Descartes: off his rocker?

Rene Descartes famously said: I think therefore I am (or as originally written in French – je pense, donc je suis), (or as the latin would have it – Cogito ergo sum).

All My Relations

All My Relations

From Wikipedia: “Descartes asserted that the very act of doubting one’s own existence served—at minimum—as proof of the reality of one’s own mind; there must be a thinking entity—in this case the self—for there to be a thought.”

Perhaps he was not completely off his rocker, but it occurred to me on a nature walk recently that thought does not and cannot exist in a vacuum. It only exists in relation to other thoughts. Perhaps I would even make the leap to say that, verily, “to exist” is to be in relationship with existence.

Gregory Bateson – the anthropologist and epistemologist (although he thought of himself primarily as a naturalist) – suggested that everything is what it is because of what it is in relation to everything else. Knowledge is a web of connected endpoints – the idea that any strand of that web can stand alone is unimaginable. And you cannot grasp the meaning of any one body of knowledge without perceiving it’s connected endpoints with other bodies of knowledge.

Consider what we know about how “knowledge” gets represented in our own brains. You have all these neuron cells connecting via synapses in web-like fashion to other neuron cells with electro-chemical signaling. “Each neuron may be connected to up to 10,000 other neurons, passing signals to each other via as many as 1,000 trillion synaptic connections, equivalent by some estimates to a computer with a 1 trillion bit per second processor.”

I will take it a step further and talk about people and places and things. These all exist in relationship to other people, animals, places and things – and only so. The Lakota people say – “Mitákuye Oyás’iŋ” – “The phrase translates in English as “we are all related,” or “all my relations.” It is a prayer of oneness and harmony with all forms of life: other people, animals, birds, insects, trees and plants, and even rocks, rivers, mountains and valleys”. They saw the essential interconnectedness of existence, and made it a prayer – I think that is beautiful.

Ubuntu – an idea from the Southern African region is understood in a philosophical sense to mean “the belief in a universal bond of sharing that connects all humanity”. Or to put in someone else’s words – “A person is a person through other people”

More from Michael Onyebuchi Eze:
“ ‘A person is a person through other people‘ strikes an affirmation of one’s humanity through recognition of an ‘other’ in his or her uniqueness and difference. It is a demand for a creative intersubjective formation in which the ‘other’ becomes a mirror (but only a mirror) for my subjectivity. This idealism suggests to us that humanity is not embedded in my person solely as an individual; my humanity is co-substantively bestowed upon the other and me. Humanity is a quality we owe to each other. We create each other and need to sustain this otherness creation. And if we belong to each other, we participate in our creations: we are because you are, and since you are, definitely I am. The ‘I am’ is not a rigid subject, but a dynamic self-constitution dependent on this otherness creation of relation and distance”

I know… hunh?!? I will need to read thru that a few more times… but I think I get the jist at least.

The Hawaiian Kahunas (basically tribal medicine men, or shamans) saw their role in the tribe as repairing the broken connections that lead to sickness, strife, and other general unpleasantness’. They understood that health was synonymous with strong relationship (with others, with self, with earth). Serge Kahili King says this: “I define [a Hawaiian] shaman as a healer of relationships: between mind and body, between people, between people and circumstances, between humans and nature, and between matter and spirit.”

Now what strikes me is that, when I attempt to grasp the meaning of myself or of any other creature, place or thing, I recognize that first – there are many-many relationships – a gigantic web of connected endpoints, and second – that I am powerless to perceive each and every relationship that is an essential part of my existence. This too is beautiful, but in a frightening way. If my very existence is defined basically by a thousand trillion connections to the rest of existence, then my perception of my own existence is infinitesimal.

Given this I can make some assumptions (or rather, I am forced to make many-many assumptions).

–I can assume all of the unperceived relationships do not actually exist.
–I can assume they do exist but do not have any real bearing or importance on anything or anyone – myself included.
–I can assume they do exist and do in fact have significance beyond my ability to perceive or comprehend.

Which of these assumptions will I select to guide me?

This line of thought is not completed here… but if you have read this far I will suggest you carry the preceding question with you for a while. Visit the dressing room with each of the options and try them on for a day or two. Which will you ultimately select to guide you?