SUM ERGO COGITO:
Abstract: Thinking is what defines us. Agreed.
Yet, from most perspectives, Descartes’ famous “Cogito Ergo Sum“, “I Think Therefore I Am” is (grotesquely) counterfactual, as I show below, from the nature of logic, from science, and from introspection. No, the soul does not come before and independently of the body, Messieurs Descartes and Havel. The reality is the exact opposite.
Thinking emerges from the rough and tough, it is something that rises only from very complex, very organized matter. It may be the face of god, but it is first an act of human will. Last, and not least, the self extends well beyond conscious thought.
LOGIC IS (NEUROLOGICAL) RULES, DATA ARE (NEUROLOGICAL) INPUT; EXISTENCE FIRST:
It often happens, in the course of human debates, that, by manipulating standard concepts from fresh, and sometimes opposite perspectives, one is perceived to say the exact opposite of what one is trying to say. Why? Because much of what passes for thinking is actually perfunctory checking for the presence of a few known facts, in an ancient mood.
(This is not really a failure of the logical system; it turns out perception itself works in the same perfunctory way: 90% of input in the visual system consists of reentrant fibers…)
One consequence of my essay “I Mood Therefore I Think” is the exact opposite conclusion of Descartes’ most famous statement, from a multi pronged attack.
Yet, Paul Handover, the excellent gentleman and versatile thinker who founded the excellent site “Learning From Dogs“, in what I fear could be a standard critique, suggested that I complicated matters about thinking, by trying to deviate from Descartes’s “I think therefore I am“. Said he:
“Cogito ergo sum, or as the French would say, “Je pense donc je suis”…surely all you are saying is that famous phrase, “I think, therefore I am”?
Ergo, writing so extensively about moods is complicating something basic to man. Some humans think and some don’t!”
Well, surely not. (Paul later understood what I meant, as the comment section made clear.) I agree that moods, paying attention to moods, considerably complicates the analysis of thinking, as I tried to show, for example, with Socrates’ obsession with pathetic little logic. That itty-bitty logic was just a transparent way to change the conversation from what was really wrong with Athens, namely that it was a slave society… Instead Socrates lived as a hanger-on of the golden youth of Athens, those whose descendants would ultimately collaborate with Macedonian plutocracy (Antipater, and his goons, 322 BCE). About that most grievious logical flaw, he had nothing to say; it was a question of moods.
Living, worldwide, among various natives, all endowed with very varied moods, about the same things, from Silicon Valley to Iran, Black Africa to the Latin Quarter, has taught me that moods dominate logic. Maybe not locally, in a mind, but certainly, globally, throughout a mind.
Recently I was talking to a Silicon (Valley) mini titan, and he asked me how my writing was doing, feigning polite interest, while barely hiding his considerable irritation, hostility and contempt (to all I represented, the Cogito). The mood he projected was clearly not the mood I would have enjoyed at the Café de Flore in Paris. Nor, of course, with such a mood in place, the debate could reach any depth. Silicon Valley does not want depth, just profits and market share, enabled by financial plots, and as little government as possible (while entertaining and financing the president). That’s the mood.
The first thinker to dare criticize Descartes directly was the (ultra-rich) Ludwig Wittgenstein, who went to Cambridge to study with Russell, and taught there, between bouts of building a cabin with his hands in Norway, and renouncing his plutocratic prerogatives. (Although it can be said Sartre & Al. made a covert critique of Descartes, see below.)
Wittgenstein thought Descartes’ famous slogan was pointless. Ludwig used to make fun of Descartes in his Cambridge seminar by loudly remarking:”I think, therefore it rains!” Or: “I think, therefore the sky is blue!” He did not elaborate more than that, I will.
All humans think. Simply some refuse to do it creatively, or have been conditioned, by a special mood, to avoid all and any creative thinking.
On the face of it, Descartes’ “Cogito” statement is ridiculous, as it uses an emerging property to define existence itself. But emergence pre-supposes existence. (And see what Existentialism hinted about the subject below.) And yet we will see the story is a bit more subtle.
THE BRAIN EMBODIES LOGIC, PHYSICS, MATHEMATICS:
When one looks at an implication: a > b, one is looking at a piece of neurology. Most mathematicians not only do not understand that, but refuse to understand it, are highly offended by it, and would rather leave the room screaming (they already have). However, so it is.
The wolf can howl to the moon, call it divine, still it is the moon. A physical object. Just like the mathematician can howl to mathematics, call it divine, still, like the moon, it’s just out there. That makes it even more important, but nothing physics did not invent first.
