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Coffee & Wisdom 02.70: Embodied Cognition Part 1

David Breeden is speaking all week about the issues with liberalism.


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Hello, I’m David Breeden and the senior minister at First Unitarian Society of Minneapolis, a historically humanist congregation. And this is coffee and wisdom starting at a new week. And this week we’re going to be looking at the idea of embodied cognition because this has been very much a hot button issue through hundreds of years in the Western tradition and kind of got us into a place where we’ve been a little bit confused over ideas. This, of course, is a very silly sci fi movie called “They Saved Hitler’s Brain”. But it is part of a folk idea that somehow the brain contains all of our personality and consciousness. And couldn’t we just keep Hitler’s brain in a jar and then put it in someone else and they would act like Adolf Hitler? It’s a good question and we don’t really know the answer, but there are some fairly good clues from science as we work through this. This ties back to last week and what we just discovered and talked about. We talked about the idea of liberalism last week, how it starts out in one particular place that we call classic liberalism that’s about individual freedoms and then moves towards something else. This week, we want to look at the Western idea of individuality because these are two very tied together ideas. So to set the scene, we go back to the Protestant Reformation in the fifteen hundreds and that underlined the idea that faith was about personal struggle rather than group ritual or tradition.

That is what Protestantism is really based in from the beginning, is that it is between one person and God. Therefore, the individual becomes this place of the cosmic struggle and therefore the individual becomes much more important in the Western mind. So this is this central to understanding several things that are going to be coming together. So it’s much more about the personal. During that time, translations of the Bible into local languages allowed people to interpret scripture for themselves. We should discuss the fact that nationalism was very much a part of the Protestant Reformation. Martin Luther couldn’t have survived if he hadn’t been protected by various of the German states during his time from the Pope and his minions. The mandate to read the Bible expanded literacy, especially here in the US. That becomes absolutely central, but it becomes important all over Europe as well. And of course, the printing press exploded publication of various kinds of things. And really, that’s one of the arguments for how the Reformation could not be stamped out because all these printing presses were creating all of this Protestant propaganda all over Europe. So in classic liberalism, there arose this set of values. The individual was the locus of the cosmic battle between good and evil. This individual must then have some kind of divine sanctions, and that would include some kind of individual worth and autonomy.

And then the idea that God granted these rights of man that becomes central to the American and in the French revolutions. So the divine deist God, as we’ve discussed before, would somehow grant these rights and therefore the individual had them, not suddenly the monarch as much as once they assumed. Well, then what I want to think about this week is the difference between these two statements. “I think therefore I am” and “I am because we are”. Very different statements from very different parts of the world, very different social systems. And that’s part of what we need to think about as we explore the idea of a brain in a jar is not really being reflective of how reality and the brain works. This all goes back to, well, much further, but we start with the idea of “cogito ergo sum”. “I think therefore I am” by Rene Descartes, one of the central philosophers in the Western tradition, feeding right out of the Reformation and into the what we call Enlightenment period. Actually, the phrase is “dubito ergo cogito, cogito ergo sum” shortened, but it needs to not be shortened, if you really want to understand what’s going on. “I doubt therefore I think. I think therefore I am”. Descartes was trying to figure out how can we get at the essence of what’s really going on in reality? Now, he did examine the idea that there could be a cruel God who makes people think when they’re not really thinking, but then he says “No, God’s good”, so we have to assume that’s not the case. So therefore, I doubt, and my doubt creates my my impression that I am thinking and then because I am thinking, I know that I exist. But it’s all about the “I” and that’s part of what we need to explore. Descartes said this, “In order to seek truth, it is necessary once in the course of our life, to doubt, as far as possible, of all things.” What Descartes was all about in his “Principia Philosophiae”, is the idea, how do we get at a base axiom, how do we make philosophy like mathematics? How are we able to say: this is true and therefore I can begin to build truth statements from that. Rene Descartes was 1596 to 1650. One of the problems with his idea from the very get go, and he knew it, was that animals can’t doubt. So therefore do they think? And he said no, because this is the basis of his philosophy. And so he called animals automata. He the idea or the word robot had not been invented at the time, but he did have this idea of that animals who couldn’t doubt would therefore have to be some kind of robot automata creature.

That’s one of the holes in the argument from the beginning that people did watch very closely over time. If you really want to read up on what’s known as “substance dualism” that is there are two kinds of substances out there. There is the body, and then there is this thought, this doubt. “The Blackwell Companion to Substance Dualism” is a good, thick book from the Oxford University. And you, too, can learn all about substance dualism. A very quick summary, we have covered this idea before in coffee and wisdom. It comes from Plato, really. And this is the idea, the metaphor of Plato’s Cave`. The basic idea here is that we on the Earth are living in a cave. We are chained down there and we are watching shadows cast from a fire. Plato didn’t have the idea of a movie theater. Nowadays, we would see it as a movie theater in which we only see the movies or the shadows as real. But guess what? They’re not real. And actually, you can break out of that through philosophy to the outer world where real thought occurs. But that only occurs in the mind of God. This platonic idea goes directly into Christianity. It was really not part of popular Greek thought, but it goes into this dualistic idea into Christianity because of the Christian idea of the body and the soul.

