Cogito in the Matrix by Erik Davis

Cogito in the Matrix by Erik Davis

Erik Davis is one of the most talented authors writing on the subject of technology, culture, and spirituality. This article from the book prefiguring cyberculture from MIT University Press is representative of the insightful work he has done. The concern of this piece revolves around the construction of subjectivity in an epoch which can perhaps best be called posthuman.rc

Of all the lumbering giants of the Western philosophical tradition, none resembles a punching bag more than René Descartes. He gets it from all sides: cognitive scientists and phenomenologists, post-structuralists and deep ecologists, lefty science critics and New Age holists. The main beef, of course, is the stark divide that Descartes drew between mind and body, a dualism that, by its very claim of rationality, now appears even more obscene than the religious dualisms that stretch back to Zarathustra. Nearly across the board, contemporary thought calls us to defend and affirm the body that Descartes rendered a machine, a soulless automata under our spiritual thumb. It doesn't really matter that the body so affirmed is itself multiple and even contradictory: the materialist object of biology, the phenomenological bed of Being, a feminist site of anti-patriarchal critique, the New Age animal immersed in Gaia's enchanted web. Regardless of the framework, the song remains the same: we are bodyminds deeply embedded in the world. For many thinkers now, the sort of abstract, disengaged soul-pilot pictured by Descartes — the “I” immortalized in the famous cogito ergo sum — is not only bad thinking, but, ideologically speaking, bad news.

In many ways I share this urge to trace the networks that embed consciousness in phenomenal reality, and to insist on the extraordinary (though not exclusive) value of causal explanations rooted in the history of matter. But I am no absolutist. The fact that Descartes keeps popping up like a Jack-in-the-box suggests that a splinter of the cogito remains in our minds, some fragmentary intuition or insightful glimpse that we cannot accommodate and so wall off in order to reject. I am not interested in philosophically defending the cogito, or at least the metaphysical cogito we are familiar with: the rational and disengaged instrumentalist manipulating the empty machinery of matter. But I am interesting in probing for that splinter, which I suspect is lodged somewhere in the apparently yawning gap between self-conscious awareness and the phenomenal world — a gap that, despite some hearty attacks from nondualists East and West, continues to inform subjectivity.


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