Mind and Body:
From René Descartes to William James

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

Story Evolution

excerpted from an exchange of emails triggered by Grobstein's Writing Descartes ...
27 July 2004

Berman with Grobstein then Berman following

Paul -

Like your reformulation very much. Could not help but notice connection to your earlier essay arguing for ambiguity of human experience: Genes (I am), Behavior (thinking leading to patterner of change rooted in action) and the existence of "the stuff the brain makes up" (I can change who I am through imagining/reflecting, i.e. thinking).

My only suggestion: perhaps if you substitute "can" by "may" in your reformulation, the sentence includes the possible cases where one thinks and acts to change oneself but in fact can not. I mean the "treeness", the initial elements of the nervous system (and the composition of the rest of the matter which it supports) dictates just to what extent it can change through thinking (i.e. "imagining/reflecting) and the consequent behaviors. I do not mean to say that the matter is unchanging just that the matter is of certain properties. This, I think, will ultimately affect the degree to which one is able to "conceive oneself as other"? The thing here is that the brain supports the rest of the body and hence ultimately the degree to which the body can perform certain behaviors. For instance, if I conceived myself a bird through imagination, I simply could not fly, although I may be able to recreate the experience and memory of flying.  May be a bad example, but you see the point? Of course, this could be all a matter of semantics (such as "change" vs. "learn" that Butler brought up) and I am certainly no expert here. To me the word "may" is a lot less definitive than "can."

Also, in your reformulation, can I take the "I am" part as giving way to "personality"? You press the fact that there is no one "self " , but many different selves which are a starting point of inquiry at any given time. I agree with you but I am confused about whether the concept of having a certain "personality" fits here (I am also not sure if I am ready to do away with it completely). If I am constantly changing the assembly of matter through my experiences, observations, stuff brain makes up, etc, can I even postulate the concept of having a certain personality which implies predispositions at any given time?

I am not as concerned whether "I am" is illusionary or not (is not at all useful for me either). I take it to be an assembly of matter which makes up the nervous system which may change at any given point. This brings me to my struggle with imaging, i.e. "conceiving one self as other" which is as you say the patterner of the change of the treeness. What are the circumstances which lead to change? Is the story in my head enough for the conception of myself as "other" ? What about conflicting or supporting stories of others and their conceptions of you (or at least what you think they are)? What if your "treeness" is such that it generates too many stories, many of which are simply NOT TRUE, i.e. not based on factual experience, perhaps only elaborations at best? What if your brain creates and recreates a different you (with your story telling) which depends on the person you are with and the story you generate in their brain? Are your stories "TRUE" even if they did not happen? What is the line between "imagining" and "LYING"? How does the process of conceiving oneself as other relate to story telling and more importantly to delusions and lies brought up in your own stories as well as reaffirmations or conflicting stories of others?

Let me start with a couple of quotes which may help me focus my thoughts here a bit:

"We are what we imagine. Our very existence consists of our imagination of ourselves. The greatest tragedy that can befall us is to go unimagined"

"Every word of a poet is separated from other words. It is the assembled whole is what counts"

from "The Creature"

I can conceive myself as other through the stories I tell, some true some merely a product of my imagination. This causes a construction of a different conception of me by other brains which in turn influences my own conception of myself. Let'ss take the movie "Big Fish" for example. The father is the least elaborated on his experiences. At the end I had the feeling that it was all true even if it need not happen exactly as such although his son treated them as "lies" at least at first. What lived on at the end were the stories and it really did not matter whether they were true or not.

For reasons I do not understand, I often tell lots of stories, some of which are quite the elaborations of the "facts" or at least how I conceive of them, I create and recreate myself almost daily! Is dramatic, artistic, but often VERY scary. My friend mentioned to me that I often terribly  "misrepresent yourself" and she pointed out that she has no idea why I do it since I am "so interesting to begin with." Could it be the stories we create about ourselves, the stuff the brain makes up, in fact prevents us from "greatest tragedy", what is that? Is it the idea that our lives are so meaningless that whatever meaning there is we have to "make up"? Am I "LYING" to myself and others? What do you think? Is there a difference between lying and story telling?

How do OTHER peoples stories influence my patterner of change and hence the process of conceiving myself as other? You mentioned once that you go crazy when there are no conflicting stories from others questioning yours. I am starting to think it's the other way around. If you had no other stories coming in to your head, you could in fact imagine yourself as anything you wanted. For instance, I came here having all these experiences with great people that thought I too was great. And then came here and did not feel too great anymore (no reaffirmation, I guess problem is that internal resources not enough for me, i.e. past stories get old and hence no longer act as useful patterned of change???) Do I rebuild and prove anew my whole life? Does a point ever come when you just know you are great, smart, beautiful, etc? Is the memory of being any of these enough to "conceive oneself as other" at any given stage in ones life? Not for me, I do not think. What about you? Even now, I have a best friend who is a genius and honestly one of the most fascinating intellects I have ever encountered. His story about me is that I too am brilliant and I love interacting with him, partly because his story supports the one I want to have in my head. But on the other hand, people who do not think you are something you want them to think are often counterproductive to your conception of self as other. I feel like this should not be the case? Should one block conflicting stories for the "health" of one's psyche? Is part of being psychologically "sound" the ability to pick out the people/stories which support a "healthy" one in your head?