Mathematicians want to call mathematics divine, for the same reason dogs want to call the moon divine: because, having discovered their object of adoration to be out of this world makes them feel divine about themselves (something very obvious in mathematicians). Descartes, creating the world just from his own thinking, is a typical case.
Reality is much more prosaic, not to say vulgar.
It is well known that a dog trying to get at a ball thrown in the water, will run along the beach just so, and jump in the water according to the optimal trajectory confirmed by electronic computers and 7,000 years of intense human efforts to write down the rules of calculus, so that they could be installed inside said computers.
How do mathematicians think wolves know calculus? (And so do lions, I have seen it.) Because they got the Fields Medal, the Abel Prize? How come the dog takes a year to learn what takes the mathematician 15? Because they read it in books, like human mathematicians?
No, it’s much simpler than that. Wolves have neurobiology which embodies (the) calculus (they need). This is the reason for what Wigner called “the unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics“. The mind is built from the existence of histories experienced. Yes, even in wolves. They make this spiritual construction when they play as puppies.
The puppies play with a lot of possibilities, their minds memorize those that work the best. It’s not building the cathedrals, but it leads there.
(The basic principles of cathedral construction were also found by trial and error, then culturally transmitted… so was calculus, now culturally hammered in, so that young human mathematicians, differently from those poor dogs, do not have to invent it!)
THINKING, CONSCIOUSNESS, EMERGE AFTER PLENTY:
Logic is made of (neurological) rules, data consist in (neurological) input (most internally generated). Those exist first. Thinking comes later, it is what is called an Emerging Property.
What is an emerging property? An enormous system is put in place, with an enormous number of interactions, and, as it becomes dynamic, it builds an order, an order that emerges progressively. Even plate tectonic is an emerging property. Crystallization is an example. pain, physical or psychological, another. All societies, even those of ants, are emerging properties.
Clearly, whatever thinking is, it’s an emerging property, because thinking requires a bunch of neurons to come together, first.
Moods and sensations are the indispensable background to any logical system.
It’s not just my opinion, and it’s not just neurological. Open any treatise in logic. OK, it’s easy to get lost within logic, as a quick peek at Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy shows . Logic is a universe of its own. Most mathematicians know nothing about it, and don’t want to know (lest they feel beaten at their own game, logical arrogance). To simplify, as usual, I go hard core, by sticking to hard core pragmatism (as found in the best hard science and mathematics).
Judicious simplification leads to better abstraction. I am going to simplify what logic is.
I have studied various logical systems, long and hard, even including Girard’s Linear Logic (invented very recently, in 1987). I have also studied, long and hard, before it became fashionable, Category Theory. Category Theory is literally a rigorous structuralism, a bunch of rules of manifest interest. (Nobody knows if it can replace Set Theory as a Foundation of Mathematics; practitioners don’t care, it’s too useful to give them time for deep meditation.)
My rough (philosophical) conclusion from all this esoterica: any logical system (including categories) consists, at the very minimum of:
1) a set of rules (it could be diagram chasing in a category). Call that the ‘logic‘.
2) a universe of symbols to which these rules apply. Call that the ‘universe‘ (in which that logic operates).
The way I look at it, this corresponds to the way the brain is organized:
1) corresponds neurologically to an axonal system (including dentrites).
2) corresponds to the regions (in the brain) the logic starts from (it will varied places, as inputs internal, or external, vary).
Sensation, moods, emotion, neurohormonal regimes act as meta-controllers, upon both the logic and the universe. For example in case of hyper stress, automatic meta controllers acting on gateway neurons will shut down parts of the brain by starving them of oxygen, and redirect oxygen and fuel towards areas indispensable for survival. So the brain’s logic is controlled by moods, as meta.
FALLING OFF A MOUNTAIN, TOO BUSY FOR THINKING:
Once I was delicately crossing a famous and notorious ice gully equipped just with an ice axe and rock climbing slippers. At the worst moment, I looked up, and saw a cloud of rock silently forming up in the sky, 600 meters higher. I started to run, in the hope of reaching the rock on the other side first. However, the avalanche from the partial collapse of said mountain hit my ropes just as I made it to a vertical slab. (The shoulder of that mountain entirely collapsed later, a famous case in Chamonix).
Torn off rock holds, I fell off, facing certain long and painful demise down the mile high gully of death (and the death of my partner, who had a lousy belay. From cracks in the one and only mineral block in that ice gully). I had a last thought: not only was I airborne, but I was dead, that was it, survival probability was strictly zero.
