Ep. 22 - Awakening from the Meaning Crisis - Descartes vs. Hobbes
(Sectioning and transcripts made by MeaningCrisis.co)
Welcome back to Awakening from the Meaning Crisis. Last time we took a look at Martin Luther and the deep impact in our cultural grammar made by the Protestant Reformation, and we talked about things like cultural training for narcissism, Sapiential Obsolescence, the division of church and state which furthers secularism and the rise of the Protestant Work Ethic, and how that integrated with emergent Corporate Capitalism. We then took a look at some initial responses by Pascal to this change and the loss of the cosmos and it being replaced by “the infinite spaces that terrify”. Then we looked at an individual who tried to respond to that, a brilliant genius from the heart of the scientific revolution, and that's Rene Descartes. He creates a new psycho-technology, the psycho-technology that is at the core of the scientific enterprise as understood today. And that's Cartesian graphing. And the whole proposal is that we can render everything into equations and that if we mathematically manipulate those abstract symbolic propositions, we can compute reality. And that Descartes saw in that a method for how we could achieve certainty, and that he understood the anxiety of his time as being provoked by a lack of certainty and the search for it, and this method of making the mind computational in nature would alleviate the anxiety that was prevalent at the time.
And so I noted that we had two different elements in our grammar that are in significant tension with each other from… And they both, they share… That's what's so interesting about them! They share, they overlap significantly, in the idea of the isolated, individual mind (draws two overlapping circles, labelling the overlapping area as “Isolated Individual Mind”). Whereas Luther is going to put an emphasis on conscience (written to the left of the circles), Descartes is going to put an emphasis, as we'll see - we began to see last time - I will now call consciousness (written to the right of the circles). Although, of course, these two words are highly related in nature, but on one side we have the grammar from Luther telling us that we “need to accept without question, without evidence without argumentation”. And then Descartes is “we should only accept when we have certainty”. And neither one of those is viable for us. There are both pathological in a very deep way. But we saw that Descartes, nevertheless, proposes this new method, a method [that is], again [It’s] similar in so many ways to essential features of the Protestant reformation: a method cut off from tradition, a method cutoff from institution, a method that relies just on the individual mind in relationship to itself.
So although in one way, in one sense, these two grammars - the Lutheran grammar and the Cartesian grammar - seem so opposed in our culture, and these grammars are at war in our current culture-war - the war between an idea, an understanding of faith as a radical acceptance (points to the Luther on the left) and knowledge as the pursuit of logically derived certainty (points toward Descartes on the right). Although they are at that… grammatical tension is at the core of a lot of our culture-wars, nevertheless these two views are so deeply bound together because of their mutual influence and their shared commitment to the isolated individual self.
Diving Deeper Into Descartes, Pascal And Hobbes
Descartes has a couple of contemporaries. As I mentioned, Pascal - we’ll come back to Pascal in a bit - but we also talked about Hobbes. And Hobbes comes up with the radical proposal that, following on [from] Descartes, if cognition is computation, and if matter is real, then we can build a material computer and we could artificially make cognition. Artificial intelligence is a product of the scientific revolution and is part and parcel of the advent of the meaning crisis in modernity. Now, what I want to do is take some time to look at these two interactions that I've mentioned; draw them out a bit — we have Descartes versus Hobbs, and then we have Descartes and Pascal (all written on the board, Descartes at the top) — [see] what we can learn from these interactions cause they're pivotal. And we're now going to remind ourselves that the idea of Artificial Intelligence is deeply relevant to both the scientific revolution and the meaning crisis.
I've shown you how it's relevant to the scientific revolution, and I pointed out last time that it is deeply relevant to the meaning crisis because Hobbes, with the proposal of Artificial Intelligence, proposes to finish the swath of death that has been created by Galileo killing the universe, for example. And what Hobbes is doing is killing the human soul! And of course that's going to exacerbate the cultural narcissism, because if we no longer have souls, then finding our uniqueness and our true self, the self that we're going to be true to, becomes extremely paradoxical and problematic. If you don't have a soul, what is it to be true to your true self? And what is it that makes you utterly unique and special from the rest of the purposeless, meaningless cosmos? These are going to be crucial questions.
