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Remote Ready Biology Learning Activities

Remote Ready Biology Learning Activities has 50 remote-ready activities, which work for either your classroom or remote teaching.

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

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      by Paul Grobstein


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


Dear René,

We've never met but I've heard a lot about you and read some of the things you've written (in English translation). My guess is that you are too smart to feel responsible for things others have done with your work since you died, and what's on my mind may be something of that kind. I needed to get it off my chest though and couldn't think of anyone better to write to about it, so thanks for listening and here goes.

Your phrase "I think, therefore I am" needs some correcting. I think I understand what you had in mind: the need to find a solid footing for ongoing inquiry. And I very much admire your posture of profound skepticism, with its associated reluctance to take not only "revealed truth" and authority but also logic and sense data as an assured starting point. It does seem to me though that you (or, more likely, others since you) took a good idea too far (as happened with your mind/body distinction, see Descartes' Error). Or, maybe, it wasn't taken far enough.

Here's the thing. Trees are. And they don't "think". So you can't have meant to say that things in general have to think in order to be. That would be contradicted by trees and other things (rocks, desks, etc) that you certainly knew about. Some people (not you, I'm pretty sure) would try to get around this problem by asserting that perhaps trees DO think. But that is, it seems to me, the product of not acknowledging that being and thinking are actually words for quite different things (a problem for which I do think you are in part responsible). All indications are that thinking is a pretty elaborate process that depends on a very elaborate architecture in the nervous system and trees literally don't HAVE a nervous system, much less an elaborately structured one. Being, on the other hand, seems to be more than adequately supported by much simpler assemblies of matter. So it seems, to me at least, pretty clear that trees (and other things) can be without thinking.

Given that you were primarily concerned with humans (and human inquiry), this may seem irrelevant but I think its actually quite germane. You see, humans ARE to a significant extent like trees. Like us, trees grow, trees take in nutrients, trees respond to changes in their environment, trees retain traces of prior occurrences in their lives, and so on. And they do all of those things (and more) without thinking. What that suggests is that much of what we do we probably do the same way trees do them, without thinking. In fact, there are lots of observations that indicate that that is indeed so. The "unconscious" is real, though not quite the beast that Freud (or people after him) made it out to be; see "Making the Unconscious Conscious, and Vice Versa"). Much of our lives reflects a whole host of things going on of which we are largely or totally unaware, just as a tree is.

Do you begin to see where I am going with this? One has to have an elaborate architecture to think, but not to be. We have an elaborate architecture but its one growing from (added onto) a simpler architecture that we share with trees. So we can be, just like trees, without thinking. And when we do think, its necessarily in ways that are rooted in how we are when we're not thinking (see "Getting It Less Wrong, the Brain's Way"). It is not thinking that is the sine qua non of being but the other way around. We are, and (because of what we are) we can think ...

You think I'm just splitting hairs here? Be patient and stick with me for just a couple more minutes. The thing is I don't think you had the observations about simpler and more elaborate architectures that we have now, and so you didn't suspect that being would have to come before thinking (that's probably why you got into trouble, and got other people into trouble, with the mind/body dichotomy problem too). You thought being and thinking were distinct and logically equivalent things, instead of being things related successively by the degree of complexity of their underlying architecture, and so you could start with either. Well, it has turned out it probably just isn't that way (cf Emerging Emergence: A Report on Progress).

But that's not the most important point I'm concerned about. If we are, and because of that we think, then one can't in fact use "thinking" as the unshakable starting point for everything else. There already is lots of stuff to be skeptical about, all the stuff that goes into being and, even more, all the stuff that goes into the kind of being that is able to think. NOW do you see where I'm going? A SERIOUS "profound skepticism", it turns out, has to doubt not only sense data and logic but the legitimacy of thinking itself.

NOW do you see the problem? A posture of profound skepticism is fine, but you can't stop where you stopped; "I think" won't bear the weight. One can (and I'll argue in a moment SHOULD) doubt what one thinks in a variety of senses up to and including whether there is any meaning/significance at all to "I think". One has to doubt not ONLY sense data and logic but also thinking.

