Mind and Body:
From René Descartes to William James

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

Story Evolution
Franklin/Grobstein

an exchange triggered by Grobstein's Writing Descartes ...
7 August 2004

Franklin followed by Grobstein


Rich. Where to start? As a feeler, I am delighted at the prospects of validating others ways of knowing. However, what troubles me most is the essence of knowing. What is knowing? Does it have anything to do with REALITY? Or does knowing have absolutely no overlap with external reality? Forget REALITY for now. What is knowing? I believe it cannot be established without a point of reference/zero/self. Thus, we are back to Rene's perplexing question and my uneasiness with your re-phrasing, namely, how can you start with "I am"? "I am", is exactly what is in doubt. Yet, who among us doubts our own existence? Is it not the most obvious, fundamental precept? I am goes without saying. To doubt ones own existence leaves nothing at all, and clearly through my interactions with other agents or changes in my own state, I am. I know I am through my sensing/feeling/thinking/registering interactions. And by this line of reasoning, a tree would "be" if it had any mechanism to registrar/account for changes in its own state, be them internally or externally derived. But now I find myself back on this circular argument. I am, because I know/registrar interactions/changes within and without myself, but I cannot "know"until I am/zero/a point of reference. This tautology leaves me with only one option, namely, to not doubt my existence, to not be skeptical, to have FAITH. Thus, in the final analysis I do not doubt my interactions, therefore I am.

Good place to start. IS interesting, your discomfort (I think?) at finding yourself in a "circular argument", which then leaves you "only one option ... to not doubt my existence, to not be skeptical, to have FAITH". Sure, let's agree to leave "reality" and uncertainties about it out of this for the moment, but I reserve the right to return to that (related) issue.

A tree does indeed "register ... changes in its own state, be they internally or externally derived". And its exactly in this sense that I think trees and ourselves have important, deep similarities. We both ARE, whether we "think about it" or not. So I think we're agreeing that (contra Descartes) neither trees nor we need to think in order to "be" (nor to "become"). And I like your "I cannot "know" until I am/zero/a point of reference". Let me try to unpack that a bit. There is, if I'm hearing you right, something more to "knowing" than just "being", and that something more has something to do with "I", with "a point of reference". Somewhere in there lies what trees don't do , and we do, the "thinking" that our extra bit of "elaborate architecture" makes possible. And its the "thinking" that in turn generates the "circular argument" that is bothering you, no? Since trees don't think, they never wonder whether they "are", nor do/would we unless we think. To put it differently, until one has a point of reference ("I") and an ability to conceive other things (including "I") as other than they are ("not exist" as a possible state of "I"), there is no problem. As soon as the ability to think exists, one can doubt whether one is and hence doubt whether one thinks (or doubt whether one thinks and hence doubt whether one is).

Certainly if the circularity makes one uncomfortable one has the option of "breaking the loop" by, for example, deciding "to not doubt my existence, refusing to be not skeptical, to have FAITH" or, alternatively, by deciding that one will not doubt "thinking" (as per Descartes). Alternatively, though, one might embrace both the circularity AND skepticism. The skepticism allows one to conceive not only "not being" but also (probably more usefully) a wide array of possible other states of being; hence it creates the potential (lacking in trees) to change one's being by deliberate action. Conversely, one can use one's "being" at any given time to raise questions about one's thinking and so produce change in that. One COULD get disoriented by the circularity of being and thinking both influencing one another, but there are lots of other situations of bidirectional causality in biology that don't get us into trouble (eg plans and animals mutually influence one another in "co-evolutionary" processes), so that alone doesn't seem to me an insurmountable problem. And the advantages of the combination of the loop and skepticism seem to me sufficiently great so that I at least am inclined to accept (maybe even embrace) a certain sense of disorientation that comes with them.

Maybe "knowing" and "reality" both relate to the best "story" that has emerged so far to reflect the common characteristics of one's "being" and one's "thinking". And the slight sense of disorientation that occurs as being and thinking compare notes with each other is what causes one to continue exploring/discovering?


Continuing 11 August

In re: "There is, if I'm hearing you right, something more to "knowing" than just "being", and that something more has something to do with "I", with "a point of reference."

I believe it also has to do with thinking?

But does a tree "know" it is of its being? So the question has become more focused. Now, what is the difference between "knowing", "being" and "thinking"? It seems we agree that being and thinking are not equivalent, but thinking seems to be predicated on being as per your "elaborate architecture." But, can we clarify the distinction between knowing and thinking? Is there a difference? I would still assert that "knowing" needs the concept "I" other than "non-I", which I claim is possible through interactions with "non-I" agents. But I also posited that registering changes within "me" is another interaction that allows me to establish my existence and thus a point of reference. A change cannot happen in a homogenous void, therefore I exist and I "know" it via the process of "thinking". But are there other processes by which to "know"? Are there other ways to register self-existence, besides thinking? It seems to me a tree not only "IS" in the sense of "being", but is most likely "aware" of it by a mechanism other than "thinking". So by aware I simply mean, it "knows" of self as a point of reference, by which it registers interactions and changes. Thus, my differentiation between "knowing" and "thinking" is that "knowing" does not require "thinking" (just as "being" does not require it), only a the ability to record/register changes. So again, "thinking" is just a different process by which we know of our knowing (we are aware of our recording of change).