However my brain, in a miraculous feat I cannot not believe, to this day, succeeded to block me between vertical walls, one of ice, the other of granite, in a chimney position. All the more remarkable as I had only rock slippers (not mountain boots). The amount of unbelievable precision and giant neuronal power to unleash colossal force to stop the already long fall was only possible because all my brainpower was applied only where it mattered.
There was no thinking whatsoever. Actually it’s clear that after I had the thought that I was going to die, fir sure, the brain shut down all and any thinking. Consciousness was useless, it just stood in the way, so there was none. Pain and fear did not exist: they were irrelevant.
Thinking, consciousness, pain and fear were obviously completely shut down. All that was left was tremendous will power, enormous mathematical power and the capability to generate an enormous action potential in millions of motor neurons to create gigantic force.
After I stopped in other inhuman feats, I jumped out of the chimney position, grabbed rock and solo climbed ten meters up to a terrace. It felt like jumping up. When I got to the terrace, and looked at lots of abraded arms, I just could not believe what had happened. I still do not.
“Cogito, ergo sum“, said Descartes. But where does cogito, ergo and sum fit in this gory scene? Nowhere.
Superstitious people who love slogans would just say that “God” took over. Whatever kicks their simplicity.
Clearly what happened has been related many times in similar incident: all my brain’s energy got concentrated exactly where it could make a difference, in a particular application of elementary mechanics, with maximum motor neuron power. Completely extinguishing the rest of brain activity.
Many years ago, a famous solo French sailor, Alain Colas, was in a race in the middle of the ocean. A loop of rope suddenly snapped around his ankle, and nearly completely severed his foot, causing severe blood loss. He had to make a tourniquet to save his life, administer first aid, then bring down his sails, on his giant boat, also to save his life, then try to give the alert. All of this while dragging foot and nerves on the deck. But he did not feel the pain, and he did not go into shock. That happened only when he was done with the essentials.
Anybody who is real hard and has experienced the grand outdoors hundreds of time, will have a similar story to relate.
MINIMUM INTROSPECTION SHOWS EXISTENCE, & FEELING COME FIRST:
Waking up from total exhaustion one has first the sensation of existing (“I am!”, or: “I seem to be!”) , well before one starts thinking anything remotely organized, or logical. That could certainly be proven by e-m brain studies, BTW.
Somebody in very deep coma demonstrably exists, while often not being in thought, deep or not.
Actually anybody familiar with heavy exercise knows they can reach points where he or she is, but do not too well what anything, including themselves, is all about. They are, but they don’t really think. So being precedes thinking, elaborated or not. When I run uphill at 3,000 meters for more than fifteen minutes, it tends to do this to me, for example.
Moods provide (part of) the context that a logic needs. How does a baby learn the meaning of words? Not from a dictionary, but from emotions. Emotions come first, they provide the semantics of the world, for any growing human mind. I should go back in the essay and point that out, so thank you Paul!
Thus, at first sight, it’s amazing Descartes, an army captain, could make such a mistake. Did he have an agenda? He did.
DESCARTES, OR MACHIAVELLISM SERVING EXISTENTIALISM?
I am tough on “Cogito Ergo Sum”, but I should not be so on his author. Indeed there are twists in this story.
Three centuries after Descartes, Sartre, raising the flag of so called French Existentialism, claimed that existence precedes essence (“l’existence précède l’essence”). That reverted the philosophical view that the essence nature of something is more fundamental and immutable than its existence (Aquinas defined god as the thing where existence = essence…). So, if one thinks of the essence of man, as one should, to be thinking, then Sartre was (unwittingly?) saying that thinking was emergent.
Descartes was a genius, if there ever was one: he invented analytic geometry, making calculus possible. So why did he say something as absurd? Well, if man existed just from his thinking, it was not because of God.
Descartes’reasons were grounded in anti-theocracy, subtlety and the advancement of civilization. His new aphorism, “Cogito Ergo Sum“, was iconoclastic.
But iconoclasm yesterday, doctrine tomorrow. Compare the way Descartes broke new ground with his aphorism to the return to primitive theocracy of a modern celebrity such as Václav Havel advocates. Said that otherwise very honorable one: “… one great certainty: Consciousness precedes Being, and not the other way around, as Marxists claim…”. Havel would go oncondemning ours as “the first atheist civilization“, which “has lost its connection with the infinite and with eternity“.
Descartes’ mood was to go where no mind had gone before. Neo-conservatives are rather in the mood of going back again where the logic has thoroughly proved not to be sustainable. No wonder the birth rate is collapsing in such parts.