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? Or maybe its not so scary; I wonder what you'd think if you had the observations we have. Maybe, like me, you'd actually like it a whole lot that you can't trust thinking any more than you can trust any of those other things. For me it raises the really interesting question of what else there might be that you CAN take as a solid starting point for continuing inquiry. Maybe "feeling"? Lots of people like that one, but its also pretty notorious for getting one into troubles of various kinds.

On-line Forum

A place for informal comments and conversation related to any of the materials available in this exhibit. Stop by, leave your own thoughts, read what other people are thinking, Whatever you've read/are thinking, its likely to be useful to someone else for their reading/thinking. And some of their thoughts in turn are likely to be useful for yours. So join in, and let's see what we can make of/do with sharing each other's being and thinking.

So, here's a new(?) idea that appeals to me. Maybe at this point in human history we've finished cataloguing all the possible things that one MIGHT have used as a solid starting point for continuing inquiry and we can conclude (for the moment at least?) that NONE of them are in fact a solid starting point, in the sense that none can be taken as a given not subject to further skepticism and exploration. Maybe its time to seriously entertain the possibility that looking for a single solid starting point just isn't the right way to go, that one has to find another, different way to proceed.

Thinking may not be a solid starting point that one need not be skeptical about, but it IS, on the other hand, demonstrably useful at times. So too is being, without thinking. And so too, for that matter, are feeling, and logic, and sense data, and even the stories of other people (which is what "authority" and the "revealed word" are if you recognize their fallibility). Maybe then the starting point one is looking for to support ongoing inquiry is wherever one is at any given time based on all of these. And one can at any given time take any (or all) of these as a solid foundation in the sense that one won't ask questions about them before acting. That's the point, after all, isn't it? To have a solid foundation for acting at any given time? (as Wiliam James and the pragmatists put it "What concrete difference will its being true make in anyone's actual life").

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. Having done so, however, one then returns to a complete skepticism. To put it differently, one acts, observes the consequences of action, and then uses those observations as part of one's on-going inquiry into anything and everything for which they may have relevance. If they raise questions about the appropriateness of the stories of other people, so be it. If they raise questions about the appropriateness of thinking, that's fine too. And the same, of course, holds for the validity of the feelings one had, or the logic one was using, or the sense data one had collected. 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?

One more minute? Because I still haven't quite gotten to what actually made me start thinking about all this. The REAL problem with "I think, therefore I am" is that it tends to encourage people to put unreasonable levels of trust in "thinking", to believe that thinking is the end all and be all and to doubt that they are unless they think. Even more importantly, it encourages people to believe that there is a stable "I", a "self" that, like logic or any of the other things I've mentioned, can be taken as an invariant, something that itself is not to be inquired into or changed. And that, it seems to me, misses entirely the point of "thinking". The wonderful thing that the elaborate architecture that makes thinking possible provides, for those of us who have it, is precisely the ability to reflect on and bring about changes in who we are. Trees can't do that, but we can. 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"

So, what do you think? An interesting extension of your commitment to skepticism (and my own)? An extension you might have made yourself if you were around today? Maybe at least a good starting point for some further thinking/inquiring? It would suggest, for example, that we should stop excusing behaviors as "human nature"; if this way of thinking is useful, it implies that there isn't any "human nature", at least not a fixed one. It also has some implications for how one understands "science", which I know was interesting to you, and for how one might usefully reconceive science.

The big thing, of course, is that by fully and completely following through on a posture of profound skepticism one very much expands the space for exploration and inquiry. 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", one achieves along this path the freedom to become, and, in becoming, to be onself the agent of new territory to explore and inquire into.

Thanks for helping me think along these lines. And thanks for listening. I won't expect to hear back from you, at least not directly. But I'd be pleased if you thought of this as a continuation of conversations you started, and I hope the conversations will continue through others who've also been talking with you.



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