I Think, therefore I’m Wrong

The longer I live on this planet the more it seems to me we’ve got it wrong about the sort of critters we really are. Even though we’re more or less willing to give up the idea we’re immortal spirits trapped in physical bodies — a notion David Hume saw through almost two hundred years ago — we cling to our reason and consciousness as setting us apart from the rest of creation like members of a David_Humemiddling caste that can at least feel superior to those below it on the social scale.

I’m not even talking about the revelations (science now provides “revelations,” a function once exclusive to holy writ) that our free will is as predictable as a crossing light if you apply electrodes to the right parts of the cranium. Rather, I’m referring to mind itself, the thing we experience on a moment-by-moment basis, the thing we like to think is separate from, if not entirely free of, our feelings or emotions. Hence we speculate on the possibility of a computer achieving something like human consciousness. No one but Hollywood script writers assume cyber-consciousness would be accompanied by emotion. Mind, reason, we like to think, can function by itself given the right algorithms and sufficient chip speed. Emotion is something left over from our more primitive days before the great evolutionary leap forward that gave our prefrontal lobes command and control.

It ain’t so. We are feeling animals, not thinking ones, or at least not as thinking as we like to believe we are. Other animals think. Probably all of them do. You could even say that plants think. One of mine recently outfoxed me when I tried to prevent its putting forth a powerful-smelling flower in order to reproduce itself. It got wise to my trick in the past of cutting off the shoot before it could fully bloom and stink up the room. This time it put forth the shoot hidden in the back of the plant where I didn’t notice it, and it did so entirely out of season in the autumn when the daylight was waning instead of in the spring when it had previously bloomed. And the clever little bugger almost succeeded. I smelled something but didn’t immediately recognize what it was until the shoot was almost in full flower and only then after skeptically searching through the dense leaves and discovered it sequestered deep down in the dark recesses of the plant. Tell me this isn’t intelligence, if not exactly conscious thought.

I don’t know what kind of affective life that plant has, though I worry when I cut off its withered leaves. But I do know so-called animals have a very rich emotional life. Yet, we have denied animals, even cats, dogs, horses and other domestic animals, the possibility of having true feelings and have treated them more or less the way we would treat a vegetable or a stone. In the real world, though, we and they are identical in this respect, whatever our specific and superficial differences. A dog doesn’t think as I do, he thinks as a dog. But he seems to feel pretty much the same things I feel, and it’s his feelings, not his thoughts, that make him who he is, just as mine do me.

My consciousness gives me the illusion of operating at a distance from my emotions, those dark, animal chemical states left over from a deep past which other species have not been able to break free of. This sense of separation between emotion and consciousness is an illusion, but it’s a powerful illusion, and it must have been given a great boost when the mutation that took place tens of thousands of years ago changed us into the sort of people we are today. It made possible art, philosophy, science and, of course, language, the latter being our distinguishing attribute, or so our wise men and women keep telling us.

But just as we were wrong for so long about the mind’s being a spirit, we are just as wrong about its being the essence of what makes us human. And we are probably just as wrong about the quality of the so-called animals’ interior states.

We can see this same failure on our part to recognize other species’ likeness to ourselves if we look at the way we view human civilizations that have not had the same tools for recording themselves as our own have. Unless a people has left behind a written, architectural or some other discoverable proof of their intelligent life we assume they had none, or none comparable to our own. Until a couple hundred years ago the civilizations that lay beneath the sands of Mesopotamia were mere backdrop to the high achievements we accorded ancient Greek and Hebrew cultures, firstly and especially because the Greek and Hebrew cultures form the bases for our own but also because until fairly recently we had nothing from any other that compared with the Bible or the Homeric epics.

Now we know that the Bible is largely a product derived from those buried civilizations, that ancient Israel, which disappeared as a state about 750 BCE, and Judea, which only came into its own after the sixth century BCE, were, like every other culture, products of contact with the great civilizations surrounding them plus their own local contributions to those derivations. For millennia we lived without any major literary text that Gilgameshpredated the stories in the collection of Hebrew texts we call the Bible, until in the mid-19th century the epic tale of Gilgamesh emerged from beneath the sands covering the ancient city of Nineveh. Yet, Gilgamesh, like the Book of Genesis, is itself a compilation of tales put together from material dating all the way back to the Sumerians many centuries earlier, predating either the Bible or the Iliad by a thousand years.

