Mind and Body:
From René Descartes to William James

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

Story Evolution
Kerman/Grobstein

excerpted from an exchange of emails triggered by Grobstein's Writing Descartes ...
28-29 June 2004

Kerman followed by Grobstein, with comments on comments indented


Curious about your sense of "self" at the end. Understand you to be saying that a sense of self isn't static, but rather constantly changing, and therefore able to change with purpose and intention (trees are constantly changing too, so what is different is the intention to change, right?). But rereading the ending, it seemed that you might also be saying that the self -- at any given moment of time, along its path of change -- isn't the starting point either, any more than thinking or feeling or authority or logic. Did I read this wrong? And yet, I don't think skepticism -- always fresh-inquiry, without prejudices or preconceptions? -- is the same as self-doubt: just because a sense of self isn't stable doesn't mean that it isn't the starting point for self-reflection.

Yep, trees don't have an experience of possibility of being other than they are, and therefore don't have experience of "intention to change". They just change. Same, I suspect, for the unconscious part of us. "Self" is the combination of unconscious (tree-like) and conscious (which can conceive a different story, and often does). So yes, "self" is in fact always changing, whether the conscious is comfortable with that or not (and whether the "story" the conscious tells includes constant change or not).

Hmmm. Yeah, you're right. The last sentence DOES include a misuse of "self", in the sense I just outlined. It should have read " ... but also the stable/invariant "self" ... ". Important point, for exactly the reason you said. Self in the broader sense is the optimal starting point not only for self-reflection but also for action. "Profound skepticism" is NOT "self-doubt".

Ah: you're now squarely in the language of the unconscious and the conscious, something you only skirted in your article. Maybe there is something else besides conscious and unconscious in living things. Looking at your piece again, it sounds like you are equating life cycle -- growth, change in that sense -- with "unconscious". But surely that doesn't adequately describe the human unconscious. We are like trees in that we grow and change, without thinking or intention, but there's a lot more to our unconscious -- how we learn, what memory is, how it motivates us, etc. The unconscious may be "unaware" or not intentional (in the sense that the conscious can be), but it surely is a motivator and can express itself meaningfully -- very un-tree-like. Not a beast, but not a tree either? But, to the larger point, I like that better: we start with the (changing) self, and take in everything we can as we move through life.

Glad we got that fixed. Thanks. And glad to have the additional issue raised as well. Thanks for that too. Yeah, there is a connected set of concerns having to do with "the language of the unconscious and the conscious", probably inherent in the essay and certainly floating around in the back of my mind in any case. The question of whether the neurobiological "unconscious" and the psychoanalytic/psychological "unconscious" are or are not the same thing has come up before, and I'm inclined to argue it is useful to see them as aspects of the same thing (see http://serendip.brynmawr.edu/sci_cult/mentalhealth/unconcon.html). I was aware when I wrote the essay that I seemed to be extending that argument beyond humans and beyond organisms with nervous systems to ... trees. Do I REALLY want to do that? I THINK so. Yes, of course, there are differences between trees, and frogs (having nervous systems but probably no "consciousness", and the human "unconscious". And it would be worth trying to define those differences; they clearly are important in some contexts. At the same time, my hunch is that there are more similarities among these three things than we usually think, and these similarities make them closer to each other than to "consciousness". The basic idea is a distinction between "model-builders" (which all three are) and "story tellers" (which they are not but consciousness is). Its sketched in http://serendip.brynmawr.edu/complexity/emergence04/, but needs lots more development and specifics to see how useful it actually is.

I suspect usefulness is in the eye of the beholder: depends on what you want to understand. It may well be that the way tree-, frog-, and human-unconscious processes work is, biologically, very similar. And that much about the human unconscious can be understood in relation to trees and frogs. On the other hand, my own hunch is that, in humans, the line between unconscious and conscious isn't as fixed as this suggests, and for some questions, it's more useful to understand the permeability of that line. What interests me about my unconscious, at least, isn't that I am getting older without any apparent effort (like a tree), but that I -- to pick a few examples of unconscious activity -- come up "spontaneously" with answers to questions that have puzzled me for a long time; can wake up knowing something far better than I did when I went to sleep the night before; react with child's feelings to adult situations that are suspiciously similar to my birth family dynamics. If your point is that people should approach life with skepticism and openness and then THINK, then perhaps focusing on the unconscious this way might be more useful.

No argument. Certainly agree that "useful" is context-dependent. Need/want to think more about whether "the line between conscious and unconscious isn't as fixed as this suggests" but that doesn't at all affect your focus on "the permeability" of the line. However narrow or broad the "line" might turn out to be, your point remains important. For humans, there are unquestionably the phenomena of unconscious activity generating "answers" to questions that "have puzzled me [the "conscious"?] for a long time", and of generating feelings related to events in one's past rather than to current things of which one is consciously aware. And these sorts of things, for humans, MATTER, and need to be accounted for. Trees, I'm pretty sure, don't have anything comparable, since they lack the additional "thinking" architectural features. More interestingly perhaps, trees as a result also don't have either the mechanisms that mediate between the unconscious and the conscious (if they are in fact importantly distinct) or the "overlap" between the two (in your characterization).

So what's the fundamental thing you want me (the reader) to think about? that I can change? that I should take nothing for granted? that I can't know anything? that I can't depend on anything? that anything is possible?

Yes, yes, no, no, no. You not only can change but will and have some capacity to influence it. You maximize your influence by not taking anything as unexaminable. One HAS to "depend" on where one is to act (but having done so one can question what one stood on). Some things may not be possible, but "profound skepticism" makes more possible than would otherwise be.

Got it. And agree. But again: what are you really trying to get at? the nature of the self? the imperative to be self-reflective? the wish for people to take control of and responsibility for themselves? Profound skepticism becomes -- free will?

Am interested in "the nature of the self", still more interested in the "imperative to be self-reflective", and still more interested in "the wish for people to take control of and responsibility for themselves". And yes, I admit, that all of this relates to "free will" in my mind. But I am, odd as it might sound, actually more interested in the more concrete than in the more abstract: less in "the nature of the self" or "free will" than in the ways that clarifying such ideas might help humans, individually and collectively, avoid known problems that create human unhappiness. So, lest I be misunderstood, the bottom line for me isn't quite to get people "to take control of and be responsible for themselves". The bottom line is instead "The world wasn't made for people, you know, and we don't understand all about it, and we never will, and there will always be things happening that we didn't expect, and the only way to deal with that is to have people around who know how to think, instead of just doing their particular job the way they were told to do it". With more people thinking " I'm pretty sure though that I'll feel a lot safer, and I'm damned sure life will be a lot more fun" (http://serendip.brynmawr.edu/sci_edu/problem.html). In fact, I'm pretty sure EVERYONE will feel safer and have more fun. THAT's what I'm trying to get at/to.

The bottom line is for people to think? and to think deeply, without prejudice, and without preconceived notions of where the thinking will go? It's the old argument for the liberal arts education, and also for therapy and psycho-analysis, and ... yes. Sounds right to me.

Yep, the "old" argument for all of the above (and a few other things). Each of which, interestingly, also has in common with the others a need for some freshening of the arguments for its significance, no?




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