Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Annals of derp: Profito ergo es

Image by Joe Russell, 2013.
Thomas L. Friedman, "From Hands to Heads to Hearts", January 4 2017:
Once scientific methods became enshrined, we used science and reason to navigate our way forward, he added, so much so that “the French philosopher René Descartes crystallized this age of reason in one phrase: ‘I think, therefore I am.’” Descartes’s point, said [organizational culture thinkfluencer Dov] Seidman, “was that it was our ability to ‘think’ that most distinguished humans from all other animals on earth.”
Question to Radio Yerevan: Is it true that René Descartes's point in the cogito ergo sum line was that it was our ability to "think" that most distinguished humans from other animals?

Answer: In principle, yes. But
  • first of all, it's not a phrase but two clauses, or a sentence;
  • second of all, while Descartes did hold that non-human animals should be regarded as complex machines whose actions could be explained without any reference to thinking, he thought that most human behavior could be explained in the same way; 
  • third of all, he thought what was most different was the humans' immaterial soul, which animals lacked, and that this was demonstrated not by the evidence of human thought but by the human possession and use of language; and 
  • fourth of all, that wasn't the point of the cogito, which had nothing whatever to do with explaining the difference between humans and animals, but was rather about the question of whether we can be certain or not that anything in the universe really exists: the first thing Descartes thought he could be sure of was that he really did exist—the fact that he was thinking at the time proved it, because there had to be a thing there doing the thinking, and that thing was him.
Also, that did not crystallize the Age of Reason, though it certainly did illustrate it, and I doubt that Descartes would have put "think" in scare quotes. What's that about, anyway?

Seidman says we now need to distinguish ourselves from complex machines, which he apparently believes are capable of thinking (and we now understand many animals really are capable of thinking in various degrees), by the fact that the machines don't have a heart, by which he means that aspect of humanity that experiences emotions like love, compassion, and hope, which is in fact pretty much the same thing as Descartes's immaterial soul, which he described as the seat of the "passions" in his late writings. To a remarkable extent, in this way, Seidman, and Friedman, are stuck philosophically in the 17th century.
No wonder one of the fastest-growing U.S. franchises today is Paint Nite, which runs paint-while-drinking classes for adults. Bloomberg Businessweek explained in a 2015 story that Paint Nite “throws after-work parties for patrons who are largely lawyers, teachers and tech workers eager for a creative hobby.” The artist-teachers who work five nights a week can make $50,000 a year connecting people to their hearts.
There's an argument Descartes wouldn't have thought of—"I can earn $50K part-time helping you experience passions, with the help of some alcohol, therefore your passions are philosophically important." I profit, therefore thou art.

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