Now I want to take a look at how Descartes responds to Hobbes, because that's going to make clear to us again, both the scientific import and the existential relevance of the AI project. And it'll also make clear deeper problems that we are now facing in the meaning crisis. Now here's where it's important to make clear how we should treat Descartes. So it's very fashionable, philosophically and cognitive scientifically, to blame Descartes for many, many mistakes! There's a famous book by Damasio, a book that in other respects I think very highly of: “Descartes' Error," and we'll talk about all this stuff later. However, I mean, if I were to put it in a sentence: “I wish I had made Descartes' mistakes”!
Descartes is Titanically brilliant, and the mistakes he makes are so foundational to our culture, so woven into our cultural grammar, that overcoming them is not going to be an easy task. Why I say this is because I want to look at how Descartes actually rejects Hobbes' proposal of Artificial Intelligence and why that rejection is still scientifically [and] philosophically relevant to us today, but how it makes our existence problematic. What I want to say is there is often a claim made that Descartes rejects Hobbes' materialism because Descartes is Catholic and that his motivation is religious. And then there is the innuendo that Descartes is actually operating, sorry for this pun, in bad faith; he’s merely trying to preserve his religious beliefs. I think this completely misrepresents, and is a disservice to Descartes' intellectual integrity.
How Descartes Responds To Hobbes
Descartes does not respond to Hobbes out of his religious faith. Descartes responds to Hobbes out of the fundamental machinery and central claims of the scientific revolution. And I want to take a look at that because I want to show you how problematic our worldview is becoming and has become. So Hobbes proposes, basically, this idea of Artificial Intelligence. Descartes says that that's wrong, and he has a series of arguments against Hobbes that are very telling! And what Descartes basically does is argue about the central claims that are being made by the scientific revolution. The central claims that are being made are claims that matter is real and reality is mathematically measured and that the meaning and value of things is not in the things themselves. So let's go through this very carefully.
Descartes says, “well, Hobbs, if you are making an argument, if you're engaging in reasoning (writes “reasoning” on the board), as opposed to just computation, you actually care, you have a goal, you’re held to a standard of truth (writes “care: standard of truth” on the board after an arrow from reasoning”) because whatever I'm doing, when I'm reasoning, I'm working towards the goal of truth, which means I'm acting on purpose (writes “purpose” beside truth). And secondly, truth depends on meaning (writes “meaning” below truth). If I asked you is the following claim true: “twoo grip, nick, nick picky-packka-packka!”, is that true? You presumably can't tell me if it's true or false because you first need to know what I just meant. Truth depends on meaning. So reasoning acts on purpose (underlines meaning and purpose). It acts in terms of meaning, and it cares about standards or goals; it works according to a normative standard of how we ought to behave (adds “Normative," coming off “care," along with “ought to behave”).
Okay notice this: This is at the heart of reasoning! This goes centrally to a lot of useless time, I would say - I'm just going to be somewhat harsh here - but a lot of useless time in the current culture-wars of discussions of rationality. I actually, I'm a scientist who scientifically studies rationality in human reasoning. And it is often surprising to me, how little of the science of rationality advocates of rationality make use of! How difficult — and this is what I'm going to show you — it is to integrate notions of rationality with a scientific materialism. I'm not anti-materialistic. That's not what I'm doing here. I'm trying to show you that people who advocate a model of rationality that is ultimately Cartesian, that rationality is about behaving purely logically in an attempt to get certainty in our truths — Sam Harris, for example, comes to mind — are not paying attention to the criticisms of that model made by the very self same Descartes! Do not advocate one side of a phenomenon without paying attention to central criticisms made about it by its progenitor. Because what's Descartes saying to Hobbes? He's saying, “well, look! Look, what's central to reasoning: normativity, how things ought to be, meaning and purpose (circles ought to, meaning and purpose)”.
