Saturday, July 26, 2014

Life in the Cartesian Coordinate Space

Let me tell you a story that's almost four hundred years old.

You already know some of it, actually.

But let's catch up with ourselves already in motion, first. How are you sitting? Good, good. Where are your hands? Or, maybe you don't have hands, I don't know. Where are your body parts? How many do you feel right now? Go through them. How's the tummy feeling? Do you need to go to the bathroom in a while?

Listen to what you're hearing. What is the faintest thing you hear? Where is it? Do the things you hear sound like they are all happening right at your head or do they sound like they are off somewhere else? If you don't hear anything, then how about how all of your skin? Does it feel like it's all in one place, or all spread around and some of it itchy, like that space down there on your back or, or some of it moist, like your toes? Are you feeling vibrations, or sunlight, or wind, move across your skin?

What memories jump immediately to mind when I say "umbrella"? How do the memories feel? What's twelve divided by six? How does it feel to calculate that? Try a harder one: one hundred thirty-seven divided by pi. Now, how does that feel? Is it different? Isn't that weird? How does that awareness or understanding also feel?

This is a large part of the story: you feel things. Lots of things. And these are not all the same feelings? Feelings are weird, since I can't think really how to imagine what's similar between how sunlight crosses over my skin and the pain in my head of trying to calculate one hundred thirty-seven divided by pi. They occur in the same person, so it all feels, but they are as similar as a hickory tree and a prime number. But we call them all 'feelings', and through that sleight of mind treat them as if they are just variations of the same one thing. Phenomena, fluid and capable of becoming any appearance, any surface, hiding a depth of something else. All in their real being something we either cannot ever know apart from the surface detail or something that does not exist in actuality.

But put yourself back into you and get out from the words. How does it feel to sit, to stand, to run, to fuck, to shit, to pass a class, to hit a ball, to stub a toe, to pull out hangnails, to get poked in the eye, to have your genitals struck, to break up a relationship, to watch a waterfall and feel its wind and rage and cold and spray?

Read this sentence first, and then do it: close your eyes, remember this line, and then sit for about ten seconds. Then come back and keep reading.

You are alive if you are reading this. If you felt nothing, absolutely nothing, during all of that, then you are not constructed from flesh. Or your flesh is broken in fundamental ways. But the majority of humans who read are alive, flesh, and feel different feelings and have memories of feelings, every memory having its own feelings, too.

Do not let this go.

Remember how Descartes argues for the "I think, therefore I am" bit?
You start with removing distractions from your thinking about things. You then start imagining how you could doubt something. Don't start by going through what you actually doubt, that's a waste of time. Start by thinking of ways you could doubt it, whether or not you do doubt it yet. If you can think of some absurd but believable way of doubting it, then you could, so since you could doubt it, try and go ahead and doubt it.

He's talented for coming up with bullshit to give him doubt. The world he feels is so much more real than his memory of repeated memories of dreaming himself seated next to his fireplace and clothed in a dressing gown—"such ordinary things." Just stop for a moment, though. Who dreams of sitting around at night reading or writing? Have you ever? Have you dreamt of just sitting around doing the thing you do? Maybe if you've been playing Tetris or some kind of unchanging video game or you have a very monotonous job. But how about dreaming of writing poems? Or dreaming of writing essays for students? Or dreaming of anything like just sitting? Why is Descartes telling us that he not only has had such a dream of sitting in his dressing gown, but he has them often enough to remember there's a pattern of these dreams? What's he saying? But what goes unsaid, because assumed, in all of this?

He thinks his eyes are "certainly wide awake" as he stares at a paper. He shakes his head, doesn't feel sleepy. He lifts his arm, he meant to do it that way. He feels his arm lifted. But no! He's dreamed all this before! When he really thinks about it, so he tells us, that he's been deceived on other occasions, he concludes there aren't really any "definitive signs by which to distinguish being awake from being asleep." How does this insight make him feel? He tells us! "I am becoming quite dizzy, and this dizziness nearly convinces me that I am asleep."

Did you laugh? Did you get it? He's being clever. He wants us to see he's being clever. So, let's do him the favor and see it. Here's a quick little argument.

"How do you know you're not asleep?" he asks himself. "I mean, you've got your head shaking, your eyes wide open, your arm up in the air, the paper right in front of you, the words you're writing coming out of your pen in your hand moving as you want it, it's all so very real, right? But haven't you dreamed all this, Descartes, on numerous occasions, exactly just like this?"