Yep, the something more does indeed have to do with, IS "thinking". And think we do indeed agree about the being/thinking distinction. Now ... is there a "knowing"/"thinking" distinction? Interesting issue, ways of "knowing", ie of having self as a point of reference, without "thinking"? In need to mull it a little more but, yeah, I'll bet that is indeed a possible organization between "being" and "thinking". It would be a kind of processing where the organism responds to things based on one or more genuinely collective properties rather than on some more compartmentalized properties but lacks the addtional capability to conceive the collective as "other than it is". Wouldn't, I think, be enought JUST to have "registers change" but would be if "registers change in some collective property". While on this set of themes, I'll bet you it is ALSO possible to "think" without having the concept "I". (see class notes (yellow box on right)).

Now that is a provoking thought, thinking without "I". By my argument, that would require thinking without knowing, because I claim one needs a point of reference to know. Perplexing?

Yeah, took me a while too, needed some cross-cultural help. Isn't in fact "thinking without knowing", or "without a point of reference". Is possible to have a "story" in which something other than "I" is the point of reference, a family for example or a tribe might equally serve.

In re: "alternatively, by deciding that one will not doubt "thinking" (as per Descartes). Alternatively, though, one might embrace both the circularity AND skepticism. The skepticism allows one to conceive not only "not being" but also (probably more usefully) a wide array of possible other states of being;

I'm not sure there is another state of being? I understand being as the state of "IS" and thus the alternative to "is/being" is "is not or non-being". One or and object "is" or "is not", no? If not, what do you mean "to change one's being? On the other hand, I do think we can change our "knowing," and some of these alternative states of "knowing" we have already discussed feeling, thinking, etc. Now it follows from my argument above on the difference between "knowing" and "thinking", that "being" is very similar to "knowing" and "being" thus only requires a point of reference/the ability record changes. But here is an interesting mind game. Does a rock record change in the same way and thus "know"? In one sense, as a rock weathers and erodes, it is recording change, but only to something that can decode that change by comparing state-initial to state-final. Therefore, I would argue that one of the essential components to "knowing" is the ability to record and decode. (and here I am reminded that computers do this without "thinking" as do bio-organic molecules types of RNA's that are templates and template readers) And it follows that "being" is not the same as "knowing", that "being" is "knowing" without the ability to decode. Am I making any sense? Back to something more tangible. Can you clarify what you mean regarding changings one's being?

Very much worth pressing on. Thanks. "Being" is a "thinking" conception, as is "not being". They are not the "things in themselves" but the "thinking description of an idea of existence. Both a tree and a rock can "be" in different configurations: there is a wet and a dry rock, for example, and a young and an old tree. Neither the tree nor the rock "think" about it, nor do they "know" there are alternate configurations of which they are in one (though they may indeed "change" from one state to another and hence relate differently to things around them). One might perhaps "know", in the sense of having a record of past state and doing some comparison between past and present without "thinking", so yes, "decoding" may indeed be relevant for the distinction between "knowing", as you intend the term, and "being" (see end of Beyond Skepticism: Information?). The key point, for me at least, is that without "thinking", ie having in mind several possibilities, one can't oneself produce wished for changes in oneself. "Changing one's being" might mean becoming less attracted to ice cream, or less easily depressed/upset/etc, moving to a configuration one is aware of and seems preferable to the configuration one is in. That help?

Interesting, in that it points out another distinguishing characteristic between "thinking" and "knowing", namely, "knowing" as I have defined it does not require having the ability to code/decode multiple possibilities. Thus far, "knowing" only needs a point of reference and a code/decoding process. Ah, Ha! I'm beginning to see the power/focus/possibility of your "thinking". It's one thing to say I understand what you mean by "I am, and I can think, therefore I can change who I am" , quite another to imagine how that might work. And it actually is so obvious suddenly. The first step in creating change is to "think" about all the possibilities (to use "thinking" to "know" other ways of "being"), yes?

Bingo. Thanks for helping make this clear. For both of us.

In re: "Maybe "knowing" and "reality" both relate to the best "story" that has emerged so far to reflect the common characteristics of one's "being" and one's "thinking". And the slight sense of disorientation that occurs as being and thinking compare notes with each other is what causes one to continue exploring/discovering?"

Yes, and furthermore, that "story" should include a cogent (not yet achieved) description of recording and decoding, no?

Or should at least be based on capabilities, as yet not fully explored (?), of coding and decoding. Not all of this has to be "conscious". In fact, its almost certainly better if lots of it isn't.
Continuing in on-line forum




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