And Hobbes - and I'm going to act on Descartes' behalf here, and I can do this, I think, in all integrity and legitimacy because we have Hobbes letters to Descartes and Descartes' response, and Descartes' response are often contemptuous! So you can almost hear Descartes saying “Hobbes you idiot! You can't have a material reasoner because what is the scientific revolution saying about matter? It's saying that matter is inert. It has no purpose (writes Matter on the board and lists Inert and Purposeless underneath). There is no meaning in matter…” we've already, we've been doubting that since Ockham! Ockham’s Razor; remember what it actually cuts (adds meaning[less] to the list under Matter)? “…And it acts in terms of ought to be (adds “ought to be” to the list), not how things are? No! (CROSSES “OUGHT TO BE” OUT) Science doesn't act in terms of how things ought to be. It acts only in describing and explaining how things actually are! It has no values (adds “actually are” and valueless to the list). So science is teaching us that the world is purposeless, matter is meaningless. There's no normative standard or structure in matter. It's just actually how it is and how it actually is, is valueless. So Hobbes, matter lacks meaning, purpose, normativity. It's inert. How could you possibly get all of those things out of matter? How could you? If you're a reasoner, you care about the truth, and yet truth depends on meaning purpose — at least the pursuit of truth — and normative standards of how things are ought to be. And none of those are in matter!”
Well, Hobbes responds and says, “well, you know what it's like? What I can have is I can have [little, I have like] my Abacus and it's automated and I have little pieces of paper on them and the pieces of paper are manipulated (draws some squares on the board with a word written on each)…” — much like the letters on your computer screen — “…and if they're manipulated in the right way, I get a meaningful sentence: ‘The cat is on the Mat!’”. And then Descartes says, “Hobbes, you're being an idiot! Because you're making a fundamental mistake here. First of all, your English, I'm French. I don't have this (“cat”), I have this (“chat”)! Physically, these are two very different things, yet we're both thinking about the same ‘Meow Meow creature’! There's no meaning, there's no intrinsic meaning in these material marks (indicates the pieces of paper drawn on the board). If waves on a shore happened to mark/scratch the pebbles so that this word (Hi) appears on the beach, would you think the ocean is talking to you? That'd be ridiculous! It's just random grooves cut in the sand by the water. It has no intrinsic meaning. These things (words on the pieces of paper) only have meaning because they are associated with ideas in your mind. And those ideas actually possess meaning”.
Do you see what Descartes is saying? He's saying, “look, you have a view of matter that makes the rationality that you're holding out to be so central, actually deeply, deeply problematic!”. See, this is what we need to pay attention to when we invoke rationality as a standard. Of course, we should invoke rationality as a standard, but first of all, two things, we should note: the idea that rationality is just the logical manipulation of propositions is something we should question because, I've shown you already, that's not historically accurate. That's a particular view that we see from Descartes. Secondly, Descartes himself rejects that because he realises that rationality is caring about the truth on purpose, according to normative standards and values and none of that machinery can actually be found in the scientific model matter. So, you know what is actually deeply mysterious in our culture right now, although it is invoked religiously - and I mean that? It's exactly the notion of rationality itself. This is not me advocating irrationality. Not at all. I am against the advocation of it as if it is a philosophically unproblematic phenomenon. That is irresponsible and seriously misleading. Is that it? No, there's more; Descartes is going to say more! In order to say that, we need to go back to Galileo. What more does Descartes say to Hobbes?
The Conversation Goes Back To Galileo
What more does Descartes say to Hobbes? Hobbes says, “well, look! Galileo had this problem…”, and we've talked about it, but let's go over it again: Mathematics is the language of reality - ultimately a platonic idea. And then you get the idea that there are two kinds of properties (draws two arrows coming down from one point on a freshly cleaned board). There are the properties that are measurable by math; those are the primary properties, the primary qualities (Primary Qualities written at the base of the arrow on the left), the ones that are mathematically measurable. And although the term isn't quite used this way in Descartes' time, shortly thereafter it's going to come to take on this meaning: the mathematical properties are properties that are in the object regardless of whether or not anybody is paying attention to them, looking at them, involved with them… So if I can measure it mathematically, it's in the object. It's objective (writes Objective below Primary Qualities, on the left).
