Thursday, February 5, 2009

I Think......

I think, therefore I think I think....

At least that's how I'm thinking about things today.

I am reminded of the classic graffite:

To be is to do
To do is to be
Do be do be do

Last night I attended Helen Fisher's lecture at the Museum of science with Dr.Funk, my friend who is involved in neuroscience and is always giving me interesting books and hand knit scarves, to say nothing of the most stimulating conversation on the planet! She has recently given me both of Helen Fisher's books, as well as "Descartes' Error," by Antonio De Massio.

I am going to refrain from saying much about Helen Fisher's books. Her research is incredibly interesting, and while the way it's packaged can seem like just another "let's fall in love" self help scheme, remembering that it is based in hard science- biology- makes it significant. Unfortunately the popular package makes it hard to remember that. We realized something at the lecture (sitting with a very tough scientist helps one realize certain things,) that in this case her present association with Match dot com and Chemistry dot com rather than being a "sell out" has given her a sample size that is beyond the dreams of any statistician, and adds enormously to the value of her research.

Regarding her books, I already knew the research from conversation with Dr. Funk, and the poetry and philosophy from other sources and therefore I did not find them very compelling, and encourage you to draw your own conclusions. The presentation exceeded my expectations however; and wandering in the Museum of Science with Dr. Funk is one of life's great pleasures.

"Descartes' Error" is very much on the other hand, it is very engrossing, and follows on my having read "Descartes Bones" and "The Courtier and they Heretic." The later was lent to me by my friend Carolyn who I am trying to persuade to blog with her book reviews. At present you'll just have to join Emmanuel Church to get them in "Voices." They are far from being the least reason to do that!

You are beginning to think perhaps that I am wandering around the landscape of thought at this point. I invite you to come for the walk!

I have only read a little of 'Descartes' Error" as yet. I will therefore comment on the title, and the error it references. We seem to be in a Descartes bashing phase, not the first by the way. I think that in this case at least part of the "error" is a reference to the dualistic view of mind vs body that Descartes proposed, not for the first time. I will report more fully after finishing the book.

What I do want to comment on is the way the famous phrase "I think therefore I am" is represented, particularly by the Descartes bashers. To my mind it competes with "Ignorance is bliss" in misunderstanding. The later is to be expected, of course, from a subjunctive challenged society.

My understanding is that Descartes was simply looking for the most basic observation he could make from which to start building a body of objective knowledge. "Since I am thinking about this I know that I exist." he was looking for a way to define a concrete fact, which is surprisingly hard to do. His assumption was that if he didn't exist he wouldn't be thinking the thought, asking the question. In asking "Do I exist" he was proving that he must exist, and that from there he could go on to the next thing that "must exist." It was both revolutionary, and has offered us a great opportunity for jokes and satire, but is no less valid, all the same.

Rather like Helen Fisher.

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