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May 23, 2023Liked by Erik Hoel

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.

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May 24, 2023·edited May 24, 2023

You are viewing Descartes from too much of a 21st-century perspective. He's all the way down there. And you're perched all the way up here, benefiting from centuries of philosophical deliberation -- from him, and others.

See my response below. Descartes believed that all the world acted as an "elaborate clock", wherein one action followed from the last which followed from the last which followed from the last, etc. This proved incorrect, but to him and to the princess was just common sense mixed with a little bit of reason.

He knew by his most immediate experience -- his free will -- that his, Descartes', thoughts could not possibly be caused by anything. He had free will! He could decide at any moment "I will quack like a duck", or he could decide not to quack like a duck. Not being a solipsist he generously extended his belief in free will to other people, whose consciousness he could not access. The Cartesians derived a theory: if I cannot differentiate by any test the behavior of another thing from my own, the other thing must then be, like myself, conscious.

They could easily distinguish animals from themselves.

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Great questioning post, well-chosen examples.

Perhaps his initial idea was that animals react to stimuli like machines. Why Descartes did then not include humans that way stays nebulous. There was also a religious belief in the separate soul that he didn’t want to violate.

I am especially taken by the clarity of your paragraph:

“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.“

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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.

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I think the issue, very broadly, goes something like: (a) dualism is attractive because it seems totally conceivable that one could separate consciousness from the physical (like a zombie world, in modern philosophy of mind parlance), or, one could say it another way, which is that it seems impossible just the physical alone can explain consciousness. But then at the same time (b) it seems inconceivable how they could then interact, since if the mind were a force like gravity, we would happily include it in our physical models of the universe. If the two can interact causally, then it seems like we can give a physical explanation of mind (as a kind of force, maybe like dark energy or something, which we don't find nearly as mysterious as consciousness). But broadly, I agree - I'm not sure we can rule out some form of interactionism, it would just need to be explained how this avoids the paradox (e.g., if the mind was a force, then the zombie argument would be false, but the zombie argument is an argument for dualism!).

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This misunderstands the issue. It's *impossible by the very way materialism is defined* for the physical to explain consciousness.

//If the two can interact causally, then it seems like we can give a physical explanation of mind//

No, because the mind is non-physical *by definition*. Also, *by definition*, one cannot give a physical explanation for the non-physical.

/if the mind was a force, then the zombie argument would be false, but the zombie argument is an argument for dualism!//

This is senseless. The mind is what we are, the self. Of course, it is causally efficacious. But this has absolutely nothing to do with the zombie arg!

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No it has a lot to do with it, see work by Todd Moody and Robert Kirk, plenty of others

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I was going to delete my comment as a) It comes across as too confrontational, b) Absolutely nothing will be achieved anyway. I just find that materialists consistently misunderstand everything about dualism and the p-zombie argument.

If consciousness is causally efficacious in its own right, then the zombie argument is false, yes. But if that were so, then materialism is false anyway since it has to hold the world is physically closed.

We have to assume the physical world is closed before the zombie argument comes into play. OK, I'm not really interested in arguing, since you're not being specific enough in what you say. If you have any links to articles by these guys I'll have a look. But I have a complete understanding of the p-zombie argument anyway. And it refutes materialism (but materialism makes no sense anyway for a couple of other reasons apart from this).

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I watched the video "Solutions to the Mind-Body Problem? | Episode 505 | Closer To Truth" (link included) after reading this post to try to discover a satisfactory answer to the Princess's question, and it seemed to help me wrap my head around people's views.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yp193r6i7qk

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Read a blog post by me on interactive dualism. Part 4

https://ian-wardell.blogspot.com/2022/02/the-alleged-problems-with-interactive.html

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Interesting blog post, thanks for linking. Question/s for you linked to (1) in the post - do you think the self can survive a total and permanent loss of memory? If it's possible that the self is a conceptualisation of cognitive function, that relies on memory to piece together interests, knowledge etc with a state of consciousness, could you argue that the self wouldn't survive?

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I'm disposed to suppose a permanent loss of memory isn't possible. Also, I hold a commonsensical conception of the self rather than a conception of the "self" that you articulate and which materialists are obliged to hold.