Ugh, he tells himself in feelings and not in words, I am dizzy.
And so he writes, "I am becoming quite dizzy,"
Inside he thinks, Dizziness is how it feels when I am asleep.
So inside he concludes, Thus, I might be asleep, since if I were asleep, then I would be dizzy.
And from this he writes, "... and this dizziness nearly convinces me that I am asleep."

See what he did? Thinking through and writing out this argument to prove that he could be dreaming what's happening itself becomes something he might be dreaming. He might be dreaming of an analytical proof for how he might be dreaming.

I have to hand it to Descartes, that's clever. But clever only gets you so far, since, as you notice, logically speaking the argument is flawed. Just because a fire truck might be red and a tomato might be red doesn't mean a fire truck might be a tomato. (The snuffy logic type will say "Duh!" but you non-philosopher type will say "Obviously!" and yet you'll both not be meaning the same thing.) But you can come up with a very great story where the tomato and the firetruck are the same, and so they/it will be red, because it's the one thing, the same thing. It's still a story, but precisely because it is a story, it will move you in ways to feel how the logic of the story works. Words create worlds, and worlds have inner logics, and we're such talented creatures we like to live in all kinds of imaginary worlds for fun and profit.

This is the realm of the virtual, where our bodies, being so engaged in each of our bodies' ways of making things up, filling in gaps, making the world seem complete, complete what's missing in the story to make it believable for us. We're so good at filling in things, we tend to not even bother noticing how often we fill in all the gaps there are. Think about it. Your blind spot, the visual information outside your focal point, reading a scrolling marquee, flip books, looking at maps, and on and on, fill in your own examples. None of the story is true except for the parts that are. But the not-true parts are still part of the story, and they still provide enough of a hook for us to fill in the gaps.

We all fill in the gaps in different ways, depending on how big or what kind of gap we're talking. Optical illusions are pretty common. Yes, those lines do look different lengths. She does look taller over there. Where did the colors come from? These kinds of gaps get filled in through the hardware chugging along in very predictable ways. They tell us something about what's going on with the 'system'. But, this way of talking just makes me guilty about doing what I'm talking about.

That is, poetic gaps are very different. How is a raven like a writing desk? How exactly did Summer lay her simple Hat On its boundless Shelf? What does that even mean? Must be nonsense! Must be useless! Metaphors are so impossible to make sense of sometimes, because the gaps in how things are connected in time and space are just so difficult to figure out. Where is this going? How did this get here? What is its purpose or function in this context!?

To settle those doubts about meanings, to make sense of things, we start to tell a story in such a way to make the story feel like it's the right one. Oh, I get it now: the function of the metaphor of the hook associates an idea with the mental imagery of something piercing our own flesh and dragging us, or at least tugging us, in something like a nonconsensual way. Or, Oh, I get it now: the function of the metaphor of hardware chugging along associates an idea with the mental imagery of various computer parts working on mathematical calculations in programmed and defined, mostly unvarying ways to produce an approximation model from the data.

We are always doing this. We are using stories to complete these gaps, and we are getting better and better as a species in creating stories and story-making and story-retaining structures. By now, a great many of these latter structures are also themselves virtual, and cultural evolution progresses exponentially in this way.

Where were we? We were with Descartes, in just three sentences, wiping away the doubts we might have about his story—put aside for the moment the principle that if we could doubt it, we should doubt it, and for the sake of argument, keep following him—by telling us that dizziness for him means he might be sleeping, and since he might be, he should consider himself convinced, nearly convinced. But, you know you have doubts. How do you know this? Because you know we fill in gaps, and we fill in the gaps to make sense of things, and so we're doing this here with Descartes to make sense out of how Descartes argues.

A story has to strive to make the gaps feel just right for filling in. You have to invite people in the right way to fill in those gaps, because you don't have to convince anyone of anything. We only fall for the right story because we deceive ourselves. This is the true Cartesian lesson and the reason for his Method. We're the only ones at fault, because we haven't really taken to heart the possibility that all this might really not be real.

But, like I said, clever isn't enough. You need something real. If you can't find it, though, what do you do? I don't know about you, but I know what Descartes does. He finds something virtual, again.

"Let us assume, then, for the sake of argument, that we are dreaming and that such particulars as these are not true: that we are opening our eyes, moving our head, and extending our hands. Perhaps we do not even have such hands, or any such body at all."

