A rebuttal of dualsim: some thoughts on human essence

So’s we’re talking about Cartesian dualism in class and I gotta say, any type of dualism is nonsense. I’ll explain why I feel this way.

First of all, for those of you who aren’t familiar with dualism, it is basically the belief that there are two realms in the universe: the physical and the mental (or spiritual, for New Age dualists). These realms are totally distinct. The main issue with this sort of view is that if these realms are distinct, then there’s no way for them to interact without any sort of miracle. If you believe in miracles, then dualism may be your thang; if you believe in science and reason, you may have trouble buying this garbage.

I think dualism probably comes from the basic human desire for immortality. If there’s a part of us (which I shall henceforth call our “essence”) that is separate and distinct from the physical body, then it stands to reason that that essence can transcend the death of the physical body. This is highly unlikely, because as I will show, essence is inseparable from physical form.

Think of a pen. We could say that the essence of the pen is something like “to write things.” This is what it exists for, its essential something that makes it a pen. If I were to throw this pen into that massive junk grinder in 30 Days of Night and chop it up into a pile of scrap, would its essence still be writing? I think not. I don’t think it would have an essence any more. Therefore, it stands to reason that essence is a direct function of the physical form of a thing.

In the case of humans it may be more complicated, as the human form is an incredibly complex machine, but I think there is a universal human essence, or at least three essential quests with which all humans of normal psychology are concerned: the quest for truth, the quest for meaning, and the quest for pleasure. I think that all aspects of normal psychology can be reduced to these three essential quests.

Another rebuttal of dualism: Think of color. Color is not strictly speaking a physical thing. I arises when certain critters (such as humans) perceive certain wavelengths of electromagnetic radiation (light). Therefore, although it is distinct from light and perception, and although it is not strictly speaking a physical thing (nor does it “exist” in the strictest sense, as it requires perception to exist), it is easily reducible to physical phenomena.Remove the light or the perceiving entities and there is no such thing as color. The mind, therefore, can be thought of as similar to color, and entirely reducible to physical phenomena (perhaps certain chemical reactions in the brain). Remove these physical phenomena, and one has no mind.

In short, there is no reason to believe in an immortal spirit/soul/mind. The essence is a function of the physical composition of a thing, and is entirely reducible to physical phenomena.

More on Descartes and God

So I’m reading Descartes’s Meditations on First Philosophy not just in History of Modern Philosophy, but in Theory of Knowledge as well (although in that class we’re only concerned with the first two Meditations). I’ve been puzzling over Meditation Three (“God”) since last night (I only got a few hours of sleep because my brain was working overtime analyzing Descartes’s argument). I think I’ve got some responses to Descartes, but I’m still uncertain, so if you’re not convinced by what’s about to follow, then don’t be shocked. These ideas are still in their infancy.

First of all, despite Descartes’s fame, he was by no means the greatest philosopher or logician that ever lived. In my opinion, his major contributions to philosophy were in his epistemological work and his methodology. For instance, there are a few logical inconsistencies in his First Meditation. I won’t get into them here, but ask yourself: are you really unable to tell whether you’re dreaming right now?

Anyway, one thing I’ve been puzzling over is the list of attributes he claims God has. But before we get into that, let me fill you in on his line of reasoning at this point (which really is evident as early as the First Meditation). He’s working with this theory that causes cannot be any less real than their effects. So, in order for something more perfect to come into being, even in the mind, something more real (or perfect, perhaps; I’m not sure if that’s an adequate substitution, though) had to create it. Using this line of reasoning, he begins to wonder how the idea of a perfect being could have been created in his mind. He goes on to list the attributes of God:

  • infinite
  • eternal
  • unchangeable
  • independent
  • supremely intelligent
  • supremely powerful
  • created Descartes and everything else

To me, these all seem like attributes of the universe, so to me it seems like all Descartes has done is prove that the universe exists. Let me deal with them one by one.

  • Infinite: This one should be obvious: anyone who has looked up at the sky knows that it’s infinite.
  • Eternal: Time is a function of the universe, so by definition it is eternal.
  • Unchangeable: The laws of physics cannot be changed. Although the elements of the universe may change, the fundamentals are eternally the same.
  • Independent: This one is a little more puzzling because I’m not quite sure what Descartes means by “independent.” I suppose it means it doesn’t depend on an external source for its existence. In that case, the universe is clearly independent: it supports itself.
  • Supremely Intelligent: This one requires that you subscribe to my epistemological views. I believe that we can only have knowledge of the natural world (as I have said elsewhere) and that therefore knowledge is a function of the natural world. Since the universe is the natural world, it is the source of all knowledge. Therefore, it is supremely intelligent.
  • Supremely Powerful: Again, this one is obvious. The universe is the most powerful thing known to humanity.
  • Creator of Descartes and everything else: Again, super-obvious.

I’m not sure how tenable all of this is, but it’s a start.