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thank you for the link!

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He certainly had a more sold position than the materialists that followed him, who seemed to forget about the fact that dualism follows *by definition* once one subtracts all the qualitative elements from the material realm.

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Dualism is a broad category that contains different sub-types. Descartes's substance dualism, which divides material 'stuff' from thinking 'stuff', isn't taken seriously by too many today (I have met a few).

Cartesian dualism differs from Platonism in important regards, though that's also a dualism of changing appearances and unchanging reality. Much of what kicks around as "dualism" in philosophy of mind today is properly known as *attribute* dualism. Certain material objects or beings can have mental attributes in addition to the physical, without requiring a whole distinctive category of fundamental non-physical elements. I've never found this any more satisfying than the Cartesian version, but plenty do.

There is no way to empirically challenge, must less disprove, any form of dualism. The usual dismissal comes from those quarters that can't accept a statement if it isn't consistent with or verifiable in science (or physics, more specifically). That's ultimately a position grounded in a methodology, and often enough in the attitude of the person holding it, though it often plays dress-up as Absolute TRVTH.

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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.

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Great content as always, Erik.

-:DB

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What a fascinating relationship. These definitely read like love letters to me as well. Can't wait to read this piece in your book!

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I thought so too. Descartes, you bad boy you.

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May 23, 2023Liked by Erik Hoel

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.

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I worked on this in graduate school, calculating out the complexity of neural networks to assess degree of consciousness. I think complexity has the quite convenient property that it correlates to a lot of things - since neural complexity is necessary for complex behavior, it's hard to design experiments that won't show a high complexity for awake and conscious brains. But is this mere correlation, or something more?

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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.

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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.

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That’s a great way of describing it. The contemporary philosopher Philip Goff called that sort “definition by exclusion” of mental properties “Galileo’s error” - although he thinks panpsychism neatly avoids it, which I don’t.

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Apropos of this line of thought:

1/ Alexandre Koyre, "Galileo and Plato" - https://www.hyperdream.net/wp-content/uploads/2020/09/Galileo__Plato.pdf

2/ Rudolf Steiner, "Goethe Against Atomism" - https://rsarchive.org/Books/GA001/English/MP1988/GA001_c17.html

3/ Charles Taylor has written a great deal about the impact of the scientific revolution on the "common sense" understanding of mind and consciousness (of which Descartes is only one of the better-known figures). Taylor's first volume of collected papers, _Human Agency and Language_, presents the modern problems of mind in a very different light.

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Thanks for this fascinating excerpt! I look forward to your book.

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May 23, 2023Liked by Erik Hoel

Dang Erik, I what a fabulous essay and inside view into a sharp mind! I'd love to see this on Netflix!

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Jun 10, 2023Liked by Erik Hoel

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!

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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.

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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.

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Thanks TLarish. Your comment helps much!

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I hate when you write a long one and then it gets deleted!

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May 23, 2023·edited May 23, 2023

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.

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I don't mean just general discussion of the nature of consciousness. That's part of the human tradition and goes back to the beginning of written history. I mean it's the earliest clear statement that I know of the paradox at the heart of the mind-body problem, which is that (a) dualism seems obvious in that the mind and matter are "clearly" two different substances (at minimum this is our instinct, and there are plenty of philosophical arguments for this as well, like the zombie argument), but also (b) dualism that matters (i.e., wherein the mind has a causal role) requires a causal interaction, which then renders (a) untrue. That's a paradoxical position. Elisabeth and Descartes highlight it using gravity as an example, which is an extremely modern way of talking about physical forces. I'd be very interested in a similarly clear example, ideally using the notion of a physical force like gravity, in the Upanishads.

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May 24, 2023Liked by Erik Hoel

I'd recommend talking to Dr. Varun Khanna, professor at Swarthmore. He taught my Upanishads class. I am not an expert. He is excellent.

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Actually, Roberto Calasso wrote "Ardor". It was about how vedic Indians were monomaniacally obsessed with only one question : what is the nature of consciousness?

They were not interested in wealth, building monuments etc. They were deeply interested in grammar, because they'd figured out thought was connected to language.

