Ep. 22 - Awakening from the Meaning Crisis - Descartes vs. Hobbes



my notes

  • Two different elements in our grammar in tension with one another. Share and overlap in the isolated individual mind.
  • Luther puts emphasis on conscience, Descartes emphasizes consciousness
  • Luther: accept without evidence, Descartes accept only if have certainty.
  • Descartes proposes a new method that is similar to PR, cut off from tradition and institution
  • These two grammars are at war in our current culture war. Faith as radical acceptance, truth as logically derived certainty - mutual influence, shared commitment to the isolated individual self
  • Hobbes: if cognition is computation and matter is real, should be able to make cognition
  • Killing the human soul. Exacerbates cultural narcism - uniqueness becomes paradoxical and problematic.
  • If don’t have a soul what is it to be true to your true self and what is it that makes you really unique and special from the rest of the purposeless meaningless cosmos?

Descarte’s Response to Hobbes

  • Important to make clear how we should treat Descartes
  • Fashionable to blame Descartes for mistakes but his mistakes are brilliant
  • He rejects Hobbes’ proposal of AI
  • Some claim he rejects Hobbe’s materialism because he is catholic. Inuendo that he’s operating in bad faith. This misrepresents and is a disservice to Descartes.

( I’ll admit that’s what I had the impression of back when I read him in philosophy 101 - at least re: his use of God in his Cogito)

  • Descartes responds to Hobbes not out of religious faith, but out of fundamental machinery of central claims of scientific revolution.
  • Hobbes proposes idea of artificial intellignece. Descartes says wrong:
    • Central claims of SR: matter is real, and reality is mathematically measured, meaning and value of things is not in the things themselves
    • Says if Hobbes is engaging in reasoning not just computation - actually care, have a goal, held to a standard, a truth
    • When reasoning acting to the goal of truth which means acting on purpose
    • Truth depends on meaning.
    • Reasoning acts on purpose in terms of meaning and it cares about standards or goals (normative standard) of how we ought to behave.
    • This is at the heart of reasoning.
  • Lot of useless time spent in the current culture wars on discussions about rationality
  • Vervaeke studies rationality. Often surprising how little of the science of rationality advocates of rationality makes use of
  • Difficult to integrate notions of rationality and a materialistic framework
  • he’s not anti-materialistic. But people who advocate a model of rationality that is ultimately Cartesian (Sam Harris): rationality is about behaving purely logically in an effort to get certainty are not paying attention to criticisms of that model by Descartes himself.
  • Do not advocate one side of a phenomena without paying attention to central criticisms made by its progenitor
  • Descartes saying look what’s central to reasoning:
    • normativity: how things ought to be
    • Meaning and purpose
  • We have descartes letters to hobbes:
    • You can’t have a material reasoner
    • Saying that matter is inert, no purpose, no meaning in matter

(what if that’s wrong?)

  • Acts in terms of ought to be not in terms of how things are: science works in terms of how things actually are. Has no values
  • Science is teaching us that the universe is purposeless.

(does it intrinsically do that?)

  • Matter lacks meaning, purpose, normatively
  • How can get all those things out of matter?
  • If you’re a reasoner care about truth. Truth depends on meaning, purpose and pursuit of truth which is not in matter.

(though maybe it is!)

  • Hobbes responds:
    • Can have abacus and automated, pieces of paper on them, and if manipulated right way get a sentence makes sense
    • Descartes: we have different languages, both thinking of same thing but using different words. No intrinsic meaning to words.
    • Says your view of matter makes your view of rationality deeply problematic
  • We should invoke rationality as the standard but question that rationality is just the logical manipulation of propositions
  • Descartes: rationality is caring about the truth on purpose according to normative standards and values and none of that machinery can be found in the scientific model of matter

(will he bring in IIT? Different approach to this concept of matter. Still scientific)

  • Vervaeke not advocating irrationality, but against the advocation of it as if philosophically unproblematic.

(I agree with this. Just yesterday I was saying to someone on twitter that I don’t much like bothering arguing over what is “rational” - I’d rather approach the arguments and assess them on their merits. )

  • Hobbes says Galileo has a problem:
    • Mathematics language of reality (platonic idea)
    • Two kinds of properties:
      • Measurable by math: primary properties/qualities - properties in the object regardless of people paying attention to them - objective - in the object
      • Many qualities of experience not mathematically describable - how beautiful something is, sweet honey tastes - secondary qualities
      • Don’t exist in the object, only exist in the mind. Subjective - in the subject
      • Qualia central to consciousness
  • Descartes: said to hobbes, Matter does not possess properties, qualia, no way to manipulate matter to generate quail

(though that’s not likely true is it?)

