Friday, 3 July 2015

self-same or et in arcadia ego

Some seven centuries prior to the famous Cartesian maxim Cogito ergo sum (originally formulated with the French Je pense, donc je suis), another mathematician and philosopher—plus notably a physician, who attested that all medicine was guesswork and theoretical—from Persia (presently in part of Uzbekistan, those a creature of the courts through the realm) called Abu Ali al Hussein ibn al Sini (Latinised as Avicenna) prevision the philosophy of self as a first principle (or evidence thereof) by supposing a floating man—suspended in a sensory-deprivation tank as it were.

Heir to the grand translation movement, this floating man, blindfolded, and with his extremities stretched to the point, arms and fingers and other limbs, where he could not investigate his own identity and thus had no external confirmation of his body, would still nonetheless, that Avicenna posited, have a conception of his self, identity as separate from the universe at large that was buoying him up, insensibly. Whereas the assertion by René Decartes that I (ego) think therefore I am, which doubts away the whole cosmos, supposing by turns that his consciousness is a brain in a vat, feed deceptions by an Evil Genius (like the film saga of The Matrix) until there is only his doubt that he can be reliably certain of the fact that he—it is I, who is doing the doubting. After all this skepticism, Descartes seeks to rebuild the Universe as it is, only now more confident that his senses and reason is not deceiving him. It’s rather easy to intuit this after Avicenna and Descartes have done all the hard work, but both writers expect of their readership to try the thought experiment themselves (choosing the red-pill, again like Matrix) and to go through the same harrowing rigours of discovery. While Descartes was already hoping to establish the nature of the cosmos out of his Cogito, Avicenna may have had less ambitious goals (even though more conclusions fall out of his argument)—just demonstrating, no mean feat certainly, that one’s consciousness, mind or soul had an existence regardless of what outside impressions augmented it and therefore could be said to be immaterial and unperishingly incorruptible.
For Avicenna’s next trick, he deduced the argument of infinite regression and first-causes to prove the logical necessity of a creator to set everything in motion—whose reasoning and nomenclature influenced philosophers and theologians, many luminaries tilling the same ground, until the present day. Building off Aristotle’s taxonomy, Avicenna figured that there were three kinds of things in the Universe, putting them into sets like a good mathematician: one, those things which can not be, like a square-circle, an anti-whale or infinity plus one—though we might be able to imagine otherwise; two, that which exists in the physical world which are contingent on something else—that is everything with a parentage and a history, from a tablet computer to the Andromeda Galaxy, and up to a point, we are able to tell that story (for things that do not exist but could, there are the same antecedent causes that we might also account for, like there never having been a Persian Empire because Alexander the Great was never born); the third sort of thing exists without being contingent on any else—unmade and the creative impetus, the divine (Aristotle believed that the Universe had not origin and was eternal). That’s pretty tidy and has been championed by countless thinkers since. Avicenna’s statements, however, eventually fell out of favour with the theological establishment believing he was degenerating the faithful with his mathematical proofs, as I suppose that the same articles of faith are superfluous in a logical framework. The Cartesian Cogito also retains its relevance, influence and heritage (currency and cachet) but post modern thinkers introduced yet another element of doubt that creates a pretty big whole in Descartes’ regression and progression about what that I was that was doing the reflecting was. Was it really me or is it us, and since the present is the only thing one fancies himself positive of (since false memories could also be implanted) and that’s always slipping away (so we suppose)—is anything more possible than pre-reflection that doesn’t essay the heart of doubt? But that is for another post.