‘Philosophy’ has always been bunk, 13: Descartes’ dualism – his one, almost sane, theory

Descartes proposed that some things such as the brain are material, and others such as the human mind and God are spiritual.  You don’t say!  Isn’t it just obvious and commonsensical, almost by definition of the words used?  But it was the one fraction of his thought that later philosophers weren’t impressed by.  I cudgel my brain to understand why.  It was given the title ‘Ontological Dualism’ or ‘Cartesian Dualism’.

For me, it has always been a telling error to think that verbal logicking can solve the conundrum of the relationship between brain and mind.  It is part of the wrong-headedness of Philosophy’s verbal nitpicking to think it can.

For all that, ‘Cartesian Dualism’  became the basis for ‘The Mind-Body Problem’ (from here).  Why is it a a problem?  Didn’t philosophers think it ‘clear and distinct’ that the brain is material and resides in the skull, and that the mind (consisting of feelings, thoughts, dreams, nostalgias, behaviours, desires, cultures, civilizations, tastes in reading, tastes in carpets, ironies and responsibilities) isn’t material.  Yes, it resides in the brain, develops from it in the course of evolution and of the individual’s life, is damaged if the brain is damaged; but is itself a great ethereal bubble of non-materiality. 

Did philosophers seriously believe that everything is material, and that the mind or ‘self’  is just the brain? 

Were these only the grim materialists of modern times but earlier philosophers too?  To me, the idea that all these constituents of the mind or self will one day be explained as electrical impulses in nerve cells, is the product of minds with an impoverished self-experience of mind and self.

Some thinkers, for example Paul Dean on Leavis, here , think that “the mistaken equation of ‘brain’ with ‘mind’ is one of the most insidiously misleading examples of modern sophistry”.   That he thought it worthwhile to say so, makes me think that modern minds do on the whole think that the mind is just the brain that scientists study.  My mind boggles.

I met a boy at college long ago, who expressed the thought that one day all thoughts and feelings of any kind would be analyzed down to electrical impulses in nerve cells.  My mind boggled that anyone so benighted and insensitive to human life could get into college.  But I was wrong: This was exactly the kind of mind that Academia valued.

 It seems that Descartes’ ontological dualism was a revolutionary idea in his time, even though science had barely yet started to influence general ideas about the mind.  He hoped that his dualism would satisfy the Church that it could continue to act in the spiritual world of Mind and God, and leave scientists to do empirical investigation into the material and mechanistic world (from here).

Some moderns think that Artificial Intelligence is like the human mind!   Perhaps it is to an extent, in that so many modern humans have a mechanical intelligence with banal ideas of human life (from here).

Yet legal systems still assume the self to be independent of biological or physical causes in most of its activity, and to be responsible for most of what it does, and therefore can be found guilty and sent to jail.

Because Descartes was so materialistic and mechanistic, he needed to find an exact spot where material brain and spiritual mind interacted.  He picked on the pineal gland (a small comma hanging off the bottom of the brain) as that spot where intentions from the mind crossed into the brain to initiate muscular movements, and where pain sensations from the nerves and brain crossed into the mind.

Later philosophers didn’t think much of the pineal gland as being where Brain and Mind  interacted, and thought up other theories such as Materialism, Idealism, Behaviourism, Occasionalism, Epiphenomenalism,  Pre-Established Harmony, Double Aspect Theory, etc.  Look these up; they are amazing.

To pick on the pineal or anywhere else is the sort of thing a rationalistic mind would do to satisfy its need for an answer to something unfathomable. 

Descartes, very wisely for a change, wrote late in his life (from here), that ‘the union of mind and body is best understood by not thinking about it, and that it is just one of those mysteries that has to be accepted without being comprehended’.  Exactly!  But moderns think that neuro-science will one day solve it. 

Philosophers use logic to try to solve what are imponderables to logic, but these imponderables remain imponderables by the very nature of imponderables and of logic.  

It seems that Descartes believed that our minds carry on after our brains have died.  Modern scientists don’t.  They believe that brain is mind. 


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