Wednesday, 26 November 2014

I Act Therefore I Am

Rene Descartes famously declared "Cogito ergo sum" — commonly translated as "I think therefore I am." This belief—or article of philosophical faith even—that our agency exists as a purely private affair altogether disconnected from public interaction, continues to sponsor many misconceptions about the nature of mind. Whilst Descartes' theory of the immaterial mind may have been abandoned for more materialistic accounts, the vestiges of Cartesianism linger on in the widespread assumption that brains are somehow agents equipped with their own skills and techniques such as modelling, imaging, computation etc. as well as sophisticated semantic or semiotic forms of signal encoding. So far all of these have been entirely impervious to all attempts at decryption.

Philosopher Peter Hacker and neuroscientist Max Bennett use conceptual analysis to examine and highlight many of the conceptual errors that arise as a consequence of attributing to the brain skills that only a brain and body can perform. In response, many theorists and scientists simply dismiss their work as stipulative assertions and as the exhortations of language police. These theorists and scientists see no contradiction in supposing that brains have capacities of detection, despite the fact that brains contain no sensory organs. And they assume therefore that brains produce their own representations in order to go about their business. But what if these theorists and scientists are mistaken in dismissing Hacker an Bennett? Is a new paradigm called for? From my own Brookian point of view, an analysis of the evolutionary emergence of representational skills adds significant weight to Hacker and Bennett's challenge to neurotheism and suggests that whilst many of the findings of neuroscience are important, much of the theory is significantly less perspicacious.

Representation is a social skill. It is something that we learn through communicative transactions with other similarly endowed creatures, most notably other members of our own species. Fundamentally representation is a co-operative exchange. According to Constance Classen (1993) "'Cogito ergo sum', literally means 'I put in motion together (coagitare) therefore I am'." The etymology is revealing: Co=together + Agitare= to act upon. 

Mindedness emerges through social interaction  through our varied skills as communicators.


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