First of all, who is doing the assuming here? I thought this was going to be his demonstration of what he thinks, about his pursuit to establish what's important for there to be "anything firm and lasting in the sciences." He's doing us a favor by going to the "original foundations" of knowledge, to produce something stable and perpetual in the sciences. He's going to help us know what's always real. But, really, he was going to do it through analysis of his own thoughts and feelings, as though thinking about himself will tell us what's universal about all of us. It sounds a bit hokey actually. How does he get around all this? It's like this right here. He asks us to go along with him and assume things, too.

It's a story. A story needs its hooks in the flesh. If I can get you thinking along the lines of what I want, I've hooked you, and you'll keep reading. You'll keep reading even if "I know how this ends" and "I've seen all this before" if you're hooked, because there's also a particular satisfaction in seeing how clever someone can be in hooking a story and thinking you could hook us better with your story. Those are the best stories, if you're an egotist. For others of us who like to share stories, we want you to also see how clever you are in a new way, so we help spread stories and see how other people change up and improve or alter stories. But there's got to be a hook.

If you are told to go along with me, for the sake of the story, suspend your disbelief for a moment, and you do it, I've got my hook. So that's we do in philosophy. We say, "Suppose" or "Let us assume." Both are imperatives. Both try to get you to do something. Sometimes, though, they don't even pretend and just jump right into a story already in progress, and force you to catch up. Force it too hard, and the audience will resist. Do it with ease, and the audience will love every turbulent corner. It will all feel great.

Second of all, notice what happened. He just made an argument that we might be dreaming in such a way that making the argument made him feel dizzy, like he might be dreaming it. So, he's supposed to conclude what? He's supposed to conclude based on the principle that if one could doubt it, one must doubt it, and therefore reject it, that he cannot tell the difference between being awake and being sleepy. He goes on to even tell us that not being able to tell the difference actually makes him feel like he almost cannot tell the difference, meaning he has doubts about it, even though somehow he overcame them. There's a problem in all this, but to avoid the problem, the doubts we have, he next tells us to assume we are dreaming. And we'll happily do so, because he's quick and clever.

Right at the moment where we should just wave our hands at this for his own given reasons, he has us just assume we are dreaming and carry on, as if nothing of our feelings on the matter matter to us. And not just assume, but assume the feeling that we're dreaming our bodies' feelings.

But what were you feeling? What are you feeling? How have you been feeling? How well are you able to tell how you'll be feeling in the next while?

What happens when you assume you're feeling something different from what you do feel? What happens when you imagine those very different feelings? Where do you "go"? How does that work? How do you imagine this assumption of feeling like you're dreaming what you're feeling? How do you know what it feels like to dream feelings?

How do you remember any dream's feelings? I'm not asking "Have you ever..." with this question, I'm asking "How does it feel when..." or "What are the feelings you have when you're remembering the feelings you feel within the dream?" Are those different from the memory you have of what you also felt outside the dream while you were dreaming? Do you ever feel there's a difference between what your body feels coming from the world while it's also dreaming?

I've had catnaps or brief moments where I went unconscious, still felt things happening in the world while I was also dreaming, but in the dream got dropped right into an on-going narrative with its own little world and people with agendas and trees growing in parks and this alien thought in my own thoughtvoice saying it needed to find this or that or admiring this or that or wondering about this or that. Meanwhile I was still feeling, somehow the memory tells me, the couch's itchy surface across my scratched skin or heard the radio across the room still playing its music.

This happened way too many times when I used to drive around on night shift.

Those are all amazing experiences. Living is amazing. It has so many layers of feelings to it. Descartes is asking me to imagine that all of these things have, in a way, an underside to them, something undergrounding them all. A dreaming of them that I'm stuck within. A story unfolding around me that I didn't narrate, a story forced onto me, and this is my story, the one I have to live out. Sort of like those stories about us, gossip, that we know aren't true but still affect us emotionally and deeply. Stories we have no control over but must live out, for better or worse, 'til death parts us from having to hear them ever again.

He can take things even further. What if God, "who is able to do anything and by whom I, such as I am, have been created," what if this God, maybe, who will know?, what if he "did not bring it about that there is no earth at all, no heavens, no extended thing, no shape, no size, no place, and yet bringing it about that all these things appear to me to exist precisely as they do now?" How will you know? How could you?

If God is really that powerful, I won't tell the difference. And even if God isn't that powerful, Descartes argues, the very fact that what makes me isn't all that powerful means I'm not made by The Master Craftsman but by an inferior one. And since I'm made by an inferior god, then it's even more probable I'm "so imperfect that I am always deceived."