There must be some buffer stage where the "I am part" is changed to "other" through thinking and acting. So say you conceived yourself as other and then a conflicting story comes your way. What happens then? Does the seal of change come more with age so that conflicting stories to your conception no longer put the "otherwise conceived self" in a state of flux once again? By the creation of the new "I am," are we creating the assembled whole at any given stage of the process of creation?  If the words in the latter quote are thought of stories you create and others create about you in response or on their own, what is the nature of the interactions of the two in the production of the "assembled whole"? I agree that there is no ONE assembled whole and that it can change so that every starting point of inquiry is different. What "counts, i.e. what is meaningful for our inquiry? Are we all stories (ours and those of others) full of reconceptions? lies? Delusions? If so how do all these interact in assembling of and reassembling of jigsaw puzzle which comprises whatever the heck we conceive ourselves to be at any given point of time?

Promised I would focus my thoughts, not sure I have succeeded. Thanks for listening and I am delighted you invited me to play!


Rachel -

Pleased you like the reformulation. Even more pleased to have you go on to raise a set of questions that do indeed have to be thought about if one takes the reformulation seriously.

Before getting to those, let me take the earlier/easier questions first. Am more than content to acknowledge that there are situations "where one thinks and acts to change oneself but in fact can not". In any PARTICULAR way, at any PARTICULAR time. But I still think its also important to emphasize that one CAN always change, in some directions over some time courses and in ways that involve the individual's choice at least to some degree. The issue here is not only what is allowed or not allowed, at any given time, by "treeness" but also the level of both imaginativeness and confidence available to the "thinker", which in turn may reflect, among a variety of factors, the degree of support and patience others can provide. I think its useful for all, in even the most difficult circumstances (particularly in such circumstances?), to keep the "can change" in mind.

I, like you, am not willing to give up the idea of "personality", in the sense of "predispositions" that remain relatively constant over time. But I'm not entirely comfortable equating "personality" with "I am", any more than I was in equating "genetics" with "I am". "Personality" is more stable than "thinking" (and genetics much more so), and is certainly (like genetics) an aspect of "self". But "I am" is, I think, a statement about the present, and not about what does/doesn't change over time and how fast. Moreover, as you go on to illustrate, "personality" is actually TWO things (at least) that can be quite different (even conflicting); it is a story about oneself told based on past experience with onself, and it is ALSO a story about oneself told by someone else based on THEIR experiences with one. Trees, I'd be inclined to argue, don't have "personality" in either sense, at least not among themselves. So I'd say that "personality" is an aspect of thinking, a story of persistance, rather than "I am" as in "treeness".

So, on to the extensions .... what DO we do with "conflicting or supporting stories of others", with the notion that one's story might be different with different people, and with "LYING"? Here I think we do need some background from some other things (Getting It Less Wrong, the Brain's Way, Making the Unconscious Conscious and Vice Versa, Story-Telling in (At Least) Three Dimensions); thanks for making the connection. In those essays "thinking" is equated with "story telling" (or, in one case, painting a picture), ie with the process of coming up with a satisfactory explanation of the input that the "thinking" process is getting (from "treeness", among other things). Its because there are a variety of different ways to tell the "story", past/present/future, that "thinking" gives one the capacity to conceive oneself as other than one is, and hence to be oneself a significant agent in one's own change.

So, can/do other peoples' stories of who one is affect one's own story? one's own capacity to change one's story ("think")? Yep, I'm sure they do. Both for better and for worse. A's story of B can be supportive, helpful, affirming of B's story and story revision. It can also be challenging, disorienting, and destructive. And it can be various other combinations of these things, such as supportive, helpful, and disorienting. The key here, for B, is, it seems to me, to treat stories about onself told by others with the same skepticism with which one treats other things (Kipling's If: "If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you ..."). And for A it seems to me the ideal posture is .... skepticism, of course: "I hear your current story of you. Here, for whatever use it might be to you, is mine of you at the moment. We both take it as a given that neither of us is stuck with either story".

