The Epistemic 'Given', Cogito Ergo Sum and the 'Cartesian Circle'

At the core of the Cartesian "first postulate of incommensurability" (the radical separation of psychology and physics, "mind" from matter, subjective from objective, or knower from known) is Descartes' theory of perception and his famous cogito ergo sum ("I think, therefore I am"). What is indubitably "given", he said, is the independent "thinking I", self, or "mind", in effect, perceiving itself. Since the hypothesized physical world in this view is defined exhaustively by extension (and thus inherently meaningless or without intension), perception, by definition intentional (characterized by "aboutness"), has to be of mental states ("indirect perception"). On these grounds, the epistemic dimension of the world becomes, in effect, a closed circle (a "Cartesian circle" (Swenson, 1997a)) with no principled way in or out; no rational basis for justifying belief in what is taken as an external, outside, or objective world (the "other"). Ecological or epistemic relations are literally defined out of the world from first principles, and the intentional or epistemic part of the world, and the physical or other part of the world (knower vs. known), in deeper contemporary terms, are placed in each other's null cones, effectively non existent regions of each other's "event horizons", or tolerance spaces (e.g., see Swenson, in press b).
This general problem, typically falling under the heading of dualist interactionism, was appreciated by Leibniz with his anticipation of the first law of thermodynamics (the law of energy conservation) (see Swenson 1997a, in press-a). The computational view of mind that has dominated cognitive science in recent years (e.g., Fodor, 1980), and which places all meaning and intentionality internal to the rule-based systems of operations on symbols or mental representations in individual "minds" qua computational devices is a mechanized version of the Cartesian circle (see also discussion of the transposition of the Cartesian circle to social psychological theories of knowledge and meaning in the form of "closed-circle theories" where the same problems are regressed and consequently compounded in e.g., Swenson, 1997a, in press-a, in press-b). Froma different perspective the assertion of the Cartesian circle and the idea that inentionality, meaning, and perception are fundamentally, or exclusively, about internal mental states or representations is a claim, in effect, to derive semantics from syntax. As Putnam (1980), for example, has shown, however, syntactical or rule-based systems cannot, for simple formal reasons alone, be the source of intentionality or semantic content, a fact readily admitted even by leading proponents of the computational or algorithmic view (e.g., Fodor's [1980] "methodological solipsism"). In recent years the computational view has come under devastating attack both for formal reasons of this kind as well as by now obvious empirical ones (e.g., Johnson, 1987; Juarrero, in press; Lakoff, 1987; MacKay, 1986; Sayre, 1986; Swenson, 1997c; Thelan, 1995; Turvey et al., 1981; Turvey & Shaw, 1995; van Gelder & Port, 1995; see further discussion Swenson, in press-b).

Shattering the Myth of the Cartesian Circle: The Epistemic Act and Its Relational Entailments as the Minimal Ontology

The 'Problem of Parmenides' arises every time ontologies and epistemologies are incommensurable. On pure "rationalist" or logical grounds, Parmenides asserted a world of perfect symmetry, and hence a world where there was no space and time at all, but this put even the epistemic act implicated in his own postulating 'outside tolerance' with respect to his theory. He violated Parmenidean symmetry, and thus refuted himself every time he asserted his theory, opened his mouth to speak, or even had a thought. Cartesian incommensurability recreates the Problem of Parmenides (and so do all closed-circle theories in general, see Swenson, in press-b). Beyond the failure of respective ontologies, however, no one, from Parmenides to the present, has ever been able to get rid of the epistemic act in fact. The reversible world of quantum mechanics, for example, needs the irreversible act of measurement, which sits completely unexplained outside its formalism, to "collapse the wave function". What remains, in every case, indubitably "given", and in this sense Descartes' cogito argument was entirely correct, is the intentionality, or active 'directedness towards', of the self as agent caught in the epistemic act. But this is where we radically diverge from Descartes and his assertion of the epistemic act as a Cartesian circle and from which the whole "epistemic problem" in modern science and philosophy arises.
In most direct terms the Cartesian circle or uncontextualized subject, thinking I, or self, is a myth, and therefore is something that contrary to Descartes, we surely do not (nor cannot) know (Swenson, 1997a, in press a, b). The "I" or "me" that is the subject of the epistemic act is bounded, discontinuous, or contextualized by implication, and as discontuum only distinguishes itself or is even intelligible in relation to continuum, so too the self is only distinguished, or known, in relation to that which it is not (the not-self or other). Self-awareness, in other words, arises, establishes its identity, or is constituted only through a self-other, or subjective-objective relation, and the indubitable knowing of self "given" in the epistemic act thus entails the knowing of the other (although not completely). In addition, there are further entailments. In particular, the persistent or invariant (and hence nomological) self-other relations by which the self is known or determined-the epistemic act, in whatever form-only takes place through a one-way flow. The entailments here are two. The first is time-asymmetry, the "one-wayness" of the flow, and the second is the conservation (time-symmetry) of that which flows (there must be something which flows). Paraphrasing Leibniz to summarize, there must be something which changes and something which remains the same. Since these entailments are over the distinguishing self-other relations they refer not to either one or the other but both, a "world" in effect, more encompassing than either one, a space-time continuum, in fact, through which the relations are distinguished. It is precisely the a priori fact of these entailments that leads the 'Parmenidean' (or closed-circle theorist, see Swenson in press-b) to falsify him or herself as soon as he or she opens his or her mouth, or engages in any other form of the epistemic act (e.g., including denial, or even in 'Cartesian doubt').
Figure 1 shows a schematic of the conjunction capturing the 'minimal ontology',