Irreducible existence.


I’m afraid that my post on Descartes’ Discourse on the Method of Rightly Conducting One’s Reason and of Seeking Truth in the Sciences (1637) is going to be a bit tangential. And perhaps a bit of a cheat, because I want to focus entirely on his maxim: I think therefore I am and what I feel about that statement in light of notions of technological singularity and the futurism of the brain. That feels like cheating to me because I am not mining the text for some gem of insight – but really I don’t feel like delving into whether Descartes’ “proof” for the existence of God has merit or not at the moment – so there we are.

“I think therefore I am” is probably one of the most famous maxims in western thought. First posited by Descartes’ in Discourse on the Method, it forms the basis for his philosophical proof of existence and is an expression of his mind-body dualism. In this conception of human existence the mind and body are separate from each other – “I think therefore” not only proves existence – but it squarely places existence in the mind rather than the body. Another way of putting this is expressed in the term by British philosopher Gilbert Ryle “ghost in the machine,” whereby the human body is merely the mechanical cage which houses the immaterial mind. Or to put it another way, we are all just brains in a pod a la the film The Matrix which is about as Cartesian in outlook as it gets.

As is technological singularity – which came up on my Facebook wall this week (in relation to something really tangential from this whole topic) – a nice serendipity while I was re-reading Descartes’ Dicsourse. During our Saturday class, one of my peers made the comment that they did not understand how the mind could be seen as independent from the body since the mind would disappear when the body had physically ceased to be, making them the mind dependent on the body and not separated. And here is where “the singularity” would take Descartes to the next logical level – this would be the futuristic study and development of the mind-machine merge. In this future, not only would machines develop higher intelligence than humans currently hold, but a fusing of the biological with the programmable would allow for humans to possess that higher intellectual capacity. Not only that, the upload of minds into actual (not metaphorical) machines would give humans a kind of immortality that Descartes could never have dreamed of. Of course there is more to “the singularity” than this, but for the purpose of this post I am going to stop here for the discussion.

Rather than arguing about whether or not the technology forecast by the futurists is a possibility, or would ever be made accessible to us garden-variety humans – I am going to go back to the dualism of Descartes and probe this a bit further. What we are basically looking at here is “substance” dualism which divides mind and matter into two fundamentally different substances. Because of this substance division, the mind can never be reduced to the physical body and its mechanics. This is quite a lot like the religious conception of the soul which also views the body as the material substance which houses the ephemeral being. The problem with this of course is the question of how the material could have an impact on the immaterial, and also how the immaterial could impact the material. How does the mind/body intersection work if we are rendered of two completely different substances?

As strange a problem as that seems to be, watching a film like The Matrix (1999) reminds us of the prevalence of this idea in our culture. That we could believe in  humans imprisoned in pods by their robot overlords and hooked up to a computer which synthesizes human life, belies our acceptance of the idea that our experience does rest solely in our minds. Watching that film we don’t say – “that’s preposterous” because so much of rationalist discourse is predicated on this very belief. And its this belief which gives hope to the futurists who wish to transmit that ephemeral mind into a different machine when our own physical bodies “give up the ghost”(pun intended). (Unlike Descartes, the film posits emotional existence as part of the mind, which the philosopher had reduced down a reasoning device only).

On the other side of things – the material body side – remember the human genome project? That was the gene-mapping project that scientists promised us would get to the bottom of  “what makes us human”. By mapping the genes of animals and humans alike, we were supposed to discover what fundamental genetic building blocks separated us from each other – a definitive proof for human existence on the physical side. What we actually discovered is that humans have two more chromosome pairs than rats. Okay – we found out a lot more than that – but when it actually came down to the divisions between one species and the next, counting chromosomes didn’t turn out to tell us much more about what makes a human, human and what makes a rat, rat.

Like the human genome researchers, the futurists promoting technological singularity rely on Cartesian dualism in their optimism. But I’m afraid that like the genomic researchers, they will only be disappointed if they believe this is the path to immortality. I have a hard time understanding how this type of division is supportable with all the science of the past two decades showing that intelligence and “the brain” is located throughout the body, that our nervous system informs our emotional well-being in complex ways, and – most important at all – that our emotions are not separate from our rational beings. (At the end of this course we are reading Antonia Damasio’s book Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason and the Human Brain which I haven’t read yet – but does examine the faults of dualism from a scientific perspective.)

Of course Spinoza argued way back in 1677 that the mind and body were one continuous and seamless unit – but of course that would have contaminated the notion of “pure reason” and so his perspective was set to the side. This has allowed all sorts of fantasy notions about human reason, now (through the genome project and the singularity) informs fantasies about ultimately discovering humanity through one side (or other) of the duality that is supposedly comprises our composition.

None of this is really gets to the correct philosophical response to Descartes, of course. I am not using logic to out-argue the sentence “I think therefore I am.” Nor do I believe that the statement itself is off-base. One of the ways we understand that we exist *is* through our thoughts. But it is also through our feelings. And while we may know of our existence through our thoughts, this does not leave them unsullied by the neurological impulses of our beings. Not that one could expect Descartes to have understood that in the 17th century (after all, as he noted, he couldn’t possibly perform *all* the scientific experiments himself) – but I am challenged by the notion of mind-uploaded-to-computer equals immortality. I am also challenged by why anyone would want to live on indefinitely, or why anyone would want to live purely in the intellect when there is so much great physical pleasure that we would miss out on – and no, I don’t believe that is programmable.

PS. I should very quickly note before breaking off here that I do believe that super-intelligence is possible with machines – and I don’t reject the singularity futurists outright – but I do question the continuation down the Cartesian path when so much of our current science challenges us to think otherwise.)

PPS. You know what else the singularity futurists make me think of when I see headlines like Time Magazine proclaiming immortality by 2045? Flying cars. It seems to me that flying cars have been a promise of the future for some decades now, but as far as I can tell we’re nowhere near those either.

PPPS. Also, I don’t think the problems on the planet are due to a lack of intelligence (the singularists super-intelligence is supposedly going to save us all from ourselves). We know full well *what* to do, we just don’t want to do it.
Okay. Enough!

4 thoughts on “Irreducible existence.

  1. A thoroughly enjoyable read. You make several interesting points, but I think that what Descartes constitutes as ‘thinking’ involves any kind of mental activity, including feeling. As such, presumably anything that is a ‘thinking thing’, is also, to his mind, a ‘feeling thing’.

    • I’m sure there is lots I am missing about Descartes and mind-body dualism in this post because I am no scholar of this philosophy – however, I took this notion of Descartes deficiency wrt the emotions from Spinoza’s critique in which he argues that the reasoning mind is also emotional, which I *thought* was in direct response to Descartes who argued otherwise? But since this is all relatively new to me, I could be in error there. Problem with my course is that the reading is voluminous (2-3 texts per week) and I have trouble getting additional sources correct also. I am going to have to investigate this one better. Thanks for your comment!

  2. It seems to me that the mind and soul are primarily electronic impulses that reside in our body. However scientists would say that energy is indestructible – it merely changes form. So in a sense our mind and soul always will exist – but we may not be able to find it after our bodies are gone. This could explain some of the phenomena people studying the paranormal describe – auras, Kirellian photos, near death experience, astral travel etc. It also brings to mind the concept of trapped sound memory in old house that fantasy writers have posited. Food for thought!

    Good article.

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