I must briefly dip into jargon in order to properly aim my displeasure at the type of position so exemplified by Descartes. The word in question is ‘dualism’. This is the formal philosophical position which exploits a very natural, though mistaken, intuition endemic to humanity. The basic position is that mind, mental stuff, is a fundamentally different type of thing to what we normally understand as matter. Two substances, mental and physical, hence ‘dualism’.
This is a natural way to think. Even though we engage endlessly in the pathetic fallacy of attributing human characteristics to inanimate, or barely animate, things, when pushed most people will distinguish between a person and a rock. At least, in terms of cognition. There seems something just too different about the ability to reflect, to imagine, to calculate, to appreciate taste or beauty. Too different, that is, from the crude assemblages of physical matter which are all around.
Although natural, this is of course dangerous. Mostly because it isn’t true. It is more telling of human nature than it is of anything else because there is essentially a straight choice: between admitting that there exist systems of such amazing complexity most people may find them hard to understand, and perhaps of such complexity no one may ever fully understand them, or of sidestepping complexity and just deciding that an entirely new substance exists which ‘explains’ it. One that has no properties which can be discerned or tested, or even investigated, leaving the word ‘explain’ empty and colourless.
Whether something is true or false is not really the most important thing, of course. It may matter more what is most useful to us. And here what we find most useful is what best inflates our sense of self-importance. Which leads to another problem: only a little reflection is required to see how much more impressive it is that a system, a network, fashioned mostly of water and meat, can lead to the staggering worlds of intellect open to some, than an empty, inaccessible postulated substance known as (and by) the mental.
It fails. It fails utterly as science and philosophy. It fails as science because it is in principle not open to testing. It fails as philosophy for many reasons. Not least because it doesn’t explain how the mental has an obvious connection with the brain, and yet somehow never crosses the threshold into visibility. And it fails as one of the vainglorious narratives we perpetuate to make us feel special. Because it is not special, or interesting, or plausible.
But it persists. Not just as the folly of philosophers, but as the generic unanalysed stance of humanity. It is obvious why. In fact I’m tired of pointing it out. When people want to believe something so badly they will clutch onto the most spurious of ideas, it is always the same.