D is for Descartes

As Englishmen learn early in life, nothing but trouble comes from the other side of the English Channel.  To be clear, the problem is not France:  after all, this is the country of exquisite wines (those pinot noir reds!), of delicious stinky cheeses (more Époisses, please), of crinkly baguettes, and so much more.  No, it’s the people, or maybe just a few of them.  Amongst the good and the bad, one stands out as a particular troublemaker, René Descartes.  He’s the one who explained the starting point for thought had to be certainty about one’s own existence, “I am, I exist”.  His view is more usually expressed in Latin: cogito ergo sum (I am thinking, therefore I exist).  Did that man know how much trouble he was about to cause, trouble that won’t go away?

Back in the 17th Century, his observation was one part of a major philosophical enquiry that was to contribute to a revolution in thinking, and establish what has since been called the scientific age.  Descartes hypothesised, and later stated, that the natural world is composed of uniform matter, the same everywhere, and that understanding the natural world can be achieved by determining the underlying physical laws that explain the behaviour of the objects around us.  How do we discover these physical laws?  By examining the nature of things.  Careful empirical observation and the confirmation of understanding can be logically undertaken, and doubt set aside with confidence: there is a real world out there, existing independently of ourselves.

There is much to be said about the nature of the scientific enterprise, in which the view there is an independent, unvarying reality which follows discernable laws is still the cornerstone.  I don’t want to get into all the philosophical by-ways and alternative paths that have been pursued since Descartes’ time, fascinating though people like Hume and Heidegger are.  Descartes anticipated many of the issues with which we still battle today, especially the challenge of overcoming what our senses tell us about the nature of reality, which we can often get wrong.  This isn’t a WYSIWYG world, and what is ‘out there’ can be tantalisingly hard to discern.  If scientists today develop laws and explanations that rely on multi-dimensional mathematics, uncertainty, and the peculiar properties of elementary particles, most of the time what they discover does seem to lead to practical applications, as with the recently announced quantum computer.

However, when contemporary physicists began debating whether the fundamental building blocks of reality are either particles or fields, most of us decided to grab hold of the nearest table and say “well, this feels real enough to me!” [i]  It is hard to know what Descartes would add, since we have difficulty ‘seeing’ a field.  Think of the field around a magnet. We can’t see anything, but if we put some like iron filings on a sheet of paper above a magnet, they will align along the lines of the magnetic field – the effects are clear.  As for reading interactions between particles are expressed eight-dimensional mathematics, I wonder why this reminds me of earlier, fraught and intense discussions about the number of angels that can dance on the head of a pin?

No, the real trouble Descartes caused goes back to that seemingly harmless first principle, “I am thinking and therefore I exist”.  Back in 1641, it started with that word ‘I’.  As far as Descartes was concerned, the  mind existed entirely of the body.  Sometimes I wonder if it is useful to think about his system in three parts:  there is the outside world, a reality that can be made sense of in terms of universal laws; there is the human body, a physical object that is both another real thing to be examined scientifically and a source of sensory information; and finally there is the independent mind.  Descartes was anxious to admit that our sensory information can be confusing, or even wrong.  We all know those optical illusions with lines of the same length which appear to be different, because of confusing additional information around them.  It is as if we, as in our minds, are inside some kind of imperfect machine, attempting to make sense of the rest of the physical reality around us.  We believe logic and scientific analysis can help our minds overcome the limitations of empirical observations, and reveal the reality that lies beneath.

For most of us, most of the time, we happily live with the idea each one of us has a conscious mind which is both somewhere and nowhere.  It is not a specific thing, like a finger, but rather it is immanent.  We are often led to conflate the mind with the brain, but then we realise that how we think and feel is in some way a function of our whole body, our mind extending throughout our physical being.  A couple of case studies might help us here: one is famous; the other is not.

The famous case study is of Phineas Gage.[ii]  The basic facts are that on September 13, 1848, Gage was directing a work gang blasting rock to prepare the ground for laying a railway line.  Distracted, he brought his head into line with the blast hole he was preparing, and accidentally allowed the tamping iron he was using to spark against the rock, the powder inside exploded, and forced the tamping iron up through his lower jaw, then through his head, emerging out from the top of his skull.  The iron was over an inch in diameter, three feet seven inches long, and weighed a little over 13 pounds.  It shot in the air and landed some 80 feet away.

