Mind and Body:
From René Descartes to William James

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

Story Evolution
Scott-Wittenborn/Grobstein
26 September 2004

An exchange arising out of Writing Descartes ...

Scott-Wittenborn followed by Grobstein


I always felt that thinking is the term that we use to describe how we exist, or at least how we are aware of existing. I have no trouble with the notion that it is the complexity of our underlying "architecture" that gives rise to our own consciousness and self-awareness (which is what I think Descartes was referring to when he said "thinking", given that he'd have no way of knowing about all the mental activity that occurs without our being aware), and the same self-awareness that goes hand in hand with our ability to think gives rise to both the question that Descartes posed to himself ("what can I know?") and conclusion that he ultimately arrived at ("I think therefore I am.")

I always assumed that it was a way of establishing one's own existence, not a means of establishing the existence of other people or things. Isolating Descartes' argument from the context in which it was made (answering the question of what he could know, how and if he could establish his own existence) and applying it to a tree does create interesting and worthwhile questions, but I'm not sure it's the intended use of the idea. That isn't to say that it shouldn't be done or that new and interesting questions and answers don't arise from taking ideas out of their original contexts, I'm just saying that I think that Descartes would have agreed that a tree exists despite the fact that a tree doesn"t "think" in the sense that people "think."

I agree with the statement that "a single solid starting point just isn't the way to go" but I'm curious as to whether anyone, if they thought about it, would disagree. While admitting that there is a certain specious appeal in the arguments of those who argue that there is a single solid definite starting point for any sort of intellectual inquiry (religious fanaticism springs to mind), there is nothing in my own experience to suggest that a solid starting point of the sort that Descartes was in search of exists, but I always supposed that most people realized and accepted this.

Thinking isn't a constant as a starting point. There's nothing solid about it. I don't think the same things now that I did five years ago or even five minutes ago for that matter. Maybe I'm lucky that my mind works in such a brazenly not ordered manner that I can't even attempt to claim objectivity or a separation of my values and beliefs from my ability to think. My parents behavior certainly never suggested to me that my thoughts were exempt from examination and criticism (but that's a whole different issue). Additionally, I like a lot the notion of having catalogued a variety of potential starting points that we can now use as appropriate/useful, especially since my mind's only real strength is that it's nimble which works well with the idea of multiple starting points. Well, that and I can read really fast.

The whole mind/body relationship brings up some interesting issues for me (they might be boring issues for you, but you asked for my thoughts so I don't feel too bad for you). I can accept that my thinking self exists only as a part of the larger being and that the complex architecture that allows me to have thoughts can only exist atop the simpler architecture that we share with, among other things, trees. Yet thinking about the distinction between mind and body has always taken on additional baggage for me, largely I think because my mother has suffered from a severe auto-immune disease for most of my life (well, more like half of my life, but it's bizarre to think that soon it's going to be most of my life) and it's difficult not to see her body or her being as the villain, the thing that gets in the way of her being able to do what her thinking self would like to do.

Though I never thought about it before now, I suppose I always saw not only the body, but the complex architecture that allows for our sense of consciousness in a somewhat adversarial light... at best a rickety scaffolding that "we" sit atop, trying to keep steady and at worst a time bomb against which we race our whole life, trying to get in the things that count before something falls apart. Between the experience of seeing my mother's body turn on itself, and hearing my father talk about his work as a neurologist and all the zillions of ways that the architecture that underlies our consciousness can malfunction, that simpler architecture does start to seem somewhat hazardous. More than that, as a child, seeing your parent suffer, I mean really suffer and endure pain as a result of their simpler architecture, is enough to convince you that the underlying business of "being" can very much get in the way of thinking and it can ravage one's experience of being.

I know that the knowledge that our consciousness arises solely out of the complexity of our "architecture" should make the prospect of losing one's sense of self, be it through death or ALS or an anvil falling out of the sky like in an old cartoon less threatening, but for me it's consciousness and the ability to experience that makes it all worth it. I've spent an inordinately large portion of my life thinking about what I'm thinking, how I'm thinking and why I'm thinking what I'm thinking. (incidentally, this may explain why I haven't managed to do very much, but have opinions on almost everything.) So while I think it's fantastic that the parts of me that are like trees, such as the little mitochondria (which, if my freshman year of Bio memories are correct is affectionately called the "power house" of the cell), ribosomes and endometrial reticulum(s?) keep doing their thing, I'm willing to take their function for granted and focus mostly on the part of me that differs from trees. After all, my adolescence is officially over in two short months and I have some serious angst-ing to do before then.

And a final comment on Descartes flawed concept of neurobiology and hence human existence.in Descartes' lifetime medical treatment consisted of being bled (or perhaps a more accurate term would be leeched) and people barely bathed, so let's cut him some slack.


