In this article, Thomas O. Scarborough, author of Everything, Briefly: A Postmodern Philosophy (2022), ex UK top ten philosophy website editor, and a Congregational minister, presents us with a new take on Descartes’ legacy and the mind/body problem.
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Ever since René Descartes wrote, in 1641, ‘The mind is really distinct from the body,’ we have struggled with the mind-body problem. Not that the problem didn’t exist before – however, Descartes brought it to the fore.
While Descartes' ideas on mind have long since been jettisoned, I argue that we have not moved very far beyond him. The simple problem of Descartes has morphed into another, which keeps us all spell-bound today – and frankly, in a rut.
Ever since René Descartes wrote, in 1641, ‘The mind is really distinct from the body,’ we have struggled with the mind-body problem.
The purpose of this article is to jump us out of the rut, so that we may think new thoughts and explore new directions.
Descartes ver. 1.0
Descartes famously wrote, ‘I think, therefore I am.’
His first word, unfortunately, was a mistake – a classic example of a suppressed inference. He assumed that the ‘I’ was an immaterial soul, which interacted with a material body. And the rest is history.
Descartes' view was certainly common-sensical.
I tap my finger on a tabletop. I drink a glass of milk. I feel the warmth of the sun on my face. Such experiences seem perfectly real to me. Which means that, on the surface of it, my life seems real to me, through and through.
It seems, therefore, that I am living in a real world. It is not imagined or illusory. Further, it seems to me that I am an observer of this world, not merely a robotic presence there. On this basis, it would seem to me that I have a mind that observes reality: mind here, reality there, which separates my mind from the things that it observes – and separates my mind from my body.
Yet common sense does not always make good philosophy.
If we separate the mind from the things it observes, it is difficult to explain how a mind exists separately in a world where, apparently, only matter exists. And if we propose that something else exists, of which the mind is made, we face the daunting prospect of proving it.
It is difficult to explain how a mind exists separately in a world where, apparently, only matter exists.
Let us try to formulate Descartes' position simply. We shall strip it down to conceptual basics – its bare essentials. The original position of Descartes, I shall argue, is this. I shall call it Descartes 1.0:
An immaterial soul A causes a material body B to move.
Let us simplify this further:
A causes B.
Yet we have an obvious problem here. We cannot use A and B in the same sentence, if the cause and effect are two different kinds of thing. Aristotle, long ago, pointed out that there are four, perhaps five, different types of cause, and one cannot mix and match them at will.
I hold up a rude painting. It causes shock. But it cannot cause lightning. I fire a bullet at a church bell. This causes a whole village to awake. But I cannot fire a bullet at, say, fear.
Descartes' philosophy of mind failed because he made a category mistake.
Descartes ver. 2.0
In the received view of philosophy – to put it too simply – we have the basic categories of things and relations. One may speak, too, of objects and arrangements, variables and operators, nouns and verbs, among other things.
We describe a chemical reaction: say,
-> 2 C2
This describes how things are related to things – in this case, molecules to molecules. Or we describe the way in which artworks are arranged in a gallery. Again, they are things related to things.
This short primer explores René Descartes’ Meditations on First Philosophy, his contribution to rationalism, and his impact on early modern philosophy.
However, on closer analysis, we find that this distinction breaks down.
Wherever we examine relations, there we find new things in their place – and wherever we find new things in their place, there we find new relations. When we seek to define things, and the relations which exist between them, we find an infinite regress.
‘With this heat,’ I say, ‘we shall soon have thunder.’
But how do I explain that? In fact, I do not know. A friend offers, ‘Heat rises. Clouds form. Charges separate. That makes lightning – and thunder.’ Thus a simple examination of the matter reveals new things. But with new things, I have new relations between them – and with new relations, there will be new things.
Like a fractal image, things and relations reach into infinity. The more closely we look at them, the more we see – and more and more. Their essence flees away. They do not exist in themselves.
Like a fractal image, things and relations reach into infinity.
This applies to causes, too – since causes are events, and events are things that happen.
In any situation where we claim that A caused B, we define both A and B. By defining them, we exclude everything which is not-A and not-B. This is often useful, but it forces on us a view of the world which cannot be correct.
Anna Marmodoro and Erasmus Mayr write in Metaphysics: An Introduction, ‘There is no genuine singularist causation.’ Similarly, more than 100 years ago, Bertrand Russell observed, ‘If the inference from cause to effect is to be indubitable, it seems that the cause can hardly stop short of the whole universe.’
It might seem at first to stretch the imagination, but it is a necessary conclusion: because things do not exist in themselves, cause and effect cannot be shown to exist. This applies to every cause and effect, whether upward, downward, backward, forward, metaphysical, physical, or mental.
Someone might object. Even if we have no As and no Bs – no things which cause things, no events which produce events, no objects, entities, elements – and so on – we still have a reality which is bound by the laws of the universe!
Yet every scientific law is about As and Bs. If these do not exist, we ultimately cannot speak of laws.
This relates to the mind as follows.
Just as we cannot state that an immaterial soul A causes a material body B to move, so we cannot say that the mind is an A, and its effect is a B.
The question of the philosopher of mind David Chalmers, ‘What links the two?’ now becomes moot. In a sense, we now have Descartes version 2.0. We may formulate it again like this.
A causes B.
The problem now is that neither A nor B can be shown to exist. While it is not a category mistake, it is an ontological mistake.
Ah, someone says, we’ve heard it all before. It is the argument that the mind is irreducible. Yet irreducible from what? From A? There is no A. Nor can we claim that the mind is an epiphenomenon. Of what?
It might seem at first glance that we have evaporated all further argument about soul and body – not to speak of mind, consciousness, will, or anything else besides. It might seem that we have nothing left to say.
In fact we do.
Even though we have no As or Bs – no things which cause things, no events which produce events, no objects, entities, elements – and so on – we do still speak of As and Bs. This means, necessarily, that we create them where they do not exist.
We launch them, as it were, from ourselves. In a world where As and Bs are not found, we bring them into being ex nihilo.
All that we see, hear, smell, taste, and touch is given its existence by the mind – for the simple reason that these things do not exist in themselves. This in fact makes good common sense. If I were a bat, said Thomas Nagel, I would experience a different world around me.
All that we see, hear, smell, taste, and touch is given its existence by the mind.
This reveals a fundamental problem when we speak about the mind, in particular. If we create As and Bs, we create mind A and body B. But now, if we discuss the mind in terms of something which the mind itself created, we are stymied.
Red spectacles prove to us that the whole world is red. Likewise, mind proves to us that mind is mind, which is A.
This has a further consequence, which relates to moral responsibility.
We broadly agree today that our behavior is driven by mental models. The way that we arrange the world in our minds is what determines our actions.
This offers a view of personal accountability. We are accountable for the way we have arranged the world in our minds. While the deeds which result from mental models may not be free, the mind itself is free. At least, it cannot be determined.
Reformulating the Questions
The philosopher Isaiah Berlin said that the best philosophy reformulates the questions.
I question whether we have, at this point in time, moved beyond the problem of Descartes – rather, the problem which he created. We still think as Descartes did, insofar as our problem is: A causes B.
The physicist Ernst Mach wrote, ‘There is no cause nor effect in nature.’ Here, I think, lies the problem and the solution: our concept of causality.
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Thomas Scarborough is the author of Everything, Briefly: A Postmodern Philosophy (2022). He is an ex UK top ten philosophy website editor, and a Congregational minister.