Overview of Western Philosophy – Part 7

(Read Part 6 of the series.)

The Mind-Body Problem

Descartes’ separation of man into the two aspects of mind and matter also became the principal way in which Westerners subsequently viewed the world. Matter is extended in space, can be divided and so on, while mind is indivisible and seems to exist separate from the body, somehow outside of space. This is the theory known as Cartesian Dualism. Unfortunately, he was never able to explain how such completely different ‘substances’ were able to interact. The idea of an immaterial ‘little me’ somehow sitting in the brain (Descartes thought the soul resided in the pineal gland) and interpreting the information transmitted from the eyes and other material senses just did not make sense. How could this interface work? The so-called ‘mind-body problem’ has intrigued philosophers ever since and no universally accepted model of the nature of the self has yet emerged.

One of his disciples, a Dutchman called Arnold Geulincx, suggested that the mind and body were separately governed by God, who kept the two in synchronisation, like clocks. Thus, when we decide to do something and it happens, such as getting out of bed, there is no actual interaction between the two, no ‘willing’ as such, it is simply the consequence of the two being synchronised. A similar theory, called Occasionalism, was proposed by the French priest, Nicolas Malebranche. He said that neither mental nor physical events cause other events. Instead, what we call a cause is simply the occasion for God to exercise his will and instigate what we call the effect; there is no actual connection between the two events at all. All of this meant that life is strictly deterministic, with no place for free will and everything happening according to physical (or divine) law.

Malebranche also disagreed with Descartes’ claimed awareness by the mind of its own nature as a ‘thinking thing’. He thought that all that we could know objectively was that there was some sort of conscious activity; we could never actually know anything about the essential nature of the self that was doing the thinking – we can know that we are but not what we are. Furthermore, he said that our senses are unreliable for telling us anything about the true nature of things.

Yet another variation was proposed by the philosopher Gottfried Leibniz, who was also an important geologist, mathematician and physicist. The book ‘Candide’ by Voltaire satirised Leibniz in the character of Dr. Pangloss for his proclaimed belief that God had created the ‘best of all possible worlds’. Since God is perfect, he argued, he would naturally do this. A world in which there is free will is bound to contain some evil but this must be better than a good one that does not allow free will.

Leibniz thought that everything, mental or physical, was effectively a separate entity, which he called a monad, which could not be affected by any other entity.  He said that some monads were ‘in harmony’ with others so that when an event occurs in one, for example an alarm clock going off, a harmonious event (or not) occurs in another, i.e. I am awoken by a ringing sound. It is not that the alarm wakes me up – the two events are not causally connected – but that there is a pre-established harmony between the monads. These monads are not matter, whose existence he denied, but effectively ‘souls’. ‘I’ am made up of innumerable of these things, though there is one dominant one, the mind, to which all of the others are subservient.

In effect, what Leibniz was saying was that everything does happen for a reason – there are no ‘accidents’ – but we cannot always know what those reasons are. Possibly reassuring, but then again is this really saying anything useful? Most modern scientists believe that everything will ultimately be explicable but, for the time being, the world can often seem to be a very chaotic place. And, whilst there remain so many unanswered questions, it will always be plausible to assert that many of them are unanswerable.

Leibniz was also the inventor of mathematical logic, which is made up of statements that can be analysed to determine whether they are true or false. This is in contrast with statements about the world, where we have to examine the facts to which they relate in order to find out whether they are true or not. Truths of reason are ‘necessary’ and it would be self-contradictory to deny them whereas truths of fact are ‘contingent’, they just happen to be so and might easily be otherwise. Much of the philosophy following Leibniz hinged on these observations. He was also responsible for formalising the proofs for the existence of God that had been spoke of at various times by earlier philosophers such as Aristotle and Descartes. These were later discredited in detail by Kant so I will not pursue them here.