Maybe there's no god, though. Still the same kind of problem. Nature, you know, was not only an inferior craftswoman for Descartes but not even designing but stumbling around for us today who accept biological evolution. Evolution has no purpose, no goals. It is simply some similar things finding a way to keep making more of themselves in a location where many other things are doing this same thing of making more similar things in similar ways of making more.

Looking across history, it might seem like we get better in terms of having more true beliefs. That's not really true, actually. Each one of us has to learn about the world and how it works individually, if at all, but each one of us has to do it over and over again as each one of us. I had to learn to read. You had to learn to read. We just think there's 'progress' because there's more books and information out there for others, a record of the various ways of getting it wrong in some fashion. Descartes is trying to get us to start over, each one of us, a better way, and that only starts with first acknowledging that we're not perfect, haven't been until the Method, and might be after we implement the Method for ourselves.

But, just like with tomatoes might be fire trucks, Descartes only really gets away here by not acknowledging his own "might be wrong" about this whole story, thus not allowing us to own our obligation to not allow ourselves to be deceived by him any longer—once was enough! "It is a mark of prudence never to place our complete trust in those who have deceived once even once." He covers this up by then telling us what he's going to do,

"Accordingly, I will suppose not a supremely good God, the source of truth, but rather an evil genius, supremely powerful and clever, who has directed his entire effort at deceiving me. I will regard the heavens, the air, the earth, colors, shapes, sounds, and all external things as nothing but the bedeviling hoaxes of my dreams, with which he lays snares for my credulity. I will regard myself as not having hands, or eyes, or flesh, or blood, or any senses, but as nevertheless falsely believing that I possess these things. I will remain resolute and steadfast in this meditation, and even if it is not within my power to know anything true, it certainly is within my power to take care resolutely to withhold my assent to what is false, lest this deceiver, however powerful, however clever he may be, have any effect on me."

What remains if he takes all those things away? We don't know yet. He'll tell us. But what remains of you if you try and do it? Can you? Any way we're supposed to look at it, we're supposed to conclude we can't tell the difference. Either we're dreaming or we're misled. Here, it's both: the evil genius, powerful and clever, prepares for us a virtual world dreaming of not-dreaming, so he will regard. This is a supposition. It's a stage to maintain. It's a conviction to temporarily hold. It's not the way things actually are, but how he has to approach himself. A resolution to accept nothing that's false.

What's false? He doesn't know. He can't know, but the supposition is that he's falsely believing in body parts and dreaming of things beyond those falsely-believed-in body parts. Where did the idea of an inside/outside come from in all this? I don't know. He doesn't say. He just says that this is what he will try to regard. It is what he will will.

Of course, he can't do this, since he's already laid up in his night gown writing on his paper, and it's late, and he's tired, and so he falls back "of my own accord into my old opinions, and dread being awakened, lest the toilsome wakefulness which follows upon a peaceful rest must be spent thenceforward not in the light but among the inextricable shadows of the difficulties now brought forward."

He also gives us a metaphor to go along with this:

"I am not unlike a prisoner who enjoyed an imaginary freedom during his sleep, but, when he later begins to suspect that he is dreaming, fears being awakened and nonchalantly conspires with these pleasant illusions."

Wow. This is an extremely layered metaphor. He is 'not unlike' something. What does that mean? He means he's like it. But how? You don't really quite know, since by framing it as a "not unlike" and by using a metaphor, the gap in the description gets easily filled in by whatever you have up there to make it make sense. But still, what's this prisoner doing?

Having a pleasant dream, an "imaginary freedom," you say? No! Read closely. The prisoner only enjoys the imaginary freedom, but we don't actually know one way or the other if this is, in fact, a dream. What does happen is the prisoner suspects the imaginary freedom is the dreaming of imaginary freedom. The suspicion is connected to the prisoner's fear, but we're not told how and so there's a gap here. That fear is built upon the suspicion that the freedom "isn't real." That suspicion is the enjoyment itself was felt but had no cause outside of anything other than whatever causes dreams. But what causes dreams?

Maybe that's not an important gap to fill, but Descartes for himself claims he will regard the dreams are caused by this evil genius, powerful and clever. We don't know what all might be causing this for the prisoner, but all we know is that because the prisoner starts to suspect the enjoyment is part of the dreaming—he's still dreaming during these suspicions—the prisoner then conspires with the illusions.

This is an intentional self-deception. But what was the point of this comparison? How does it work here?