In fact, this was a culture that invented modern linguistics. Developing a meta theory of language was successfully completed when Panini, 2000 years ago, codified Sanskrit language.

He basically wrote algorithms to define what a well formed sentence is. And all this towards understanding the nature of consciousness.

It would be a shame to not learn from the findings of vedic Indians.

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Your observations are grounded in some truth. I unburdened myself with a rant on the topic in February.

'FEB 4, 2023

I ❤️ medieval philosophy. My mentor in this was the late, great Frances Kovach, medievalist par excellence. Up to then I was of limited scope, burdened with four chauvinisms:

Style: I assumed that analytic philosophy was the apex and that figures like Carnap, Frege, Quine and Kripke were the paramount guides to the philosophical endeavor.

Race and Gender: I assumed that all the really worthwhile philosophy was the exclusive domain of white males. That was the way it was taught back then!

Temporal: I assumed that all the real philosophy was done in the last 3 centuries.

Cultural: I assumed that Philosophy itself was a Western enterprise, starting with the Pre-socratics and continuing to the present. I didn't consider that regions outside that small area, had philosophy worth attending to.

But study of medieval philosophy disabused me of all those crippling notions and I learned of the incredible work that was done outside my style, outside my race and gender, prior to my narrow window of centuries and cultural area. So thank you, Dr. Kovach and three cheers for Medieval Philosophy! We all owe it a debt of gratitude.

Philosophy is as old as our species, and great thinkers of every race and gender have appeared in all centuries and continents. A lesson we should all internalize!

/rant over/

You'll note that Professor Hoel introduced us to a woman philosopher of some ability. Currently, some of the most innovative and ground breaking work in our discipline is coming from feminist philosophy and philosophers. So progress is being made!

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I believe that menstruating philosophers have an unique contribution to the discipline, quite simply because my own experience of consciousness fluctuates significantly throughout my monthly cycle.

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Ditto those living with clinical depression, whose cycles are less causal. The only ooccasions I experience such heaviness is three hours before menstruation, relieved by the knowledge that I will feel at one with heaven and earth in six days time. Loving the Princess' gravity contribution - shall explore further!

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I too agree that menstruation imbibes one with a unique and valuable perspective of the universal forces of nature

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May 23, 2023·edited May 23, 2023

I recommend Classical Indian Philosophy, by Peter Adamson. Oxford University press. Seems excellent. I'm about 100 pages in.

My point was quite narrow : ancient Indian philosophers had sophisticated debates on the nature of consciousness 2500 years ago.

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Thanks for the recommendation! Back in grad school we used S. Radhakrishnan & Moore's Sourcebook in Indian Philosophy. Wide coverage but very dated now. Yours sounds very interesting!. The philosophical tradition is very rich in northern India and when large chunks of it moved into Tibet starting in the 8th century CE, their scholars and philosophers made some wonderful additions in logic and epistemology. Tsong khapa comes to mind but so many others as well. Indo-Tibetan philosophy is a very rich field! 🙂

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It is! And Indian traditional medicine (Ayurveda) and Tibetan traditional medicine (Sowa Rigpa) have such interesting maps to how consciousness affects the health of the human body. Studying these health systems has been so illuminating.

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You might also look at the complex Profound Inner Principles by Rangjung Dorje in the 13th century CE and the somewhat simpler Hidden Description by Gyalwa Yangönpa. Both scholar-monks of the Great Seal tradition percolating up from northern India via Maitripa.

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I will look into it -- thanks for the rec!

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Have you read Schopenhauer?

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My friend told me his ideas were similar to vedic Indians'. And he declared something to the effect of, "Yeah, they got it right." :)

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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

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Have you read the book Psych by Paul Bloom? Kinda interesting in this area

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I’ll check it out

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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

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Thanks - no, modern analytic philosophers do not often talk about a soul. But when Descartes and Princess Elisabeth are discussing how the soul moves the body, they do equate the two.

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Jun 2, 2023Liked by Erik Hoel

Cheers. Pre-order duly placed with UK Independent Bookshop of the Year 2023!

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Absolutely love hearing this, thanks :)

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