Hobbes was one of a number of philosophers who simply concluded that Descartes’ initial separation of mind and body was wrong. He thought that so-called mental events were actually only combinations of matter in motion. The movement of matter in the brain, for example, actually is what we call ‘thoughts’. This laid the foundation for the re-emergence of materialism in the eighteenth century, a theory which gained more and more prominence as science ‘explained’ the functioning of the nervous system and perceptions etc. But it did not explain how the movement of chemicals around the bloodstream and electrical impulses in the brain could somehow appear in consciousness as the colour yellow or as the memory of a day by the seaside. A surgeon probing into the brain of a conscious patient would not find the smell of pear drops even though the patient might be sensing it.

Benedict Spinoza was the first major philosopher to tackle the problem of a lack of free will in the then-current thinking. He was unhappy with the consequences for moral choice, or rather the lack of it, and did not see where God might fit into such a scheme. He argued that God cannot be limited in any way since He is perfect and infinite. There cannot be anything that is not God. Therefore God must be both mind and matter; individual souls and objects are simply aspects of God. But he agreed that there is no such thing as free will; everything that happens is also part of God’s nature and could not be otherwise. Some things may appear evil to us but this is only because we are seeing them from our limited perspective. He recognised that we are driven by self-interest but believed that, once we realise that we are part of a single whole and not separate creatures, our behaviour will change. We will then act wisely,  and be happy even in the face of apparent adversity.

And this much seems logically reasonable. If we could be convinced that we are not isolated individuals, separate minds locked in discrete bodies but somehow one and the same, in a world that only appears to be distinct and hostile, then our attitudes might indeed be changed. Perhaps we do only behave selfishly and ‘wrongly’ because of an erroneous belief in our own separately motivated ego and, as a result, end up miserable and dissatisfied with life.

Spinoza also regarded time as being essentially unreal. (Kant later argued that time is merely a tool that the mind uses to try to make sense of ‘reality’, about which we can never have any objective knowledge.) If this is accepted then it does not make any sense to worry about the ‘past’ or ‘future’ – viewed from the perspective of God, all is timeless. This view also meant that any idea of living a ‘good’ life with a view to going to a ‘heaven’ after death was quite erroneous. Needless to say, this did not go down too well with the authorities and he was excommunicated from the Jewish faith and cursed with all of the curses in the book of the Law. Other Jews were forbidden to go within six feet of him and Christians simply regarded him as an atheist. (As will be realised by now, being a philosopher is often no joke!)

According to him, the idea of the world or our own life ‘getting better’ is meaningless. The amount of good and bad in total remains the same. We, too, should endeavour to see the world in this way, sub specie æternitatis, as he called it – under the aspect of eternity. And it is no use arguing that we can prevent future eventualities if we do something about them now for, as already pointed out, Spinoza believed that things would happen regardless – we are powerless to change anything. Once we understand all of this, we will no longer act out of desire or fear because we will know the futility of wishing things to be other than as they are.  Full intellectual understanding of all of this, which Spinoza called ‘love of God’, should be the ultimate aim of our lives.

Spinoza was one of the philosophers who specifically set out to discover whether there is anything that, once found or obtained, will provide continuous and supreme happiness. He acknowledged the traditional sources as being rich, famous and experiencing pleasures of the senses and conceded the danger of abandoning those pursuits and looking elsewhere. But he found that it was necessary to do so because the customary pursuits required so much energy that there was none left over for looking elsewhere – all are intensely absorbing.

In the case of pleasure, once it is satisfied, it is usually followed by misery and dulling of the mind so that, again, we are unable to think of anything else. With riches and fame, the more we achieve, the more we seem to want so that, again, our energy is tied up in the search. Riches frequently lead to envy of others, theft and even death. And modern status seekers in the workplace are well aware of the effort involved in seeking promotion, the back-biting and other devious skills that are involved. Over-indulgence in physical pleasures leads to ill health and early death. Obviously the supposed ‘good’ of these common pursuits entail clear ‘evils’. Accordingly, he decided to abandon them and search for his ‘certain good’.

Of all the Western philosophy I have researched, Spinoza comes closest to addressing what I believe ‘really matters’. His aim was to attain to ‘knowledge of the union existing between the mind and the whole of Nature’ and he deemed anything to be ‘good’ that helped him along this path to perfect his character.

Go to Part 8