Defending (somewhat) Decartes’ Error

Dan Liechty | January 26, 2011

"Normal Dan" Daniel Liechty

Seeking to doubt all that could be doubted, Rene Descartes (d. 1650) finally decided that while he could even doubt the existence of his own body, he could not doubt the existence of his mind, which was doing the doubting in the first place. His famous phrase, Cogito ergo sum (I think, therefore, I am) formed the basis for the dualism of body and mind (with mind in the superior position) which has enjoyed a stubbornly fundamental position in Western philosophy for the past three centuries.

In the recent generation, opposition to this dualism, and especially the prioritizing of “mind-over-matter” it implies, has been voiced from many quarters. One of the strongest of these sources of dissent is from those working in cognitive neuroscience, which dissent might be summarized as “No Brain, No Mind.”  A widely read book representing this perspective is neurologist Antonio Damasio’s book, Descartes’ Error (1994).

My quarrel is not with Damasio–I loved that book, my copy is well worn, and I draw on Damasio’s outline of the case of brain-injured Phineas Gage frequently in class discussions. My quarrel is more with those who have come to intone “Descartes’ error!” dismissively every time a discussion point even hints of mind/body dualism. My sense is that there is yet a baby in that bathwater!

Granted, the avenue in the Euro-western intellectual tradition asserting that the material and the spiritual are qualitatively different entities (and that hence also body/mind (soul, spirit) are also totally different entities has mostly produced an intellectual cul de sac. I say cul de sac rather than “dead end,” not just because it, like Descartes himself, is French, but because in a dead end the road just ends, whereas a cul de sac (at least here in the American heartland) generally designates a circular drive in which, if you remain on it, you end up passing the same houses over and over again. This better describes, in my view, where the Cartesian mind/body dualism has taken us.

But let’s not forget that Descartes himself anything but simple minded, and he already anticipated much of the current criticism of his formulations, even without benefit of modern brain research data. In reading Descartes, even in translation, it is quickly seen that he was a startlingly disciplined phenomenologist of experience. Furthermore, the dualism he described remains a deeply heartfelt, experiential dualism for (I would argue) any fully cognizant and thinking human being. Just consider this fact–the separation of body and mind Descartes described, is simply one way of talking about the experience we all share, of the body becoming an object in the purview of the “symbolic self” (as we might term the mind in current parlance.) This ability of the symbolic self to stand “outside” of the body, view the body as an object, and take control over the body, is a fundamental process of abstract thought, and is solidly embedded in the phenomenological experience of every human being beginning at least as far into childhood as toilet training.

Therefore, while many would agree that elevating the body/mind dualism to the level of metaphysics is problematic (as well for a myriad of reasons not touched on here) we don’t really get very far my shouting “Descartes’ Error!” at every whiff of dualism. As Ernest Becker suggested, we should rather keep well in mind that this is a “heuristic” (experientially descriptive) dualism and not a metaphysical (ontological) dualism. Thus it has its proper place in serious discussion, though it is not the stage on which all serious discussion must take place.