Not a Ghost in the Machine

© Andrey Kiselev |

There is a story told about René Descartes, that he traveled with a life-sized mechanical doll he named Francine, after his illegitimate daughter. Francine died tragically when she was five. The doll was supposed to be so lifelike, that it was virtually indistinguishable from a real person. One source said he constructed it “to show that animals are only machines and have no souls.” His biographer, Stephen Gaukroger, said Descartes kept the doll in trunk beside him while he slept. Supposedly, on a voyage over the Holland Sea, the captain of the ship quietly stole into Descartes’ cabin one night and opened the trunk. Horrified to see the mechanical monstrosity, he dragged the doll from the trunk and threw her overboard.

In Descartes: An Intellectual Biography, Gaukroger said there is no truth to the tale; that it was likely a piece of propaganda in the eighteenth-century struggle against the materialism that grew out of Descartes’ philosophy. In his essay on Descartes for Galileo Goes to Jail, Peter Harrison said Descartes could be the most maligned and misunderstood philosopher who ever lived. “Indeed, there seems to be something about Descartes’ person and his philosophy that invites slander and simplistic mischaracterization.” Both Gaukroger and Harrison pointed to another misconception, that Descartes initiated the radical separation of mind and body, which then had disastrous consequences on Western philosophy.

Descartes did make a mind-body distinction. The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy said one of the most lasting legacies of his philosophy is what is now called mind-body dualism.  He argued that the nature or substance of the mind (a thinking non-extended thing) was completely different from that of the body (an extended, non-thinking thing). Harrison noted where the Oxford philosopher Gilbert Ryle derisively referred to this Cartesian doctrine of mind and body as “the myth of the ghost in the machine.” Such dualism, according to Ryle, was “fundamentally antiscientific.”

But there is a technical point missing in this portrayal of Descartes’ thinking. He considered the body and mind to be distinct substances. “A substance is something that does not require any other creature to exist—it can exist with only the help of God’s concurrence.” As a consequence, each could exist without the other. “However, this does not mean that these substances do exist separately.” Harrison said Descartes carefully rejected the kind of separation implied by Ryle and others.

In fact, Descartes took pains to deny such a separation, asserting that mind and body are “intermingled” so as to form a “unitary whole.” Mind and body, he insists, form a “substantial union.” He also unambiguously states (pace Dennett) that the mind is not in the body “as a pilot in his ship.” . . . In fact, the doctrine of a radical separation of mind and body is one that should more properly be laid at the feet of Aristotle or Plotonius, rather than Descartes.

Some commentators have suggested the interaction of mind and body was so central a concern for Descartes that it is misleading, to a certain extent, to refer to him as a dualist. He sought to understand the world in terms of three basic kinds of entity—matter (extended material things), minds (thinking things) and persons (mind-body composites). Correlations between mental events and bodily movements are merely natural properties of this body-mind complex. “The relations of mind and body, on this account, are explained in terms of psychophysical laws that constitute our very nature as embodied beings.” Harrison then gave this summation.

In sum, Descartes’ views about mind, body, and their relation are subtle, sophisticated, and complex. They bear little resemblance to the simplistic caricatures that often pose as authoritative accounts of his work. Descartes gave a central place to the emotions in his psychology, and he took very seriously the embodied nature of human beings. Because of Descartes’ insistence that the mind-body amalgam was a real entity, some commentators have gone as far as to suggest that he no longer be numbered in the ranks of the dualists.

Writing for BioLogos, philosophy professor Edward Fesler said to the extent that this separation and conception is seen as “an abstraction from concrete material reality, and not the whole of material reality,” there is nothing wrong with it. However, there must be a clear acknowledgement of its limitations. “It captures only those aspects [of reality] that are susceptible both of mathematical modeling and of detection vie experimental techniques by which the models may be tested. But anything else falls short.” Unlike Harrison, Fesler does see Descartes as responsible for many of the philosophical problems that came after his conception of mind and matter.

This bizarre re-conception of human nature—man as a “ghost in a machine,” as Gilbert Ryle famously parodied it—opened up a host of philosophical problems which persist to this day. The materialist “solution” to the problems has been to reject one of Descartes’ reified abstractions (the res cogitans) while keeping the other, the material world conceived as if the equations of physics exhausted its nature. Unsurprisingly, this has led to theories of the relationship of mind to body which seem implicitly to deny, rather than to explain, the existence of mind, consciousness, meaning, and free choice.

The materialist resolution of the mind-body problem raised by Cartesian philosophy, subsuming the mind as an extension of bodily neurological functions, raises a problem for a biblical understanding of human nature. While there is a clear sense of a kind of dualism in Scripture, Christians cannot assume such a materialist position. Biblically speaking, humans are material and immaterial, body and soul. Fesler’s suggestion is to reject Descartes’s abstractions and rediscover the human being “as an irreducible psychophysical whole,” with our mental and physical as two aspects of one thing. There is both unity and distinction—what theologian Anthony Hoekema referred to as a psychosomatic unity of body (soma) and soul (psyche). See “We Are But Thinking Reeds” for a more in depth discussion of this idea.

But there is a third kind of Cartesian entity to consider—the mind-body composite of personhood. It is an essential aspect of human existence as it makes possible the relationship between individual humans, between embodied thinking things. An it makes possible a relationship with God. So it cannot be easily dismissed as merely a ghost in the machine.

Abeba Birhane offered a revision of Descartes for Aeon that adds a community aspect to Carteasian thought. Drawing upon Ubuntu philosophy, she said selfhood is acquired over time. She illustrated this concept by quoting the Kenyan-born philosopher John Mbiti: “I am because we are, and since we are, therefore I am.” Note the rephrasing of Descartes’ famous quote: “I think, therefore I am.” Birhane said we know from everyday experience that personhood is partly formed in community. Who we are depends upon many others—family, friends, culture, etc. She quoted a Zulu phrase, saying it was a better and richer account of personhood than Descartes cogito argument: “A person is a person through other persons.”

Biblically speaking, human personhood is also the result of being created in the image of God. Humanity, “being made in the image of God, was made to have a personal relationship with him.” In Escape from Reason, Francis Schaeffer said that when speaking of God to modern humans, it is important to emphasize that the Bible speaks of God as both a personal God and an infinite God. This is the kind of God who is there; who actually exists. And He is no ghost in the machine.

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