My point being that it’s only because we can express ourselves, put into literary or some other artful, recordable form our thoughts and feelings, that we claim a priority for our own or other recorded civilizations in what used to be called the Great Chain of Being. We write, paint, build, invent, compute…therefore we are. If it were only thought that proved our existence as human beings, the great majority of human beings who have occupied this planet could not be considered existential human beings, because they left behind no record of themselves, any more than a dog or a cat does. The peoples (we dare not call them “civilizations” if they left no sophisticated records) who have lived without acquiring the art of writing and built no monuments to themselves we dismiss as irrelevant to human history. An oral culture may in fact surpass that of one that is literate or at least one that has a scribal class (all cultures have been 95% illiterate for much of their development, the ancient Greeks being the first to achieve something like 10% literacy), but we have no way of knowing such a civilization apart from the artifacts it created and so discount it as “primitive.”

An oral culture that dies out or is subsumed by one that either incorporates or rejects its body of oral art becomes a non-culture. In effect, it never existed. It is the literate cultures, in the West the Greek and Hebrew, that we see as the great achievers because, like us, they not only produced significant art and thought but, more importantly, they recorded themselves. If other cultures also recorded themselves, as did the one that produced that version of Gilgamesh that lay buried for so long under the sands of Nineveh, but remained unknown or underexplored because we believed we had all the art and literature of the ancient world that mattered, they may as well have not existed at all, even if, as in the case of the Sumerians, they were seminal to all the civilizations that followed them in that part of the world. We already had the intellect of the Greeks and the revealed Truth of the ancient Jews, so why go digging in the desert to see what may or may not turn up when we had such low expectations of finding anything comparable there?

But all peoples in every age have led full, rich emotional lives whether they had the means to express those feelings or not. Less “civilized” societies must have also been less encumbered by the illusion of a disembodied consciousness and lived in their bodies more comfortably, or at least without the fantasy that they were essentially different from the other living things around them. The notion of a separate entity — call it “soul” or “spirit” — marks the beginning of our ignorance about our true nature and even about how we live on a moment-to-moment basis. Art is our best way of expressing this life, what it means to be human/mammalian. Art is accessible to the consciousness but cannot be experienced except in a much deeper part of ourselves. Do other animals also express themselves in some similar way? For the most part we have worked hard to prove they do not, and that unwillingness to share a common life with our fellow creatures has hobbled even our most rigorous scientific efforts. After all, it’s only in the last century that some parts of the world have admitted the female sex to humanity. We have a lot of catching-up to do with our more furred and feathered brethren, especially the domestic, edible versions for whom, in the words of Isaac Bashevis Singer, “every day is Treblinka.”

Descartes should have written, “I feel, therefore I am,” but he was victim to more than two thousand years of Western hubris. And, by “feel” of course I’m talking about the very rich and complex total state which we subdivide at our peril into “consciousness,” “subconsciousness,” “emotion,” etc. Even DescartesDescartes, when he said, “I think, therefore I am,” was really describing an experiential rather than a purely rational state. That’s why the proposition he stated seems self-evident: it’s compelling, like the experience of free will, and the experience of a compelling notion is hardly something that can be called abstract or purely rational. We exist because we experience existence. We have free will because we experience choice. In that we are not a whit different from any other creature with a brain. We just prefer to believe we are. But, then, I suppose if dogs or cats could express themselves in a way we could understand as language they would also claim preeminence over every other species.




About Thomas J. Hubschman

Thomas J. Hubschman is the author of Look at Me Now, My Bess, Song of the Mockingbird, Billy Boy, Father Walther’s Temptation, The Jew’s Wife & Other Stories and three science fiction novels. His work has appeared in New York Press, The Antigonish Review, Eclectica, The Blue Moon Review and many other publications. Two of his short stories were broadcast on the BBC World Service.

