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The Ghosts of Millions in the Lonely Mind: Descartes’ Delusion

by Howard Bloom

Where is the human mind? Is it in the genes that shape instinctual memory? Is it in the traffic between the brain’s one hundred billion cells? Is it in the wisdom stored in books and libraries? Is it in the councils and the forums where leaders hash out policy?

It’s in all of these and more! Mind is a highly social thing. “I think, therefore I am,” Descartes declared. Perhaps he should have said, “They thought, so there’s a me.”

In 1636, René Descartes decided to perform an experiment. He wanted to know right from the get-go, from the nitty-gritty, what it is we really know. We all have paranoid moments when we see that everything supposedly real could simply be our dream. We imagine for an instant that no one else is real at all, that they’re just imaginary beings, noodles floating in the soup of our fantasies. Descartes had those moments too. How could he tell, he wanted to know, what was real from what was not? Was there anything so basic that it shouted out “I am” every time his doubting brain cells shouted out “You’re not!”?

So Descartes closed the door of the modest study in his house in Amsterdam, sat down by the fire, stared out the window at the folks in the street below, fingered a piece of beeswax, and swore he’d stay there by himself until he’d scratched down to the bedrock—if there was such a thing. He wanted to hit the granite base under the mirage we call reality. To pull this off, Descartes had to forget a few small things that didn’t fit his philosophy. He forgot how free he felt when he’d first entered Amsterdam and realized that the crowds in the street were too preoccupied with their own business to stop and ask him his. He forgot how he’d marched around this booming port to find the vacant house at 6 Westermarkt Street he’d made his abode. He forgot how he’d carefully counted his cash into the landlord’s hand. He forgot that his coins were profits made from a web of trade that spread around the world as far as the East Indies. He forgot that trade was a gift from not-quite-human ancestors who’d swapped stones two million years before. He conveniently put out of mind the folks who’d first invented ways to hack building blocks from quarries and turn trees into lumber to erect the edifice in which he hid away. He forgot the workmen who had crafted the floor he sat on and raised the walls he stared at in his reverie. He also forgot their wives, their children, and their rather large extended families. And he conveniently dismissed the housemaid in the room nearby, the one he’d seduced not long ago and who was already carrying his child.

After tucking such nattering notions out of sight, Descartes sat, and thought, and ate, and went to the bathroom, and sat, and thought some more, then ate, went to sleep, got up, and put on clothes whose silk had been perfected in China and whose weavers had labored in the French town of Lyon. Descartes, the master of philosophy, sat in his solitary state on a chair made from Baltic wood by workmen in some quarter he bothered not to divine and wondered what, what, what could possibly be so evident that even in his uttermost madness he could not imagine it to be simply the figment of a dream he’d dreamt after snacking before bedtime on a wedge of moldy cheese.

Finally, as he sat, it came to him: “I’m thinking, and if nothing else, I do know that. Since I’m thinking, there must be a me to think. It’s as simple as the hair beneath my hat.” This being philosophy, Descartes now had to find a way to make this insight sound a bit more “hard to get.” Philosophers used Latin in those days to exalt the stature of their mastery. So Descartes stuck three Latin words together that few can now forget: “Cogito (I think) ergo (therefore) sum (I am).” Wham, bam, and thank you, ma’am.

But even in the distillation of his solitude, Descartes could not escape the fact that life is lived in multitudes. Crowds surround us whether we choose to see them or do not. When we leave the crowd to think, we carry more crowds in our head—for we are a herdish lot.

The three words Descartes had wrestled from the emptiness were filled with swarms of ancient ghosts, with mobs of long-gone men. Cogito was a term used by millions of Romans and those who’d sheltered behind their shields and swords. Seldom was a word more crowded with flocks and flurries of humanity. For the roots of cogito—com-agito—meant “to drive together, to collect, to crowd, to bring together, to summon, to congregate or convene.” The Indo-European hordes—those battling cattle herders from north of the Black Sea who had spread their language with their conquests—had rolled invisibly through Descartes’ mind as well, for they had given the Romans these terms for animal roundups. The warrior Indo-Europeans had also contributed the probable root for the ending “o,” which they also gave to you and me. The Sanskrit is ahám, from which we’ve plucked the English version of the Latin “o”—“I.” And where had Descartes gotten ergo, not to mention sum? From wave after wave of Ice Age hunter-gatherers, inventing and then polishing the first crude forms of syntax, sentence, suffix, noun, and verb. From tribes of cave-wall painters and armies of empire-builders who were rolled into each word. Yet Descartes had used this mob to state the one thing he knew: that he alone existed—that he alone sat in a room contributed by hordes who had invented the hut, the beam, the plank, the hammer, the nail, and the many other techno-turns that had finally made it possible for Descartes to travel on a road into that strange invention called a town. Swarms of the dead swam through Descartes’ mind and fed his body, clothing and sheltering him so he could do the thinking he mistook for solitude.

Like Descartes, you think, therefore you are. And through your thinking pours the army of forefathers and foremothers who have gone before. Each one of us is a walking storeroom of this planet’s history. Trillions of early beings lived and died to perfect the very cells of which we are conceived. When the skies of this newborn earth rained poisons, our microscopic ancestors sighed oxygen into the stinging air and left us with the atmosphere we breathe. Sea-slitherers and land-lumberers bequeathed to us the bones with which we stand and the brains with which we think. Hordes of fellow humans perfected the shoes we wear, the streets we walk, and the paper or computer screen from which we glean our thoughts. From a legacy of billions come our dreams of individuality.

The farms of Argentina feed you, the oil of Arabs speeds you, and the citizens of Asia labor to supply your needs. For you, you are a multitude. And much of that same multitude resides as well in me.

Howard Bloom is a visiting scholar at New York University and founder of the International Paleopsychology Project. He is author of The Lucifer Principle: A Scientific Expedition into the Forces of History and Global Brain: The Evolution of Mass Mind from the Big Bang to the 21st Century.


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This article is from
Constructing the New Man