Descartes and imagination

Annie asked:

How does Descartes distinguish imagination from intellection?

Answer by Jürgen Lawrenz

Good question, especially for our present-day environment, which tends to overstress the virtues of imagination while ignoring that imagination without discipline is not worth a crumb.

For us, this is a legacy of the post-Enlightenment era, which associated imagination with creative genius. But in Descartes’ day, imagination carried denotations like “unreliable fancies”, “sloppy/ lazy thinking”, “featherbrained ideas” etc. For example, Bacon castigates the role of imagination in what he called “idols of the mind”; Swift in his Gulliver’s Travels constantly uses the word alternatively for “fancy”; Samuel Johnson copulates imagination with a “fancy way of thinking”; for Pope it manifested the idealisations of fancies vs the humdrum of public affairs; for Dryden fancy, imagination and wit are synonyms of each other.

Descartes shared this downgraded view and says that “[most people] are so accustomed to think about everything by imagining, which is a special way of thinking for material things, that anything that is not imaginable seems to them unintelligible” (Discourse 6:37). He goes on to say that he himself used to suffer from this tendency to sloppy or lazy thinking before he established his Rules for the direction of the mind and discarded this negative thinking behaviour.

Having identified sensation and emotion as the energisers of imagination, the next logical step for him was to exalt the res cogitans to the status of a purely intellectual, hence emotionless and imaginationless faculty that handles only such matters as are “clear and distinct perceptions (to thinking)” and in every way “indubitable”. These are in the main mathematical, methodical, measurable features of the world (e.g. an object can only be verified to exist if it exhibits geometrical features like length, depth and breadth). He also includes some matters of his faith, like God; but we have to take these on board, since he was after all a willing subject of the catholic religion.

For more depth on this question, I urge you to read the Discourse on Method. It is a wonderful little book, less than 100 pages, so you can read in a day. And he explains all these issues in far superior prose to mine, therefore a pleasure rather than a chore.

Memory and personal identity

Chantel asked:

Is John Perry’s argument for claiming that memory is not the source of personal identity justified?

Answer by Jürgen Lawrenz

As you might expect, this question has occupied thinkers for 2600 years already, starting with Pythagoras. But the thread that runs through them all, including Perry, is the conception of a fourfold aspect on the matter; and now it depends on the cultural predilection of thinkers in their intellectual habitat which of the four they consider the most important, i.e. body, soul, brain or memory.

Today we have the advantage on all pre-scientific eras in that we are in possession of some hard knowledge which is indispensable — not for a solution to the problem, but for an accurate description of the terms of a relevant discourse. In this context, the importance of memory has been growing over the others, especially in relation to AI, where brain and memories work in tandem, where bodies are interchangeable and soul an absentee. This is not directly portable into a human organic context, but helps to clarify the criteria.

Namely: That personal identity rests on a person’s conscious awareness of themselves as being continuously the same “mind and body” — over the whole length of their life, across temporary states of minimal consciousness (as in sleep) and even across anaesthetic and/or comatose episodes. This argument is not in danger from points of view which rely on purely hypothetical objections (such as brain transplants or implants). Rather, it is reinforced by the integration of the most varied types of memories in the one body, which fall broadly into two types: Those transmitted by the parents (e.g. instincts) and those collected from experience. It is in this respect that the role of the brain is widely overstressed. The brain is not a storage bin for all our memories; on the contrary, every organ in the body has memories autonomous to itself; and we add to them in our years of learning (e.g. social conventions and every kind of “how to”). This means that the brain by itself is not a candidate for a role as the custodian of a person’s selfhood, even though it is clearly the seat of our conscious awareness, intellect, imagination and inventiveness. But without the resources of memory, this awareness (not to mention our subconscious estate) would hardly reach higher than that of other large mammals.