He's saying that he is like this prisoner at the moment when he realizes that he "will regard" the outside are hoaxes and "will suppose" the source of truth is an evil genius, powerful and clever, but fails at even really getting started, because he's lazy and accustomed in his ways. This is why it's important to see that the prisoner wasn't written up as actually dreaming, only suspecting that he's dreaming, and based on this suspicion, resists getting the truth of the matter. Why does the prisoner resist? Here's a little swerve: because the prisoner doesn't want to find out that he is and has been the whole time, a prisoner. There's a truth of the matter, but one that's hard to accept, since it means accepting what's always been the truth: one is in bondage and enslaved and dreaming of freedom.

What happens at this point tells us something about what happens between the first and second Meditation. The prisoner 'conspires' with the illusions, but to deceive whom? And if this is a comparison, then how is Descartes conspiring with the illusions? We don't actually have anything in the text to tell us, but what he does tell us once he steps back out from the analogy to the prisoner is something on the other side of it: he dreads waking up after the "peaceful rest" of his childhood's dreaming in a world darkened and enshadowed by the difficulties his doubts' assumptions entail.

The truth, he imagines, will reduce the light he felt in his dreaming, constrain the freedom he enjoyed in his dreaming, and will demand he work hard when he's awake. But this is all what he imagines will happen. Because what's really going on, he tells us right in these moments, is that he's getting tired and dreads being awakened and falls for dreaming hoaxes. Or so the story goes.

Now, you've been following this for a good while. Congratulations! How does it feel?

Right. It feels like it always feels when you're reading things here. Or there.

What really has changed?

For me, it got more humid, slightly hotter, because earlier Colleen opened the windows to let in the breeze, but the breeze brought in that July Southern Summer. It was cooler and less humid earlier. It has taken me a while to write this. I've also put into words some thoughts I had about what's going on here. I didn't even really get to the part that made me start thinking, which was this.

Have you ever noticed how Descartes, while writing these Meditations, talks about the things around him? Like, for example, the infamous wax bit. Lots of people love that one. It's easy to teach and remember. It seems to say something. I prefer the one after that. He says that sometimes when he looks out the window, he sees "the men themselves." But what does he really see? "What do I see aside from hats and clothes, which could conceal automata?"

Science-fiction in the 17th Century. Androids not just existing in his world, but specifically androids walking down his street, wearing the clothes of his time's fashion, and wearing the right kind of outfits to hide from him whether they are humans or machines. Maybe! Would they be steampunk or clockwork androids? I'm inclined to go with clockworks, but hydraulics were quite the rage, too. Either way, what's great about this example is that it's not only more outlandish than wax melting, but it also involves having to fill in way more gaps in a very engaging way. How could there be actual robots in the 17th Century dressing and moving and behaving closely enough how men dressed and moved and behaved in that time to convince Descartes at a glance out his window that they were men and not machines? Listen carefully to all the perspectives, moods, tenses, shifts in position. This was all contained in a question, with just those right framing words 'which could conceal automata'.

Descartes leads you trough this story as a question, and so you're tasked with filling in the gaps of the answer for him, and you end up imagining such androids, and then you're hooked on a fanciful story, because they're your androids in your imagination as you try and think how he might be fooled by them. And, look at those sweet androids you made up!

It's still not enough, though, because shortly after leading you through the melting wax and the androids, he chastises himself—us—for being too gullible about gullibility. "But a person who seeks to know more than the common crowd ought to be ashamed of himself for looking for doubt in common ways of speaking." He's saying "Obviously, we use shorthand when we're talking. And it obviously misleads us. We have to better ourselves beyond conformity with common perceptions and common ways of speaking." You were just doing what he said, and yet he finds some way of trying to make you feel guilty for going along with the Method so far. (Those were sweet androids, though.)

It's subtle, but anyway. From here, Descartes will go on to demonstrate further how the changes in the wax are only noticed through our mind alone, and not through perceptions and senses and imaginings, and thus this tells us something about the nature of this mind, this thinking thing, with respect to itself. For whether imagining, perceiving, or judging, it is alongside and through the x-ing of whatever 'it' we are naming with those participles.

You don't get the feelings of the world from any of these arguments, yet, but as you were following along, did your feelings ever stop? Did the sounds go away? Did the smell around you change often enough to notice? Did your thinking hurt or go smoothly? Did you get bored? Did you even finish it all?

Could you imagine yourself imagining all of these things away?

That's how he'll start the Third Meditation, and implicitly so should we try to follow his lead, his example. But I have my doubts about how well he imagines this, or did imagine it.

I mean, I believe I could tell a better story than this one.

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