Extending Descartes to Embody Our Social Rational Souls
Descartes’ solitary, inward-facing mindset misconstrues the social nature of our thinking. Social Cartesianism better captures the soul of what matters in distinguishing humans from animals or machines.
Jag Bhalla is an entrepreneur, inventor and writer. His current project is Errors We Live By, a series of short exoteric essays exposing errors in the big ideas running our lives, details at www.errorsweliveby.com. His last book was I'm Not Hanging Noodles On Your Ears, a surreptitious science gift book from National Geographic Books, details at www.hangingnoodles.com. That explains his twitter handle @hangingnoodles.
1. Don’t mind the gap embodied in Descartes’ “I think, therefore I am.” We can now materially extend his soul-saving moves in new directions.
2. 1,200 years before Descartes, Augustine declared: “If I am deceived, I exist,” meaning you can’t imagine you are thinking, even erroneously, if you don’t exist.
5. Descartes declared that matter is non-thinking and extends in space, but mind is a “thinking thing” that’s “non-extended.” These metaphysical God-given “rational souls” were ghosts controlling our body’s machinery (whereas animals were soulless machines).
8. While Descartes’ key move was inward, Harry Collins turns outward to define “Social Cartesianism.” The "radical difference between humans and other entities, including animals,” isn’t metaphysical, it’s our social, uniquely language-dependent, rational thinking.
9. For Collins, information is always embodied (in "stuff inscribed with patterns”). Calling it disembodied repeats Plato’s faith in heavenly forms. However if those forms or ideas exist, they’re inaccessible to us unless patterns representing them are concretely imprinted in matter (brains, books, speech-animated air...).
10. Here, we can usefully extend a distinction Descartes made: Primary properties, like length, are intrinsic; secondary properties, like color, aren’t; They’re non-localized, they exist in what John Serle calls “observer relative” ways (e.g., an object’s color is relative to illumination + observer physiology).
11. All matter-imprinted information patterns have non-intrinsic aspects; they exist “relative to us" or other entities. Spinoza held that ideas like good, evil, justice, and beauty aren’t, as Plato thought, formed like timeless triangles; they’re relational, contextual, and observer-relative (~subjective with objective aspects).
12. Aside: Plato’s triangle love has generated much geometry-intoxicated thinking that mistakes geometry’s perfections as models for everything (even God).
13. Actionable information is always “observer-relative.” Neither information, nor its meaning, exists entirely within the matter it’s inscribed on. Its meanings, its physical effects, are relative to (depend on, extend between) apt decoding entities (which can be inert matter, see “computationalism”).
14. Carving nature at non-Cartesian joints, enables Serle to demarcate what humans can do but artificial intelligence can’t. And it lets Collins describe that machines mimic language without understanding. Languages exist distributed between skulls (~“collective consciousness,” having “another language is to possess a second soul").
15. Descartes’ solitary, individualistic, inward-facing mindset misconstrues the truly "social nature of human cognition." Social Cartesianism better captures the soul of what matters in distinguishing humans from animals or machines. Per Rebecca Goldstein’s “I am thought of, therefore I am,” unless you’re thought of enough, you don’t reach consciousness.
Illustration by Julia Suits, The New Yorker cartoonist & author of The Extraordinary Catalog of Peculiar Inventions
New research links urban planning and political polarization.
- Canadian researchers find that excessive reliance on cars changes political views.
- Decades of car-centric urban planning normalized unsustainable lifestyles.
- People who prefer personal comfort elect politicians who represent such views.
Progressive America would be half as big, but twice as populated as its conservative twin.
- America's two political tribes have consolidated into 'red' and 'blue' nations, with seemingly irreconcilable differences.
- Perhaps the best way to stop the infighting is to go for a divorce and give the two nations a country each
- Based on the UN's partition plan for Israel/Palestine, this proposal provides territorial contiguity and sea access to both 'red' and 'blue' America
Science and the squishiness of the human mind. The joys of wearing whatever the hell you want, and so much more.
- Why can't we have a human-sized cat tree?
- What would happen if you got a spoonful of a neutron star?
- Why do we insist on dividing our wonderfully complex selves into boring little boxes
SMARTER FASTER trademarks owned by The Big Think, Inc. All rights reserved.