So the answer to your question is unavoidably ambiguous. Perry is certainly justified in claiming that memory is not the one source of personal identity, but then neither is the brain nor the body, except that the latter is evidently the housing for this collective. Which apparently leaves the soul out in limbo, for whatever definition it has been given in the past, seems to have been a simplex concept for the complex concept insinuated by the above — the sort of thing styled “the ghost in the machine” by Gilbert Ryle. I’m not inclined to weigh in on this; but by the same token I see no need for positing soul as a separate faculty, when its capacity is analysed in virtually identical fashion to the body, brain and mind consortium. This is conceding that soul may possibly be the life force itself.

Yet Perry seems strongly inclined to include soul in his disquisitions (fitting the mise en scene of his dialogue at the bedside of a dying person — ‘A dialogue on personal identity and immortality’, 1978). But this is a highly debatable issue, as ‘soul’ is not an organ, nor a thing or common existent, therefore indiscernible to measurement. Therefore while his arguments are well-reasoned and persuasive, he cannot clinch the point and, in my opinion, does not mark an advancement on Aristotle, the Scholastics or Leibniz. (Nevertheless, it is rare enough for a philosopher to explore the gamut of issues involved in personal identity through the medium of a Platonic dialogue, which only goes to show what a wonderful genre it is for philosophical enquiry!).

Me and my consciousness

Brett asked:

First, we can establish that being conscious of something is not necessary to be it: I am not conscious of myself when I am asleep, for example, but I am still myself. With this in mind, we can say that I was myself before I was conscious of it. I was me before my brain developed. We can then ask: before the sperm and egg came together to form me, was I the sperm, or the egg? There are four options: 1. I was neither, 2. I was both, 3. the sperm, 4. the egg. 1. is clearly absurd: if I was neither, I would not have been myself when they came together. I would have had no connection with them whatsoever. 2. is equally absurd. There is no reason that I would have been both the sperm and egg when they were at that point completely separate and in the bodies of different people. And to pick 3 over 4 seems arbitrary. So which option is the most sensible?

Answer by Jürgen Lawrenz

The issue you have raised is undoubtedly a burning question in both scientific and philosophical research on conscious identity; and no-one from either quarter could confidently say it has been solved. The only positive criterion we have about consciousness is its phenomenology, which means that we don’t genuinely know “what it is”, only that we possess a certain sensitivity that encourages belief in it.

But on the way you have presented your question, I regrettably have to say that you militate against your own propositions by a choice of arguments that don’t really make a coherent case. The problems are twofold. First, you take too many things for granted, among them the concept of “me”, its role in establishing personal identity, and its relation to the body which is “me” as well. How many identities might this train of thought amount to? There is no clear cut answer, as a religious person would say “obviously one”; whereas a computer programmer might reply “four”.

You seem also somewhat confused about the relation between “me” and the brain. Since the central nervous system is the first organ to be constructed in a new birth, there can be no “me” before this happens — unless of course you subscribe to the notion that a “me” can exist idealiter before existing realiter. But this is a religious argument again, and you give no hint that this is what you are interested in.

Finally, sperms and eggs. Here your argument is based on a simple misconception, namely that a “me” could somehow be contained in them. But sperm is a carrier of genes and the egg a recipient; and the outcome of fertilisation is not the building of a “me” but of a DNA molecule, which contains only body building information. It is during the actual construction that a “me” can be said to be actualised from the coordination of the various organs, glands etc. etc. in their various phases of construction.

What then is your most sensible option? It appears that priority lies with biological rather than conceptual or metaphysical criteria. You might find that casting your presuppositions overboard and delving into the organic aspects of memory and identity a more useful way of approaching these issues.