But of course Galileo faced the fact that many qualities of experience — and notice how this is part and parcel of this whole scientific revolution and the calling into question of experience — Galileo noted that many qualities are not mathematically describable: how beautiful something is; how sweet the honey tastes; how wonderful the Rose smells. And then he has an important idea here - these were called Secondary Qualities (writes Secondary Qualities on the board, on the arrow on the right). And the idea here is — and notice how this follows on from Copernicus — these don't exist in the object! They only exist in my mind. They're part of that veil that experience places between me and the world. They're part of the way in which my mind doesn't touch the world. These are purely subjective qualities, purely in the subject (writes Subjective below Secondary Qualities, on the right). Object, throwing against (demonstrates throwing something against the wall), throwing against, objects, throwing against, because matter resists me. Subjective, I can throw it under me (similarly demonstrates this) I can dominate it.
Now, notice what Descartes' saying. Descartes' going to pick up on this. Now, philosophers have a nice way of talking about these secondary qualities. They have invented this term called Qualia — that's plural — the secondary qualities (writes this on the board beside Secondary Qualities). And the idea here is they're purely subjective. They exist only in the mind. And that these make up an important part — and there is all kinds of debate about this. I'm not going to try and resolve that here — but somehow these Qualia are central to consciousness (writes consciousness on the right, below Qualia). They're part of the fabric and or the content and or the nature of consciousness. Remember I said that Descartes is emphasising consciousness?
Now here's the idea: what the scientific revolution showed, one of its big insights, is this (circles Primary Qualities & Objective) is in the world in matter, and this (circles Secondary Qualities & Subjective) is not in the world, it is only in mind. (Both sides labeled Matter and Mind respectively.) And then what you can say to Hobbes is the following, and many philosophers - I’ve said it repeatedly (Thomas Nagel comes to mind, and many others)-[have said] “matter does not possess these properties, the Qualia, consciousness, therefore there's no way to manipulate matter to generate Qualia, consciousness”. That's really, really devastating because it brings with it the possibility that the AI… not only will the AI not have meaning, not have purpose, not have any normative values, the AI will also not have any conscious awareness of its cognition. It will not possess consciousness.
Notions Of Certainty
Now Descartes brings in one other important aspect to this which isn't quite as explicit, but it was very quickly derived from other people around him. See, what has happen in Descartes, by the time of Descartes, is we've seen this slow withdrawal! Everything is withdrawing from the world into the mind. The mind is getting isolated, trapped inside of itself! And then Descartes famously worries about that. He says, “I want to doubt everything, [to] try to find something I cannot doubt”. He makes what I, to my mind — other people have said this, [so] this isn't original to me, but I think it's important — he makes a mistake about this notion of certainty. There's two notions of certainty. There's a logical notion and a psychological notion. The logical notion of certainty is something like absolute deductive validity: It's impossible for the premises to be true — impossible — and the conclusion false. That's different from psychological certainty. Psychological certainty is an inability to doubt. So you find something certain because you are incapable of doubting it. (Certainty is written on the board with Logical and Psychological both coming off it.) The problem is these are not identical by any means. Think of the radical bigot. The radical bigot — I am not, I hope, such a person! — but the radical bigot cannot doubt certain things. They cannot doubt the superiority of the white race or some other such garbage! They're psychologically incapable of doubting it precisely because of the depth of their ignorance and bigotry. So they have psychological certainty, but it is certainly not logical certainty. There is no direct connection between psychological certainty and logical certainty.
But what Descartes does is he thinks that if he pushes this (psychological certainty) far enough, it will somehow become identical to this (logical certainty). And it never does. And that's part of the problem we face. Because he realises… To be honest, what he does is he says, “I’ll doubt everything I can possibly doubt!”, and then he even doubts the math. Because he realises that his commitment to math is still ultimately based on an aspect of psychological certainty, because there could be some evil genius, perhaps like the matrix, who's actually programming his brain, unbeknownst to him to make him believe in the axioms of math. And before you say “that's ridiculous!”, come to realise how much modern physics has rejected the axioms of Euclidean geometry, even though they were once taken to be absolutely unquestionable.
I Think Therefor I Am
So why am I saying all of this? Because what Descartes comes to, the point that he thinks he finds, that connects these two together (psychological and logical certainties), is he cannot doubt that he exists, because in order to be subject to illusion, his mind must exist. So even the most comprehensive set of illusions guarantees, to him, the existence of his mind. This is the famous “cogito ergo sum," “I think therefore I am”. It's not an argument! There's no argument there. I think therefore I am: there's no, that's not a logical argument! It's not a logical argument. It's a statement of where psychological certainty becomes indistinguishable from logical certainty because the idea is, in order to be suffering from an illusion, I must exist.
