Saturday, December 09, 2006

Cogito? Really?

In his Principles of Philosophy, Descartes argues that he was attracted to cross-eyed women because, as a child, he loved a cross-eyed playmate. He says that as soon as he realized the origin of his fetish, he was freed from it and could, once again, love women with normally spaced eye-balls. This insight, says the Britannica, "was the basis for Descartes's defense of free will and of the mind's ability to control the body."... I like that Descartes has such faith in the power of the mind that he places such high value on self-knowledge. There's Cogito ergo sum, and apparently there's also "Cogito about my kinky side, ergo sum free from it." He was doing Freudian therapy on himself 250 years before Freud bought his first couch.
A.J. Jacobs in The Know-It-All

Hmmm... I don't know that I have much more to say about that. But it made me chuckle. Descartes was one of my favorite philosophers... until I had to read more than a few pages.

17 comments:

Kengo Biddles said...

René Descartes walks into the bar where he's a regular. The bartender has learned over the years that whatever the weather will be like can almost reliably be predicted by Descartes.

"René," he says, "Do you think it will rain tomorrow?"

DesCartes looks out the window, looks back to the barkeep and says, flatly, "I think not," and promptly disappears, without a trace.

Kim Mack said...

I had such a clever remark ... then I read Kengo's joke and promptly forgot it. LOL

santorio said...

interesting idea; what if i knew--down to the dna pair or that unique combination of intrauterine or infant experience--exactly what makes me gay.

would it make any difference? would that knowledge free me?

Scot said...

Would it free us of hunger, or any qualia associated with any object, for example, the sensation of red?

But I did have male "playmates" when I was young...

Hmmm...

Hey I'm not gay anymore. Great, now I have to break the bad news to R. Thanks a lot L.

Master Fob said...

So I'm attracted to men because as a child I was attracted to a man. Wait, doesn't this turn into a chicken-and-egg thing?

-L- said...

Well, considering Descartes probably didn't have any kind of anti-cross-eyed agenda, you've gotta admit it's a pretty interesting idea and claim of free will. Right? Not just a theory, but his personal experience.

Stenar said...

Sexuality seems to be much more powerful and complex than one's affinity for cross-eyed people or the color blue.

Scot said...

L:
Right?

Taking the story at face value, lets say all it took was realizing he had a cross-eyed playmate to remove his fetish. The experience of the playmate caused the fetish and the remembrance stopped it, not his will. He may as well be a billiard ball :-).

But lets say it took remembrance and something else, some struggle, will. From where then did the will to struggle to kill that want or behavior come? Was it caused or uncaused, random? Isn’t it just from another fetish, under a more palatable name, something like “desire” or “want” or “hope”? Here, he couldn’t change his behavior unless he experienced the remembrance and an additional, stronger want.

Maybe he doesn’t want his pool of potential mates to be so severely diminished :-), because he has intent to find one and be happy, as do most animals. In that case it’s a pretty common want, right there along with hunger and aversion to the cold :-). But even if it’s more complex, like a want to be intellectually formidable, or in control, or normal, whatever, those all still can be traced back outside the man and all have to be placed in him before he can act on them. Only where he stops wondering on why he willed something can he claim to have found free will.

Simply, you’ll always choose what you want most, but only wants compete to choose that, and you don’t choose what you want. ;-)

-L- said...

I think there is a very real spectrum of our wants that we do choose. If not, I'm wasting my time trying to convince people to want to quit smoking, to take control of their poor health habits, to exercise. Some wants are instinctive, many are not.

But if you want to take the hard line that wants aren't chosen, you're very close to arguing that there is no free will at all. And that's a debate that I've been through a few times in college and it ends where it begins--with opinions.

Scot said...

I think there is a very real spectrum of our wants that we do choose. If not, I'm wasting my time trying to convince people to want to quit smoking, to take control of their poor health habits, to exercise. Some wants are instinctive, many are not.

Exactly. And how do you convince people to quite smoking?

They don’t just do it randomly; they do it for a reason, right?

-L- said...

Sure, they do it because they think it will be good for them. One part of them wants it and another part wants to smoke. It's only through sorting what will be best for them they make the decision. It just depends on how you use the term "want". If you want to make it "want" a necessary prerequisite to every motivation, you can. But I don't think that's real. It's in doing what we don't want to do that we have real power.

Scot said...

By “want” I’m fine with the dictionary, #2 as a transitive verb:

a: to have a strong desire for b : to have an inclination to
http://www.m-w.com/dictionary/want

What do you mean by "want" then?

“It's only through sorting what will be best for them they make the decision.”

Yes, sorting through wants.

It's in doing what we don't want to do that we have real power.

If I understand you, We do that all day long; t’aint no power; it’s mundane :-).

I want to sit on the couch and watch TV, but I want to be fit and live a long healthy life more and so I do what I don’t want then and work out? Is that what you mean, sacrificing one thing for another?

Or are you saying you know of times where people do something they absolutely don’t want, with zero want on the “do it” side of the calculation? If so could you give an instance?

Seem the closest I can think of are what we call involuntary actions. If people take an action they do not want how can it be any more attributable to them, than, say, a seizure or even a tornado?

Think of how much we rely on this not being the case. From law to religions, people’s will is molded and thus actions molded by trying to play on the balance of their wants.