How ‘I’ came to be

Brett asked:

First, we can establish that being conscious of something is not necessary to be it: I am not conscious of myself when I am asleep, for example, but I am still myself. With this in mind, we can say that I was myself before I was conscious of it. I was me before my brain developed. We can then ask: before the sperm and egg came together to form me, was I the sperm, or the egg? There are four options: 1. I was neither, 2. I was both, 3. the sperm, 4. the egg. 1. is clearly absurd: if I was neither, I would not have been myself when they came together. I would have had no connection with them whatsoever. 2. is equally absurd. There is no reason that I would have been both the sperm and egg when they were at that point completely separate and in the bodies of different people. And to pick 3 over 4 seems arbitrary. So which option is the most sensible?

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

I have an answer for you, Brett, which I guarantee you won’t like. I don’t like it either. When that happens in philosophy, when following what seems an ineluctable line of argument you reach a conclusion that you find impossible to believe if not fantastical, then all you can do is lay the arguments out and let others decide.

I am with you on the point that I must surely exist during periods of unconsciousness. Every night I go to sleep and every morning I wake up. Sometimes, when I sleep I dream, but I don’t dream all the time, at least I don’t seem to.

Let’s now follow every step in the genesis of GK. Before there was GK there was a sperm and an egg. The sperm came from my father and the egg came from my mother. We can trace the components of GK further back. The sperm and egg were made of atoms and molecules, and every atom, for example every atom of Carbon, originated in a star. The stars and galaxies came into being, we are told, after the Big Bang.

Having gone right back to the beginning of the Universe, let’s now go forward. Trace the genesis of each atom that composed the sperm and egg, and all the atoms that subsequently joined the clump of cells that eventually developed into a newborn baby, born on such-and-such a date. If you like, we can follow the development of the young child as it gradually develops its mental powers, and at some indeterminate point, expresses its first ‘I-thought’.

I wonder what that would be? When was the first time, the very first time, you thought of yourself as ‘I’?

The growing child GK has a sense of his own existence. He refers to himself as ‘I’. As we all did, and do. But there is one thing missing from this story. Can you guess what it is? I am talking about GK as just some person, in exactly the same way as I would talk about you, Brett. Some person was born at such-and-such a date, studied Philosophy, went on to become the moderator of ‘Ask a Philosopher’. But nowhere in this story is there any explanation of how I came to be that person:

I might not have existed but someone exactly like me might have existed in my place.

This isn’t about me being ‘special’ in any way. It is just as much about you, or any other living human being. Whatever story you tell about human biology or the brain or consciousness can never account for the genesis of the individual I call ‘I’ where previously there was ‘no-I’.

The conclusion? It seems to be that, contrary to all the empirical evidence, I have always existed, since the beginning of time. I am uncreated. And so are you. Do I believe this? No, I do not. I don’t know what to believe. However, I will just end on this point:

There has been a huge amount of discussion of the nature of the mind and mental events, consciousness, the relation between mind and body etc. But the one thing that philosophers have so far failed dismally to get their heads around is the question what consciousness is. When you try to describe consciousness you end up describing everything else except consciousness. You can discourse endlessly on the things that consciousness does or enables us to do, but that isn’t describing consciousness any more that saying what a motor car enables one to do explains what a motor car is.

I don’t know what I am or how I came to be, if I indeed came to be. I am not satisfied with that answer but that’s all you’re going to get for the moment.

Religion and hypocrisy

Jeff asked:

Does the presence of hypocrisy in a religious adherent automatically invalidate the belief system he/ she professes to follow?

Answer by David Robjant

No. For reasons both theological and logical.

Theological: full coherence of behaviour with stated ideals can only be attributed to persons of perfect good and perfect evil, of which there are precisely two, namely Jesus Christ (God), and the Devil. Attributing to oneself the coherence of the first is blasphemy, and pursuing the coherence of the second is evil. Thus to the extent to which the question is really a challenge to those of religious faith, it would not be understood by any of those it is supposed to target. It is thus a circular argument justifying anticlericalism only if you are already opposed to the whole of Christian theology. In this it closely mirrors popular understandings of the ontological argument; a circular argument justifying theism from a foundation in theism. These are not the sort of arguments or questions that persuade anyone, or are supposed to do so. The pressure they exert is a sort of reciprocating faith engine — the one a faith in God, the other a faith in the folly of religion. Such engines tend not towards understanding, but can exert a sort peer pressure or exhortation, even upon the self.

