Archives for posts with tag: Rene Descartes

One of the common philosophical tropes is asking what makes us who we are. We all have a sense of Self; we all have a sense of Others, but what actually makes up that essence of Self? There are usually two answers that are given: either the body or the mind.

Let’s start by looking at the body because a lot of people who are trying really hard not to be superficial want to say the mind. The body actually has a great importance when it comes to identity. It’s how we recognize people. I look at you, and I see the way your eyes crinkle when you smile your crooked smile, I hear the sound of your voice, etc. If I see you walking down the street, it is because of the physical make-up of your body that I am able to say, “That is you.” The Christian tradition says that when we are resurrected after God finally gets bored letting us play around, it is our physical body that we inhabit within the heavenly realm. 2000 years of tradition is not easy to dismiss. Lastly, the absolute worst “Would you rather?” question makes us really ponder the essence of a person, be it body or mind, by asking us, “Would you rather have sex with your girlfriend’s body inhabited by the consciousness of your mother, or your mother’s body inhabited by the consciousness of your girlfriend?” If you prefer boyfriends or others, make whatever substitutions you need to until you realize that it’s gross either way. If body was unimportant towards identity, this question would be significantly easier to answer.

So, if body is important to identity, what happens if someone loses a leg and requires a prosthetic? And then an eye and needs a glass one? And then an arm and gets a chainsaw, Evil Dead-style? If the body represents identity, and the body is replaced, (keep in mind that the body has completely new cells every seven years), how can we say that it is still the same person? If I am A, and then later I am B, how is that consistent since A ≠ B? It doesn’t seem logically sound. When we see two clones fighting to the death in a movie, one is typically the normal version, and the other is usually evil. We accept them to be different despite their identical bodies, and it is their minds that separate them.

To those reading this, you know my identity through my mind. My body does not register for this one-sided conversation. If my body was destroyed through a lab experiment gone wrong, and my mind was transferred into a machine that could transmit my thoughts into text, those who know me best would likely be able to ascertain that it is in fact my mind within that machine. They would get my jokes, recognize my allegories, and know enough about my patterns of speech that they might eventually accept that this machine was now me. And of course everyone knows that it’s not what’s on the outside that counts, but what’s on the inside!

But what about someone who suffers brain trauma and whose whole personality changes? Or someone suffering from PTSD and whose mind has been altered because of it? Are we a totally different person when under the influence of narcotics? Or when suffering from Alzheimer’s and Dementia? We might think, “oh, the real them is in there somewhere!” We reject that this new mind cannot be the real them, but we maintain their identity because we accept that the body gives a person the consistency of identity even when we have no other evidence outside the body to suggest this. For example, we continue to love our elderly with Alzheimer’s because we recognize a sense of identity beyond the mind.

So is identity some combination of the two? An amalgamation of body and mind? The astute observer might notice that these problems of identity that I have been going over all take place from the perspective of an observer, not the person themselves. It is the understanding of the identity of the Other that has so many flaws in it, and here is why.

The identity of the Other is not any sort of combination of body and mind, it is based on memory. We remember what someone looks like, sounds like, smells and maybe even tastes like, and that is how we define their body. We also remember how they behave, and how they interact with us, and that is how we define their mind. The only dilemma in identity becomes apparent when the memory of a person does not coincide with how we presently perceive them.

If the identity of the Other transcended memory, everyone would know that Batman is Bruce Wayne. No matter how much he hid his body through costumes, or his mind through his billionaire playboy persona, his identity would transcend these memories people had of Bruce Wayne, and Batman would instantly become recognizable due to the connection of identity that he would necessarily possess with others.

If identity is memory, what does this mean? The most glaring consequence of this revelation is that one can only love the memory of a person, as that is the only way we can ever know them. Before you dismiss this, keep in mind that those who are adopted young enough, who form childhood memories with their adopted siblings, will never love them “in that way” based on those early, developmental memories. In contrast, genetically related siblings, meeting for the first time as adults, frequently have sexual attraction towards one another, as the memories required to counteract this superemely gross encounter are nonexistent. Those with Alzheimer’s are notorious for not recognizing their loved ones in the present, but will recall them fondly within their memories of the past.

Is the love of an abstract idea created from memory as powerful as the traditional sense of love that romantics poetically describe to us? I would argue that it is. Created values will always have the strength that we assign to them.

This does also mean that if you lose a loved one, literally everything that you love about them is still with you, so long as you remember them. I can’t tell if this is consoling or not, but… maybe?

Anyway, I feel that I should probably outline the identity of the Self as viewed by the Self. The identity of the Self should presumably go beyond simple memory. Descartes’s cogito ergo sum (I think therefore I am) concludes that there must at least be a receptacle for thinking, or a receptacle for memory, in order for a being to exist. If memories are lost, the identity of the Self is not lost, as the receptacle has just been emptied, it has not disappeared.

Are we just unique cogitos running around? A thinking beacon? We are not necessarily our consciousness, as the being of consciousness is the consciousness of being (which means that we can only be conscious of something. If we self-reflect, we are conscious of our self; if we reflect on anything else, we are conscious of that thing). However, there must be something projecting that consciousness. There is also a neuroscientist named Raymond Tallis who points out that we know all about the input of sight: light enters into our eyeballs, hits a bunch of eyeball parts, and this information is transferred into our brain, but that doesn’t explain the output: what is looking out. The thing that projects sight in theory would be the same thing that projects consciousness.