Can one have multiple "stories", and switch around among them depending on, among other things, who one is with? Interesting issue. I'm sure one CAN do this, and am pretty sure that everyone does it to some degree. In fact, I suspect it may be a necessary/inevitable part of "thinking", in the sense that one needs to be able to "try out" versions of stories as part of moving from one story to another. And a necessary aspect of that involves getting reactions to different stories from different people. At the same time, I suspect a lot of what appears to be multiple "stories" (and resulting behavior) should actually be attributed not to "thinking" but to "treeness". Trees respond differently under different circumstances, with no need for the kind of coherence that is implied by "stories". An effort to achieve coherence is an important aspect of "thinking" and one of the things that gives it the property of being able to support changing oneself. My guess is that a lot of what appears as "multiple stories" actually is the as yet not fully processed "treeness" grist from which a more coherent story will (if appropriately nurtured/encouraged) ultimately emerge. "Multiple stories" in this sense can be confusing, both to onself and to others, but I wouldn't be inclined to call them "lying". Nor would I be inclined to say that any situation of treating different people differently is "incoherence". Its perfectly possible to have a coherent story of oneself that supports acting differently toward different people (who will then, of course, probably develop different stories about the single "self" with which they are interacting). Bottom line: coherence is of more concern to thinking than to "treeness", and while that can sometimes cause problems for oneself and in one's relation to others, the difference is part of what makes the "treness"/"thinking" interaction so generative in terms of being able to change onself.

Can one "lie", either to onself or to others? How would one know? Another interesting issue, maybe even more so. "Lying" is usually understand as deliberately (with some hidden objective) saying things (to others or oneself) that are different from what is "TRUE", ie from "facts" or "factual experiences". The problem with this way of thinking is that "true" and "facts" don't have any obvious meaning in the "treeness"/"thinking" story of what humans are. In that, there is only input (of which one may be aware or not), "treeness", and the stories that get created to make coherent sense of both. So, what is "true" or "fact"? My guess is that what these terms actually mean (if we take the "treeness"/"thinking" story seriously) is (a little bit like "personality") "elements of stories that prove to be fairly consistent over time and that are common to the stories of lots of different people".

What's important about this is that telling stories (to onself or others) that conflict with things that have been "fairly consistent over time" and/or that are "common to the stories of lots of different people" is obviously not itself "lying", certainly not in any perjorative sense. Indeed, its an essential part of exploration/inquiry/beinging into existence what has not before been. So "lying" must have to do with "deliberately (with some other objective)", which is to say that "lying" is a capability of and dependent on the "story telling" process itself (trees can't do it). Maybe we could think of "lying" as the telling of a story (to oneself or others) that one knows or suspects is being told that way because of some "feeling"/motivation that one doesn't want to be visible/apparent (to onself or others) in the story. In this case, one can be felt "lied to" without another person in fact "lying". And one can tell a story to oneself that proves over time to require change without "lying" to onself. Most importantly, though, "lying" in the full sense of the term occurs only when one can't come up with a coherent story to tell (to oneself or others) that comfortably encompasses all that one has to work with. Can one ever know for sure that one is (or is not) doing that? No, of course not, but one can indeed "feel" the possibility (in oneself and others), take it into account in deciding how much weight to place on any given story at any given time, and use the feeling (in oneself, about one's own story) as incentive to try and come up with a better, more cohesive one. To put it differently, the problem with "lying" isn't the failure to "tell the Truth". The problem is that lying can get in the way of moving on to a better story, of "getting it less wrong" oneself and contributing to others doing so as well.

Glad you're not worried about "I am" as illusion, and like your "buffer stage" idea, think there must be a place (places?) to hold at least some "stories in progress". I suspect though that most story change is slow and continuous change rather than abrupt replacement of one story by another. And don't KNOW "how all these interact in assembling and reassembling of the jigsaw puzzlewhich compromises whatever the heck we conceive ourselves to be at any given point of time" but like "the assembled whole is what counts" .... so long as its clearly understood to be "the assembled whole" at any given point in time. One can look into assembly processes that have yielded whatever is at the present but I strongly suspect that there are new ones coming into existence all the time and so there is no final answer to the assembly question. Nor, of course to the "meaning" question. Indeed, "Our very existence consists of our imagination of ourselves. The greatest tragedy that can befall us is to go unimagined", and it is in the imagining that "meaning" is born" (trees don't have that either). I'd add only that the next greatest tragedy is to fail to re-imagine and go on re-imagining. And that one could treat all this not as escape from tragedy but rather as greater engagement with, and enjoyment, of the human comedy.

Liked Big Fish a lot too, precisely because it made the point that what matters about stories is not whether they are "True" but whether they are useful. And the point that stories can (and do) change based on both experience and reflection. And that there is in fact fun in the whole process.

Thanks again for taking all this seriously, and for accepting the invitation to come out and play. Enjoy (as always) sharing stories, conflicting and otherwise.



Very much like your idea of usefulness as criteria for evaluation rather than "Truth" and will focus more on reevaluating my stories based on the latter (I am letting go of my Popper obsession slowly!) Problem is that I have "so much to work with" that the usefulness criteria is a lot harder to apply but I suppose its a matter of becomming better at thinking. Also after reading your reply I am beginning to doubt the usefulness of trying to make stories into an "assembled whole." The very concept, at least as you seem to imply, is an illusion (in the sense it is NOT useful to a better re imagination of oneself). Maybe finding meaning in the human comedy vs. coherence seems a lot more FUN. I would just add to that the idea that it may be the case that one may not be able to find true engagement of the human comedy without realizing its inherent tragedy...


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