Remarkably, despite losing a significant part of the frontal area of his brain and being very ill for a few weeks, Gage recovered.  10 weeks after his injury, he was strong enough to return to his parents’ home and he was “able to do a little work about the horses and barn, feeding the cattle etc.”, although he was noticeably “fitful, irreverent … capricious and vacillating”.   Unable to return to his railroad job, he was briefly “a kind of living museum exhibit” at Barnum’s American Museum in New York, before working for a coach service in New Hampshire.  In August 1852, Gage was invited to Chile to work as a long-distance stagecoach driver, “caring for horses, and often driving a coach heavily laden and drawn by six horses” .  Early in his initial recovery, an American physician had noted Gage was “in the enjoyment of good health, with no impairment whatever of his mental faculties”,  his earlier and serious mental changes proving temporary, as he became “ socially far better adapted”.  His health began to fail in mid-1859, and he left for San Francisco.  In early 1860, Gage began to have epileptic seizures, and died in June.

What can we conclude from this story?  As has been found in several similar cases of individuals with severe brain damage (many during two World Wars), the brain demonstrates extraordinary plasticity, able to recover functions and skills that had been lost.  Further, despite some initial odd behaviour, Gage’s mind was also restored.  Was Descartes right, the mind is independent?

Whenever I think about Gage’s recovery, I find myself reminded of Oliver Sack’s study of sleeping sickness patients.  When he first met them, they had been largely comatose for fifty years, conscious, yet motionless, and speechless.  Encouraged by the success of a new drug, L-DOPA on Parkinsonian patients, Sacks decided to try it on some of these “sleeping volcanoes” as he later described them.  The results were amazing, and, for a short time, it was as if they were released, restored to a normal life, although their minds were stuck fifty years earlier, as if they had been frozen inside their ageing, sleeping bodies.  Sadly, the effects were short-lived.  Twenty case studies are compellingly and movingly told by Sacks in his 1973 report of the experiment, Awakenings.  It’s a wonderful, fascinating and ultimately despairing account.

My second case study concerns Burleigh, the beautiful black Labrador who lives next door, but occasionally comes to visit. He, like Phineas Gage, should be famous, but so far his fame is limited to those living in my street.   He’s a patient dog, well used to my bizarre lifestyle when he visits.   As I sit in a chair typing away, he’ll come into my study, turn around for a minute or so, and then flop down for a comfortable snooze.  Every so often, he’ll stand up, and I can feel the look he’s giving me.  When I turn, it’s as if he’s been speaking to me.  Perhaps it’s time to go outside, or it’s time for lunch.  The odd thing is that as I look into his eyes, I’ll know, and he seems to know I understand. [iii]  Without words to explain things, he wants me away from my desk and opening the front door, or going over to that bag holding lunch. Sometimes Burleigh gives me a ‘time for lunch’ hopeful look, but I sense he knows it’s an attempt to trick me.  He is very conscious of time, and if he looks for a meal an hour early, his eyes make it clear he knows he can’t quite convince me.  So, how do we ‘know’ each other, our minds interconnect?

Yet another part of the puzzle about mind and brain has to do with how we manage the world around us.  I was brought up short on this years ago when my daughter asked me about the solar system.  I began to explain, and then she smiled at me.  “What?”  “Dad, your head is full of stuff.  Why try to remember everything?  Just look it up on Google.”  In my recollection of the event, I think she might have accused me of having a dustbin brain.  Whatever was said, that half-remembered conversation came back to me as I was working on this blog, sitting in my study.

My study is a library, bookshelves all around, and more inside a walk-in wardrobe, a physical ‘google’!  The books are, to the amusement of many visitors, carefully organised:  philosophy and fiction by author, science by topic, biographies by the subject, and so on.  Why do I do this?  Some say it is evidence of a nascent obsessive-compulsive disorder I seem to demonstrate.  That might be true, but when I am writing, I often get up to take out a book, for a quote, or to remind myself of a case study, or an argument. [iv]  It could be argued the books, and the way they have been sorted, are an extension of my memory, my mind reaching out to retrieve a source I need, then seeing other possibilities.  This is an example of an ‘extended mind’, “an active externalism, based on the active role of the environment in driving cognitive processes”. [v] Certainly, as I was writing, I knew Rupert Sheldrake and Antonio Damasio had views I wanted to review.

