Monday, March 2, 2015

The Descartes-ography of Logic (Part 4 of 4): The Myth of Volition

In my previous post, we went through the more physical aspects of Descartes' "first logic," and attempted to level the playing field in regard to proprioception (sensation of relative movement of parts of the body), interoception (the perception of 'internal' sensations like movements of the organs), and exteroception (the perception of external stimuli). That's all well and good when it comes to the more thing-related sensations of ourselves, but what of the crown jewels of Cartesianism and, to some extent, western philosophy itself? Volition and intentionality go hand-in-hand and are often used interchangeably to point to the same notion: free will. If we want to be picky, intentionality has more to do with turning one's attention toward a thought of some kind and has more ideal or conceptual connotations; whereas volition has more of a "wanting" quality to it, and implies a result or object.

Regardless both terms are associated with that special something that processes this bodily awareness and seemingly directs this "thing" to actually do stuff. Culturally, we privilege this beyond all other aspects of our phenomenal selves. And even when we try to be somewhat objective about it by saying "oh, the consciousness is just cognitive phenomena that allows for the advanced recursive and representational thought processes which constitute what we call reasoning," or we classify consciousness according to the specific neural structures -- no matter how simple -- of other animals, there's something about human consciousness that seems really, really cool, and leads to a classic anthropocentrism: show me a cathedral made by dolphins; what chimpanzee ever wrote a symphony?

Let's go back to our little bundles of sensory processing units (aka, babies). If we think of an average, non-abusive caregiver/child relationship, and also take into account the cultural and biological drives those caregivers have that allow for bonding with that child, the "lessons" of how to be human, and have volition, are taught from the very moment the child is out of the womb.  We teach them how to be human via our own interactions with them. What if we were to think of volition not as some magical, special, wondrous (and thus sacrosanct) aspect of humanity, and instead view it as another phenomena among all the other phenomena the child is experiencing? A child who is just learning the "presence" of its own body -- while definitely "confused" by our developed standards -- would also be more sensitive to its own impulses, which would be placed on equal sensory footing with the cues given by the other humans around it. So, say the developing nervous system randomly fires an impulse that causes the corners of the baby's mouth to turn upward (aka, a smile). I'm not a parent, but that first smile is a big moment, and it brings about a slew of positive reinforcement from the parents (and usually anyone else around it). What was an accidental facial muscle contraction brings about a positive reaction. In time, the child associates the way its mouth feels in that position (proprioception) with the pleasurable stimuli it receives (exteroception) as positive reinforcement.

Our almost instinctive reaction here is, "yes, but the child wants that reinforcement and thus smiles again." But that is anthropomorphization at its very best, isn't it? It sounds almost perverse to say that we anthropomorphize infants, but we do ... in fact, we must if we are to care for them properly. Our brains developed at the cost of a more direct instinct. To compensate for that instinct, we represent that bundle of sensory processing units as "human." And this is a very, very good thing. It is an effective evolutionary trait. As more developed bundles of sensory processing units who consider themselves to be human beings with "volition," we positively reinforce behaviors which, to us, seem to be volitional. We make googly sounds and ask in a sing-song cadence, "did you just smile? [as we smile], are you gonna show me that smile again?" [as we smile even more broadly].  But in those earliest stages of development, that child isn't learning what a smile is, what IT is, or what it wants. It's establishing an association between the way the smile feels physically and pleasure. And every impulse that, to everyone else, is a seemingly volitional action (a smile, a raspberry sound, big eyes, etc), induce in the caregiver a positive response. And through what we would call trial and error, the child begins to actively associate to reduce pain and/or augment pleasure. The important thing is that to look at the body as simply one aspect of an entire horizon of phenomena. The body isn't special because it's "hers or his." The question of "belonging to me" is a one which develops in time, and is reinforced by culture.

Eventually, yes, the child develops the capacity to want positive reinforcement, but to want something requires a more developed sense of self; an awareness of an "I." If we really think about it, we are taught that the mental phenomenon of intentionality is what makes the body do things. Think of it this way: what does intentionality "feel like?" What does it "feel like" to intend to move your hand and then move your hand. It's one of those ridiculous philosophy questions, isn't it? Because it doesn't "feel like" anything, it just is. Or so we think. When I teach the empiricists in my intro philosophy class and we talk about reinforcement, I like to ask "does anyone remember when they learned their name?" or "Do you remember the moment you learned how to add?" Usually the answer is no, because we've done it so many times -- so many instances of writing our names, of responding, of identifying, of adding, of thinking that one thing causes another -- that the initial memory is effaced by the multitude of times each of us has engaged in those actions.

Every moment of "volition" is a cultural reinforcement that intention = action. That something happens. Even if we really, really wish that we should turn off the TV and do some work, but don't, we can at least say that we had the intention but didn't follow up. And that's a mental phenomenon. Something happened, even if it was just a fleeting thought. That's a relatively advanced way of thinking, and the epitome of self-reflexivity on a Cartesian level: "I had a thought." Ironically, to think about yourself that way requires a logic that isn't based on an inherent self-awareness as Descartes presents it, but on an other-awareness -- one by which we can actually objectify thought itself. If we go all the way back to my first entry in this series, I point out that Descartes feels that it's not the objects/variables/ideas themselves that he wants to look at, it's the relationships among them. He sees the very sensory imagination as the place where objects are known, but it's the awareness (as opposed to perception) of the relationships among objects that belie the existence of the "thinking" in his model of human-as-thinking-thing.

