Philosophy, Science, and the Quantification of Mind
by Michael Jacques (e-mail: [January 28th, 2003]

Descartes believed that the world is comprised of two real and distinct substances: material substance and thinking substance, both of which are derived from the infinite substance of God. While the certainty of his metaphysical system is justifiably subject to considerable doubt, there is a basic and undeniable truth in this idea of the dual nature of the universe. This “Cartesian dualism,” as it is often called, has been a key interest of philosophers and thinkers ever since Descartes formalized this concept that now bears his name.

“The Greeks recognized the need for both rational and spiritual understanding, and Chinese thought conflicted between Confucian ideas of science and law and Taoist ideas of nature and peace.”

First, a little background on this “dualism.” Descartes begins his Meditations by pledging to critically examine his understanding and all of his beliefs about the world. He soon finds that all of his ideas stem from either sensory perceptions or his own thoughts, which are essentially reflections upon past perception. Conceding at this point that it is theoretically possible for some “evil genius” to be artificially inducing thoughts into his mind, Descartes is horrified. Even if that evil genius existed, however, he realizes that all of his thoughts still allow him to say with certainty that at least he is thinking. The ensuing “I think, therefore I am,” creates a definition of self that relies completely on thought and the internal life of the mind, which foreshadows the concept of dualism.

While Descartes turns in the next sections of his Meditations to proofs for the existence of God - his stated purpose in writing the book - I want to instead examine his metaphysical claims about the actual scientific structure of the universe. Material substance, the stuff of physical reality, is everything that has volume and can be combined and separated without losing its basic properties or essential structure. Thinking substance, a different kind of matter that Descartes thinks mind is made of, does not possess these attributes. Two minds cannot be combined into one, and the mass or volume of one’s mind (perhaps a better word is consciousness) cannot be measured. (Note the difference here between “brain” and “mind,” where “brain” is the physical object residing within the skull and the “mind” is the human thinking being, the sum of our personality, knowledge, and desires.) Descartes proposed that these substances are two equally real realms which overlap and interact to create the world that we live in, and that the mind cannot be said to reside within the brain at all but is instead an inconceivable thing contained in some different plane of existence. Metaphysics plays bizarre games.

While I would not go so far as to say that there are two different kinds of reality, I would like to point out that human awareness of this apparent dualism predates Descartes by over a thousand years and that it is an important (if somewhat less explicit) theme in the philosophy of ancient Greek and Chinese cultures. I say apparent because things do not appear a certain way to nature, as appearance is an irony that is reserved in our experience to human beings. Descartes is right about the mind seeming different than other objects, but its difference is due to the complexity of the brain itself as well as the fact that it is impossible to perceive the very thing that you perceive with; the mind feels separated because it’s telling itself to feel that. As Descartes and other philosophers have acknowledged, it is fairly impossible to actually be conscious of consciousness; it would be like watching yourself watch a film, in real time as you watch it. On a speculative note that I’m sure I will revisit, this may be why death may be so fascinating and horrifying to many atheists. It’s hard to imagine nothing, because by the time one achieves it, the feeling of it is impossible.

In any case, the mind does feel different, and unlike the physical world of science and understanding, the mind suffers its irrational desires, and in this way it is the true nature of a human being. When a friend asks you how you feel, it’s not a matter of mathematics – you simply feel good, bad, or somewhere in between. This is a bit simplistic, to say the least, but there is something in human consciousness which is immune from science. We recoil from death although it is the only guaranteed part of life; physics and calculus are powerful but never in the right ways to make us happy. We need food, possessions, sports, religion, and literature to enjoy ourselves. Whether or not it’s a being that resides entirely in the neurons of the brain, there’s something in our heads that we have to feed with something other than scientific understanding. While it is limited, we must struggle every day for intangible goals like happiness and wisdom. The Greeks recognized the need for both rational and spiritual understanding, and Chinese thought conflicted between Confucian ideas of science and law and Taoist ideas of nature and peace. The divisions between these two realms are extensive: the humanities and the sciences in today’s universities are a key example.

I am now reaching my point of current political interest; thank you for bearing with me. Thinkers of many centuries have attempted to subject the universe to strict rules and structures. Many continue in this quest to remove that element of absurdity in human thought, the element which demands freedom and justice. Perhaps it also makes it imperfect, but I am willing to risk imperfection for the sake of an interesting future. Throughout history there have been those who have attempted to assimilate philosophy and the humanities into mathematics and the sciences. This has been a personal project of many scientists as well as philosophers who saw their work (usually in metaphysics) as a branch of science. It continues today in universities around the world. The problem is that philosophy isn’t science. Kant’s claims about the structure of the understanding and its categories are a species of speculation about scientific reality, but they are not scientific themselves. They aren’t based on any experimental claims, only a feeling about the way the mind works. Philosophy and the humanities can be immensely valuable to human beings, but it is important to realize their fundamental difference from the sciences.

Many American universities are currently taking a step away from the humanities in favor of business and engineering programs. I feel that we risk almost total disconnection between broad education and profound specialization, and that wisdom and knowledge of life itself are being sacrificed. Capitalism has in many cases triumphed over ethics. Money will not be enough to satisfy human beings – we must remember the realities of our existence and maintain a happiness that is based on meaning. I concern my life with the world of appearances, and the world still appears very imperfect to me. While striving to obtain new scientific knowledge and economic advancement, it is still possible for Americans and others to consider the plight of other people. I do not suggest that we spread our influence over the entire globe and attempt to help all in need; I ask merely that the individual use their imagination to take others into account. I do not know where that will lead, but I insist that our country’s moral position be based on a consideration of others and a basic analysis of how our policy will affect them. This will always be a challenge because of the nature of things and the bias of experience, but it will always be possible due the power and individuality of the mind recognized by the ancient philosophers and Descartes centuries ago.

Resources and Avenues for Further Study

  • Serendip: Rene Descartes and The Legacy of Mind/Body Dualism
  • Google: Rene Descartes

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