Mind and Body:
From René Descartes to William James

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

Story Evolution
Stahl/Grobstein

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

Stahl (quotes from original essay in italics) followed by Grobstein


Paul -

Some comments interspersed in relation to particular lines (in italics) of your letter to Descartes, with a longer piece at the end ...

"A SERIOUS "profound skepticism", it turns out, has to doubt not only sense data and logic but the legitimacy of thinking itself."

Yes, indeed!

Now THAT's a perhaps scary thought; if you can't trust sense data and you can't trust logic and you can't trust thinking (and, of course, you can't trust authority or the "revealed word") what CAN you trust?"

If we take this to be an epistemological problem in the sense of "is it possible to know anything beyond any doubt?" then the answer needs to be: no, we cannot.

Or maybe its not so scary; I wonder what you'd think if you had the observations we have

I don't think it has to do with the "observations" that Descartes had available. Without knowing too much about the Sophists, I have always thought that their brand of skepticism was pretty healthy. And they certainly didn't have more sense data available that Descartes? I do not believe that we can ever get at the core of the "what can we know?" question by way of sense data (or any data, knowledge, logic etc. for that matter). The "what can we know" question is a problem of meaning and problems of meaning are "ordering" problems. By "ordering problem" (I just made this up!) I refer to the aspects of (epistemological) thinking that attempt to establish a meaningful order of all kinds of knowledges (sense data, experience, logic, feelings etc. etc).The question then becomes: Well, what does "meaningful" mean? I say, what meaningful means is another ordering problem. In order to determine "meaningful" we need to explore what we take meaningful to be with regard to a specific problem. I suspect there are all kinds of "meaningful" that each depend on the particular problem that we are interested in at any given time.

"What's different, of course, about this approach is that one doesn't for all time abandon skepticism for some particular thing. Instead one temporarily abandons skepticism for all things in order to act."

Brilliant. I have tried to argue this point a few times in the GIF reading group. Usually I said something like: Acting requires absolute certainty at one particular point in time. Namely at the precise point when one decides to act. This, however is a very particular type of certainty and should not be confused with what we usually mean when we say "truth".

"Its all open to reconsideration and renewal. Now THAT's an appealing picture. For me at least. And, given your interest in skepticism as a starting point, maybe for you too?"

Well, as I said, this appeals to me very much. Of course I am no Descartes but what the heck! An important question seems to remain at this point: how to we know that what we are doing is correct (true)? Since we just said that action requires temporary certainty, what is it that makes us certain? Not that I have an answer, but I believe that it is an important question.

"So, here's the change I would like to make in "I think, therefore I am". I suggest we reword it as

"I am, and I can think, therefore I can change who I am"

The "I can change who I am" raises a different kind of problem that seems to be related to the free will problem. I haven't thought about this a whole lot. Why do we even need this type of a slogan? I can think of situations were "I am, and I think but cannot change" (at least for the time being). There is something slightly teleological about this statement that I don't seem to like but I am not quite sure yet what it is.

"While it may be a little uncomfortable to give up the security not only of authority and logic and sense data and thinking but also the "self""

Maybe that"s what I meant with my critical remark immediately above. There are so many "I"s in that statement. Since we"re giving up the I, who again are the "I"s in the statement?

Reading your essay lead me to writing up the following thought on

"The difference between my/our truth and the truth"

I am just reading Allan Bloom's Closing of the American Mind (I am trying to catch up with the development of popular academic discourse in the U.S.). In my mind, Allan Bloom like many other culture warriors on both sides of the conflict does not seem to understand the difference between his truth and the truth. His truth is a problem of practice. The truth is an epistemological problem. The truth of individuals (my truth, or our truth in the case of groups of people who agree) is "universal", not in the sense in which this term is used in epistemological debates but in a practical sense. If I know something to be "entirely" true, I cannot act against this knowledge. As such it can be thought of as absolute knowledge. Ergo, individual and/or social "absolute" knowledge exists. At the same time I know full well that there are many truths, and more importantly that there is now way to determine whether one truth is "objectively" (meaning regardless of time, space, or interests) better than some other truth. From which follows that absolute knowledge in an epistemological sense is impossible.

Let me give an example of what I mean by "individual/social absolute truth". I recently had a debate with a student in my social policy class. The debate was about equal distribution of resources in a given society. The student argued that poor women should be held responsible to not bear children if they cannot afford to support them. I agreed that with her statement she raised an issue that was open to debate (not that I agreed with her). However, in order to push the moral point of her statement, I asked her whether she meant to say that poor women who could not afford any children anytime should refrain from having children at all. After much debate about what kind of poor women I meant and that there might always be a way to be able to afford children if one only worked hard enough I still insisted on my original question: suppose that a women (and her man, obviously) would never be in a position to afford children, would the student ask them to refrain from having children at all? Yes, she said, somewhat reluctantly. Now let me say, that in my policy classes I try to make sure that students realize that one can have very different views about basic issues regarding the fair distribution of resources in a society (e.g. the efficiency vs. equality dilemma or the individual freedom vs. solidarity problem etc.). The point of view uttered by this student, however was well beyond of what I could accept as being a thinkable alternative to my own beliefs. Her point of view was literally unthinkable to me. It violated one of my absolute truths. Namely, that we may never let the unequal distribution of resources go as far as to deny poor people the right to have children. Even saying so (talk is a particular kind of action) is morally bad and unacceptable in my mind. It is absolutely unacceptable. It is my truth. Of course, my truth can change and of course I know that this is just my truth. Someone else can have some other truth but it will never be acceptable to me.

