Thursday, March 21, 2013

Ego Cogito

This is my final attempt to sketch, in very general terms, what separates the ancient (and medieval) from the modern. My first sketch ('Ecce Homo') looked the collapse of divinity into humanity, a narrative that was especially popular at the end of the 19th century. First there were many gods, then there was one God, and now there are none. At the end, I gestured towards possible political implications of the collapse of divinity into humanity.

My second sketch ('Fiat Lux') explored the consequences of the world being turned inside out. It is no longer a natural impulse to look up and wonder what is expected of us; now we look down and calculate, quantify, and dissemble. In the process, the fundamental categories of truth will change. Before, the natural order was a thoroughly moral order. Human beings could look up and divine the will of God from the courses of the stars across the heavens. Afterwards, natural judgements and moral judgments could be separated, each having its own proper intelligibility.

We are naturalized to this situation of distinct intelligibility. Preserving the environment for future generations makes sense to us, whereas doing it because we all have a share in Gaia-consciousness sounds a little wonky. Evolutionary theory will also make sense; what the idea that a God intervenes at specific points in the process might entail is difficult to discern. One goes to a trained medical doctor, not faith healer, to have a tumor removed. One listens to bankers and economists describe the present state of the economy, not political pundits who tell us the way things will be or ought to be. More examples could be offered.

Now, in any general sketch, one looks for examples of what one is talking about to make the sketch intelligible. Examples have to be carefully chosen, as the act of selecting one example rather than another, will inevitably skew how other possible examples might be understood. This is a problem everyone studying the human past runs up against. One possible response is to refuse to make any broad judgments about the course of human affairs. Obviously that isn't the course I have taken. Too staunch a refusal, it seems to me, is actually quite naive, since the refusal to say anything is still saying something about the intelligibility of the human past. Namely: that it's not intelligible. Which isn't true.

My third sketch specifically Descartes' claim ego cogito, ergo sum, 'I think, therefore I am', alongside the statements of comparable statements from the pagan Aristotle and the Christian Augustine.

In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle said,
‘...whenever we perceive, we are conscious that we perceive, and whenever we think, we are conscious that we think, and to be conscious that we are perceiving or thinking is to be conscious that we exist.’
In the various indicated places, Augustine also said,
‘If I am mistaken, I am.’ (City of God, XI.26)
‘ cannot err who is not alive.’ (Enchiridion 7.20)
‘...if he doubts, he thinks; if he doubts, he knows that he does not know’ (On the Trinity X.10)
All three thinkers come around to the conclusion the conclusion the act of thinking contains within itself the proof of one's own existence. Descartes differs from his predecessors insofar as he thinks the act of thinking, apart from any other consideration, is enough to establish one's own existence. Aristotle adds consciousness to perception in order to establish existence, while Augustine adds thinking to being mistaken. Like a bull in a china shop, Descartes says: I think...therefore I am.

What changes? Both Aristotle and Augustine have intricate accounts of the human thought process. The human mind thinks on things, usually things that ultimately derive from a sensory experience of a bodily reality. (You are using your eyes to read this line, right?) Thinkers like Aristotle and Augustine took our human experience of perceiving things and thinking about things which are perceived as indicative of a distinction between soul and body. At least, positing a difference between soul and body goes a long way to explain why, when we think about things, we always seem to be thinking about particular things. And not just any particular things: things with which we have had bodily contact (and yes, contact via the computer, telephone, or television all count as forms of bodily contact).

Hence Aristotle talks about being conscious about perceiving things and Augustine talks about being deceived about things. Having lived with our bodies, our selves, as long as we have, we are all at least dimly aware of a difference between the way we think things are and the way they actually are.

Descartes tweaks the question, ever so slightly. Famous for his resolve to doubt everything that can possibly be doubted, he sets out to 'turn off' his bodily senses. Everything that had it's origin in a sensory encounter with a bodily reality, he says he will regard an illusion. Now this is different than being wary of the bodily senses, like Augustine. It's to say they can't be trusted, therefore I should ignore them, at least for a very brief moment while I think about philosophical questions. Apart from my body, I am still left with my own thoughts--my mind.

What the human being essentially is changes. Both Aristotle and Augustine can agree on a basic account of the human being as a composite unity of soul and body, of a soul that gives animates and gives form to a body. I am this composite thing. On the other hand, Descartes begins to divide the rational faculty of the soul from the body. I have become a mind with an undefined relationship with a body. How the two relate, he thought, might have something to do with the pineal gland.

So long as the human being is regarded as having a composite nature, it is very easy to regard the entire natural order as having moral purpose. When you divide mind from body, however, you begin to isolate moral judgments from natural scientific judgments. Room is made to talk about things apart from any immediate moral considerations. The successes of natural scientific explanation in the past three or four centuries have put old notions of the human being as a composite unity of body and soul to rest. We have calculated the gravitational constant, Planck's Law, and worked out laws of genetic inheritance. Reading moral purpose back into the natural order is not possible without calling into question an entire body of scientific literature.

That is not to say, however, that the moral questions, specifically about how we relate to each other and to the natural world, have ceased to be relevant. It is telling that most post-Cartestians, when the deal with Descartes' ego cogito, never actually think about what it's relation to a material body might be. They either praise it for standing apart from the flux of phenomenal world, or fault it for doing the same. The ego cogito is not deathless, however, as some have supposed. In fact, it dies each and every time one of us dies, and is subject to our trials and tribulations of bodily life. Because the ego cogito is not some thing; it is something each of us says of ourselves.

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