Also, I think I can use Descartes’s own conception of knowledge against him to force him into agnosticism. In case you’re unfamiliar with the Cartesian conception of knowledge, this is its basic formulation:

S knows that P iff

  1. S believes P
  2. P is true
  3. P is indubitable

This should be simple. Even is we grant that the proposition “God exists” is true, no reasonable person can claim that it is indubitable. Therefore, Descartes cannot truly claim knowledge that God exists.

Like I said, I’m not sure how tight these arguments are. I’ve been puzzling over them for a while and am not completely sold on them, mainly because I haven’t tested them in the laboratory of the classroom, where 30 other philosophers (one with a Ph.D.) can poke holes in them and force me to defend them.

For more on my theories of God, see my post from half an hour ago.

Descartes and God: Some meditations on the Meditations

So my first reading assignment for History of Modern Philosophy is Rene Descartes’s Meditations on First Philosophy, which makes sense because that particular text is probably Descartes’s most famous and Descartes is know as the Father of Modern Philosophy. Seems like a logical starting point. Seeing as how I haven’t read this book in nearly ten years, and seeing as how my worldview was significantly different back then (I was a Taoist as opposed to an agnostic atheist), it’s sort of like reading these meditations for the first time, albeit with a greater level of knowledge of what they contain than if I had just stumble upon them on the Interwebs. Anyway, I tend to like to write about things I read, especially philosophical jazz; it helps me organize my thoughts and work through them. I figured, therefore, that I might as well make my musings public. One of these days I plan on earning a Ph.D. in Philosophy and will have to publish philosophical treatises eventually, so I might as well get some practice. So, here goes with the first of the philosophical musing-types.

(N.B.: Seeing as how this first assignment is only the first two Meditations, I will restrict my comments to those sections.)

In essence, I believe that the starting point of these meditations is incredibly apt. Being a skeptic, I’m all about challenging beliefs, especially if one thinks one holds a false belief. So, leave it to one of the greatest philosophers of all time to think of the best place to start.

Being an atheist, the section I was most struck with was the musing on God, deception, and the nature of existence. In case you haven’t read it, Descartes is playing with the idea that perhaps the physical world doesn’t exist and sense perception is all an illusion (a form of idealism) simply as a thought experiment, presumably to argue for his brand of rationalism. He notes that one might argue and say that God would not deceive us like this, and he points out that God deceives us at least some of the time in the form of faulty sense perception, so what’s to say that God isn’t deceiving us 24/7? Essentially, if God is all-powerful, why couldn’t he create a world in which only the mental was real? Although I think idealism has its merits, I think it’s more of a fun thought experiment than a reasonable philosophy due to the fact that it’s not testable. (I know that Descartes wasn’t actually advocating for idealism and was simply using it as a rhetorical device.) Anyway, the notion of a deceptive God really pleases me as an atheist, although Descartes’s use of the word “deceive” is based on his apparent skepticism of free will and belief that God controls people’s thoughts (to me this sounds similar to some forms of occasionalism). In Descartes’s view, if one’s sense perceptions are mistaken, one is being deceived by God. Not many people actually believe that God is putting thoughts in their heads 24/7 (although it does seem like most Christians believe that God puts thoughts in their heads some of the time), but the belief does still exist, and I guess those people can take solace in the fact that they’re in good delusional company (although it must be noted that Descartes lived in the 17th century and science then wasn’t quite what it is now). Also, if you actually think that God is doing your thinking for you, doesn’t that make concepts like sin and repentance a little superfluous? I mean, this would essentially make you an aspect of God’s mind, so unless God has a crazy case of D.I.D. I don’t see the point of judging one’s own mind and condemning to hell.

(N.B.: I’m familiar with thought skepticism, which is a related area of philosophical thinking, but I don’t feel like going there.)

As for Descartes’s argument for proof that he exists, I have no real problem with it, but I would wonder why he didn’t decide to pretend he was a character in another person’s dream as opposed to being constantly deceived by a malicious demon. I like the dream thing better mainly because I have this argument at least once a week. I have lots of lucid dreams, and a lot of the time I end up getting in arguments with characters in these dreams about whether or not the dream is a dream or real. I’ve never been able to think of a logical way to prove to a figment of my imagination that it’s really just a representation of an aspect of myself, so I mostly just end up forcing myself to wake up just to prove a point. (Presumably this is an empty victory, unless the character in the dream goes on existing in my subconscious, which is doubtful.) Anyway the point I am trying to make is that Descartes’s reasoning holds if he is being deceived by a demon, but it would have to change at least a little bit if we are to alter his stipulations a bit and pretend we are just characters in someone else’s dream. Either that, or our definition of “to exist” would have to be altered in some way (I suppose that people, places, and things in dreams can be said to exist in a sense, but in order to argue that we’d have to have a pretty liberal definition of “exist”). I’m really too lazy to figure out a way to prove that I exist right now, though, and I tend to think that Descartes lays good groundwork, so I accept it given his conditions (the we can’t be certain of anything and we are possibly being deceived by a malicious demon). I have issue with his proof of an immortal soul, but I’ll get to that in another poster. Right now I want to watch Alien Raiders. Peace out, y’all!