Indubitably? The Philosophy of Inaction

photo by Hamed Saber

First, let me confess to being at best an amateur as regards the study of philosophical texts and at times perhaps the worst sort of dilettante regarding that discipline.

But, that said, I spend a fair amount of time exploring the history of ideas.  One thing that has continually puzzled me in the history of philosophy concerns the “father of modern philosophy” Rene Descartes.  Every podcast, and every popular discussion I have heard or read offers this as a kind of starting point for Descartes’ thinking: What cannot be doubted?  In other words Descartes claims he starts with the activity of simply trying to find something he thinks cannot be doubted.  What he comes up with is possibly the most famous dictum in philosophy and likely something repeated as a kind of common sense in our time: I think, therefore I am.

Descartes can doubt his foot or hand, but not his thinking about the foot or hand, or the thinking about doubting there even is such a thing as a foot and hand.  And so this seems to mean that the only thing that exists is thinking, not the body, human or otherwise.  In fact the thinking “Am” could be, well, anything.  So, thinking, only is existence?  Feel free to argue or set me straight.

Now comes the puzzle and, as I said, in every discussion this is remarked on: Descartes posits that even if there were an evil demon who was tricking him regarding physical existence he would still not doubt his thinking.

Huh?  Now, I know I have to think about this in terms of the era, 1644, but, huh?  Once you bring a demon into the argument don’t you think of that as a punt?  It’s at least just a metaphysical conceit right?  And if I believe in demons tricking me isn’t that opening up a whole new can of worms?  Seriously, every philosopher that describes this position skips right past the “demon” and talks about the “mind/body problem” and dualism and then we’re off to the philosophical races.

But I can help think this a weak attempt at answering the question “Why Am I?,” which to me is more fully understood to mean, “If I am here and I can think, why do I end?”  The Wikipedia entry on “The Cogito” ends with this critique by Søren Kierkegaard that likely sums up the drive to philosophize (and to do any other thing we do) in the first place.

Kierkegaard argues that the value of the cogito is not its logical argument, but its psychological appeal: a thought must have something that exists to think the thought. It is psychologically difficult to think “I do not exist”. But as Kierkegaard argues, the proper logical flow of argument is that existence is already assumed or pre-supposed in order for thinking to occur, not that existence is concluded from that thinking.

So, okay, the reason I started this, was that today I was confronted with the idea of “epiphenomenalism” near the end of the In Our Time podcast called, natch, “The Mind/Body Problem.”

Epiphenomenalism is the view that mental events are caused by physical events in the brain, but have no effects upon any physical events. Behavior is caused by muscles that contract upon receiving neural impulses, and neural impulses are generated by input from other neurons or from sense organs. On the epiphenomenalist view, mental events play no causal role in this process. Huxley (1874), who held the view, compared mental events to a steam whistle that contributes nothing to the work of a locomotive. James (1879), who rejected the view, characterized epiphenomenalists’ mental events as not affecting the brain activity that produces them “any more than a shadow reacts upon the steps of the traveller whom it accompanies”.

According the podcast guests, many philosophers are a bit afraid of this idea and often try to dismiss it out of hand, famously done by Jerry Fodor who raised his hand, “with intention,” and so refuted the idea.

But I think I find this idea extremely attractive.  It seems to me that there are any number of studies of cognition that show a very clear “impulse” to act that occurs in the brain prior to the thought.  That in some sense Jerry Fodor’s body/mind had the impulse to act before his thinking happened, if only the tiniest fraction of a second so.  That his thought is an “after-effect” (and something of the “shadow” that James characterized it as) that attaches ONLY to the thinking “I” that is an attribute of the the brain’s development of “self-consciousness.”  In this way the thinking is as much a fiction as the demon that Descartes’ posits.

I do not think this means the thinking “I” cannot be agent.   I suppose we might say that we are “as animals” in nearly all of our physical realities.  We act out of necessity to maintain existence.  But once that drastic development of language happened, that apparently occurred, in evolutionary time, in the blink of an eye and all at once, the “I” develops into a thing that may seem to offer a new way to succeed as a species.  Fleshy, slow, and weak (were we as we’ve now become but perhaps less so?), the species needed the consciousness to survive.  Yes, sheer speculation.

But what I think is interesting about this is that if we choose to think it very likely true that the “mind” is secondary and fictional, and it’s persona is as well entirely a creation of after-effects and reactions to external social stimuli, then we can also readily admit that we can change the story, write a different fiction.

I believe the fiction matters even in this scenario.  That a fiction “happens” just as readily as I walk and talk without thought–they happen–and the stories that become “me” via life experience happen to me, not of my will.  And the field of psychology has already admitted as much by positing the ability to alter the story.  To change our responses that are so automatic to us that we perform to our detriment as much as to our benefit due to the existing story.  That story seems a given of circumstance.  I would argue that it is perhaps our primary necessity that we tell better stories to make the world and our own lives more livable.  Isn’t this perhaps even the Stoic drive to “accept” a particular story?

In this way we need to find ways to understand our “givens” in order to either accept or reject or modify them.

I “think” this is what I try to do here; I think this is what I try to do when I argue with the givens of commercialism and hierarchy and militarism and jingoism and on and on.  Once I accept an ideology I tend to become an automaton as I carry out the actions that suit that worldview.

So, though I know this is very half-baked (what thinking isn’t ultimately), I think this makes sense to pursue as a form of concerted “inaction.”  It takes an abdication of freedom to accept a social “frame”; it takes an assertion of dominance of control to posit that that frame is “just” or proper as a way of being.  It’s why I ask you to say “NO” or “STOP” as much as anything else.  Perhaps the monkish existence is the least captive to the vicissitudes of the conniving demon; a life of quiet contemplation of the kind Thoreau practiced diligently fitting his mind to his surroundings, his dubious circumstance, to his text, and his text to his observations and actions.

In all of this, I suppose I’m simply asking that we see the world around us (behind and before us) as very possibly a series of tales told by idiots full of…well, you know the rest.

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