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Descartes’ Daydream and the Mind-Body Problem

Peter Schuller
Miami University

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ABSTRACT: After exhorting us to wake up from our ‘daydreaming’ and revolutionize our modality of thought to that of conceptualization, Descartes seems to forget about this crucial matter of a discontinuous leap. So, too, it seems has the profession generally and this has infected philosophical research and teaching. It is urged here that discontinuous processes are crucial in the universe, in human life, in human thinking. Such ontological events cannot be handled by dualism, materialism or postmodernism. Concentration on such discontinuous processes is urged, an alternative is briefly indicated, and a criterion for ordering levels of human levels of reality is offered. It follows in the line of Cantor and Marx. It is suggested that a human being is a transfinite entity and that such an entity has many levels of being, among which are cognitive processes, imaginative processes and physical processes. A person is ‘not other than’ these without being ‘nothing but’ any of these.

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Descartes is a canonical figure in the philosophy curriculum of the West. Yet his writings embody a kind of paradox or contradiction, a paradox which infects both philosophical research and the teaching of philosophy to this day. Briefly stated, after exhorting us to "wake up" from our mentally low level of "daydreaming", after exhorting us to break with that kind of mental process and to think at the higher level of episteme, then it seems that all the contents delivered by operating at the new, higher level are characterized by continuity, by linearity. The originating feature of discontinuity falls victim to a kind of doctrinal amnesia.

Paradoxes or contradictions can be heuristic and beneficial. Plato certainly went out of his way to elicit them and focus on them because of this conviction. In the case of Descartes, and so much of what follows in his aftermath, the contradiction in question is consigned to forgetfulness.

This is not merely an issue in the history of philosophy. I shall argue that Descartes' deficiency on this point has infected philosophical research to this day. What is more, in much contemporary pedagogy suffers from the same influence. Professors standardly ask beginning students to revolutionize their mental modus operandi, to make a leap from the level of associating images to that of rigorously tracing connections from concept to concept. But then, typically, the message which is communicated is that having mounted to this level the hard work has been accomplished, one has basically arrived; all that remains is to continue being conceptual and logical, to continue to add to the string of inferences. Once this piece of hard work is accomplished we tend to present — in both content and process — the subject as though hierarchies of mental and other realities did not exist.

An important claim of this paper is that recognition of discontinuous processes is essential to gain a deep grasp on reality — that Descartes' first recognition is better and deeper than his ensuing answers. This implies that reductivism (notably, in the present context, about mind and brain) is a defective attitude. It also implies that Post Modernism which both tends to deny the existence of hierarchies and to defer serious treatments of differences is also defective. (What is more, given these times in which historical processes are collapsing social and political paradigms around the planet, the issue of denying or deferring a hierarchy of different regimens of reality is of great practical importance. For, as we see, populations have been tending to revert to old, bad paradigm rather than generate new, better, "Third Way" paradigms.)

Let us return to the Cartesian paradox and state it in more detail. Early in the Meditations Descartes exhorts us to "wake up" from our low level of mentation, which he likens to dreaming (Plato called it "opinion," Hegel was to call it "picture thinking," the empiricists were to call it "association of ideas") and to think at a different, higher level, at a level of conceptualization. That is, a precondition for attaining truths and knowledge is supposed to be a successful, discontinuous leap from the ordinary level of consciousness to a higher level. In this Descartes is echoing Republic 534c. However, this feature (of mentation or of existence more widely) is functionally dropped from the remainder of his philosophy.

The bulk of his doctrine then tends to be committed to simple continuity and linearity. In the most obvious case, material being is said to be simply continuous (something Leibniz, for example, later denied). But even mind — when operating at the conceptual level Descartesencouraged in the Second Meditation — gets treated as an activity which most basically notices new simples and relates them to the simples already mentally accumulated. The model is not unlike that of one repetitive kind of process: identifying a new pearl and adding it to a pearl string, or data gathering and data processing. It is quite unlike the activity of revolutionizing scientific paradigms or even changing from the level of imaging or picture thinking to that of conceptualization we were urged to do earlier in that work.

Can it be that the discontinuous mental process called for in order to initiate the divulgences of reality at a deep level is merely a lone procedure no with ontological significance or similarity elsewhere in reality? Can it be that as human beings elevate themselves to relate cognitively to the universe, the action which seriously inaugurates that achievement is not to be integrated into the knowledge of the universe? Or is it that the principles of cognition which determine the principles of science, of episteme require recognition in any ontology or cosmology which presents itself as worthy of belief?

When we look at the histories of ideas we find that such discontinuities do not, in fact, cease in the discipline of philosophy (or in any other lively, rigorous discipline). As Kuhn brought to the profession's attention once again in the latter part of the Twentieth Century, major advances in thought take place by casting aside old "paradigms" and creating new ones.