And this, again, becomes very important that these two things are completely different. Here’s a little schematic of how this breaks down. Up at the top, you have Plato’s forms, the highest form, the good or God. Already there was an idea of a monotheistic God in Plato’s time, but the idea of the Christian God very much becomes part of this. And this does become the where the idea of the Christian God is being all perfect, all powerful, et cetera, comes from because, well, what would be the highest good would be a God, completely different from all things that we understand from the physicality of the planet. From this, then we go down to lower forms. The first idea down lower is abstract philosophical ideas like beauty and justice. You know, and these are beautiful abstract terms. They don’t exist in individual cases, but only in the abstract. Then, says Plato, we do work down to the individual perfect forms. That would be painting, that would be sculpture, where we can really look at the perfect idea that would exist in this great mind of God. And then we get down to oh, alas, us. We are only particulars, we are poor copies of that which exists in the mind of God in some kind of heavenly sphere. That’s the way that Plato’s cave idea breaks down and this very much becomes a part of Christian thinking and then part of Western thinking in general, as Christianity is spread over Europe and then to Europe’s many colonies.

So we have this idea that we have a physical body, but somehow that physical body, the physical properties of it, are different from the mental. And it has something to do with this hierarchy. But what is the real me then? This is dealt with by Daniel Dennett, a contemporary philosopher and cognitive scientist, who calls it the “Cartesian Theater”. And that is that if you really begin to think like Descartes appears to have thought about these two things, then you begin to imagine a little guy noticed this film playing again. This is Plato’s Cave. So where you’re looking out on the world, but where is the little guys? Where is the little people that are in our brain? Where are the are the people that are watching the Cartesian Theater? This becomes very important to Daniel Dennett’s argument against Descartes, which we’ll get to a little bit later in the week. But Plato’s cave sets all of this idea up because do we have these ideal spiritual forms and do we have this physicality that is somehow less than. That becomes a central Western idea and it’s usually called Cartesian Dualism. And here you see one of the results of Cartesian dualism in action, and that is that in the Western world, we have begun to think that other forms of religion that don’t do like Plato probably have more validity than does the Christian faith traditions.

Arguable, but it is it’s very clear where this idea comes from. It is Cartesian Dualism set up by Plato that becomes very much a part of Christianity from the very beginning. Mind, body and soul as the way most of these are going to break it out. And so, yes, if you go meditate with them, is kind of the promise here. You, too, will get past your Cartesian Dualism. You will notice I put this one in the center as an illustration. We’ve got body, soul and mind. But you’ve also got this fourth thing “spirit” that tells us that this is actually very much a Western Christian and Cartesian idea pretending to be an Eastern idea because within Eastern or Asian traditions, there is no outer God or Spirit out there. Again, this reveals an idea that goes all the way back to Plato, that is embedded in the Christian mind, that there has to be a God out there somewhere. But then we get ideas like this. This is from Taisen Dishimaru, not so much known in the U.S. as a Zen master. He moved to Paris. He grew up in Japan and after the Second World War left the country and moved to Paris.

And he says this. “Descartes said, I think therefore I am.” I say “I do not think, that is why I exist.” Well, wait a minute, how are you going to do that? And, well, he’s one of the people who brings the idea of Zen Buddhism to the Western world and it begins to permeate out of the big cultural centers after the Second World War. He from Paris, there are also some folk who moved to London and then to San Francisco, as we’ve discussed about the American situation. But Descartes thinks therefore he is. I do not think and that is why I exist. Notice that he doesn’t say “therefore I am”, he says, “therefore I exist”. So what is going on here? Let’s think about that. Again, he’s not as famous here in the U.S., but he has books such as “Zen & Karma” and “Questions to a Zen Master”. These have been translated into English over time, although again, he’s not the central figure bringing Zen Buddhism into U.S. thought. Another idea that I want to think about this week is “Ubuntu”. And that is that idea, “I think therefore I am”, verses or in contradistinction to, “I am because you are”. So you see the idea here, individuality or group, which is the dominant way of forming human minds? That’s the question. There are lots of great books these days on Ubuntu.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu is the one who really introduces the idea of Ubuntu into Western consciousness. Being a Christian, he was able to talk about this in ways that then Christians begin to kind of relate to, but most thinkers from Africa will argue that Ubuntu is a humanist form of thought, not in any way a precursor to any Christian ways of thinking. And again, we will definitely get into that, because I think that’s the tie between where humanism exits the Christian ways of thinking and ends up somewhere quite different. I want to get to eventually this idea from Amishi Jha, who is also a cognitive scientist who says emotional function and cognitive function aren’t unrelated to each other. They’re completely intertwined. Again, one of Descartes’ ideas that’s going to feed in very dangerously into Western thought is that we can separate emotion from our reason. This becomes part and parcel of the Western idea that really now we’re discovering can’t be. And that’s another reason why you can’t put Hitler’s brain in a jar and it’s still thinks like Hitler. Well, that’s what we’re going to be talking about this week. “I am because we are” or “I think therefore I am”. And it’s all part of our exploration of the theme for the month of April, which is “Becoming”. Thanks a lot, and we’ll be back tomorrow.

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