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My concern is for both the dualist notion with which Descartes split the mind from brain and body (in its extreme version, it holds less sway) and for the modern variants of this notion:

  • the idea, for instance, that mind and brain are related, but only in the sense that the mind is the software program run in a piece of computer hardware called brain; or that brain and body are related, but only in the sense that the former cannot survive without the life support of the latter.

..But perhaps that would not be quite fair and so one might continue with

  • “I think therefore I am” [Discourse on the Method (1637)]
  • ‘”epense doncje suis”
  • “Cogito ergo sum” [Principlesof Philosophy(1644)]

Taken literally, the statement illustrates precisely the opposite of what I believe to be true about the origins of mind and about the relation between mind and body.

It suggests that thinking, and awareness of thinking, are the real substrates of being. And since we know that Descartes imagined thinking as an activity quite separate from the body, it does celebrate the separation of mind, the “thinking thing” (res cogitans), from the nonthinking body, that which has extension and mechanical parts (res extensa).

Yet long before the dawn of humanity, beings were beings. At some point in evolution, an elementary consciousness began. With that elementary consciousness came a simple mind; with greater complexity of mind came the possibility of thinking and, even later, of using language to communicate and organize thinking better. For us then, in the beginning it was being, and only later was it thinking. And for us now, as we come into the world and develop, we still begin with being, and only later do we think. We are, and then we think, and we think only inasmuch as we are, since thinking is indeed caused by the structures and operations of being.

When we put Descartes’ statement back where it belongs, we might wonder for a moment whether it might mean something different from what it has come to stand for.

  • Might one read it instead as an acknowledgment of the superiority of conscious feeling and reasoning, without any firm commitment as to their origin, substance, or permanence?
  • Might the statement also have served the clever purpose of accommodating religious pressures of which Descartes was keenly aware?

The latter is a possibility, but there is no way of finding out for sure. (The inscription Descartes chose for his tombstone was a quote that he apparently used frequently: “Bene qui latuit, bene vixit,” from Ovid’s Tristia 3.4.25. Translation: “He who hid well, lived well.” A cryptic disclaimer of dualism, perhaps?)

As for the former, on balance, I suspect Descartes also meant precisely what he wrote. As the famous words first appear, Descartes is rejoicing with the discovery of a proposition so undeniably true that no amount of skepticism will shake it:

  • … and remarking that this truth “I think, therefore I am” was so certain and so assured that all the most extravagant suppositions brought forward by the sceptics were incapable of shaking it, I came to the conclusion that I would receive it without scruple as the first principle of the Philosophy for which I was seeking.

This is Descartes’ error: the abyssal separation between body and mind, between the sizable, dimensioned, mechanically operated, infinitely divisible body stuff, on the one hand, and the unsizable, undimensioned, un-pushpullable, nondivisible mind stuff; the suggestion that reasoning, and moral judgment, and the suffering that comes from physical pain or emotional upheaval might exist separately from the bod Specifically: the separation of the most refined operations of mind from the structure and operation of a biological organism.

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