The pattern of revolutions in modes of thinking (and behaving) is repeated even at the purely cognitive level and is not confined merely to the elevation of mental operation from association of ideas to logical conceptualization.

Moreover, as Descartes exhorted in the case of one mental revolution (and many teachers of philosophy today also do) these discontinuities in mental operations are sometimes done intentionally, deliberately, as a project to be fulfilled. What is further wondrous is that we sometimes evaluate two or more of these processes and their contents and judge that some are to be abandoned in favor of one. Which means that we take these Many to be objects to be assessed and seem to be able to stand as a One supervising them.

Let us put this in terms of the being, the ontology, of such thought processes. At some arbitrarily specified time the mental content, the items within the process, are of one general variety and are connected one to another in a specifically typical kind of way: either by some customary association of ideas or by the formal and non-formal rules of a discipline as it subscribes to a particular paradigm. At some later time, when a mental revolution has been accomplished, the content is different and the pattern of connection of the items of content is of a different type. For illustration: once upon a time human beings organized the experiences of the night sky in patterns which imaginatively corresponded to stories such as myths and the connections amongst the stars were imaginative and followed the aesthetic organization of the myth. Later on, we tried to find the connections inherent in the stars themselves, thought not only about stars but also planets with epicyles. (This illustrates a revolution from association of ideas to astronomical science.) Still later, we gave up all geocentric paradigms, denied there were epicycles and instead acknowledged the necessary difference of sensuous appearances and scientific reality, and so on. (This illustrates a revolution within astronomical science.) That is to say, at one time there is one kind of content and accompanying connecting process and at another time there is another kind of content and process joining the items.

Now, using "mind" and "mental" in a very generic way — without a commitment to any specific theory of mind — most philosophers would allow that a specific mind is identified and re-identified by its content or characteristic operation or process. But this is typically also the way one identifies a substance, to use an old-fashioned term; one identifies some unity of content and operation. But in the issue under consideration we have been treating a mind as one which has discontinuities, quantum leaps, revolutions to it. So, if we were to continue to use this terminology of substance (again, without any strict definition or commitment to a specific variety of theory thereof), it would not be inappropriate, when the mental processes and contents are systematically changed, to say (in a non-blasphemous sense) that what has taken place is a transubstantiation.

And more than this: it is often an intended and deliberatively effected transubstantiation. It is a self-effected transubstantiation. Therefore, human minds (on this account) are not substances; they are unities which transcend but unify a series of "substances." They might be called meta-substances.

This could be one more consideration against the use of the concept of substance, a concept which in disfavor today as we all know. But I shall not explore this issue except to say that certainly mind cannot be substantival in the old sense, it cannot be thing-like, it cannot be a "nugget" of being.

But neither can mind be brain — nor any other physical thing — precisely because of this feature of its being a Unity over a Many kinds of processes and content which are mutually discontinuous. For not only is this at odds with the classical notion of "Man, A Machine" in any recognizable sense of machine; it is also unrecognizable in any paradigmatic, seriously materialist model of a material thing. It is a tortuous procedure — like putting a person in an iron maiden — to try to fir some essential features of human mind into the paradigm of material thing. But this, most strongly, does not mean that it must therefore be fit into the box of some non-material thing. Materialism has gotten away with too much by offering itself as the only plausible alternative to dualism — basic problems of which have not been solved and seem unlikely ever to be solved. It has seemed to proclaim: "Their position is bad, therefore one has to accept my position."

But there are more relations in the philosophical toolbox than "is nothing but" and "is separate from." An old one (Plato made much use of it) is: "is not other than."

The stress in this paper so far is that different kind of mental processes with different kinds of contents are bound together under a governing Unity. That is to say, this Unity or mind is not other than its many kinds of contents but is neither reducible to them nor separate from them.

Perhaps the kind of relationship is the one which holds between mind and body. But what is crucial to stress is this transinvariant Unity, a Unity at a higher level of power than deducing in accordance with a given set of concept and axioms or associating images in a habituated way. It is this Unity across the discontinuities, a Unity which is not reducible, which remains so little explored.

Hegel pointed out just this pattern of discontinuity for the subject matter of shapes of consciousness but failed to treat in any satisfactory way the transinvariant. Karl Marx was much interested in such patterns at the level of social life and thought he had to leave the discipline of philosophy to made any headway on the topic. However, given a small weakness for reductivism aggravated by Engels' promptings, he, too (with a bit of an exception to be acknowledged below) failed to handle the issue cogently and treated revolutions by oscillating between reductivism and vague fideism.

