June 28, 2017

Volo Ergo Sum

Descartes had it wrong. Cogito ergo sum - I think therefore I am - was his proposal that skepticism, cognition, and reason are the essence of human existence. While this view was sensible in 1600 as European intellectuals were emerging from an age of superstition, the proposal is ridiculous on its face in the highly engineered 21st century world. Who today would seriously characterize humanity as being defined by our powers of reason? Today we stand at the precipice of human-level AI. And yet when we create machines with broad and deep powers of reason outstripping human cognition, the result is utterly inhuman. To think is not to be.

Volo ergo sum. The alternative is an old idea, a slogan coined by Maine de Biran at the dawn of the first industrial revolution in 1800 when he saw the contradiction in Descartes' proposal. I wish, therefore I am. The essence of humanity is volition, agency, will. Our role is to be the source of causation. Although neuroscientists will no doubt explain the ways in which free will is likely an illusion, in our modern search for purpose, Maine de Biran's proposal is the proper way to live. To be human is to be the decider, the chooser, the originator of reasons for things. Why should the world be done in such a way? Because we are human, and because we will it to be so.

What does it mean to be human?

Exercising volition with competence is not a trivial thing. Most of us do not know what we really want, or even how to figure it out. We assume, superstitiously, that free will is automatic, that it is what happens when we are left to our animal instincts. But volition is far harder than just doing whatever we feel like. Developing our will means predicting our future selves, identifying not only our hunger today, but our desires tomorrow, our goals for next year, our aspirations for life. It means understanding the interaction of our own aims with the desires of others, our effects on each other, our hopes for society, and our vision for humanity. It means refining our ideals and honing our preferences, recognizing what we see as cute, what is profound, and what is beautiful. And it means knowing how to identify the slim intersection between that which is most desirable and that which is most possible.

Free will is not easy to exercise well: it is a developed skill. But it is a skill that that we leave pitifully untrained in modern society. Our undeveloped sense of purpose comes from the fact that for all our modernity, we still live according to Cartesian values articulated in 1600. We spend 12 or 20 years of schooling to follow the path of Descartes, accumulating knowledge and developing our powers of inquiry and reason. But there is no curriculum that trains our powers of agency.

I believe this omission is the reason modern society is descending into crisis.

Posted by David at June 28, 2017 11:04 AM
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