Monday, February 23, 2015

The Descartes-ography of Logic (Part 3 of 4): The Sensational Self

In my previous section, we explored how Descartes was operating from an assumed irreducibility of the soul and mind. In this section, I'll attempt to get underneath the mechanism of Cartesian logic by looking at how we sense ourselves in relation to the world.

Let's look at what I called Decartes' "first logic."

Even for Descartes, self-awareness was never a complicated notion. It was not an awareness of the meaning of the self, but an awareness that these bits are part of me and those bits "out there" aren't. In the example I used earlier, a baby that is throwing things from its high chair doesn't have an advanced self awareness, but a developing one. In the most non-technical terms, what it is doing is building a sense of self, and in the process reinforcing an idea akin to "me vs not me."  I'm speculating here that the first thing a human becomes aware of is the phenomena of its own body. It literally has no idea that the body "belongs" to it, because, biologically, it hasn't made the association yet between body and mind; it doesn't know what "belong" means; and it has even less of an idea of mindedness. All sensory input would be on equal footing, including the sensory information the baby itself is generating. There would be no "sense of self." Instead, there would be just "sense."

The baby is passively taking in the sensory information that is thrown at it; and a great deal of that sensory information is the physical phenomena of itself. This covers interoception (the perception of things like hunger, pain, and the 'presence' or movement of internal organs), and proprioception (the perception of the feeling of movement, and the position of parts of the body relative to other parts of the body). Added to that is is exteroception, which is the perception of external stimuli. It's the final one which seems to steal the show when we think about our own development, but for now lets try to keep it on the same footing as the others.

Let's assume that all physical phenomena that the baby-entity takes in are equal in how they're processed through the senses. If this is the case, then what would be "learned" first would be that which was the most reinforced. Even with the most present caregiver, what is always there is the child's physical sensations of its own body (interoception and proprioception). The child senses itself first, and does so constantly. It's the consistency of certain sensory input that would allow the process of associations to begin in earnest. At that point, the "self" is more or less a behavioral entity; one that is a product of reinforcement of associations, and an "awareness" of sensory states on the most simple level: the aversion of pain, and the positive association of things that reduce pain or augment pleasure.

If this sounds somewhat cold and technical, it's supposed to be, because we necessarily (and properly) anthropomorphize these little bundles of sensory processing units into humans -- and, rest assured, they are humans. But we need to pause and try to understand this bundle from its point of view without the self-reflexivity we ourselves associate with the Cartesian subject. On the level of the developing human/sensory processing unit, there are no "known" relationships among sensations. There is not yet a sense of unity of "self." Thus, logic has not (yet) developed. The ingredients are all there, however, for logic to develop: the biological phenomenon of a neurological system outfitted with the necessary sensory inputs allowing for a recursive, algorithmic-like learning; and the sense-datum which those sensory inputs receive. I am purposely not using terms like "embodied mind" or "brain in its head" or using any kind of brain/body metaphor because this is a full-body system. The central processing unit of it happens to be centered in the head. But the development of that processing unit is contingent upon sensory input. It is not an independent system.

I'm emphasizing this because it is very much the first hurdle in deconstructing the Cartesian self: the mind as, literally, a self-contained component ... or perhaps a "contained, self-component"?  Either way, there's a philosophical and cultural hierarchy to how we see ourselves in the world that generally places mind on top, followed by body, followed by "everything else." I'm speculating from a philosophical standpoint that -- for that baby/sensory processing bundle -- there is initially no hierarchy. There certainly wouldn't be an idea of mindedness, nor would there be an idea of the body-as-body, it might be more like "everything without the else." In terms of the body, we are conditioned by our biological structures to emphasize the body because it is the first sensation. Bodily sensation comes first. In fact, the sensation is so reinforced and constant that we don't even know we're sensing it. However, our bodily awareness via interoception and proprioception is always active -- almost like an app running in the background, or an 'invisible' background process of an operating system.

Obviously, this decentralized state of "everything else" doesn't last long. The structure of the brain allows learning to begin immediately, through the neurological system of which it is a part, and such learning stimulates its growth and physical development. If, in a glorious moment, all sensory input is equal, it would be no different than the multitude of sense-datum that is around it. But very quickly, the proprioceptive and interoceptive sensations which that body is constantly producing and reinforcing, phenomenally, become so reinforced that the phenomena slip from sensation to a kind of general bodily awareness (personally, I believe that this it's this background sensation, almost like white noise, that is what is responsible for "just knowing" you're not dreaming when you're awake. But that's another potential entry).  Think for a moment, when you're not touching something, can you feel your hands? When they're not moving, or in contact with any surface, are you feeling them? At first you don't think so, but then if you start to concentrate a bit, maybe move them slightly and try to hold onto the sensation of the skin of the crooks of your fingers touching the skin perpendicular to it, there is a little "weight" that's not really weight but more like some kind of presence or mass. It's kind of a neutral sensation. It's just "there." That's part of proprioception. Just as the awareness of the movements and rumblings of your internal organs is interoception. And when you go about your business it falls into the background or is woven back into the tapestry of all your other sensations. Those bodily sensations, for the most part, are so constantly associated with a "self" that they become fused with it.

My contention is that this type of bodily sensation was, at one very early point in each of our lives, just as vibrant and present as resting a hand on a table, or as the sounds that occur, or any other sensory stimuli. The body is a phenomena like all other phenomena we consider to be "other." But because the sensation of our own bodies is always present via our interoception and proprioception, it becomes part of an overall awareness.

This, of course, doesn't quite explain those last havens of Cartesianism: volition and intentionality. In my next post, I'll attempt to do just that.