am, I have always wanted to find out what is around me, what is underneath, above, and beyond where I find myself. This is partly sheer curiosity, and partly a sense that there are things over there that I will have to contend with in the future and I'm better off getting to know them in advance. The upshot is that I don't like floors, or walls, or ceilings that I can't, at least in principle, get through. And so "profound skepticism" is a central part of my "personal story". I tell it both to encourage others to become explorers (since I like to be around explorers), and because its a story that I think others may find it useful to know about regardless of how much exploring they want to do themselves.

To perhaps anticipate a further question: I neither offer my story as a "solid foundation" nor take it as one myself. I like my story, think it worth telling, but regard it too as appropriately inquired into (by others and myself) and subject to change. For some, the fluidity of "profound skepticism" makes it worth continuing to look for a "solid foundation". My own experience has been that "It is far easier (and almost certainly more productive) for me to tell and retell, with second thoughts and modifications based on new observations,, my own story, while also listening to the stories of others with an open mind/brain, one able potentially to be awed and fundamentally changed by the experience." (http://serendip.brynmawr.edu/~pgrobste/pragmatism.html#prag).

(12 July) I have read your original letter to Rene again more carefully and also have spent some time reading over the philosophy website you linked to in your letter.  In particular I got hooked on epistemology and philosophical skepticism.

I would ask the following questions now.

1) Is another way of saying what you concluded about the illegitimacy of of thought as a basis for being to say "Our thought processes are a product of our environment and genetics (our being).  Therefore thinking is suspect since environments and genetics vary so much among people."?   This to me takes the discussion out of the realm of philosophical speculation to something a scientist might find testable (i.e., useful).  

That's close (and helpful). Yes, "thinking" is indeed a product of environment and genetics, but I wouldn't equate the latter with "being" and my own view is their are some additional substantial complexities. You can't simply add up the sum of "genetics" and "environment" and get "thinking". First, the two interact in complex ways. Second, there is a degree of indeterminacy/randomness in the mix. Third, genetics/environment/randomness yield a nervous system with two parts. The basic part gets you most of behavior and is the origin of emotions/intuitions/etc; the second gives one the ability to reflect on oneself/conceive of self as other than one is. That's what I call "thinking" and it is, because of the complexities, very much more than a product of simply "environment and genetics", enough more to endow the assembly ("being" in the case of humans, perhaps some other organisms) with free will, the ability to choose to become other than one is (ie other than the predetermined product of environment and genetics).

No, I don't regard thinking as "suspect" because environments/genetics "vary so much among people" (though indeed they do). I simply assert that because "thinking" reflects so many different processes, what one thinks can no more be taken unskeptically than anything else can be. One CAN (and should) doubt the certainty of what one thinks in the same way one doubts anything else.

To my mind at least this is already way outside the "realm of philosophical speculation". If one takes it seriously, it has very immediate and very down to earth implications for how we understand and our relations to other people/the universe in which we find ourselves. For me, the test of "usefulness" is what happens if one plays out those implications rather than "something a scientist would find testable".

I stated this more simply than perhaps I should.  I agree especially with your comment  "If one takes it seriously, it has very immediate and very down to earth implications for how we understand and our relations to other people/the universe in which we find ourselves." 2) A skeptic of your skeptic's position would have to argue that you can't sit there and type in your "thoughts" to disprove a point about thinking and expect to be taken seriously.  Quoting from the end of the philosophical skepticism article " Either the skeptic is right, in which case we can't trust our ability our reason and so can't trust the skeptic's conclusion; or the skeptic is wrong, in which case again we can't trust the skeptic's conclusion. In either case we don't have to worry about skepticism!"

Actually I draw exactly the opposite conclusion from philosophical "skepticism". If it is in fact the case (and from more modern work it indeed seems to be) that all "arguments" are assailable (by appropriate skeptical inquiry) what follows for me is that we should stop trying to reach unassailable conclusions and proceed in some other direction (eternally "getting it less wrong").

