Mind and Body:
From René Descartes to William James

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

Story Evolution
Grobstein

An interim reflection on Writing Descartes ...
2 August 2004

"What next?", Lucy wonders, "is there anywhere to go with this beyond these dialogues? Do we want to do anything more? ". And a related question from Anneliese in one of the 'logues (where there is also some discussion of possible answers): I've been trying to put my finger on another aspect of these conversations that troubles me, and I think it has to do with not fully understanding their 'practical' use. Let me be VERY quick to say that I'm not of the opinion that something must be practically useful in order to be worthwhile. But that's not really the point, because I know that these dia-/trialogs are useful to others (as is so evident in the forum and elsewhere). To me, however, they still feel like an enlightened form of socializing, a pasttime. Perhaps, I thought, this is precisely because I am NOT at the center, i.e., I am not asking my own questions yet but merely responding to others'. Furthermore, I feel disoriented as to the overall thrust(s) of these multiply intersecting stories. What are some of the ongoing questions and persistent themes? What stories are people trying to get "less wrong" by sharing them with others? Needless to say, I don't have any answers to those questions. But I'm very glad they are being asked. The point of the Descartes' exhibit was (and continues to be) to see to what extent one could make use of the web to encourage/facilitate engaged, meaningful, and productive story-sharing. The exhibit itself is an exploration of the possibilities and problems of doing so, and is relevant, it seems to me, not only in the web context but well beyond it. Our culture is not particularly sophisticated at "engaged, meaningful, and productive story-sharing" in ANY realm (international politics, national politics, community organization, education, family life), and so the problems (the questions, the uncertainties) we run into here are relevant in lots of contexts (as also are any successes we achieve).

I've already learned an enormous amount from the development of this exhibit so far, about what one needs, what works, what doesn't work in story-sharing, and so one of the things that I'll certainly do "beyond these dialogues" is to add an essay reflecting on what I've learned (so far) about that. And others, similarly inclined to look broadly at things, are more than welcome to do so as well for the "Other Forms of Exploration" section (you don't have to be "web literate"; send me writings in any form and I'll make sure they are html'ized).

I've also learned an enormous amount from peoples' widely varying reactions to the original essay (and reactions to the reactions), things that are helping me understand better the meaning and significance of my suggestion that we could usefully see "thinking" as following from "being" and recognize the two interacting as the sine qua non for deliberate change (and the meaning/significance of that in turn). This too is, I think, worth an essay, and I'll add that to "Other Forms" as well. Anyone else inclined to this sort of effort on this topic is warmly invited to do so as well (with the same arrangements as above). More dialogues are still on the way, and more polylogues are welcome as well (here too I'm happy to provide htmlizing assistance).

Maybe, though, the most important thing to have happened so far in the evolution of this exhibit (as I see it) is the documentation of the reality that different people think differently, not only about "big" issues but also about littler things, and, maybe less obviously, that how one thinks about "big" things is affected by how one thinks about "little" things and vice versa. How one feels about a painting MATTERS, as does how one feels about being a painter. How one feels about being "assailed" MATTERS, not only in and of itself but also because of its implications for how one thinks about other things, little and big. And thinking about bigger things can in turn play back into how one thinks about littler things (see "it got me to THINK").

People in our culture (all cultures?) are frequently reluctant to talk unless they think they have something "big" (or unassailable?) to say (and then frequently don't want to converse so much as to aggressively defend what they have already said). And that in turn, it seems to me, militates against "engaged, meaningful, and productive story-sharing". So maybe one of the things we've learned so far is that there isn't anything wrong with a little "enlightened form of socializing"? One not only can but SHOULD drop by, overhear a bit of conversation, tell a little story that it makes one think of? Maybe another "next" direction is for all of us to do a little more of that? Any maybe encourage a few additional friends to stop by as well (and have them bring some of their friends)? Its from little stories that big stories grow, down the line somewhere, in serendipitous ways that no one can expect/predict. Yeah, the forum will look a little ragged, maybe even disconnected at times (sort of like Serendip itself?), but we can always do a little cleaning up/reorganizing to bring out the bigger stories that the little stories create (and will, I promise). And without the little stories there won't be any big ones.

Along these lines, one last (for now) related thought, prompted by Anneliese's "I am NOT at the center". Despite having told the story that got this conversation started, I too am not at the center and no one else is either. Or, to put it differently,

The old idea was always that the stars were fixed to a crystal vault to stop them falling down. Today we have found the courage to let them soar through space without support ... And the earth is rolling cheerfully around the sun, and the fishwives, merchants, princes, and cardinals ... are rolling with it ... The universe has lost its centre overnight, and woken up to find it has countless centres. So that each one can now be seen as the centre, or none at all

Bertold Brecht, Life of Galileo

How's that for a "profound skepticism" sort of idea? That we have the confidence, in ourselves and in each other, to make something useful, something for which each of us is the center for ourselves and none of us the center for what we make together? Perhaps something useful precisely BECAUSE "each of us is the center for ourselves and none of us is the center for what we make together"?


Conversation continues in the on-line forum




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