Notice what's happening: We used to have the mind in touch with the world. Then the mind is at least in touch with the math. And now all we have left, is this (points at Consciousness on the board with one hand whilst emphasising a small point in/on his head with the other); all that the mind actually touches is itself. That's what consciousness is! Now notice how weird consciousness is. Like when I [-] ask you, “how do you know the cup's there?” You'll say, “well, I see it or I interact with it”. If I ask you, “how do you know you're conscious?”, you just say, “I know I'm conscious by being conscious”. What does this mean with Hobbes? Well, Descartes is saying “that ‘Aspect,' that's the touchstone of reality. The mind touching itself, Hobbes, is nothing that matter has! Matter doesn't have…”. Because what the scientific revolution did was take all of that contact out of the world, and it took it… I I'm even willing to say it's not even in the math, it's just here (points into his own head)!
Weak vs Strong AI
So these are devastating problems! I would put it this way: If you're an advocate - and you should pay very serious attention to Artificial Intelligence! Because I'm trying to show you [that] not only is it going to change the world socioeconomically, politically and culturally, [I’m] trying to show you [that] it's going to change your understanding of who and what you are, and it is going to interact with the Meaning Crisis in profound ways! But if you're interested in this and if you are doing something, [some] work on it, and some of the scientific, theoretical work I do is an attempt to contribute towards the development of AI, [then] you need to pay attention to a distinction, a distinction that was made famous by John Searle, between weak and strong AI. I don't like those terms because weak AI implies something defective, because we never use the word ‘weak’ as a compliment! Why do I say that? Because weak AI is the project of just making machines that could do things for us that typically intelligent animals or human beings could do; your laptop computer is weak AI, and there is nothing weak about this! In a social or value sense, it is a legitimate and real pursuit that computer revolution has transformed the world.
There is nothing deficient or defective of people who want to make weak AI. You depend on weak AI! We carry around these star Trek computers in our phone, and we go to automatic banking machine! All of this has profoundly altered our lives! So when I use this word, I am not using it in a pejorative sense - perhaps Searle was, I don't know, but I'm not! But here's what is of value in Searle's distinction between weak and strong AI: weak AI does not really advance our scientific understanding in the following way, and this is a way that matters! This is how you would succeed at strong AI. And when I say it, it should show you how difficult strong AI is! A lot of people now talk/use this term ‘Artificial General Intelligence’ to talk about strong AI. What is strong AI? Strong AI is to make a computer that not [only] does just some intelligent things, or models what it's like, but it's actually an instance of mind. It's to succeed in Hobbes' project. It is to make a mind! But to succeed in Hobbes, this project requires you to do the following: If I'm actually making a material mind (writes “Making a material Mind” on the board, coming off Hobbes from the start of the lecture), how do I know I've really succeeded? If, when I make this (Making a material Mind), I can give an answer; if I can give an explanation of how Descartes is wrong.
If I can answer all of Descartes' objections, in an explanatory fashion, not just yelling at him, “Descartes silly, silly, silly!”, but I build a machine! And then I can say, “look, given how the machine is built and operates, here is my scientific explanation for how you can get purpose, meaning, normativity, consciousness, and that contact with realness that Descartes talked about”. That's strong AI and that's a lot harder. That's why people who are invested in that project are a lot more cautious about predicting when we will have AGI. The fact that computational machines are going to change our society in the next 10 to 20 years is undeniable. You're just some sort of intellectual Luddite if you try to resist that! But the idea that that immediately translates into a profound understanding of the nature of the mind is a second question. And the people I respect, the people I think [who] are doing the best work in strong AI - people pursuing AGI - are a lot more cautious about whether or not we're going to be able to answer Descartes and show in a deeply explanatory, evidence-based way, how Hobbes is right.
Modern Cognitive Science’s Current View On The Problem
So, we are still with that problem now. I work in cognitive science! We're still at that problem. We're still wrestling with this problem right now. And there are many people on both sides of this issue - I do not want to misrepresent one side - I mean, most people in the professional business think that Hobbes is ultimately right. They take seriously Descartes' challenge - if they're good scientists, and most of them are! There are many - it's a minority, but it's not a small minority - there are many of these scientists who think that Descartes might be fundamentally right. So this is still very much an open and important question that goes to the core of us.