However, the very development of that awareness of "logic" is contingent upon the "first logic" I mentioned, one that we can now see is based upon the sensory information of the body itself. The first "thing" encountered by the mind is the body, not itself. Why not? Because in order for the mind to objectify itself as an entity, it must have examples of objects from which to draw the parallel. And, its own cognitive processes qua phenomena cannot be recognized as 'phenomena,' 'events,' 'happenings,' or 'thoughts.' The very cognitive processes which occur that allow the mind to recognize itself as mind have no associations. It was hard enough to answer "what does intentionality feel like," but answering "what does self-reflexivity feel like" is even harder, because, from Descartes' point of view, we'd have to say 'everything,' or 'existence,' or 'being.'

So then, what are the implications of this? First of all, we can see that the Cartesian approach of privileging relations over objects had a very profound effect on Western philosophy. Even though several Greek philosophers had operated from an early version of this approach, Descartes' reiteration of the primacy of relations and the incorporeality of logic itself conditioned Western philosophy toward an ontological conceit. That is to say, the self, or the being of self becomes the primary locus of enquiry and discourse. If we place philosophical concepts of the self on a spectrum, on one end would be Descartes and the rationalists, privileging a specific soul or consciousness which exists and expresses its volition within (and for some, in spite of) the phenomenal world. On the other end of the spectrum, the more empirical and existential view that the self is dependent on the body and experience, but its capacity for questioning itself then effaces its origins -- hence the Sartrean "welling up in the world" and accounting for itself. While all of the views toward the more empirical and existential end aren't necessarily Cartesian in and of themselves, they are still operating from a primacy of volition as the key characteristic of a human self.

One of the effects of Cartesian subjectivity is that it renders objects outside of the self as secondary, even when the necessity of their phenomenal existence is acknowledged. Why? Because since we can't 'know' the object phenomenally with Cartesian certainty, all we can do is examine and try to understand what is, essentially, a representation of that phenomena. Since the representational capacity of humanity is now attributed to mind, our philosophical inquiry tends to be mind-focused (i.e. how do we know what we know? Or what is the essence of this concept or [mental] experience?).  The 'essence' of the phenomena is contingent upon an internal/external duality: either the 'essence' of the phenomenon is attributed to it by the self (internal to external) or the essence of the phenomena is transmitted from the object to the self (external to internal).

Internal/external, outside/inside, even the mind/body dualism: they are all iterations of the same originary self/other dichotomy. I believe this to be a byproduct of the cognitive and neural structures of our bodies. If we do have a specific and unique 'human' instinct, it is to reinforce this method of thinking, because it has been, in the evolutionary short term, beneficial to the species. It also allows for anthropomorphization of our young, other animals, and 'technology' itself that also aid in our survival. We instinctively privilege this kind of thinking, and that instinctive privileging is reinscribed as "volition." It's really not much of a leap, when you think about it. We identify our "will" to do something as a kind of efficacy. Efficacy requires an awareness of a "result." Even if the result of an impulse or thought is another thought, or arriving (mentally) at a conclusion, we objectify that thought or conclusion as a "result," which is, conceptually, separate from us. Think of every metaphor for ideas and mindedness and all other manner of mental activity: thoughts "in one's head," "having" an idea, arriving at a conclusion. All of them characterize the thoughts themselves as somehow separate from the mind generating them.

As previously stated, this has worked really well for the species in the evolutionary short-term. Human beings, via their capacity for logical, representational thought, have managed to overcome  and manipulate their own environments on a large scale. And we have done so via that little evolutionary trick that allows us to literally think in terms of objects; to objectify ourselves in relation to results/effects. The physical phenomena around us become iterations of that self/other logic. Recursively and instinctively, the environments we occupy become woven into a logic of self, but the process is reinforced in such a way that we aren't even aware that we're doing it.

Sounds great, doesn't it? It seems to be the perfect survival tool. Other species may manipulate or overcome their environments via building nests, dams, hives; or using other parts of their environment as tools. But how is the human manipulation of such things different than birds, bees, beavers, otters, or chimps? The difference is that we are aware of ourselves being aware of using tools, and we think about how to use tools more effectively so that we can better achieve a more effective result. Biologically, instinctively, we privilege the tools that seem to enhance what we believe to be our volition. This object allows me to do what I want to do in a better way. The entire structure of this logic is based upon a capacity to view the self as a singular entity and its result as a separate entity (subject/object, cause/effect, etc). But the really interesting bit here is the fact that in order for this to work, we have to be able to discursively and representationally re-integrate the "intentionality" and the "result" it brings about back into the "self." Thus, this is "my" stick; this is "my" result; that was "my" intention.  We see this as the epitome of volition. I have 'choices' between objectives that are governed by my needs and desires. This little cognitive trick of ours makes us believe that we are actually making choices.

Some of you may already see where this is going, and a few or you within that group are already feeling that quickening of the pulse, sensing an attack on free will. Good. Because that's your very human survival instinct kicking in, wanting to protect that concept because it's the heart of why and how we do anything. And to provoke you even further, I will say this: volition exists, but in the same way a deity exists for the believer. We make it exist, but we can only do so via our phenomenal existence within a larger topological landscape. Our volition is contingent upon our mindedness, but our mindedness is dependent upon objects. Do we have choices? Always. Are those choices determined by our topologies. Absolutely.

Trust me, my heart is racing too. The existentialist in me is screaming (although Heidegger's kind of smirking a little bit, and also wearing Lederhosen), but ultimately, I believe our brains and cognitive systems to have developed in such a way that the concept of volition developed as the human version of a survival instinct. It allows us to act in ways that allow us to survive; enriching our experience just enough to make us want more and to, in varying degrees, long to be better.

Well, it works for me.