Logical: answering the question depends on settling what it is to “follow” a “belief system”. Any “yes” answer to the question is going to require an awful lot of background work on what following a belief system is supposed to be, and may well involve saying some pretty implausible things about belief along the way. Such as, for example, that a belief just is whatever someone acts on, or alternatively that a belief just is what someone declares or “professes”. Neither seem persuasive for reasons we can all of us rehearse, and failing these snappy answers do we really understand what a belief is? That would appear to be the primary problem raised by the question, and it is by no means easy to answer — it is a tricky and deep philosophical problem for those who assert their atheism as much as for theists. In this, ‘how do you know you are really an atheist?’ is not wholly unlike ‘how do you know you are really a believer?’ Are we supposed to be looking at acts or statements, or statements in some special ceremonial setting, or some forth unclear story relating all three? Can anything useful even be said here in the abstract and for all cases, or does understanding the significance and grammar of “belief” in use require something like the extended gaze of a novelist upon their characters, beyond the handy portability of a short thought experiment?

A perhaps more philosophically tractable angle here is around “system”. What is “system” in thought, to what extent is system a good thing, and what has system got to do with religion specifically, or the religious attitude in general? Praising Schopenhauer against Kant, Iris Murdoch makes a persuasive case for unsystematic modes of thinking for something rather like religious reasons, on the basis that internal coherence (within a philosophical system or theory) can close the mind to reality around us (close us off from continuing revelation, in theological terms). These unsystematic modes are needed to coexist with and inform the urge to system, which is treated as ineradicable. It is none of it supposed to be easy.

I have raised questions in answering yours, but while I have no firm idea what I should best do with a word like “God”, I am clear that “Hypocrisy is vice’s tribute to virtue”.

It strikes me that you are opposing and banishing all possibility of moral progress, when you treat coherence between the ideal and the actual as the condition of respect for the ideal professed. What’s so great about coherence of the type demanded depends a lot on conceits about where you think you are starting. Being coherent in crime is not a feather in the cap for a criminal. Incoherence then is the only salvation; incoherence is precisely virtue, if you start from some dark wrong place. And it is the challenging difficult unpalatable but perhaps insightful view of most religion, and a fair chunk of philosophical morals, that we do indeed start from some dark wrong place. Perfection is a very long difficult infinite path away — it is not realised by bringing cynical remarks into coherence with cynical behaviour. For all that the “failed priest” is supposed to be a figure of fun, failure means that something was attempted — and an attempt on moral progress is by definition incoherence with where we start.

Ignorance before the law in Ancient Athens

Maricar asked:

Under Athenian law, one could not be prosecuted for a crime if it could be shown that the action was done unwillingly, under duress, by threat of force, or from ignorance. If Socrates’ view is correct, how could anyone be responsible for his or her actions? If one acts under the influence of passion or other non-rational motives, is one morally responsible? Can one be “willfully ignorant” of the law?

Answer by Jürgen Lawrenz

Don’t mind me saying that you are under a misapprehension of the nature and purpose of ancient Athenian law. We are all used to our modern conception, which (true enough) goes all the way back to the ancient world — but to the Roman world. And the difference could not be more drastic. Rome was a nation state, later an empire, and emphasised nationhood and citizenship from the very beginning; therefore Roman law was written out in detail and covered the minutiae of public life. It also bred a profession dedicated to its maintenance and interpretation. Now take (nearly) all this away and look at the modest tribal conglomerate of a quarter of a million people, whose constitution was written in verse, which invited other leaders to tinker with it — in the main to restrain vendettas and keep the peace by means of a few dozen regulations and injunctions. Hence the codes on public display at Athens were notoriously broad and papered over mostly the cracks in the social norms and conventions which constituted the “unwritten law” of the state. The latter, however, always had priority over the written law and were considered binding on the citizenry and indeed taught not from the law, but the stories of Homer and the poets.