  • Possibility AI not have meaning or purpose, normative values, conscious awarenes


  • Slow withdrawal into the mind. I want to doubt everything - find something I cannot doubt
  • Makes a mistake about certainty:
    • Logical notion of certainty: absolute deductive validity
    • Psychological certainty: inability to doubt
    • Not identical
    • Radical bigot: cannot doubt certain things - superiority of white race. Due to depth of their ignorance and bigotry. No logical connection between logical and psychological certainty
    • Descartes thought if you push it far enough they’d come together
  • Thinks that the thing that connects two together he can’t doubt he exists. If subject to illusion mind must still exist
  • Cogito ergo sum: says it’s not a logical argument. It is a statement where psych certainty indistinguishable logical certainty

(there is a logical argument there though: For something to think, it must exist. I think. Therefore I exist)

  • Used to have the mind in touch with the world. Then the mind in touch with the math. Now only have this: only thing mind touches is itself.
  • I know I’m conscious by being conscious
  • Descartes saying that aspect the touchstone of reality, the mind touching itself is nothing that matter has.

(unless IIT is correct)

  • Devastating problems.
  • Weak AI - project of making machines to do things that intelligent animals can do: laptop is weak AI - we depend on it, really important, profoundly altered our lives
  • Weal AI does not really advance our scientific understanding
  • Strong AI: Artificial general intelligence: to make a computer conscious - instance of mind. Make a mind
  • How know if really succeeded: if can give an answer of how Descartes is wrong - given how machine is built and operates here’s how can get purpose meaning consciousness contact with realness. A lot harder
  • Still wrestling with this now
  • Descartes arguing that mind and matter are essentially separate, share no common properties
  • mind:
    • Moves on purpose
    • According to values
    • Meaning
    • Qualia
    • Cares about and pursues the truth
    • Contact with itself
  • matter:
    • Extended in space and time
    • Displays force
    • Transfers energy

(what’s the link between the two? Information)

  • problem: if mind and matter share no properties how do they casually interact?
  • Think about drinking water and drink, or hit hand on table matter result in pain mind
  • Mind matter intimately interacting in a bi-directional manner.

(maybe because they are two sides of the same coin)

  • Descartes’ whole position makes it impossible that they can interact
  • Gap undermines whole existence. Means you are radically cut off from yourself.
  • Taste of water is absurd
  • Get what’s going on in someone’s mind by how their physical body moves, and moves air for words - but if no connection no way to figure that out.
  • Problem of other minds: how do know rest of you not just zombies?
  • Descartes: Math tells us what’s real - objective, mind touching itself in consciousness is the touchstone of reality is subjective - two standards of realness
  • Subjective consciousness and objective math
  • Society goes back and forth between them
  • Get a lot of insults and ad hom arguments, then invoke rationality, then what mean by rationality, how does it fit into that mathematical world
  • Then swing the other way. What’s ultimately real is pure subjective experience. But how is that to be in touch with the world? Leads me totally disconnected
  • Descartes gives us an unstable grammar of realness
  • Loss of participatory knowing, loss of contact with the world. Loss of contact with tradition and history. Say at least contact with own mind. At least have that. But do you? Have to be really consistent: if going to be cartesian and logical: can’t invoke historical cultural notions of the self
  • Descartes says I exist - what’s this I?

(but Cogito doesn’t require knowing this)

  • Can’t be anything introspective: a lot of that is wrong. Based on memories? My memory capable of making all kinds of mistakes, history: what access do I have to that history, no mathematical way of gaining access to my past
  • All that have contact with is this moment of self-awareness right now. Isolated atomic moment.
  • isolated, contactless, then place it in Pascal’s infinite spaces that terrify
  • That’s how get into the meaning crisis

(interesting how Vervaeke attributes the religious movements to be as much a contribution to the meaning crisis as the secular ones.)


  • Pascal aware of this. As aware of this as Descartes, recreates all of euclidean geometry. Invents the barometer measure air pressure.
  • Part of the scientific revolution
  • Has a transformative experience. Convince him that certainty not possible.
  • Makes a distinction between the spirit of geometry and the spirit of finesse
  • His fear is that lost the spirit of finesse.
  • Lost perspectival knowing: knowing what it’s like
  • Lost participatory knowing, knowing that is part and parcel how we are bound up with something or someone else in a process of mutual transformation
  • Finesse: is like jazz, an element in there can’t capture in terms of mathematical proposition, about knowing the right timing, placement. Ex: kissing someone, know the right time, knowing you and the other party, mutual revelation about each other.

(mutual revelation key to my communication method)

  • He has a religion transformative experience
  • He is on to something that the loss of the spirit of finesse has left us bereft of the capacity for transformative truth, transformative knowing
  • Now have scientific knowledge but doesn’t lead necessarily to self-transcendence, wisdom
  • Don’t have to go through personal transformation to come into contact with ultimate reality
  • The thing that used to do that was religion, but we’ve lost religion.
  • Tried secular or pseudo religious alternatives and they drenched the world in blood.