Mind and Body:
From René Descartes to William James

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

Story Evolution
Descartes(Viterbo)/Grobstein

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

Descartes(Viterbo) followed by Grobstein


Cher Monsieur Grobstein,

Thank you for your letter, to which my reply may come as a surprise to you. Or perhaps not, once you realize that even though my body has long ceased to exist, my spirit lives on (literally, or literarily). If you will excuse my imperfect command of your language, I will comment on a few points you make:

1) You are right when you say that my maxim "Cogito ergo sum" does not mean that "things in general have to think in order to be". Not that I am convinced by your examples of trees and desks; after all, even if we decide to agree that they don't think, what basis do you have to say that they exist? I find logical reasoning à la Bertrand much more convincing: To say that p implies q does not mean that p is a necessary condition for q. The implication (I think, therefore I am) may be true even when the premise (I think) is false and the conclusion (I am) is true. Or, in other words, I may exist without thinking, although there would be no way to ascertain it (which perhaps renders the present logical rambling futile). Moreover, even if to think were a necessary condition for me (or humans in general) to exist, further generalizations to non-humans would not automatically follow without more premises.

2) So, yes, even if inconsequential, we agree that the statement "I think therefore I am" does not preclude myself or others to be without thinking. But that does not imply that it is more legitimate to take being rather than thinking as the basis of knowledge, as you seem to be doing in the first part of your argument. How can you be so sure we (and trees, and desks) are? How can you be skeptic and not doubt the existence of trees, or of the complex structure that you claim is necessary to think? How can you be sure they are not mere thoughts, dreamed by you, God, or some wicked little demon? See, that was precisely my problem ... I had to establish some solid premise, or risk nihilism. And between being and thinking, the former seemed easier to refute. No demon, I reasoned, could mislead me if I did not think. However, after several centuries of reflection, I must now recognize that thinking is as shaky a foundation as being ... I am forced to accept your criticism here. What is thinking? How do I know I am thinking? I cannot remember having defined thinking in The Discourse ... (As for the existence of matter outside thought ... oh well, that is an embarrassing story that threw my philosophical system into an unsolvable dualism. On the other hand, it's precisely this inconsistency, this puzzle that keeps it alive after many centuries!)

3) Which brings me to an important clarification. For me, thinking is a much more inclusive category than for you and the people of your time. It not only includes reasoning, but also emotions, perceptions, and maybe even what you and your contemporaries would call unconscious processes. Had you recognized this, you would better understand why, for me, thinking is the essence of being.

4) In the first part of your argument, you try to turn my "I think therefore I am" into "I am therefore I think." But why should I trust yours and your friends' scientific observations, data, presuppositions, and techniques? Instead, why not extend my maxim in accordance with your constructivist colleagues, and say that "I think therefore we [meaning you, me, trees, desks, brains, scientific theories ... ] are?" Rather intriguing, such an extension: "I think, therefore all is." Unfortunately, it seems to lead to yet another impasse.

5) At the end of your letter, you briefly return to your skepticism of both thinking and being, only to admit that it leads you, as it had led me, to an epistemological dead end, which you try to solve with the help of your pragmatist friends. So you decide to temporarily postulate three clauses: that you exist (q), that you think (p), AND that the former is a necessary condition for the latter (q => p). But if, as you say, q, p , and q => p are true, then p => q is also true. So far, you've added nothing to my maxim.

6) You go on, and add that because you are and you can think, you can also change who you are. But that is not much different from what I've said. If thinking is a dynamic process, then of course, I can change who I am! If we accept this new presupposition that thinking is a dynamic process, then our maxims become equivalent. The desire to inspire change in the way people thought was at the root of the Cartesian method.

7) And indeed, my "cogito" or "je pense" is better translated by the dynamic, situated "I am thinking," rather than the static, general "I think." Thus, the proper interpretation of my maxim should be that I can only know I exist insofar as, and while I am thinking. Like you, I decided to abandon absolute skepticism on pragmatic grounds. I needed a foundation to guide all actions, especially scientific investigations. That was my idea of usefulness. What is yours? And useful to whom?

Cher Monsieur, I could let my res cogitans go on and on, but I must now attend to my other tasks. It has been increasingly difficult to keep informed about all that continues to be written about me. Have you read the recent feminist criticism of my philosophy? Perhaps not very different from your position?

Je vous adresse, Monsieur, mes salutations distinguées,

L'âme qui pense de René Descartes (René Descartes's thinking spirit)

Dear René,

It is a great great pleasure to hear from you, through whatever route of channeling (and with of course the necessary recognition of the influence, however unintended, of the channeler). It is an even greater pleasure to hear you say you have indeed come to recognize that "thinking is as shaky a foundation as being". I expected no less of you, given your commitment to skepticism and what has happened over the centuries since you last wrote. Please don't feel badly about the matter/thought dualism business either. As you say, it has generated lots of new story telling over the centuries of which at least some has been productive, and that's all stories are supposed to do anyway.

Thanks even more for your critique of my own effort to update you, which (again not to my surprise) raises some quite important and serious issues. Let me try and isolate and respond to them in turn.

"2) ... does not imply that it is more legitimate to take being rather than thinking as the basis of knowledge ... how can you be sure that we (and trees, and desks) are? How can you be sure they are not mere thoughts, dreamed by you, God, or some wicked little demon?"

