Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Descartes in love

Descartes is bugging me. In the second meditation, he argues that because he is able to perceive and judge that he perceives wax, this demonstrates (1) that he exists, and (2) that his knowledge of himself is more certain than his knowledge of the wax. Whether or not he perceives and judges the wax accurately, that he perceives and judges shows that he must be capable of so doing, and therefore, that his mind “exists.”

I understand the argument for (1) as a proof that subjectivity as such must be, in order for there to be experience, sensation, perception, judgment, etc. One could be deceived by absolutely everything that one encounters, but never be wrong in concluding that one has a subjective being, because otherwise, one could not be either wrong or right, about anything. This position opens the door to transcendental philosophy, and seems to me simply to be the correct position. I cannot fathom an alternative to the transcendental philosophical idea that there must be a subject for whom there are experiences, in order for us to make sense of any experience, or in order for us to understand anything about understanding or knowing.

But the argument for (2) is unclear. In Cress’ translation: “… if my perception of the wax seemed more distinct after it became known to me not only on account of sight or touch, but on account of many reasons, one has to admit how much more distinctly I am known to myself. For there is not a single consideration that can aid in my perception of the wax or of any other body that ails to make even more manifest the nature of my mind.” Descartes does not claim merely that he knows that his mind exists, but that he knows about it more than he knows about the wax, and this seems also to be the case regardless of whether he is deceived about his supposed perceptions of supposed external objects. Now, what exactly tells him this?

Let’s imagine that Descartes has badly misconstrued his experience, and that he is nothing other than a figment of the imagination of his notorious “evil genius.” The argument for (1) is that, if he can be deceived in this way, and if he can undergo being deceived, he must exist as, minimally, something that can be deceived: a mind. But the argument for (2) seems to me to say that he knows about himself more than about any of his experiences, on the basis of this same evidence. How can he know that he is not a figment of the evil genius’ imagination? What about his experience, his subjectivity, could tell him so?

This is the starting point of Hilary Putnam’s “brain in a vat” image. Putnam proposed this as a challenge to the unity of mind and body: if we can imagine ourselves as properly hooked-up brains in vats, through which hookings-up these brains are fed what they interpret as “experiences” of wax, fires, copies of Descartes’ Meditations, or whatever, then we will have a hard time proving that our minds/brains are “in” our bodies.

But Putnam is not answering the more fundamental question, which is, what is the source of, the evidence for, and the basis of judgments about our self-knowing? Do we know our own minds?

One of my favorite approaches to this question is a very uncomfortable one. Every once in a while, we hear someone declare something like “I thought I was in love, but I was wrong.” Well, how about that?

Here you are, merrily going about your fawning and praising of this god in human form with whom you are thoroughly and terminally smitten, and then, one day, you awake to a different set of circumstances, a different alignment of stars perhaps, and realize that your undying love was in fact stillborn all along. How does that happen? Are you wrong about your judgment of the things—the person, that person’s charms, etc.—or are you wrong about yourself, about your judgment, about your own perceptions? What is the difference?

That we are capable of self-consciousness of our own subjectivity seems to me patent and undeniable. That we are capable of self-knowledge in any deep sense seems to me uncertain, at best.

Where does this leave old RenĂ©? Those of us who read this crapola know that he will use the self-knowledge idea in order to construct “certainty” a bit later on in the text. Uh oh.

I used to think I was in love with Descartes.

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