Philosophical letters from a possible Renaissance romance
Descartes claimed that all animals were mere automata, without emotions, without consciousness, and unable to feel pain, and he argued that it was not cruel or inhumane to anatomize them even while they were still alive.
Such beliefs are not equivalent to pre-scientific-method beliefs about the causes of disease, or the nature of matter, or the order of the solar system - opinions that, while wrong, were still reasonable given the state of knowledge and the ability to interrogate nature of their day. No - there was, even then, not a shred evidence for what Descartes was claiming to be true.
Descartes lived in the 17th century and, like almost everyone alive then, he would have been closely familiar with horses, would have known coachmen, farriers, ostlers - could and should have consulted with them about the nature of the beasts they looked after. He lived in castles and mingled with nobility; how could he not have come across the men who organized the packs of hunting dogs and knew them as individuals, why did he not talk nobles who held opinions on the characters of their favorite hounds? He socialized with high-born women among who it had long been fashionable to own small dogs and to develop strong emotional feelings for them, feelings, it is widely attested, were believed to be reciprocated.
How is it that Descartes was able to suppress all this evidence and cling to beliefs that even at the time were absurd and widely criticized? How was he able to silence that inner-voice that in all reasonable men should ask "is this really true"?
Bashing Descartes isn't my point. I want to understand how smart people with sound ideas on many topics nonetheless come to believe in completely, demonstrably untrue ideas, and often advocate for them with intense passion.
So cool. Can’t wait to have the book.
I have a question for you. Descartes obviously didn’t have a completely solid position, but is there anything actually wrong with basic dualism? Dualism originates from religions and the immaterial soul etc, which makes it like undesirable in science, but isn’t it actually possible that material and experiential are completely separate “stuff” that can interact in certain ways? Maybe this is just shifting the goalpost (practically speaking) but (conceptually) it seems like science is too adamant to deny dualism to accept that experience is really weird.
Ohhh I loved this, seeing the emotional content behind the questions and answers is extremely illuminating. As usual for your topics, this also comes at my life with a fair amount of synchronicity which is super fun.
Great content as always, Erik.
What a fascinating relationship. These definitely read like love letters to me as well. Can't wait to read this piece in your book!
It looks like we live in a time when the material nature of consciousness is about to be practically proved (but not explained) and will manifest itself as another physical phenomenon of scale, in this specific case, the scale of complexity of neural networks.
Wonderful history presentation! I don't know enough history on the subject but suspect some of the pre-socratics, medieval arabics, and even earlier Buddhist philosophers may have also looked at the problem. Medieval monk scholar, John Scotus Eriugena may have tried to account for it in his Periphyseon. But none of these may have approached the clarity of the Princesses thought. Thanks for the delightful account.
Elisabeth not only nails the problem but hints at its origin here:
"But I’ve never been able to conceive of “what is immaterial” in any way except as the bare negative “what is not material,” and that can’t enter into causal relations with matter!"
Descartes *defined* the material as *that which excludes qualities*. The conclusion is a (probably unavoidable) consequence of his unique method. By setting himself against generations of the scholastic, Aristotelian tradition (rightly or wrongly, as you may see it), he also did away with their notion of matter, wherein quantity and quality were not sharply distinguished.
If your concept of matter is defined as "what excludes the sensible, formal, teleological, and qualitative (etc)", then you're going to have a hard time getting such properties *back into it*. Hard as in trying to get a fourth side into a triangle.
It's little wonder that there's been no real progress in solving this problem.
Thanks for this fascinating excerpt! I look forward to your book.
Dang Erik, I what a fabulous essay and inside view into a sharp mind! I'd love to see this on Netflix!
Descartes is really, really cheating here.
Elizabeth: I don't understand how the mind can interact with the body.
Descartes: It's okay, we don't understand gravity, either!
Much enjoyed reading this - especially gaining a new vocabulary word - perspicacity, which seems to go a step farther than discernment. Beautifully written!
Perspicacity: is a penetrating discernment (from the Latin perspicācitās, meaning throughsightedness, discrimination)—a clarity of vision or intellect which provides a deep understanding and insight.
I had a longer explanation, but it got deleted and I'm now too shaken and upset with myself to rewrite the thing.
Anyways: this is a rather unfair and ignorant (sorry!) representation of Descartes. "Materialist" is by-itself meaningless until you present a theory for what "materialism" *is*. To Descartes it meant a very strict and bizarre sect of determinism. He believed that the universe operated as an "elaborate clock", wherein one thing led to the next led to the next led to the next. So on.
Everyone saw this as intuitively obvious.
But Descartes saw by his most readily-available experience -- his own consciousness-- that a "materialist" system could not be imposed onto human action. After some deliberation, he concluded that a human has a soul which was an impetus or force *unto itself*. You all know this as "spontaneous creation".
Critics mocked this as a "ghost in a machine". But the princess has elaborated on that criticism already.
The theory of gravitation in Descartes time came from -- if my memory is corrected (and it might not be) -- the Scholastics' interpretation of Aristotle. They said that objects have a natural place in the world, and they tend towards it. So an apple falls to the ground. That is its "place".
Here Descartes notices this and recognizes that an apple must also be an impetus unto itself. This is what he told the princess.
So "How can the ghost interact with the machine?" felt a lot like asking "How can gravitation interact with the world-as-a-machine, the elaborate clock?".
Eventually, in the Newton's philosophy, the "elaborate clock" metaphor was forced to the side and all was resolved. The new theory, which exists today: That everything is produced by some initial state of the world, followed by a continuous re-application of some set of fundamental and indivisible forces. Note that the "human soul" can count as one of those forces.
Why do those forces exist as they do? Impossible to answer. Not a scientific question. Wittgenstein had two aphorisms which cover the feeling:
"What makes things stand is God. God is what makes things stand."
"Sometimes a philosopher just wants to utter an inarticulate sound."
Hope that helps. See Noam Chomsky's lecture "The ghost, the machine, and the limits of understanding" for further explanation.
I enjoy this blog, but I'm fascinated by the focus on the Western world, in "this was discovered by..", in your blog and many others. Maybe this was discovered independently by this princess, but she wasn't the first in the world to do so.
The Hindu Upanishads are a meditation on the nature of consciousness, the nature of thought. The mind body connection is a part of that. It is (at least) over 2500 years old.
Does this matter? I don't know. I am studying Sanskrit and took a class on the Upanishads. This sort of an essay feels like a careless mistake so many Western intellectuals casually make routinely.
Intriguing article. I come at the mind body dualism from the point of chronic pain. As I learn about the neuro anatomy of the brain as it perceives pain (from brain scan research) the dualism blends and overlap. Appreciate the correspondence between Descartes and princess
New subscriber, loved the article, laypersons interest. I'm intrigued that you equate mind so glibly with soul - is this standard practice in 21st century philosophy? Genuine question! Thanks