Rene Descartes (1596-1650) was a French Enlightenment philosopher and mathematician. Descartes made contributions in Geometry; indeed, he is considered the father of analytic geometry, the interface of geometry and calculus. He also made some seminal contributions to optics (light), such as the understanding of the nature of reflection and refraction (named after him). For his role in geometry alone his place in history is assured. However, it is his contributions in philosophy that interests me and that I will briefly review.
Descartes wrote at the beginning of the French enlightenment, at a time folk were trying to approach phenomena from the perspective of pure reason. Descartes embraced this rational approach to phenomena and tried to use it to establish certain axioms, self evident truths, as in his geometry. I am afraid that he did not succeed yet let us see what he said.
He began by saying: let us doubt every thing. Let us be skeptical of every proposition that comes our way and see if there are things that we cannot doubt or be skeptical about. So far so good. So he subjected many of his received cultural propositions to doubt and found that most of them would not stand scrutiny. They were mostly the function of perception
Perception is that which we sense with our five senses. As we all know, the senses are notoriously unreliable and deceive us as to what we perceive. The feedbacks we receive from our five senses are often illusions, not fact. We cannot rely on perception to tell us what the truth is. There must be another way of knowing what the truth, Descartes reasons. That which can tell us what the truth is, is that which we cannot doubt.
Is there any thing that we can subject to all the doubt and skepticisms of this world and yet it is true? Descartes thought that he found one, the fact that he thinks.
Something in him, us, thinks. What differentiates human beings from rocks is that we think (how do we know that rocks do not think?).
“Cogito ergo sum”, I think, therefore, I am. Descartes posits. He is a thinker and cannot doubt that he thinks; he thinks therefore he exists.
Descartes dares you to refute this proposition and if you cannot he believes that it is a philosophical axiom, pretty much like the axioms of geometry.
Did he prove his thesis? Let us see. In Alzheimer’s disease the human individual stops thinking and his past memory is wiped out and he cannot remember it. Is he still a thinking organism, a human being, made so by his capacity to think or is he an animal?
Descartes believed that animas did not think and did not feel pain (how did he know, is he an animal?). On both scores he was wrong. But his proposition that animals did not feel pain led to dissecting life animals by zoologists and physiologists, inflicting enormous pain to animals.
You know what they say: bad philosophy leads to doing a lot of harm to people and things, so it behooves us to make sure that a philosophical system is correct. The masses swallow ideas that are given to them as credible and predicate their propensity to evil behavior on them. Nineteen century pseudo scientists told folk that non-whites were not intelligent and Adolf Hitler, the impressionistic peasant boy, embraced that idea and sought to wipe out non-whites and those whites he believed are also non intelligent, non Germanic whites.
If thinking cannot be doubted as a characteristic of human beings and there are human beings who do not think, such as those suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, are they still human beings? Is Hitler justified in proposing to kill those he believed do not think properly? Think about it.
Descartes believed that he located the seat of thinking in the pineal gland. As he saw it, the rest of the brain (central nervous system) coordinates the involuntary behaviors of the body (peripheral nervous system). The rest of the brain coordinates the animal part of us but at the pineal glad is the god in us; that which makes us think.
Of course, he was talking rubbish. In as much as the brain is the location of thinking no one has located the specific part of the brain that does the thinking. The hypothesis that the cortex does so is interesting but not convincing.
Could it be that thinking is done outside the human brain and the brain and body are merely like a car driven by a driver? Could the driver not be part of the car? Could it be that the thinker is not in the human body?
Thus, if the human body is diseased and is unable to facilitate the operationalization of thinking there is still an undiseased thinker for that person. In Alzheimer’s disorder clearly some parts of the brain are disordered and do not facilitate thinking and memory but it may well be that the thinker in us is still there, is outside our bodies?
Descartes examined the human body and believed that it is like any other biological organism and is controlled by the workings of nature. Our bodies are obviously part of matter and energy and are subject to the changes in the environment. Space, time affect our bodies. Heat, pressure, electricity, light, sound, mechanics affect the behavior of our bodies. There are no two ways of putting it: the human body is just a variety of matter; the human body is like animals’ bodies and trees and even rocks.
When a human being dies you can cremate, burn his body and it would not feel pain, it is like a log of wood. The human body is part of nature, period.
Having recognized that the human body is part of matter and cannot be glorified and also having recognized that human beings do think and know themselves as thinkers, Descartes now had a problem in his hands. How do you reconcile the fact that there is a thinker and matter coexisting in the same person?
When a person is dead his body does not think, so Descartes reasons that the thinker in the body must be different from the body though the body does affect it (as in diseased brains do). He posits what has come to be called Dualism, the belief that that there are two natures operating in human beings, the thinker, aka spirit, and the human body, aka matter. As he sees it, the two interfaces at the pineal gland but are not the same.
Mind and matter duality has been the stable of Western philosophy since Descartes’ postulation.
Oriental religions, such as Hinduism, avoid this duality by positing a different relationship between mind and matter. Hinduism, especially the philosophical aspect of it, Vedanta, posits a unitary force, not dual forces, operative in people (non-dual self). To accomplish this goal Hinduism had to explain matter differently. It argues that matter does not exist. In its view, matter is only a figure in dream. God, Brahman, and his parts, Atmans, cast Maya on their unified spirit self and, as it were, went to sleep and in their sleep dream that they are in bodies and live in space and time. Space, time and matter are dream figures and do not exist in fact. They seem real for as long as the person sleeps but when he wakes up he recognizes that they do not exist.
Shankara, an eight century Hindu Philosopher, made this non-dual, idealistic and monistic philosophy the central tenet of his philosophy. Ramanuja and others posited what is called qualified non-dual Advaita (philosophy).
Let us return to Descartes. Did he prove his contention that there are two forces at work in the world, one non-material and the other material? Of course he did not.
In the meantime his dualism gave Western man the justification to treat nature as an other. The West sees nature as a problem to be solved. The West sees the environment as evil and approaches it without identification. The idea is to master and control nature.
The West in following Descartes dualism has destroyed nature. But alas people and nature share the same environment, the same ecology.
Trees exhale oxygen and people inhale oxygen; people exhale carbon-dioxide and trees inhale carbon dioxide. People and trees need each other to survive, so if people cut down all the trees they deplete their source of oxygen and die (and trees die).
Dualism leads to treating the environment without respect and ultimately to the demise of human beings and other biological organisms. This is another reason why we must be very careful what philosophy we embrace.
Descartes influence on Western philosophy is enormous. He is therefore someone that we ought to pay attention to. Though his dualism is no longer the ruler of the philosophical roost he is still to be reckoned with.
These days biological reductionsim rules the scientific world; epiphenomenalism, the belief that the brain produces our thinking via what neuroscientists are finding out about the dance of neurotransmitters, electrical ions and the transmission of messages from one neuron to another dominate Western intellectual discourse.
Is mind a product of matter? Has Descartes been stood on his head and there is no independent thinker in us?
These things go in circles. We are in the era of biological reductionism; it, too, shall come to pass as we appreciate that we know little about ourselves. In the meantime, I say that we ought to study Descartes, dated as he may be.
Rene Descartes. Principles of Philosophy. (1644)
Rene Descartes. Discourse on the Method. (1637)