Consider further that they had no police, no jails, no permanent courts, no justice department, so that law enforcement was in the hands of those who from time to time sat in the assembly. Consider therefore in the Sokrates trial the paradoxical notion that the accused was to stipulate his own punishment! Or that Aristides had a vote in the trial that condemned him to exile. These issues come out very clearly in the majority of law suits that have been preserved for us from that time. In their overwhelming majority these cases revolve around offences against the norms of behaviour expected from a citizen; and in a surprising number of instances, the jury was addressed by accuser or defendant in terms of his ‘honour’, i.e. merit accrued by him, as a make-weight to justify or nullify whatever the allegations were.

So the examples you quote above (duress etc.) are indeed frequently used as mitigating circumstances; but ignorance of the law is almost never mentioned, and in the few cases where it occurs, carried little weight, as a defendant might easily have recourse to moral norms (“Oh! I didn’t know Kleisthenes outlawed clobbering a fellow who tried to seduce my wife; in our demos we’ve done this for generations”. He would probably be let off with a small fine (unless he had too many enemies on the jury)).

This answers incidentally another question lurking behind yours: Why did Aristotle examine 158 law codes of the Greek poleis before writing his Ethics? For precisely this reason — that customs varied much from one to another and his purpose was to extract a normative denominator that might suit all of them in the pursuit of individual happiness and prosperity. Whereas ignorantia juris non excusat was a Roman legal principle reflecting the very different needs of a nation state which had one law code whose custodian was, incidentally, the Popular Assembly — so Mr/Mrs Average would certainly be expected to know as much of it might affect their own lives (or else have recourse to a lawyer!).

Plato and the criteria of knowledge

Jordan asked:

How do Socrates and Plato arrive at the requirements for what we have well-founded knowledge of, as opposed to what we merely assume or are convinced of?

I know they came to an “agreement” in Plato’s Theaetetus, that knowledge is “justified true belief.” But I have a difficulty in understanding how they came to those requirements.

Answer by Jürgen Lawrenz

Your difficulty stems from the very different attitude to knowledge bred in our scientific civilisation; and so it is difficult to ‘unthink’ what is evident to us, for the sake of understanding thinkers who were trying to smoothe a path that we tread without much effort. For example, the ‘agreement’ between Sokrates and Theaetetus is not quite so comfy as you seem to believe. It is constrained by what we today would call “hard knowledge”; but they also come to the conclusion that a description is not a necessary adjunct, as a person may well entertain a “justified true belief” without being able to give an account of it. Thus a surgeon may be in complete command of his skills, yet find himself unable to articulate this knowledge with a view to teaching it. Sokrates himself takes pride in his talent for “midwifery of the truth”, while relying on others (or pretending to) to arrive at the correct conclusions. Thus the criteria of their agreement are similar to those of Gilbert Ryle’s classification of “Knowing that” and “Knowing how”.

Their enquiry therefore concentrates on eliminating from consideration all those forms of knowledge acquisition which can be identified as dubious, i.e. those which rely on (a) sensory perception; (b) the relativism promoted by the ‘homomensura’ argument of Protagoras; (c) the ambiguities arising from the theory of flux of Herakleitos; (d) issues where different people may have different opinions based on their experience (the ‘alladoxia’ problem); and (e) contingent knowledge (i.e. the ‘cold wind argument’) that can be true or false depending on conditions. These are some of the main criteria, though by no means all. In any case, a reader can gain further insight into these aspects from the divisions of the soul (“the divided line”) which Plato expounds in the Republic Although the theory of forms is hardly broached in the Theaetitus, it is presupposed as the ultimately relevant reference. The dialogue therefore seems to enlarge the scope of the earlier debate to make it serve as a detailed ‘case study’.