Whatever it is projecting these aspects of Self, if you were to ask me, is our identity. I don’t want to use the term Soul because that implies a holiness and an eternal nature which I don’t believe necessarily follows from this theory. I like the term cogito though just because it sounds fancy, or the Subject is another way you could put it. Is it a dualistic ghost in the machine, or a creation of the physical brain? It’s hard to say. The nature of consciousness is another blog for another day.

Finally, for those that think that we are our DNA mixed with cultural and environmental factors, then we would have no identity at all. That would be materialistic determinism, and we would only be cogs, no different from all the other cogs mindlessly plugging through our predetermined roles. You’ve obliterated all meaning, freedom, identity, and value from the world. I hope you’re happy with yourselves. Also, quantum probability and the observer paradox have thrown a few wrenches into those deterministic gears, so you’re probably also wrong, but this blog is already long enough.

Post-Script: we can never access the Other’s Subject/cogito, that is why the connection between beings is based on memory.

Many people assume that philosophy is actually pretty useless. It can really only get you a job teaching philosophy, and its practical uses are pretty much nil. You can’t eat it; it can’t move you about on four wheels, or even two wheels, so why bother?

If Socrates was a real person, he might have said that “the unexamined life is not worth living”. It is better to critically analyse yourself and your surroundings as it will lead to a more fulfilling existence than not doing these things. John Stuart Mill, someone who is definitely a real person, said:

It is indisputable that the being whose capacities of enjoyment are low, has the greatest chance of having them fully satisfied; and a highly endowed being will always feel that any happiness which he can look for, as the world is constituted, is imperfect. But he can learn to bear its imperfections, if they are at all bearable; and they will not make him envy the being who is indeed unconscious of the imperfections, but only because he feels not at all the good which those imperfections qualify.

It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. And if the fool, or the pig, is of a different opinion, it is only because they only know their own side of the question.

Being able to think critically, not only about yourself but about the world, can have some practical effects as well, such as the ability to engage in political debate or understand social issues that might pertain to your community or yourself. But perhaps this is a little too pretentious. There are those who would argue that the simple life has its own merits, and that being able to enjoy a cold beer and a football game is the greater experience over fretting over the validity of escapism.

If one accepts that scientific pursuit is of value, such as finding out which elements make up a rock on the moon, then perhaps one might expect there to be value in questioning why there are rocks on the moon in the first place. Martin Heidegger’s question, “Why are there essents (translation: things that exist) rather than nothing?” is described as being the original philosophical question. Why even is there a universe wherein rocks and moons can exist? If curiosity in regards to the material universe is valid outside of the drive for profits, then it follows that curiosity in regards to other aspects of the universe is equally valid.

Maybe a materialist would argue that there cannot be anything other than an empirical universe and so to question why things are is meaningless, but Karl Jaspers raises an interesting counterpoint:

“If by “world” I mean the sum of all that cognitive orientation can reveal to me as cogently knowable for everyone, the question arises whether the being of the world is all there is.”

 It is a little naïve and narcissistic to think that only what we can experience with our heavily flawed sensory organs, or comprehend within the limits of our human intellect, is all that there can possibly be within this universe. Friedrich Nietzsche puts it even less politely:

“Would it not be rather probable that, conversely, precisely the most superficial and external aspect of existence—what is most apparent, its skin and sensualization—would be grasped first—and might even be the only thing that allowed itself to be grasped? A “scientific” interpretation of the world, as you understand it, might therefore still be one of the most stupid of all possible interpretations of the world, meaning that it be one of the poorest in meaning.”

 I do appreciate a man who flat out calls science stupid.

But maybe you reject metaphysics. Maybe this is all there is, or you subscribe to the belief that if we can’t experience it, or it doesn’t materially affect the universe in such a way that we can measure it, then it is, again, meaningless and pointless to discuss. Of course this doesn’t take into account that we could possibly experience it in some way outside of our sensory or intellectual selves (for example the accumulation of Karma, perhaps, which affects us but not in a way that we would ever be able to materially measure) but let’s just ignore that point for now. Let’s say this is all there is.

Do you think that it’s important to discuss what’s good and bad? Or even to come up with an idea as to what “good” even means? Heidegger agrees that there is no imminent practical use of philosophy, but says, “We cannot do anything with philosophy, [but] might not philosophy, if we concern ourselves with it, do something with us?” Adam Smith was a philosopher of economics, from whence we obtained capitalism which now dictates how our entire world is run. Karl Marx and John Maynard Keynes have offered their own views on the economy which have affected the world in their own significant ways as well. The philosophy of René Descartes dictates how we view our sense of self: as a discrete subject separate from the rest of the universe. Philosophy can change entire paradigms.

But maybe changing the world still isn’t good enough. You want a practical job that’s not a professor. Something with prestige. Plato argues that philosophy isn’t only practical, but it is the ideal for leadership. He advocates that any type of ruler should be a philosopher in its most literal sense, as a lover of knowledge. A lover of knowledge would endlessly pursue it, and in doing so would be able to apply any knowledge gained to the society underneath him or her. With knowledge as one’s passion, the love of power would not exist, and there would be a disdain for rule that the philosopher would possess: another quality for governance that Plato found necessary.

So start a revolution based off of The Republic, and then your philosophy major can finally net you a ballin’ career path… which, um… upon reflection, still doesn’t actually pay all that well.