Allan Bloom, in his book spends a lot of time explaining his absolute truths. However, as most folks who get goose bumps when they come across "morally defect" skeptics like Oliver Wendell Holmes or Margaret Mead (as mentioned in the first chapter of his book) he simply doesn"t understand that these two folks, like any other skeptic is absolutely sure about some things at least at any given point in time. They might not be the same things that Bloom is absolutely sure about, they are simply sure about their truths. That's one of Blooms problems: at the core of his argument lies a disregard of the democratic principle as in "democracy is a wonderful thing as long as everyone else agrees with me". Just by the way, Plato, and many other theorists who entertained a profound mistrust when it comes to "the people" had a very similar problem.

The second of Bloom's problems is of an epistemological nature and it is probably related to the first one. Bloom is no skeptic (hear, hear). He refuses to see that there is no sensible way (and never has been) by which we ground absolute "objective" truths. He speaks at length of "the Constitution" which in turn is based on "natural rights". But as Sandy Schram would say: that's just another way of saying "God". And to my knowledge nobody has of yet "proven God" to be absolutely true in an objective sense (not that that would be a necessary prerequisite for believing very deeply in God). Bloom simply does not believe that truth can't be proven. Well, he is not the only one.

Roland -

Interesting that, with some pretty substantial differences in age/cultural backgrounds/career paths we find ourselves at pretty much the same place, no? Would be interesting to explore how that comes to be.

You, in addition, raise some interesting questions moving beyond ...

I like your "ordering problem" as a different way to get to "profound skepticism" (maybe that's the key; we've gotten to a similar place for different reasons?). Indeed if one "orders" variouis kinds of knowledge one needs to account for the particular "ordering", ie what makes it as opposed to any other "meaningful". To put it differently, to try and assert the significance of one particular ordering one has to appeal to another, which in turn ... an infinite regress. Therefore ... no unquestionable/absolute, only what is relevant/meaningful for particular challenges/contexts. And that is, of course, the pragmatist position (similar in some ways to both the Sophists and the Skeptics, with the former perhaps getting there along your path and the latter along mine?)

Maybe that's also the answer to "how do we know that what we are doing is correct (true)?" I assume you agree we should carefully note these terms "should not be confused ...", ie they actually mean "sufficiently solid to act on at any given time". If so, then the question ultimately boils down to "what is the state of the nervous system that corresponds to 'sufficiently solid to act on'? and what causes that?" And the answer is ... one MIGHT make some relevant observations that MIGHT show what the "state of the nervous system is" (assuming it is the same in different people and in the same person at different times, but even with that in hand one would NEVER be able to say what causes that. The reason for the NEVER is that I'll bet that investigating what causes the state would inevitably alter the causes of the state. So, no "absolute" (or end of "ordering problem" along this path either. So, we simply live happily with the notion that we are always "in progress"? What makes us certain enough today may or may not be what makes us certain enough tomorrow.

Yes, I do think there is a connection between all this and the free will "problem". And very much agree that there are times when "I am, and I think but cannot change (at least for the time being)". In fact, I think that's an important observation about free will, its not all or none but rather exists to varying degrees (and can, I suspect, be cultivated)). That's one of the things that the architecture of "thinking" on top of "being" makes possible. And that in turn does raise some very interesting questions about what "I" is. I'm not inclined to give up the "I" since its a reminder of our own capacity to bring about change ourselves, but I'm sure that "I" has different meanings in different contexts (as in the slogan) and pretty sure it will turn out that the term needs to be understand as a name for the product of several different interacting things ("being" and "thinking" among them) rather than for a single unitary (and/or unchanging) thing.

I've never read Allan Bloom (am less inclined to keep up with "popular academic discourse" than you?), but suspect I'd have similar reactions to him. Are you sure though that you meant to say about "some other truth" that "it will NEVER be acceptable to me?", as opposed to something like "I can't imagine how I would ever get from my current 'truth' to that one?" There is an interesting issue here, it seems to me. How important is the judgement "literally unthinkable", how stable is it, and when one feels it how should one behave? Are there genuinely "absolutely unacceptable" things? Sounds like Bloom would say so ... you?

Paul -

You are correct, of course to suggest that I should not have used NEVER. Given my overall argument, we cannot know NEVER (or ALWAYS for that matter). Your remark points to a fundamental aspect of truth that you stress time and again (and rightly so, I think): time. Truth, it seems is intimately related to time, and therefore to context, history, and change. I couldn't agree more. The most interesting questions for me for a while now has been related to what one might call the 'structure of the relationship between time and truth'. Very technical. In other words, I wonder what it is that makes certain opinions or practices 'absolutely unacceptable' at a certain point in time.


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