along metaphysical lines

Rene Descartes

Every once in a while, Descartes invades my brain. I don’t know if this is the curse of being a philosopher or if it’s just the oddity of being me. It could be both I guess. Descartes is one of those philosophers who combines amazing insights with crazy – one minute you are amazed by the profundity and the next minute you are struck by the insanity. The stuff of Descartes that creeps into my mind is not about the demon who might be fooling me, or the way he sneaks God in through the backdoor in a manner that disregards his stance on the necessity of doubting everything (that just makes me angry), but rather it’s the stuff about the contents of consciousness being indubitable, and the coordinating problem of mind-body. Minds are immaterial thinking things, and bodies are material, non-thinking, extended stuff, but they do have some causal interaction … kind of like a puppeteer. So, the immaterial mind talks to the material body through the pineal gland, a physical gland in the brain. If you want to read more on the pineal gland, check out Stanford Encyclopedia. This is already problematic, how does the immaterial talk to the material, but he continues onward. He argues that the thinking thing can exist apart from the non-thinking thing. Yup, he thinks your mind can exist apart from your body. Obviously it wouldn’t be knocking about at the mall or driving the car as it lacks the mobility. Can you imagine if Descartes were to have met one of those zombie philosophers or a horror movie director like George Romero, Mr Dawn of the Dead himself?! Minds and bodies existing independently. I wonder if when a zombie eats your brain, does he eat your mind? Or does the mind escape just before the first bite? If he did eat both your brain and your mind, he couldn’t tell you what it tastes like since he lacks qualia. Damn, I wanted to know if a mind tastes like bananas or chicken. Okay, I am way too sober and sane to keep contemplating this.

Descartes basically says that I am conscious that I exist, or what everyone knows to be cogito ergo sum (I think, therefore I am). I am the one who doubts and thinks, but what I doubt or think about besides my consciousness is problematic. The stuff outside of me is easy to doubt – I could be dreaming, or drunk, or some evil demon is tricking me. I can doubt the table across the room, but I cannot doubt that I am one thinking about it. Now, this is fine until I walk into the table while trying to doubt its existence – the pain and bruising caused by this action makes it seem pretty real. So real I avoid doing it again. So, Mr. Descartes says I can believe the stuff outside me to be real because God would not deceive me and nature is my teacher. Yup, this is where my disappointment set in. I agree that nature can be a teacher, a very good one in fact: if you see a big, scary, growling tiger, your instincts tell you to get the hell away from it, or if you put your hand on a hot poker and get burned badly, most likely you never touch one again, these are both cases of nature being a teacher. But the part about God is not only a cop-out, it doesn’t solve anything here – I have to make theological presuppositions in order to have metaphysical certainty, and that presupposition involves a being I cannot see, hear, or have any concrete knowledge of. But how can I make those presuppositions when he tells me I ought to be doubting everything but my own indubitable conscious existence? Whig on too tight at times? Maybe it had some strong chemicals too. But I digress …..

To my knowledge, Descartes never had a tattoo. I don’t even know if he knew anything about tattoos or if he had ever seen one. Now, a tattoo is basically ink applied to the physical body, as we all know. But, if this is applied to the physical body, and the physical body is a different substance than the mind, it seems I should be able to doubt the tattoo’s reality in all respects – experience of getting as well as existence after. The tattoo gun is a physical object, as is the ink, and my tattoo artist is a physical other outside myself, the stencil too is an outside object, etc., and the image to be applied to my body might be my own imagining, or someone else’s, or it might be of a person or object in the world, something he says I can doubt exists. But … ummm … can you doubt sitting in the chair at the shop that you are being tattooed? If my body and my mind are qualitatively different, there should be a gap in the way I feel things (almost removed or secondhand), something that allows for doubt because it feels somehow less real or less immediate. I know in many cases I have practiced ‘mind over matter’ when being inked in an uncomfortable spot, but that is not doubting the experience is occurring or doubting the existence of the tattoo gun running over my skin. I couldn’t doubt no matter how hard I try — the experience of my collar-bone rattling in my ears, or my teeth shaking, or my spinal cord vibrating, or the feeling of my body constantly flinching when my kidney area is being inked. Nor can I doubt the tenderness of the area tattooed the next day, nor the scabbing that happens over the next week. And I remember very deeply this experience so that I would have great issue doubting the existence of the tattoo on my physical body afterwards. My kidney area tattoo reminds me every time I look at it or run my fingers over it of that day when it was applied, and I cannot doubt I was the one on the table being tattooed, being conscious of my flinching body and the discomfort. This is where I agree that nature is my teacher, even though I plainly and obviously ignore her for the greater end. And there was no gap or qualitative difference in the sensation – it felt like pain or discomfort, pure and simple. Nature is a direct teacher, no middle man needed. I refuse to talk about the “God is no deceiver” part here, as I am an atheist. I just cannot see God taking time out to guarantee for me the tattoo experience … the big thumbs up that it’s all real. Nope. Maybe he does for others but not for me.

I have studied quite a bit of philosophical psychology in my years of study, and quite a lot of metaphysics and epistemology too. I have begun to think more and more that tattoos are an interesting topic in discussion of mind-body, and of mental and physical phenomena. As much as tattoos are physical pictures on your physical body, they represent things that are very much mental. If the picture comes from your own imaginings, then you have a mental object made physical on your body. Tattoos have a deep connection to your personal experiences and attitudes towards the physical world. They are unique stamps of your mental-physical interactions, and are themselves proof of the kind of strength the bond between mind and body has. Would you go through the pain or discomfort if what was being tattooed on you didn’t have strong significance for both your internal and external being?
I think not.
That is non cogito.
Oh shit.

Cogito Ergo Sum in ink


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