Now you may think, some of you, perhaps also if you have a religious orientation and I'm not insulting you here, I am not insulting you, because you might think, “well, Hobbes tries to kill the soul, and these arguments from Descartes, they sort of preserve the notion of a soul!”, and that's great because if I have a soul, well, then of course: then immortality is a real possibility for me. Well, be careful! You may not want the Cartesian baby, even though you're trying to throw out the materialistic bathwater! Because the problem with Descartes' solution is it's existential cost. (Wipes board clean.)
Mind Versus Matter And An Ultimately Bigger Problem
It's existential cost! …because what Descartes was basically arguing for is that mind and matter are essentially different or they share no fundamental properties. Mind moves on purpose. It moves according to values. It works in terms of meaning and Qualia. It cares about and pursues the truth, and it has this kind of contact with itself that no material thing has. Whereas matter is extended in space and time, displays force, transfers energy. So all the properties that mind has, matter doesn't have. And all the properties that matter has, mind doesn't have. So Descartes, of course, came to a plausible conclusion that mind and matter are two radically different kinds of things. Mind is a completely immaterial substance. Matter, of course, Is a completely material substance. And you may say, “Yeeaaay!”. [But] here's the problem” If mind and matter share no properties, how do they causally interact?
How do they causally interact? Here: I'm going to show you mind over matter. I'm thirsty! I desire water because water is good. So I'm going to move on purpose. So notice all these mental terms: “desire” and “want," and “I value” the water and I'm going to “move on purpose”. And here I do: I move and I get some water (walks over and picks up his cup of water). That's mind making matter change (drinks some of the water). But how can it do that? Mind has no energy. It doesn't take up space. It doesn't have any force!
What about the reverse? Can matter ever cause mind…? Here we go! BEHOLD!!! I'm going to start with a completely material event and it's going to end up in a completely mental event…. (SMACKS HIS HAND ON THE DESK REALLY HARD!!!) AAAAW! Two pieces of matter slam into each other, and the end result is pain! What's pain? Well, it’s a Qualia! It's a Qualia about the value of your experience. How much does pain weigh? Does it even make sense of…/ What colour is it? What's its electromagnetic radiation? What's its chemical structure?
Look, your experience is moment to moment, mind and matter are intimately interacting in a bi-directional matter: Mind and Matter (writes Mind & Matter on the board with bi-directional arrows between them), intimately, continuously doing this (the interaction). And yet Descartes' whole position, the way he responds to Hobbes, makes it impossible that they can interact because they share no properties in virtue of which they can interact, because he used that gap to argue against Hobbes, because it's the gap between Matter, scientific matter, and mind that Descartes' uses against Hobbes.
But the problem is that gap undermines your whole existence, because what does it mean? It means you are radically cut off from yourself; your relationship between your mind and your body is a complete and utter mystery! The most intimate aspects of your experience — the taste of this water [for example] — is absurd because there's no way that the taste, which is a mental thing, and the water, which is a physical thing, could in any way be related to each other.
Other Minds; Yet Another Problem
But it's worse because look around you! There's another person. How do you know what's going on in their mind? “Do you directly see their mind?/Of course not!/Well, how do I know?/They utter words!/Well, no, they don't. They make sounds…” When we talked about, remember what Descartes says to Hobbes, [that] there's nothing in the sounds that's meaningful? “…Their face moves and they make gestures and they express their emotions…”. So what you're saying is you get what's going on in somebody's mind because of the way their physical body moves and makes other physical things like air move. But if there is no connection between mind and matter, and your body is a purely material thing — and I hope you don't disagree with that — then there's no way by paying attention to body [that] I can figure out what's going on in mind! Because there's no connection between them!!
This is called “The Problem of other Minds”. How do I know — and Descartes seriously worried about this — how do I know that the rest of you are not just mindless automatons? Not just zombies? How do I know this? Because the only mind that my mind touches, according to Descartes, is itself. “At least the mind is still in contact with the world with Descartes, right John? Because the math touches the world?”, “Ah haaa! Be careful there!!”. Descartes has given us two different answers: He said the math tells us what's real, and it's objective. But the mind touching itself, in consciousness, is ultimately the touchstone — and I use that: “touch-stone” — of reality; It's purely subjective. And so what we have are these two different standards of realness: subjective consciousness (inside) [and] objective math (outside). And so what our society, our culture has now done, historically, is careen back and forth between them!