In all honesty, I really don't see why you dwell on the idea that people believe "arguments are unassailable."  I do wonder if you are hung up in an academic's predicament of not having to follow through you your argument in a thoroughly practical way.  In my old industrial job it was routine to have a set of beliefs, espouse those beliefs to the salespeople and customers, and do things for them that truly aligned with those beliefs.  Meanwhile you are also doing research that seeks to undermine or supplant those beliefs.  At some point when you have confidence you are "less wrong" than you were before, you go public, and wait to take the flack for changing the "truth" about something.  

In my experience, it is human nature to want stasis in life.  It makes it easier to live.  If I come along and say "You know the way that you have been treating your billion dollar operation is wrong, you should change" people tend to get upset.  Especially when they are paying me to give them the best solution.  

Maybe to summarize I would say it this way. "We develop a set of beliefs from somewhere else, in good faith we act towards others living those beliefs.  Meanwhile we actively seek to supplant the beliefs."  That's the research life, the academic life, the spiritual life.

No problem with "develop ... act ... supplant". Actually think I'm less "academic" than most academics, but happy in any case to have the emphasis on the non-academic perspective. Might be nice though if more people knew about truth changing, so no one had to take flack for it?

3) In response to "So, here's a new(?) idea that appeals to me" paragraph, I found this link ....  

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Epistemology      

"The problem of defining knowledge

For most of philosophical history, "knowledge" was taken to mean belief that was justfied as true to an absolute certainty. Any less justified beliefs were called mere "probable opinion." This viewpoint still prevailed at least as late as Bertrand Russell's early 20th century book The Problems of Philosophy. In the decades that followed, however, philosphers came to think of knowledge as meaning "justified true belief," and the notion that the belief had to be justified to a certainty was forgotten. In the 1960s, Edmund L. Gettier, refuted this carelessly arrived at definition of knowledge by pointing out situations in which a believer has a true belief justified to a reasonable degree, but not to a certainty, and yet in the situations in question, everyone would agree that the believer does not have knowledge.

Since then, epistemologists have attempted to find strengthened criteria for knowledge that will not be subject to the sorts of counterexamples Gettier and his many successors have produced. No one has yet succeeded in doing that. Kirkham (see the References section below) has argued that this is because the only definition that could ever be immune to all such counterexamples is the original one that prevailed from ancient times through Russell: to qualify as an item of knowledge, a belief must not only be true and justified, the evidence for the belief must necessitate its truth. But this conclusion is resisted since it would probably entail a sweeping skepticism." (bold added by me).

Here's to "profound skepticism" (yes, there is indeed history I wasn't aware of when I wrote my essay. Descartes was apparently both making use of and reacting against "Pyrrhonism", a school of thought associated with the Greek skeptic Sextus Empiricus. Nice to know I have ancestors, whether I knew them or not).

Actually if you read the section on skepticism you will see that the brand you are espousing is what they describe as "local" skepticism.  The more "profound skepticism" they call global.  Nobody really wants to go there as it makes "becoming" pretty difficult.

I also really don't think you are a skeptic.  Anne last night mentioned the idea of "profound belief" which is the umbrella under which I think you operate. Otherwise you would not be doing all of this Serendip stuff.

I suspect I do indeed want to "go there", but don't find mention of the "global"/"local" contrast in the link. Regardless, I really DO think we are better off acknowledging that we can't be CERTAIN about anything. We certainly can (and should) do the best we can at any given time, and we can certainly notice and correct things that give us trouble, and in doing so we can certainly become. That, it seems to me, covers "develop ... act ... supplant" with no difficulty and without ever getting into the troubles/arguments that occur when people say they are "certain" about something.

