Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Cartesian Impasse

Renee Descartes was a smart dude. He's most famous for saying, or writing, rather, "cogito ergo sum", translated as, "I think therefore I am", which is actually a pretty good starting point for this post. Descartes believed that he existed mainly because of his thoughts. He argued extensively that the senses couldn't necessarily be trusted as proof of existence or of the nature of things and that, in essence, the mind and the body were separate.

Descartes went on to discuss the nature of the relationship between mind and body, deciding that the mind was the essence of a person, and that the body was a wholly separate thing that is ultimately ruled by the mind. Kindof like a remote control car. He argued (incorrectly as it turns out) that the pineal gland, which is right in the middle of the brain, was the seat of the soul in the body. The physical manifestation of mental existence.

All of this brings us to the idea of Cartesian Impasse, as it's known in some circles. Since the pineal gland turns out not to be "the soul", we are therefore at a loss to explain how the mind actually communicates with the body. Descartes started it, but all the people who have come after him haven't really spoken very well on the matter either.

I find this to be very interesting. It has been hundreds of year since Descartes set about becoming "the father of modern philosophy", but this, his core issue in a sense, is still a big question mark. I mean, really this is *THE* question in philosophy: what is the nature of being? It's fascinating that no one on either side of the spectrum has provided even a remotely feasible solution.

Fast forward 400 years and we know how the brain works. We can ask people to perform tasks and see the neurons firing in the brain. We know which areas correspond to which functions in the body. We can ask people to think about something entirely abstract, not perform any physical activity, and watch the brain working. The question still remains, however: how does this cluster of electrical impulses in the brain give rise to what we would call thought, or to extend on Descartes' idea, existence?

There doesn't really seem to be an answer. I can't really even imagine what a feasible answer to that question would be. If anyone ever actually answers this question, then I want that guy to be president. Or better yet, supreme dictator of Earth.

Another interesting and tangentially related point is that I find it similarly fascinating that whatever the edge of people's understanding of the world happens to be is right where they insert God into the equation. Descartes, easily one of the smartest dudes ever (he's not only the father of philosophy, but one of his throwaway examples in a math treatise led to Newton and Liebnitz separately inventing calculus.), reached the end of his train of thought about the nature of being to insert God into the equation. Ancient Greek dudes didn't know why the sun came up in the morning and set at night, so they decided it was a god riding a chariot across the sky. I would bet that if you had this mind/body discussion with 100 people, then a lot of them would say that the point at which we can't explain how electrical impulses give rise to actual thought and therefore existence is right where God comes in to connect the dots between the two. I would bet you could find some neuroscientists who would give you that answer.

I'm not opposed to the idea of God, in fact I find the whole notion rather intriguing, but I just also find it very interesting that it seems to be the lazy way out for some people. I feel like I'm the opposite. The more I learn about the complexities of the universe, the nature of being and matter, and the absolutely nonsensical way that things seem to work, the more I feel like there must be some sort of power who put those things into place.

So the point is that I'm fascinated that this mind/body thing is the ultimate question and that the closer we get to finding the answer, the farther away we seem to be from it.


Open Bar said...

I think that there wasn't a single dick joke or funny picture in this post, so therefore I am sad.

rick said...

Whoah no shoot, daddy...I always thought that the seat of the soul wasn't the pineal gland in the brain but the "taint." Charles, well thought out post, good show.

Side Bar said...

I can't believe Kathy lets you smoke grass in the house.

Side Bar said...

Yeah that's right, I called it grass. I'm bringing that back.

Open Bar said...

That's nothing. One time I saw Kathy shotgunning a bonghit with Sammy.

It was weird.

ChuckJerry said...

I'm gonna go with reefer instead of grass.

Anonymous said...

I do agree with you, Chuck. The more complex things you learn about as you get older, the more you start to think that it can't just be random shit happening, and there has to be some sort of power that set all of this into motion.

Katherine said...

The Cartesian Impasse is a very comples topic whose subjests range from further than monism (the mind and body are one) and dualism (two seperate entitiies). There is a new thoery I came accross in a psychology class that all existance.."mind" is simply mind dust, and it exsits all around us. This complex idea seems crazy to some, and only becasue it is explained through Quantum Physics..very out there.
A theory I found very comprehensible has been that your thinking capabilities have been limited throught out the years due to society boudaries. We only think what we need to get byt, to survive. Perhaps the realtionship of mind/body is explainable, however we lack the ability to comprehend this because its not something we encounter everyday. Its like practicing for a math test. Do you remember all the formulas in Algebra? can you score high on that math test with out a review? According to the laws of science, entropy exists and all matter is slowly degrading. This is just my way of interpretting the Cartesian Impasse.

Richard Dawkins talks about this idea in his lecture about our queer universe. Very interesting..