You get the empiricists and the positivists (writes Positivists on the board underneath Math & Real) [saying], “No, science tells me what's real!”, and then all you say [is], “well, how do you know it's not a dream?”, “Oh, well, huh, huh, silly, silly, silly!! Nobody really pays any attention to that!”. And what you get are insults! You get insults and ad hominem arguments! It's like, “well, no! No, answer…!”, “Oh, well, you know, it’s…”! And then we invoke rationality. And what do you mean by rationality? And how does rationality fit into this mathematically realised world when we don't have any mathematical material way of talking about purpose and truth, etc…? It's very problematic!!
So you swing the other way and you come over here and you have the Romantics (writes Romantics to the right of Positivists, underneath ‘mind touching itself is consciousness’) - I don't mean the rock group and I don't mean romantic love; we’ll talk about these guys in a bit. So what's ultimately real is my pure subjective experience. But then the problem with that is, well, how is that to be in touch with the world? How is that to be in touch with other people? How is that to be in touch with reality at all? It leaves me totally disconnected. How would I know it's not just all a dream (circles Romantics)? And so I go back and forth and back and forth (indicates an arrow going back and forth between these two descriptions of reality; math/objective/positivists & consciousness/subjective/romantics).
Self Is An Island
So what Descartes actually gave us wasn't a secure way of being in contact with reality. He gives us a completely unstable grammar of realness and our culture is riven by these two demands and we swing back and forth between [them]: a subjective and an objective account of realness as we swing back and forth between attempts to understand the relationship between mind and body and between mind and mind. So notice what we have here: We have a loss of perspectival and participatory knowing. We've seen a gradual loss of contact with the world; a loss of contact with tradition and history; loss of contact with our own bodies; loss of contact with other people, other minds; loss of contact with reality! And then you say, “well, at least Descartes gives me contact with my own mind, right? At least I have that, right? I have my little, tiny, Cartesian, Lutheran Island and at least that's where I can make my last stand!”.
Well, do you? Because you have to be really consistent! If you're going to be Cartesian and logical, you have to be consistent and here's the problem: You can't invoke historical, cultural notions of the self! See, when Descartes says “Cogito, ergo sum," [And he says and] you may say, “well, therefore I know that I exist!”, well, what's this “I” that exists (writes a big I on the board)? Is it all of “John Vervaeke” (writes his name on the board under “I”)? Because, first of all, it can't be anything introspective because a lot of my introspection is false or wrong (writes Introspection bellow his name and puts an X beside it to negate it). Is it based on my memories? Well, my memory is certainly capable of making all kinds of mistakes. It always does. In fact (writes Memories below introspection, also with a X to negate it)! Well, what about my history? Well, what access do I have to my history and how do I measure that history Mathematically? My memory is certainly not trustworthy, according to standards of certainty, and I don't have any mathematical way of gaining access to my past (writes Math below memory, with an X)!
All that you have contact with is this moment of self awareness right now; isolated, atomic moment. Now take that completely isolated, contentless — having no autobiography, no contact with its body, no contact with the world, no contact with other minds — and then place it inside Pascal's infinite spaces that terrify; that completely atomic empty self, adrift in empty infinite spaces of terror. And that's what you get. That's where you are. If you think through things carefully, according to the fractured, tortured, tensions of our current cultural grammar. That's how you get into the Meaning Crisis.
Now, Pascal was aware of this. And, like I said, he was as great a mathematical genius as Descartes. He, on his own, rediscovers from axioms forward, recreates all of Euclidean geometry as an adolescent! On his own!!! He's just brilliant! He's part of the scientific revolution. He invents the barometer as a way of measuring air pressure. But he has a transformative experience — we talked about those — and they convince him that what Descartes is trying to achieve — the certainty — is not possible, and that the Meaning Crisis is powerful. Pascal makes a distinction between what he calls the Spirit of Geometry (written on a freshly cleaned board) — you have to think of that in Cartesian terms; I would say today, ‘the spirit of math’ or ‘the spirit of computation’ — and what he calls the Spirit of Finesse (also written on the board). And his fear, his concern is that we have lost this (puts a big X through Spirit of Finesse), and we have come to think of all of knowing and being in terms of the spirit of geometry (puts a big box around Spirit of Math).