Posted on March 28, 2014, in Other Thoughts and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 7 Comments.

  1. Tom – As a cognitive psychologist, I couldn’t agree more that not only is our modern concept of intelligence culturally chauvinist, but also species-centric. Intelligence tests were initially devised without a theoretical foundation, so that psychologists were often reduced to saying that intelligence was “what was revealed by the test.” Psychologists unwilling to accept this circular thinking finally have decided that the best we can say is that intelligent behavior is adaptive. In other words, if it increases our capacity to survive, it is intelligent. Obviously, it is a small step to concluding that life and intelligence are co-extensive. And that what may be “intelligent”in one situation or environment is useless or even suicidal in others.

    Historically, human thinking has not been so self-congratulatory. Pagan thought reflects a profound appreciation of intelligence in the world around us. I think, paradoxically, it was the scientific revolution that did so much to close us off from the living world. First, scientists tried to protect themselves from prosecution by church authorities by declaring that the world of the spirit belonged to the church, and that science was only concerned with the natural, not supernatural, world. Right there consciousness was abandoned as a potential object of scientific study. Then Newton came along with his theory of gravity, based on the assumption of a completely mechanized natural world. Scientists concluded therefore that animals not only had no thoughts, but no ability to feel pain. Some experiments were horrifyingly sadistic.

    You tell the story of your intelligent and inventive plant. I too have had similar experiences. I no longer consider calling someone a “bird brain” to be an insult.

  2. Thanks, Terry. I couldn’t ask for a more interesting and thought-provoking comment.

    The story of the Eugenics movement in the US highlights what you said about intelligence being “what was revealed by the test.” On the basis of the test (Stanford-Benet?) given to the soldiers in the army during the first world war, the experts who subsequently testified before Congress could state with confidence that Eastern Europeans (mostly Jews) and Asians (mostly Chinese, I assume) were genetically inferior in intelligence to northern Europeans. Think of the irony there…and the tragedy too, considering how many of the kids from both those groups have achieved so much academically.

    The result of those testimonies and of the intellectual community’s broad consensus on the issue (everyone from Emma Goldman and Margaret Sanger to Winston Churchill and Theodore Roosevelt) we got a law passed in 1924 that severely restricted immigration from those parts of the world (and others). How many of those who ended up in Nazi death camps would have survived if that bill hadn’t passed on the strength of so much “scientific” authority.

    Of course, Adolph glommed onto this American idea at just about the time it was starting to be discredited here and in the UK.

    My impression of earlier cultures’ attitudes and the 18th century’s fatal compromise on the subject are in perfect accord with your own. Descartes dropped the ball.

    Hume insisted that mind is a product of the brain just as digestion is a product of the GI tract (remember Chomsky’s wonderful lecture on the Ghost in the Machine?), but no one seemed to pay Hume any attention and, as Chomsky also pointed out recently, neuro-scientists have now declared (with appropriate caveats so as not to provoke too much scandal) that thoughts are the products of the physical processes of the brain.

    Not that many people believe this yet. Nor are they likely to do so willingly, don’t you think?

  3. Yes, the immigration policies based on intelligence were truly terrible. It’s not altogether discredited. I remember as a graduate student refusing to join a boycot of a university lecture on the racial differences in levels of intelligence on the grounds that it was an idea that needed to be discounted with evidence, not repressed as socially unacceptable. I sometimes lose patience with people who dismiss outright global warming or the theory of evolution. But it is important to remember how destructively wrong science can be.

    I think today many people are not willing to accept that thoughts are the products of the physical processes of the brain. In fairness, I think there are two reasons.

    The first is that we would have to give up the idea of the soul, which means giving up the belief in eternal life as Christianity has conceived it. That, and the accompanying uncertainty about the meaning of life at all is a big ask for a lot of people.

    The second reason is scientific. Accepting the assumption that thoughts are the result of physical processes is not the same thing as understanding it. As a matter of fact, we have no theories at all about how physical processes are converted into something as seemingly immaterial as thought. It is comparable to (and may even be the cousin of) the problem of quantum physics which cannot explain how particles influence each other even when they are thousands of miles (maybe more) apart and for which we can so no conceivable means of communication.

