“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights…”
United States Declaration of Independence
What does it mean for a truth to be self evident? Perhaps the better question is actually what does it mean that a truth can be self evident? It is simple really; “we have no choice but to believe what we understand” Matthew Stewart explains in Nature’s God. Put this way it hardly seems such an obnoxious idea, almost a truism. But this is not the case. This is another concept from the radical philosophy held by our Deist founding fathers. It has to do with the nature of the mind.
Rene Descartes proposed an absolute skepticism as the foundation of modern western philosophy. He asked what if a demon had created this entire universe to deceive us. In that case we could trust nothing reported by the senses. How would we ever know what was real and what was a delusion? He (in)famously concluded the only certainty available to a human being is the conceptual mind; “I think, therefore I am.”
Notice the assumption here about the nature of the self or what we would call today a theory of the mind. The philosophical question he is struggling to answer is what is real about our experience. He brings to the investigation the Christian assumptions of an individual soul which is somehow situated above the manifest universe; it can judge whether the whole of our embodied experience it is true or otherwise. Though it may not be obvious, in his thought experiment he sits in judgment over the whole of existence by assuming that human consciousness is the only really alive personhood in an otherwise dead material universe. Remember Descartes also bequeathed our belief that animals are no more than clever machines.
Daniel Dennett was among the first to provide a thoroughly modern critique of a theory of mind he aptly described as a Cartesian Theater. Though the title does not well represent the actual contents, Dennett’s Consciousness Explained is a very important read for those interested in consciousness as it is being thought about in academic settings under the influence of the neurosciences of our times. The Cartesian Theater is a descriptive term for this theory of mind commonly attributed to Descartes. In Descartes’ view the mind is somewhat like a multi-screen movies theater where an inner eye scans pictures, mental images. In this view ideas are no more than immaterial things (!) and we are free to choose among them as we will. This simple, sort of default understanding of our minds, turns out to involve the whole western way of viewing belief, truth and free will.
This Image of the mind as a Cartesian Theater is very important for buttressing up the whole concept of a revealed religion, which requires that people can choose to believe in it or not. By this view of the mind there is no inherent attributes of the ideas themselves that could assure us we are not being fooled by the demon of Descartes famous doubt; the demon he postulated was capable of producing a world of illusion by fooling all our senses. What Descartes saw was that there is no way to leave our private movie theater and check on things; we can never, ever know if what we know is true. There is an absolute skepticism here which, as Stewart points out, seems to demand an unqualified leap of faith.
Daniel Dennett demolishes the picture-theory of mind nine ways to Sunday. It turns out we may not know how consciousness works in cutting edge neuroscience but we are quite sure it does not work like this. One of his more colorful critiques is also as easy to understand as it is profound. He asks about this eye in the middle of the theater which he names a homunculus to capture the image of the little controller in our head this picture-theory of the mind needs.
What is telling the homunculus what to believe? It must have an even smaller homunculus, complete with its own movie theater, in its own head. Of course this second, smaller homunculus will need an even smaller third one in its head and so on, right down the hall of mirrors in an infinite regress. Dennett points out there can be no such self sitting in the center of the head calling the shots. Neuroscience supports this conclusion; although an executive center of the brain has been tentatively identified, its characteristics are not quite what we might suppose. As far as we can tell there is no central location in the brain. What we see instead is that every thought involves numerous areas of the brain simultaneously; recall our discussion of the grandmother neuron. What this leads us to do is reconsider the ontological status of those things we are aware of due to the brain’s processing.
“We have no choice but to believe what we understand.” Stewart provides us with a vivid metaphor for the difference in views here. We tend to think of our minds, he says, as a jar full of marbles which are all the ideas we have. Consciousness is the jar, the container holding this endless parade. The radical philosophy simply asserts there is no jar. The ideas themselves, the interplay of patterns in the neuron soup, that is all there is. But this interplay is not random.
Brains evolved to adapt to their environment.
This is another truism hard to really grasp the full implications of because we are sure we already get it. Consider this – the environment of every human being who has ever lived has never contained a god or demon walking around as real as you or I. Nor will you ever shake hands with an ideology. We find these in the conceptual mind, nowhere else. This doesn’t deny the possibility of visionary experiences, other classes of beings and all that. It simply puts such things squarely where the evidence from the daily life of people for eons insists it belongs.
Here in the world beyond the conceptual labels we manufacture, everything which makes an impression upon our body carries with it an inherent, shall we say, reflexivity; it states its own form of being. It is its own evidence.
That which makes what is real, seem real to us – that is what we should learn to bow down to. If we did we would immediately awaken to a world full of ignorant abuse at every turn, for the ecological reality of our situation has grown dark. We lost sight of the fact that what we need is not much more than simply food, clothing, and shelter if we have joyful companionship and a way to contribute to the well being of our self and others. We have become so enamored with our conceptual gymnastics that as a species we are at risk of losing the ability to provide this simple food, simple clothing and simple shelter for ourselves.
This is a molecular world, everywhere the truth of it is self evident. The industrialized culture has not been dealing with it very skillfully. The conceptual abstractions through which we conduct our economics and politics have placed us at risk of not recognizing what is self evident; namely that what cannot be sustained, will not be sustained.
Instead of the absolute Descartes skepticism we could adopt a great certainty in the self evident truths we discover in the moment by moment reality of this life.