I happily admit that I can't. What I know as a neurobiologist is that it is indeed possible that that I exist in a "Matrix" like state, one in which the activity in my brain originates not in what I imagine it originates in but is instead produced intentionally by some "other" (see Ambiguity and Reality). In fact, if you press me, I'm even prepared to admit that I can't in fact be sure that there is such a thing as a "brain". None of that bothers me; indeed it pleases me as a committed "profound skeptic". And pragmatist. For purposes of acting, and inquring into, I find it useful at any given time to have "stories" (and have and continue to find it most useful to have stories that make sense of the largest possible array of observations). What I don't find useful is to presume that either those stories, or any of the elements that make them up, are unchallengeable at some future time. Both the idea that there is something out there that affects my brain, and the idea of the brain itself, are (for me at least) productive summaries of lots of observations. If/when it turns out something else does better, I'll happily give up either or both ideas. To put it differently, I don't "take being rather than thinking as the basis of knowledge". I take "being" as the foundation from which "thinking" arises, and "profound skepticism" as the thinking strategy that most effectively supports advancing knowledge.

3) For me, thinking is a much more inclusive category than for you and the people of your time. It not only includes reasoning, but also emotions, perceptions, and maybe even what you and your contemporaries would call unconscious processes. Had you recognized this, you would better understand why, for me, thinking is the essence of being.

A very important point. But blame me, and not the people of my time. Most people today are of your time on this one. I'm the one who is out on a limb, with the assertion that "thinking" is distinct from unconscious processes. Most of the people today are of your time, not mine The argument, in essence, is that unconscious processes are turning out to do MUCH more than most people have thought/think they do, so much more that it raises serious questions about what one needs "thinking" for. Unconscious processes are certainly capable of "reasoning", in the sense of taking in large amounts of information, synthesizing it, and generating adaptive responses. They are also capable of producing responses that reflect internal motivations and past events. Moreover, they can do all of these things based on mechanisms not qualitatively different from those that are present in trees. So, what is left for "thinking"? Pretty much only the "experiences" of doing those things, and whatever capabilities result from such experiences. But that's a BIG "only"; its by being able to "experience" that one acquires the capability to conceive of things (including onself) as potentially "other" than one is. And so has the capability to onself make choices about altering things (including oneself). This is special, non-treelike, because of the more complex architecture that gives rise to consciousness and mediates between the unconscious and the conscious. Yes, lots of "reasoning" is done by the unconscious but only the conscious experiences and can manipulate it.

4) "... why should I trust your ... scientific observations ... interpretations ... why not extend my maxim ... and say that "I think therefore we (meaning you, me, trees, desks, brains, scientific theories ...) are?"" As per above, you shouldn't "trust" at all. If you have a different story that can equally well accomodate the range of experiences to be made sense of, and equally motivate new experiences, by all means go with it. My own experiences are harder to account for in terms of a story that has trees etc blinking in and out of existence depending on my thoughts, and I have found it productive to see if I can figure out what a tree is independent of my thoughts. 5) "... it leads you, as it had led me, to an epistemological dead end ..."

I'm a little startled, given your skeptical starting point, to have you drop into logical constructions (maybe you'd be amused by some relatively recent work in this area that provides a further motivation for profound skepticism). As for epistemological dead ends, I'm inclined in such cases to worry more about epistemology than about the story. Leaving that aside, I do think that thinking requires some level of complex material organization greater than that in things that don't think. And that the simpler organization came first in evolutionary time. And that you can't have thinking in present time except by having the more complex organization added to a simpler one. My aim isn't to prove that thinking exists but rather to be clearer about its relation to/dependences on other things. To put it differently, I don't agree that q => p. I can, and do sometimes, certainly exist without thinking.

6) "The desire to inspire change in the way people thought was at the root of the Cartesian method." I understand. But, good ideas over time to get "codified". Moreover, what is/can be/needs to be "changed" is not only thinking but also treeness. When people get preoccupied with thinking, they tend to forget this. I'm trying to remind them

7) "Thus, the proper interpretation of my maxim should be that I can only know I exist insofar as, and while I am thinking. Like you, I decided to abandon absolute skepticism on pragmatic grounds. I needed a foundation to guide all actions, especially scientific investigations. That was my idea of usefulness. What is yours? And useful to whom?" Just as I find the story that trees don't blink out when I stop thinking, so too do I find useful the story that I don't blink out when I stop thinking. Indeed, there are lots of things I seem to do BETTER when not thinking (yes, and others I do less well, which provides additional reasons to make the thinking/unconscious distinction above). And I'm not in fact inclined "to abandon absolute skepticism on pragmatic grounds". What I am inclined to do is to intersperse thinking and acting (not thinking), with profound skepticism always present when I'm capable of it (ie while thinking). Because ... it works better for me, makes it easier for me to continue exploring.

Delighted to have had the chance to touch base on these matters. With, of course, a sense that we could go on and on and, even then, not touch all the relevant literatures, much less ideas. No, I haven't looked at the feminist critique of your work but such matters were in fact touched on in an earlier dialogue in which I was involved.

With great respect and admiration, and all due warmth and skepticism,
Paul


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