If that sounds a bit esoteric, what about ‘muscle memory’?  A pianist at a keyboard, a writer at a computer, a car driver going to work, their attention to the immediate physical tasks is quickly pushed into the background.  Instead they are able to focus on musicality, logic, or other road users.  Yet, when I’m driving, I am still ‘feeling’ how the car is working, subconsciously (if that’s the right word) noting any odd activity. An unexpected change, my attention goes back to listening to the car’s mechanics.  Muscle memory exemplifies feeling beyond one’s own body. [vi]

How do all these different stories and experiences relate back to the relationship between mind and body?  There are tens of thousands of books on mind, brain, thinking and related matters.  I have a few of them, but you’ll be pleased to know I am not going to review any more studies.  Rather, I want to offer some reflections on Descartes and his separation of mind from body.

I think the story of Phineas Gage gives us pause as to what we mean by mind.  Immediately after his horrific accident, and for a few months after, the person he had been seemed lost.  He was different, becoming a clearly physically limited person with a new personality:  a quiet, reflective and polite man had become rude and obstreperous.  Then, two years later, the original person was largely restored, and his behaviour more like the man before the accident.  How was that done?  The missing parts of his physical brain weren’t replaced, but rather what was left was refashioned: no, not refashioned, but in some sense put back in place.  Equally intriguing was the experience of the sleeping sickness patients when they ‘woke up’ through using L-DOPA.  Here what was extraordinary was that their minds had remained where they had been 50 years earlier, as young men and women, unaffected by the changes that had taken place in their bodies.

When he retold Gage’s story, Antonio Damasio went on to examine more recent research on the brain, explaining we have departed from many of Descartes revolutionary ideas, especially the view human beings are rational, logical analysts of the world around them.  We are capable of thinking, but we no longer consider ourselves as mere clockwork devices, or logic machines.  Damasio suggests the human system is an interweaving of reason, feeling and emotion within the brain:  rather than our minds separate from our bodies, they are inextricably linked together, with consciousness superior to both, and yet not determined by either. [vii]  Certainly, my active mind encompasses all of me, even aches and pains!  Like Burleigh, I can know without logic or words.

As is often the case with new technologies that sweep through society, they can impact on how we see ourselves in the world.  The scientific revolution led to people seen as systems, the heart a pump, the lungs bellows, the brain a regulator, sowing the seeds for medical treatment today with all the paraphernalia of surgery, replacement parts, and drug-based interventions.  Next came electricity, and the body because a cybernetic system, with feedback loops and communication links: illness arose from faulty wiring, feedback mechanisms awry, to be fixed by pacemakers or delicate brain surgery.  Today, we are living in the aftermath of the IT revolution.  Now, our brains, our minds, are seen as intelligent software systems, with heuristic learning, algorithms, and mental models of the world, while ‘soft mathematics’ analyses how we behave. [viii]  No need to worry, by the way, as intelligent devices can take over the work we used to do (takeover us?).

I find this all frustrating.  Science remains provisional, each new set of theories explaining what we now observe, only to be swept aside by the next round of ideas.  Descartes would approve of that.  However, science doesn’t touch our sense of being who we are.  Our minds are more than our brains, and maybe, even more than our physical bodies.  Descartes mislead us there.  We aren’t separate from our physical selves, but nor are we nothing more than that.  Whatever that strange spark of consciousness is, it makes us human.  So when you read how AI explains what makes us tick, (I love that clock analogy!), beware of false prophets from Silicon Valley!

[i] See: What’s everything made of? Charles Sebens, Aeon Magazine, October 2019

[ii] See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Phineas_Gage, and also in Antonio Damasio, Descartes Error, Putnam, 1994.

[iii] All this is well described in The Sense of Being Stared At, Rupert Sheldrake, Hutchinson, 2003.  Se pages 148-166

[iv] I wasted an hour looking for Luria’s The Mind of a Mnemonist, to realise it wasn’t there.  It was back in Australia!

[v] Andy Clark and David Chalmers, The Extended Mind, 1998: no other bibliographic information available.

[vi] Incidentally, for a long time, I rejected the line “I feel you” to describe emotional sympathy.  I was wrong.

[vii] Damasio, op cit, pages 247-251

[viii] Keith Devlin, Goodbye Descartes, Wiley, 1997, especially Chapter 11, pages 261-290