However, outside the discipline of philosophy altogether but paying close attention to it, some of the great German mathematicians of the nineteenth century were taking on just this task. Riemann, with notes on Kant's antinomies, worked out procedures for handling multiple geometries and nested spaces and figures such as spheres and hyperspheres. Later in the century, Cantor showed how to distinguish "bad infinities" from "good infinities," that there were a multiplicity of good infinities, and that these infinites could be ordered. The series, according to Cantor, is a discontinuous series of powers of sets. Cantor also advised the Vatican (apparently non-too-successfully) on the ontology of God as Infinite. However, the mathematics profession seems satisfied (at least in lip service, the teaching process tends to betray the insight by passing on only crystallized propositions together with a suggestion of the appropriateness of iteration!) that for the formal sciences Cantor (and Riemann) had solved a cutting edge problem.

My suggestion is that philosophy try to catch up. It is past time to defer treating differences (which the Post Modernists, it seems, do not really — except grammatically-even make a subject but only a predicate in an old-fashioned way with new vocabulary.) The quantum jump, the power which makes that possible and actual is not only an appropriate subject for our attention but an urgent one given present historical momentous changes in the offing.

Material has also had a pragmatic claim to its superiority: it can control things on the basis of its axioms better than any other position. But that warrant is overblown both internally and comparatively. There is at least as much warrant for saying that we have much practical control over our lives, thought, patterns of thought by taking thought in various way, including, most pointedly, by revolutionizing our world views. In fact I shall make a quick case for the existence of human brains and bodies as a partial effect of thought. And now I shall come to the modest positive contribution which this paper will offer. Here is the case made briefly. It shall be made in terms of historical philosophical anthropology. (And some readers will notice an indebtedness to a passage in Part I of The German Ideology.)

A quick survey of human history reveals that we have found ourselves in a series of truly different social orders: from "caveman" hunter-gatherers, to primitive agriculturalists, to more sophisticated agriculturalists, to builders of rudimentary cities, to Moon walkers. The following question is pressed: why haven't we found ourselves in one fixed, settled order — living one kind of life in (fixed) "harmony with nature"? It is a question analogous to that of the history and philosophy of science: why didn't we (preferably long, long ago-close to the time of Adam and Eve) hit upon the correct axiomatics or paradigm and simply crank out a succession of truths such that we are asymptotically approaching complete knowledge of reality? Then we could have a pattern of simple extension in social practice and theoretical discoveries.

My suggestion is that such a simple and fixed view of the world is wrongheaded and not just that it is at odds with the historical facts. Crucial is that it leaves out creativity which is precisely contrary to the "flattening" of reality today whether by materialist reductivists or idealist Post Modernists. The big picture shows us as a species generally increasing our numbers and our talents (with some intersprinkling of Dark Ages and other collapses). That is, the density of the manifold of human existence has increased as the forms of our existence have developed over time. We have not simply extrapolated ourselves and our thoughts on the axiomatics base of our distant ancestors. Rather, humanity has organized itself into a series of social formations over time. Each of these — were it "fixed" and closed — would collapse and bring about the collapse in its membership. But on the whole, each of these systems is "opened" by the creation of another social system — another repertoire of behaviors, whose population parameters are higher than previous the one and whose average talent level is also higher. Thus the "law of entropy" is not what we observe in human existence as the ultimate law; it is subsumed under a higher law (and necessity for) creativity. This pattern — a lawful form of existence replaced through creative thought and its materialization by a more powerful, more intelligent life-demanding and life-supporting form of existence is the pattern, the species-characteristic life of humanity.

Postulating the existence somehow of human beings hundreds of thousands of years ago, there would today be no human living bodies much less brains presently in existence were it not for the fact of deliberate rational creativity putting into practice what it essentially knows beforehand and not by trial and error will allow for the continuation of the human species.

This has great pragmatic warrant. In the Modern Era the Council of Florence and Louis XI of France knew this was called for, and did it with great practical success. Benjamin Franklin and colleagues did likewise 300 years later.

To be sure, a huge amount of work would have to be done on the project of getting under deliberative control the generation of new paradigms and evaluation of them.

But several points seem supported by this line of investigation: there have been a multiplicity of different concrete shapes of consciousness, that these tend to go together with different social formations, that different social formations seems to be repeatedly necessary for survival, that sometimes at least more powerful social formations are effected by intelligent and deliberate projects set forth and then executed by some, that therefore the existence of the large number of human bodies (and therefore brains) presently existing is a partial effect of appreciating and invoking the creative power of reason which can produce a new world view — mentally and in our lived, social bodies as well.

This paper has no crisp exploration of this transfinite power. Rather, it exhorts the profession to turn some of its attention in this direction. But it does offer a criterion of evaluation of world views, thought and lived. It is a criterion in line with those nineteenth century figures Cantor and Marx: a world view is better than another world view just in case the human population density potential is greater with it than with the other(s).

Accordingly, the model would be that a human person is a multi-level being in which there is a kind of ultra-powerful transcendental unity of both apprehension and life and that body is a real but lower appearance and effect of Unity. That Unity used to be called "soul".

Included in this redirected effort would be an educational process which both underscored more the leaps that we make and we ask our students to make, and practiced more in engaging in them. Plato has many good exercises for this.

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