-L- said...

Yeah, I hear what you're saying. I should read you more carefully before responding. Sorry about that.

Regardless of all the folks lining up to place "wants" in us, we still have to choose whether to accommodate them, which ones are worthwhile. There are often right answers (at least, in my opinion), and I still refuse to choose them (and so do my patients). The value of a particular want is debatable, and that's where choice comes in. Agree? Sorry ahead of time if I'm too stupid to understand what you're getting at.

Scot said...

Ah, don’t do there; I’ve not seen and would never expect stupid from you and I’m comfortable enough with you to be unapologetically stupid :-).

After all, I’m still confused. What are “wants” that aren’t wants?

And to be clear, we’ve agreed that people don’t do what they don’t want (by webster’s), though they may go contrary to some wants in hopes to fulfill others?

" There are often right answers (at least, in my opinion)"

In mine too. Given any goal, there are wants that are right and wants that aren’t; don’t let the moral relativists fool you ;-).

"The value of a particular want is debatable, and that's where choice comes in. Agree?"

I think so. This is why we try to create very high valued (or feared) consequences to alter people’s actions, to surpass most variation.

But choice is simple too. The wants most valued by the individual are chosen, but the value is, by its nature, subjective, based on each person’s nature and nurture. The value in, say, drinking milk is not there for a lactose intolerant person. When they ask themselves “should I drink milk?” they get back a different answer than most and so they don’t; that’s simple.

But how that question is answered accurately is the tricky part. It’s come to by predicting the results of each possible action using memory, learned beliefs about how the world works, and instinct (success may vary ;-)). Also, this value is weighted and integrated through time, the reason Pascal’s wager sticks around. Some people, though, experience wants such that short-term pay offs are weighted in time as far more valued than long term; definite problems for law enforcement :-).

Do we differ in the above anywhere?

(Forgive and ignore me if you’ve no desire to go over this; it’s just one of my favorite topics.)

-L- said...

I got so distracted with my blog housekeeping, I nearly forgot to respond.

I could say, per Merriam Webster that I have no "want" at all to exercise as I do not instinctively have a strong desire or inclination to it. That's how I'm thinking of want--more visceral.

You're using it as synonymous with any motivation whatsoever. When there are conflicting motivations, you define the greatest want by the action that is executed. If you make it necessarily connected like that, then of course I can't provide any counter-examples. You provided the exercise example yourself, which makes me think we're saying the same thing, just nudging at the preferred words.

As far as it traces back to Descartes, yes, I think he wanted to be freed from his cross-eyed fetish because he saw it as limiting the likelihood of finding true love. Perhaps also because he thought it was "wrong" to be attracted to something "unnatural," I don't know. But I do find it fascinating that for whatever reason, he decided he wanted to change and then went ahead and somehow was successful at making it happen.

Scot said...

That's how I'm thinking of want...

I see. I was going more by b: “to have an inclination to”. I am inclined to go exercise because I am inclined to be healthy. Ah, vocabulary…

When there are conflicting motivations, you define the greatest want by the action that is executed.

Just as, in the 50-meter dash, the winner is defined as the person who covered the distance the quickest (without cheating :-)).

Would you say, given two choices with equal physical ease of achievement, there are times at the moment of choice where you perform the action you want the least, or are least motivated to do? My muscles, unless it’s what we call involuntary action, do what I’m most motivated to do at the time (though I may regret later). Other motivations are sacrificed if they conflict. When I pay close attention to my actions, that’s simply how it works. What I’m wondering now is how you experience it differently if you do.

Of course, sometimes it’s a struggle for some motivations to beat out others, and that’s where the calculations and temporal weighting comes in (as in those hypotheticals I gave about the trolley cars). Is this where we’re diverging? I’ll certainly admit, immediate pleasures are worth more to some than possible eventual pleasures (sprinters vs. endurance runners :-)), which is why we manipulate others with BIG eventual consequences, like a loss of freedom.

But, again, that predictive function is built of what we were taught and what memory and instinct tell us about how the world works, right? Also, the motivations it uses are experienced just as directly and innately as the blue of the sky (or they are more complicated motivations created by the same process using the more basic motivations).

Perhaps also because he thought it was "wrong" to be attracted to something "unnatural," I don't know.

I want to be clear here too: the want to do what’s right is a strong competitor in many (though it may still cause them to do wrong). If that’s Descartes’ winning motivation here, great, people who find value in what’s right, not what they’ll get for doing what’s right, are people to be most revered. But they are still, gratefully in this case, doing what they want most at the time, that in which they anticipate the most value.

But I do find it fascinating that…

If true, then me too. But what’s described is still more like programming: Input A resulted in an alteration of Function X. It took A to change X; his will was not free to otherwise do it. Again even if it took additional motivation, one could still say it took A and Function Y, to change X.

(Man, long comment… I’d rather have this discussion in person :-). Oh and love the new avatar)

Sully said...

Bless your soul if you're cross-eyed, but the dispute about this post is over; loving only cross-eyed women is frightening, and Descartes' opinion on anything philosophical or mathematical has just been reduced in my eyes. In fact, I may use this as an excuse to not graph the second derivative of polynomials.

"But, teacher, Descartes liked only cross-eyed women..."

:)