Yeah, yeah, but may we could get ME a little slack too? I SAID there were lots of things (experiences, observations, etc) that we now have that Descartes didn't and guessed he'd think differently now. And I acknowledged that he probably wouldn't have said that trees think, and that my concern might well have to do with what people since have made of Descartes rather than what he was saying himself. Still I accept your concern (and others') that the essay sets up Descartes' as a stalking horse, and that that (for some/many?) people is distracting. Mea culpa. Chalk it up to a(nother) brain that works in a "brazenly not ordered manner", but is "nimble" and "works well with multiple starting points"? Actually, there's more to this issue, something about the necessity of starting SOMEWHERE, where that somewhere is recognizable to other people, and .... but that's another story and I'll restrain myself.

One other sidelight before getting to the heart of the matter at hand. Maybe sidelight, maybe more important. You are far from alone in reading Descartes' as "making an argument for one's own existence". Many people do (mostly younger people with nimbler minds, in the sample at hand), but others don't. My own sense is that Descartes' had no inclination to be uncertain about his OWN existence, and was instead primarily motivated by a wish to lay a solid foundation for the newly emerging practice of "science", ie a form of knowledge based on "rational" consideration of individual empirical observations (as opposed to faith, or accrued wisdom, or direct sensation). And among the forces with which he was contending at the time were the "skeptics" who asserted that there could be no solid foundation. From this perspective, Descartes (or at least his followers) are not so remote as an appropriate target for challenge.

You're also not alone in saying "I always supposed that most people realized and accepted" that there are no single invariant starting points. Here too you're in company with other younger minds, and maybe that's an encouraging sign. If you'll check around though (here and elsewhere) you'll discover that the issue isn't at all so straightforward for all people, even some younger ones. Regardless, for ME what's interesting isn't so much to try and persuade people of what seems obvious to me (and you) but rather the question of what comes next? If there are no single invariant starting points, how does one proceed? So I'm glad you noticed/liked "the notion of having catalogued a variety of potential starting points that we can now use as appropriate/useful". That notion of accepting (even enjoying) the recognition of multiple "adequate" starting points (as opposed to trying to find one "correct" starting point) was the bottom line of the essay as I intended it (I think).

But (the heart of the matter, finally, I think?) you've uped the ante with a new challenge:

"I know that the knowledge that our consciousness arises solely out of the complexity of our "architecture" should make the prospect of losing one's sense of self, be it through death or ALS or an anvil falling out of the sky like in an old cartoon, less threatening" And, you're right. The story that we are complexly organized matter DOESN'T make illness or mortality any less "threatening". In fact it in some ways it makes them more so. After all, what the story says is not only that there is a "rickety scaffolding" under "us" but that what we think of as "ourselves" is made of the same basic materials as that scaffolding, and so is in important ways no less rickety than the "treeness" on which we sit. What we might like to think of as made of some kind of stuff more resilient than our bodies (our "essence"?), less heir to the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, actually .... isn't. Its the same material stuff, vulnerable to many of the same kinds of insults as the rest of us and subject to inevitable deterioration in many of the same ways. The ricketiness of your mother's treeness hurts; so too does the ricketiness of thinking in cases like my father, who developed Alzheimer's before he died (and in the cases your father sees, where it is clear that "the architecture that underlies our consciousness can malfunction" in lots of ways.)

So, the treeness/thinking story doesn't do away with illness and mortality at all; it instead calls attention to our vulnerability. But maybe there's some comfort, or at least helpfulness, in knowing that our vulnerability is not a failing on our parts or a judgement on us by others but rather a fundamental aspect of who we are (a "feature" rather than a "bug")? And perhaps we could all usefully come to see our vulnerability not as something to be raged at and fought against but rather as the flip side of the same thing that makes us able to imagine things other than they are and to explore new worlds? Your mother is not where she can imagine being (nor where you can imagine her being), and my father, before he died, had ceased to imagine being anywhere (so far as I can tell). But my father continued to explore, in ways valuable to me, until he died (moreover, those explorations remain as an important part of my own). And your mother, not only despite but also because of her illness, has stories to tell that are uniquely hers, and uniquely valuable to you and others.

Far be it for me to get in the way of you (or anyone else) doing some "serious angst-ing". Maybe, though, its useful for someone at the other end of the life trajectory from adolesence to report their feelings about being human, illness/mortality/vulnerability included: its not only very much worth putting up with it (ALL of it), its a gas.


See on-line forum for continuing conversation and to leave your own thoughts.

Maria Scott-Wittenborn is a sophomore at Bryn Mawr College who as a freshman took Biology 103 with Paul Grobstein.


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