Erik Larson

Nov 13, 2013

Descarte's Cake (having it and eating it)

I’m reading Richard Rorty’s Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature. Before this I was reading something else, then something else, then…

I’m generally a fan of Rorty but here’s my take on the whole POC debate and why it never seems to go anywhere. All the analysis that philosophers of mind have done in the last few decades is basically accurate. Yes, it’s suspicious to talk about mental states as non-extended in the Cartesian sense, or to talk about them with nouns rather than adjectives, or even to be dualist about them. (Sure. Yep. Yeah. Got it.)

I buy the analysis Rorty gives in Mirror, that Descartes lumped reasoning-about-universals together with sensation (today: qualia) to make a distinction between extended stuff (for Newtonian mechanics, with primary qualities that are mathematically describable) and non-extended stuff, for all the personhood notions we want to protect. I accept that Descartes thus gave us the modern mind-body problem, and that this problem didn’t really exist to the classical mind. For example, Aristotle would have a hard time understanding Descartes’ notion of “mind”, as he thought that sensation was part of the body and he had a participatory rather than representational view of knowing. (And hence, modern philosophy with it’s representational framework is obsessed with epistemology after Descartes, and this is in a real sense an historic accident due to his idiosyncratic treatment of mind-body issues, a treatment that was entirely novel and foreign to philosophers of the time.)

The problem is that the Cartesian mind-body idea (extended versus non-extended) gives us, also, the modern view of a material universe: just that “stuff” which is not-mind and has only those properties that are describable by mechanics (mathematics). This idea is idiosyncratic and fully a product of Descartes’ error as well; you can’t have it both ways. Just as mind is almost certainly not the “ghost in the machine” idea that we inherited from Descartes, so too “matter” is almost certainly not only the just-so “stuff” that we can explain and predict using our differential equations and geometry. (I like Newton too, but this is really quite a tip of the hat, to cede to him all of reality.) So the real mind-body problem is the problem of having one’s cake and eating it too. This is the situation the analytic philosophers found themselves in post-scientific revolution, and while accepting the Cartesian division where it suited them (as defenders of a “new” and “scientific” materialism), they’ve rejected the mind where it doesn’t. I give you: our current age. (Or: our patchwork of almost certainly wrong ideas.)

So this is silly. I’m always amazed at how smart people get things wrong. I think there’s some kind of smart-person bug or disease, a kind of moral courage that they lack sometimes (Was: cozy up to religion. Now: cozy up to “science”—in scare quotes because we still picture empirical science as exploring the parts of a machine, though </span> this idea is clearly wrong today. Another puzzle.). With all those smart analytic philosopher-scientists-wanna-be’s, we’re certain to get things all wrong-o .

So, modern reader, I’m with you. I’d be happy to throw out Descartes. The way I see things I can’t figure out which is this French genius’s sillier idea: that all of nature should correspond just-so to our differential equations (though it, of course, turned out otherwise), or that all of mind should correspond just-so to what’s left over (so to speak).

In other words, there isn’t really any such thing as “matter” in the Cartesian sense (stripped of everything we can’t measure). Why should there be? Once you see this side of things (or this horn of the dilemma), you don’t waste so much time writing diatribes about Cartesian mind (those dualists, the idiots!), because you realize it throws the same net over the materialistic notions you want to preserve. Stuff-open-to-empirical-investigation has all sorts of properties that would have flummoxed Newton (and Descartes). “Nature” (rather than Cartesian “matter”) has all sorts of interesting properties. One of them seems to be some aspects of mind. Spontaneity. And quite obviously, sensation. Right? To put things another way, what sort of a universe do we really live in?