I Confess Therefore I Am?

Collin’s post on confession and growth takes the organic metaphor literally by considering how prayer, confession, and fellowship are not unlike the circulatory, respiratory, and excretory organs. Thinking along these lines, I got to wondering how far that kind of metaphor could take us in understanding ourselves. Permit me to digress a bit here on the topic of Descartes’s philosophy.

In one of the most famous works of Western philosophy, the Meditations on First Philosophy, Descartes grapples with the most fundamental questions about existence and knowledge. Specifically, he addresses the philosophical problem of how and why he should believe that his experiences and knowledge are not an illusion planted in his head by “some malicious demon of the utmost power and cunning [who] has employed all his energies in order to deceive [him].” Descartes’s solution is famous:

In that case am not I, at least, something? But I have just said that I have no senses and no body. This is the sticking point: what follows from this? Am I not so bound up with a body and with senses that I cannot exist without them? But I have convinced myself that there is absolutely nothing in the world, no sky, no earth, no minds, no bodies. Does it follow that I too do not exist? No: if I convinced myself of something then I certainly existed. But there is a deceiver of supreme power and cunning who is deliberately and constantly deceiving me. In that case I too undoubtedly exist, if he is deceiving me; and let him deceive me as much as he can, he will never bring it about that I am nothing so long as I think that I am something. So after considering everything very thoroughly, I must finally conclude that this proposition, I am, I exist, is necessarily true whenever it is put forward by me or conceived in my mind.

In other words, “I think [about my existence], therefore I am.”

Although nearly 400 years old, this philosophical strategy for confronting the questions of existence and knowledge still has currency in our culture, as evidenced by films such as The Matrix, The Game, and Existenz. I would argue that it is accepted as an implicit truth by most of us in Western cultures, subject only occasional acknowledgment — and only rarely much scrutiny — in late night college dorm room debates. But is it true?

In keeping with the theme of groups as organisms on this blog, an alternative understanding of existence and knowledge might begin not with self, but with a group (such as family, church, or nation). Is it more difficult to say, “I think [about my family], therefore I am [a part of that family]”?

At first glance, one might say yes. “Family” is something that changes in time; people are born and people die. Furthermore, I do not seem to have as much control over my family as I do over my “self.” I may choose to eat chocolate cake for dinner, but my family has chosen brussels sprouts.

Upon reflection, however, the advantages of relying upon my consciousness of “self” rather than my consciousness of “family” as a foundation for my understanding of existence and knowledge are illusory. For my concept of “self” also changes over time, and my control of my “self” is less than perfect! I may choose to eat brussel sprouts for dinner, but find myself eating chocolate cake instead!

Upon further reflection, it may become clear that neither “self” nor “family” is a solid foundation for certainty in my existence and knowledge. Each has its benefits and disadvantages; neither is complete. Lurking always in the background is the notion that somehow the world that “self,” “family,” or both are operating in has an influence on our perceptions of both.

This observation leads to an interesting conjecture: what if “self,” “family,” and “world,” are not distinct (as Descartes seems to demand), but rather part of a feedback loop that changes in time? Some parts of self (such as my physical body) may be stable in time compared to family or world. Others (such as my political or religious views) may be changing much more rapidly. But there is no part of self that is more fundamental in the sense that both stable and changing aspects of self are necessary to make me who I am, and even more because the stable parts will influence the changing parts and vice versa. And the same is true for the relationship between self and family, or between self and world.

To borrow a mathematical analogy, one might say that Descartes provides a linear approximation for what is more accurately a nonlinear problem. Appealing to static individualist (or, equivalently, collectivist) definitions of existence works fine when one is looking at a snapshot of self in time (or a small enough group of people over a short enough period of time), but it cannot fully capture an existence that is dynamic, and ever evolving through interactions with surroundings.

But so what if existence and knowledge are better understood as a feedback loop? Does this help us at all in living life? I say yes for the following reasons:

First, it helps for us to remember that we are connected to the people around us in a sense that is far more fundamental than Descartes allows. Although it might not seem that way in the ephemeral present, over long times our actions will influence and are influenced by a host of others around us.

Second, feedback loops are something we know something about. For example, we know that negative feedback loops — i.e., feedback loops that use output to at least partially cancel input — are more stable over time than positive feedback loops — i.e., feedback loops in which output only increases input. In other words, as individuals, we are more likely to persist in a given state of consciousness when we regularly subject our thoughts and behavior to the scrutiny of others. If we become too disconnected from others or the world, we are likely to end up in an unhealthy mode of operation.

Third, as a dynamic model for existence, feedback loops offer (at least to me) a more philosophically pleasing picture of how we are saved. By avoiding certain truths about our existence, we may persist in a state of consciousness that gives no room for God for long periods of time. But even a small deviation from our normal activities and thoughts could lead to an entirely new state, opening up a whole new community of people sharing a different state of consciousness. In this sense, the acts of confession and repentance could be considered as much an origin of consciousness as the awareness of self. For me at least, that kind of theory of existence has a satisfying symmetry.

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