I'm not sure what Anne had in mind but I am indeed a "skeptic" in the sense that I regard anything and everything as subject to question. And Serendip functions very much in that "non-authoritative" mode. Its precisely the skeptical posture that makes Serendip's invitation to share stories genuine and productive. There is no presumption that what is on Serendip is "right" and no requirement that people contributing to Serendip be "right". Its from the sharing of stories that the "less wrong" evolves.

from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Philosophical_skepticism

"Now remember that skepticism can be either about everything, or about some particular area. If a skeptic believes that knowledge of anything at all is impossible, then his or her view is global skepticism. Whatever in the world you pick, the global skeptic will say that you can't possibly, or at least don't, know it. In the history of philosophy, very few global skeptics have existed. Hardly anybody has been that bold. Global skepticism really is bold -- because it denies so much: that you know your own name; that you know that you have a mind, or a body; that you know you have been alive for longer than ten minutes; and so forth. Arguments for global skepticism will tend to have great difficulty in supporting their extremely strong claim, at least of the variety that says: "We cannot know anything at all." The weaker versions, that say, "We do not know anything at all", could perhaps have stronger support. But this article does not address that claim.

If one denies that we do or can have knowledge of a particular area, then that view is local skepticism. And one can say that one is a skeptic about the area that one has doubts about. Of course different kinds of local skepticism emerge, depending on the area. Areas like: the external world; other minds; the past and the future; and so forth. Take for example the external world. If a person says that no one can know anything about the external world, the world that exists apart from their own mind, then they are a local skeptic, and they espouse skepticism about the external world. Or even more briefly, external world skepticism.

To summarise this introductory material about skepticism, skepticism is the view that either we do not have any knowledge, or that we cannot have any propositional knowledge -- knowledge either about anything, or about some particular area. This article primarily deals with the sort of skepticism that claims we cannot have propositional knowledge. Skepticism about everything is global skepticism. Instead this article addresses some different kinds of local skepticism. So this article primarily focusses on looking at some skepticisms that say that one cannot have knowledge about some particular area, X, or Y, or Z. (What X, Y, and Z might be is explained below.)"

4) About your idea of being ---> thinking ----> becoming... to me this has little to do with Descartes.   I think (not being a skeptic, I believe I am allowed to do this), that I would join Anne's vote for interjecting relationship into the equation.  Thinking in conversation with others (as is happening here) is the only way of "becoming."  One does not "become" without reference to others (almost by definition).  So perhaps I would write the equation circularly and add relationship.   

Perhaps it would look like this

being in community  ---> thinking/feeling in response to community ----> becoming in community ----> being in community

Happy to add the social dimension. But want to be sure the scheme allows for the possibility that particular individuals may think/feel in response to things other than "community" (ie stones, trees, their own intuitions), may at times leave particular communities to join or establish others, and might in principle decide to spend some significant amount of their time separate from other human beings entirely.

No,  I don't agree.  I believe everything comes from community.  I am suspect of anyone telling me their revelation came from a stone.  The stone or tree may reflect back to me my understanding which originally arises from an interaction from others but they do not initiate a conversation nor give me the gift of a new feeling or idea.  We "become" in human community.

Sounds to me like a good place to agree for the moment to disagree. Perhaps to revisit at a later time. For a variety of reasons, I'm suspect of "I believe" as an argument. I certainly think that we acquire things from other people (both for better and for worse) and share your sense of skepticism when people tell me trees or stones have spoken to them. But there are, for me at least, too many observations best summarized by saying that what we are reflects in part an evolutionary history in which trees and stones (among other things) were important influences, and there is too much "science" about trees and stones (among other things) that similarly influences what we are to attribute it all to human community.

Something struck me when you questioned my "I believe..." statement. It seems to me (I believe?) that a profound skeptic would have to rely heavily on belief. If there is no absolute knowledge then how else do you get operating instructions for interacting with the world? One of the great 20th century Christian theologians (Karl Barth) once wrote "This whole affair (meaning his theology) floats in the air as if suspended." By this he meant to say that it is not grounded in any "thing." There is no "proof" that what he is saying is right. The threads that hold it up are beliefs. It seems to me if you take away a ground of knowing, you will have to float up into the realm of belief. So skeptics by definition have to believe. The alternative seems to me to be immobilization, to be frozen into "no action."

Immobilization is no more appealing to me than it is to you. But, for me, there is an important difference between "I believe sufficiently to act" (in order to see what happens) and "I believe" as in "We hold these truths to be self-evident", ie applicable to all and for all time. "Believe" for present purposes is fine, indeed I agree is essential.




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