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Monday
Feb162009

Wrestling with Descartes's Demon

"Cogito ergo sum," I think, therefore I am could be the slogan for either a supercomputer or a race of androids. This has been a theme for such writers as Philip K. Dick and is the premise for my own thriller, I, Carlos. Descartes' demon, the evil presence that could have fooled him into thinking that everything he perceived was real, when it fact it was not, was, according to Descartes, unable to fool him about the single fact that he was thinking at the time. However Rachel Rosen, in P.K. Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, or Carlos the Jackal in my novel, I, Carlos, are, in fact, fooled by thinking they are human, when in fact they are machines. If the possibility of such android thinkers removes Descartes' last defense against his demon, what basis, then, do we have for justifying belief in anything?

It is probably wrong to say that the fact that Rachel Rosen or Carlos the Jackal, or Data from Startrek, The Next Generation, for that matter, can think, negates Descartes' assertion that I think therefore I am. In fact, the argument that is made explicitly in I, Carlos is that Descartes was right and a computer program that thinks is a sentient being (given that the quality of the thinking satisfies certain criteria, which we usually ascribe to beings - consciousness being the primary one - that computers can be conscious is another question to be addressed later - in the affirmative).

The problem faced by Descartes can be labeled either a problem of truth or a problem of knowing. The latter problem - how do we know anything - is related to the problem of defining what truth is. Knowing is commonly divided into two categories - immediate experience and knowing about. I can feel wind on my face or I can know what wind on my face feels like, even when I am not feeling it. The first example is often referred to as qualia - immediate sensory or conscious experience - and qualia are usually taken to have a quality of truth to them, in that one can't be mistaken about them. For instance, while I can be standing inside a Hollywood set and feel the breeze from a large fan on my face, my hair whipping in that breeze and my shirt-tail flying, I can be mistaken thinking someone has left the door open and the wind has entered the building and that is what I am feeling, but I can't be mistaken that I am feeling it. Even if I were having an epileptic aura and there was no breeze from either a fan or the wind, I could not be mistaken about feeling as if my face were being brushed by a wind. Similarly, as Descartes pointed out, I cannot be mistaken that I am thinking (though I could be mistaken about what Iam thinking about, if my reflection on my thoughts is inaccurate because ofa poor immediate memory, unconscious distortions, etc.).

So one way to parse the world is into immediate experience and everything else. Immediate experience can also be divided into feeling qualia (e.g the taste of sweetness or the feeling of pain) and thinking qualia (e.g. awareness of my immediate experience, including my own thoughts)  The everything else has many types. We have memories of experiences, mathematico-logical formulations, linguistic formulations, the content of our perceptions, abstract knowledge and deductions (an interesting type of knowledge in that it may be nascent until we begin the process of deducing) and I could go on and on if I had a better imagination (the products of which are another form of knowledge).

If a demon existed - and a figurative demon could simply be the way my mind is constructed - it could fool me about any of the everything else type of knowledge, but not about qualia. That is precisely Descartes' point, although from there he seems to muddle the process of deducing an overriding truth from his insight. Since I am interested in developing a moral philosophy and not an epistemology, I will take a detour from examining every form and type of knowledge one could have, and assert that, in order to get on with the conversation, or any conversation for that matter, it's pointless to question some things. As an example, astronomy, Newtonian physics, mathematics, and my own perception tell me that we live on a planet within a solar system within a larger galaxy, within a larger universe. While a simple examination of the history of science would indicate that this is a fairly recent view of things and equally plausible views have held sway in past centuries (and probably in this century among some people), my present view, if brought up to speed with recent science (e.g. Pluto is probably a swarm of ice and not a planet), is a workable hypothesis. Similarly, solipsism - the view that everything except my own mind does not exist - while difficult to defeat as a logical point, is problematic as a way of interacting with the world and thus not a fruitful road to go down if one is trying to construct a moral philosophy (which is why Descartes had to rebuild his justification for belief in the world after he first tore it down).

My own moral philosophy demands that the basis for belief in many types of knowledge contained in the everything else (things that I don't immediately experience as qualia) be questioned.

Before I launch into a moral philosophy. or at least examining whether there can be a basis for a moral philosophy, I should put some of my cards on the table. My cards are my current assumptions, which do not have the gravitas of foundations or even premises, since I acknowledge that they could be wrong and I reserve the right to change them if I decide they are. First let me say that I have been heavily influenced by three thinkers ( I can't call them philosophers, since one of them detests the label): These are Ludwig Wittgenstein and B. F. Skinner, both of whom taught me to be suspicious of words and to examine how they are used to affect behavior, rather than what they mean in an abstract sense. The last person is Jean Paul Sartre, who made it clear to me that it is possible to doubt the justification for one's actions but nevertheless need to perform them and that honesty requires doing so without removing the doubt. AuthorCasey Dorman | CommentPost a Comment |


Reader Comments (2)

I will be interested to see where you go with this, as I see beliefs themselves as "tools" to be used either constructively or destructively (as in the case you noted above regarding Iraq and weapons of mass destruction). Beliefs are are very powerful ~ and most who hold strong religious beliefs would find it morally unnacceptable to in fact see them as merely beliefs. I think it takes quite a bit of questioning those long-held beliefs to "see" them for what they are, and many belief systems are self-preserving in that the "believers" are not supposed to question the system.

Also, the idea of something being "good or bad" to believe in, talk about, or base actions on if it is based on something that doesn't exist is really difficult to talk about because the idea of "good and bad" might be one of those things that really "does not exist". Isn't it our beliefs in those concepts that make them exist?

March 25, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterAndrea Dorman Culy

Good comments and questions. I will have to examine whether good and bad are are real concepts, though I would agree that they are subjective judgements.

March 26, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterC asey Dorman

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