Monday, August 22, 2005

Descartes' Error

If philosophy has often been a history of brilliant misunderstandings, Descartes' contribution is one of the most impressive in western thought. On the one hand, Descartes' emphasis on cognition (i.e. computation) as a kind of universal authority led to a revolution in applied science; on the other hand, his formulation of reason as unbounded thought fractured the human person into the competing modes of mind and body, the legacy of which still weighs heavily on western philosophy to this day.

The mind/body problem as Descartes framed it is a defensive maneuver made necessary by his radical break with the medieval Aristotelian tradition. That tradition as interpreted through the lens of scholasticism had paid a great deal of respect to the innate qualities of objects through which they are made available to be known and loved by rational minds. From Descartes’ skeptical vantage point, however, he regarded the presence of such qualities within the objective world as highly doubtful. In contrast, he proposed a sharp distinction between appearance and reality. Reality apparently consists of an “every-day” world of objects, each containing certain properties, yet in truth these appearances are mere phenomenal projections resulting, almost by accident, from interactions taking place at an invisible level. No essential properties reside in objects themselves, because objects themselves do not actually exist in the way that we commonly assume them to do. The difference between Descartes’ position and that of his forebears is similar to the difference between a camera and a painter. A camera “captures” the phenomenal world, but it is a mere imprint, and not an actual representation of the objects which appear in the photograph. Descartes believed (and to a certain extent was proved right) that dissolving the theoretical properties which were believed to give objects their true identity would open the floodgates of science, in the sense that a material world consisting of purely commensurable energies would be infinitely open to manipulation and exploration. Yet, this enticing candidate for the emerging discipline of materialist science created an obvious problem. If matter is indeed reducible to a barely factual existence, then what becomes of mind – the cornerstone of the western tradition? Taken to its logical conclusion, Descartes’ argument appears to undermine everything keeping western philosophers off the ledge: the faculty of reason, supposedly the foundation of morality and just government, the uniqueness of the human species, and most importantly, the only good argument for free will. It appears that Descartes has gained science only at the cost of the freedom and rationality of humanity – which is to say, he has found and lost science in the same breath. This conclusion was intolerable for Descartes, and so he theorized an escape. The Aristotelian tradition which Descartes rejected had regarded reason as the perfected relation between human beings and the natural world which results from experience. Descartes, in contrast, located the principle of rationality entirely outside of the material world, i.e. within the theoretical entity of pure mind. This move enabled Descartes to preserve a canon of traditional beliefs which would have been otherwise threatened by the punishing logic of materalism. The entity of pure mind by means of which human beings are able to reason is everything the material world is not: infinite, eternal, immutable, authoritative, impartial, beyond dispute. By virtue of this faculty, human minds are free though bodies are not.

Of the many difficulties encountered by this theory, the most significant (and most interesting) is the mind/body problem. Is it not the case that all supposedly lofty, infinite thoughts are in fact generated by humble, material brains? Where is the consistency in skeptically disposing of individual essences only to relocate them in the mind? The fact that Descartes' arguments for the existence of God, which are the foundation of his philosophy, are generally regarded as reactionary defense mechanisms points to the possibility that Descartes did not wish to accept the reductio ad absurdum of his own conclusions. Descartes never was able to explain the way in which immaterial mind interacted with the material brain. Unwilling to abandon the material world to its own devices, he attempted to save it by splitting reality into dueling essences dominated by the wholly abstract, isolated and bizarrely self-sufficient faculty of pure mind. In fact, Descartes' formulation of the mind/body problem is one of the great errors in western philosophy.

To solve the problem takes a leap of two kinds of faith. The first is faith in the integrity of the natural world as an interlocking, multi-level system which makes sense at each stage in the process, yet progressively makes more and more sense as the process unfolds (spatially and temporally.) This means that the "every-day" world of human experience is a legitimate, though by no means exhaustive, sample of reality. This is not a blind leap, but more like an education. The second leap is simply the inverse of the first. If the natural world is taken as intrinsically coherent, then there is no need to "save" reason by inventing a theoretical entity called mind. Rather, rationality can be seen as simply the culmination of material processes, the transcendent point at which such natural principles as survival, organization, adaptability, and reaction become the uniquely human faculties of wonder, delight, empathy, and creativity. Aristotle's comparison between the web-spinning capacity of a spider and that of a weaver demonstrates the way in which awareness and understanding deepen purposes already found in nature. Civilization is not an ideal, abstract essence held apart from nature but is rather always grounded in natural processes moving towards fulfillment. Mind and body are interpenetrating modes of being, always in process, each in some sense the ideal form of the other. Contra Descartes, there is no shame in this. Nor is there shame in accepting the imperfections which permeate both mind and body. The philosophic life is a pathway through the world, not out of it. That should be good enough for anyone.

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