And this is a theme, this Pascalean theme, as you've been seeing it running through this history: we have slowly lost [procedural, know that] the importance of procedural knowledge - knowing how to do things; we've lost perspectival knowing - knowing what it's like; and we've lost participatory knowing - knowing that is part and parcel of how we are bound up with something else, someone else, in a process of mutual transformation, reciprocal revelation! Because that's what finesse is! To do something with finesse…[-] if I'm doing a move in Thai chi and I do it with finesse, It's like jazz! Right?! (Demonstrates a little Thai Chi move.) There's an element in there that I can't capture in terms of mathematical propositions. It's knowing how, in terms of knowing the right timing, the right placement… When you're kissing someone else, you have to do it with finesse: the right timing, the right placement, the sensitivity to the contact, knowing what it is like to be you, knowing what it is like to be the other person, and then getting those two perspectives to have a participatory relation, to be in a relation of mutual revelation with each other. That's what's necessary to kissing someone well.
And so Pascal is pointing out that what has been lost in the scientific revolution is all these other kinds of knowing and being, and these are the kinds of knowing and being that he found present in the transformative experience that he had. It was for him a religious experience, but we've seen that these transformative experiences are not necessarily religious. [They are always spiritual. But they're not often/ Sorry, they're not always, I should, I should be careful here!] They're not always things that reinforce established religious beliefs or propositions. Sometimes they challenge the beliefs that the person has had, as we've seen. Sometimes they lead to anti-religious or at least non-religious propositions. Nevertheless, Pascal is on to something, to my mind, when he argues that the loss of the Spirit of Finesse has left us bereft of having the capacity for transformative truth, transformative knowing. And so we're now stuck where Socrates was at the beginning of the Axial Revolution. We have scientific knowledge, but remember Socrates rejected it because — although it was rigorous and even plausibly true — it did not afford transformation, self-transcendence into wisdom, because now I don't believe in self-transcendence because of the Protestant Reformation! And I don't have to go through personal transformation according to Descartes. Look at what Descartes is saying: “you do not have to be transformed in order to come into contact with ultimate reality. All you have to do is use the right method, do the right computation”. So all of this part (indicates Spirit of Finesse) of the Axial Revolution is being lost. That's what Pascal is putting his finger on and he's doing it extremely well.
So what I want to do next is to follow up a little bit more on Descartes, and [to] take a look at Kant and the rise of the pseudo-religious ideologies and the main problem facing us in the West today. We face these undeniable, at least — if we're being rational — crises: environmental, economic, socio-political, cultural-wars… We need deep, fundamental transformation — transformations of cognition, consciousness, culture, community — but we have lost the psycho technologies, the Spirit of Finesse, the traditions and the institutions for affording that. Because the thing that used to do that was religion, but we've lost religion! And as I’m going to show you next time, we tried secular pseudo-religious alternatives and they drenched the world in blood.
Thank you very much for your time and attention.
Episode 22 notes
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Blaise Pascal was a French mathematician, physicist, inventor, writer and Catholic theologian. He was a child prodigy who was educated by his father, a tax collector in Rouen.
Thomas Hobbes, was an English philosopher, considered to be one of the founders of modern political philosophy. Hobbes is best known for his 1651 book Leviathan, in which he expounds an influential formulation of social contract theory
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Book - Descartes' Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain - Buy Here
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Cogito, ergo sum.
Cogito, ergo sum is a philosophical statement that was made in Latin by René Descartes, usually translated into English as "I think, therefore I am". The phrase originally appeared in French as je pense, donc je suis in his Discourse on the Method, so as to reach a wider audience than Latin would have allowed.
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Immanuel Kant was a German philosopher and one of the central Enlightenment thinkers. Kant's comprehensive and systematic works in epistemology, metaphysics, ethics, and aesthetics have made him one of the most influential figures in modern Western philosophy.