    Philosophically I clung onto a kind of dualism until I recognized this parallel.

    Thank you for the chance to talk about this. It feels like an incredibly important issue.


  4. While we’re on the subject, you might enjoy http://ksriranga.wordpress.com/2014/04/03/check-out-your-spritual-progress/

    Having gotten to the end, I enjoyed a second reading even more than the first.


  5. “Accepting the assumption that thoughts are the result of physical processes is not the same thing as understanding it.”

    Exactly, Terry. And that was what Newton insisted when he posited the theory of gravity. The good scientists of his day, the ones who were proud to have replaced the mumbo-jumbo of the Great Chain of Being, the microcosm-macrocosm and all the elaborate and arcane logic that went into the old way of seeing things by a new, mechanistic natural philosophy, as they called it, denounced Newton for turning back the clock by falling back on immaterial, spiritual causes for natural phenomena.

    Newton apologized for having to put forth something as “unscientific” as gravity to explain the attraction of celestial bodies for each other. But explain it did. And we are no wit closer to understanding gravity than Newton was, and now we have relativity and quantum theory as well to be in ignorance of.

    We cannot understand any of these because, as Hume (I think, or Locke) pointed out, our brains have “scope and limits,” and these do not include phenomena outside human experience. What we experience and therefore understand is the action of one body acting on another by striking it. A ball moves because something hits it. That’s the scope and limits of our understanding of that area of physics. We cannot and never will understand any other force of nature that can move an object. We can discover its existence, as Newton did, and Einstein did and Bohr did, and we can make use of this discovery and even define it mathematically, but that is all.

    This idea that our brains are not equipped to understand how they themselves work any more than they are able to understand the quantum magic you referenced may, I think, be an even more compelling reason than the notion of the soul to explain why we refuse to give up our belief in the immateriality of the mind (although, Chomsky in that lecture said, I think, that what Newton destroyed was not the immaterial but the material world: i.e., that he established that everything is immaterial). Nor would any self-respecting sparrow or rhinoceros accept such a notion of its own ignorance. It’s the limits part that we cannot abide. We believe that somehow someday we will get our minds around this gravity thing or this quantum thing. But we won’t, anymore than rats will get their minds around the theory of prime numbers if that’s what it takes to get through a maze and eat the cheese (to use Chomsky’s example of scope and limits).

    It’s all about vanitas vanitatum, after all, isn’t it.

    • Tom – It is a delight to find someone so completely on the same page.

      Now the cognitive psychologist in me finds myself wondering whether we used similar maps to get where we are.. And then we get onto the whole nature-nurture thing which is as fascinating and ultimately as mysterious as quantum theory. I decided some time ago to delight in living in mystery. The alternative isn’t to live in certainty, but in frustrated misery.

  6. Another thought on this subject with which I suspect you are more than familiar. Much of scientific thought today is still stuck in the world of mechanized assumptions. This includes both scientists and non-scientists to the detriment of both. For many people, then, it is a choice between either absolute mindless mechanized determinism or adding a spiritual world to explain consciousness and a sense of free will. This is the source, I think, of much of the conflict between scientists and many religious thinkers today. But in my opinion, it is a misunderstanding of the fundamental issues on both sides. It\’s a false argument based on erroneous assumptions about the available choices.

    Science from Newton (and his non-mechanized and explicit understanding of gravity which you describe and which was to a large extent discounted by scientists of his day, even as they lauded his mathematical genius) through Einstein and quantum physics, as well as swathes of evidence from modern biological sciences suggest that matter is not inert but dynamic. That leaves open the possibility that what we experience as “mind” is capable of acting on physical processes in the brain just as physical processes act on what we experience as mind. It is a natural two-way process which to some extent we can observe but do not – probably cannot ever – understand.

    As you point out, to us humans, mind and body look like two different things completely, just as energy and matter do, because we have evolved to operate in the world as we do. In a reality which we are incapable of experiencing directly, mind and body are two aspects of the same thing, inter-related, interacting inseparable realities just as matter and energy are.

    All of which is probably my long-winded way of saying “I agree.”


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