Saturday, April 19, 2008

Commonplace blog: Descartes

Another commonplace blog post, this time on Bertrand Russell's History of Western Philosophy. I think this book is the only instance of a unified, comprehensive overview of Western philosophy (as opposed to, say, lecture notes) in which one of the main chapters has to be in first person. So I figure anyone who's interested in philosophy ought to read it, even though everyone says it's not very good.

I'm starting the book at -- where else? -- page 557. Because that's the first page of the chapter on Descartes, and he was the original modern philosopher.

Since I was a philosophy major, I'm not necessarily interested in rehashing the same theories I studied in college. So I'm going to freely gloss over the serious stuff and just pick out a few tidbits (which is not to say that the tidbits won't be serious).

I love oddball anecdotes about the greats, even if they're obviously apocryphal. Case in point: Descartes crawled into a stove to warm himself up, and "his philosophy was half finished when he came out." Russell helpfully notes that many commentators are skeptical of this story -- but experts in 17th-century Bavarian houses maintain that it's entirely possible. Regardless, Descartes needed to be warmed up, unlike Socrates, who would stay out in the snow all day, thinking.

Descartes had a ridiculous demise, but it wasn't from hanging out in ovens. He put a huge amount of effort into courting the queen of Sweden, Queen Christina. (At this point, he was in his mid 50s and never married.) He went out of his way to write treatises on love and "the passions of the soul" (not his usual topics) so he could send them to her. And it seemed to work: in September 1649, she sent a ship to come get him in Holland and bring him to Stockholm so he could give her "daily lessons." The only problem was that she could only fit this into her busy schedule if the lessons were at 5 in the morning, which meant Descartes would need to get up even earlier than 5 to go to her castle. This was very hard on him, especially when the "Scandinavian winter" came around. He apparently felt compelled to go along with it, but the routine made him sick. He died in February 1650, that same winter.

But again, that's all ridiculous. Let's move on to what matters: his theory of knowledge. (Disclaimer: this turned out to be a looong post, and the rest of it might not interest you if you're not a philosophy person.) Russell says the same thing about Descartes's theory that a professor of mine said about Hume's epistemology (theory of knowledge): the destructive part is great, but no one is convinced by the positive part where he actually attempted to explain how we know things, rather than just tear down people's previous misconceptions. I think that's understandable. It's easier to read books and say to yourself, "This guy doesn't know what he's talking about," than to know what you're talking about. If Descartes and Hume successfully showed that no one before them knew what they were talking about, but didn't themselves know what they were talking about ... well, that's good enough for me.

A common response to Descartes by contemporary readers, though, is that his failure to construct a satisfactory edifice after demolishing the one that came before him is evidence that he didn't really mean what he was saying. After all, "he starts out in his Meditations talking about how we need to be skeptical of all our beliefs and use that skepticism as the basis for rational thought, but then he completely strays from this method by just assuming that God exists and doesn't mislead us!" Actually, no, he doesn't assume God exists; he makes a logical argument that God exists. It's a bad argument, but an argument nonetheless, so you can't say he's abandoned the very idea of rational inquiry.

But he was such a genius that he must have known he was making a bad argument, and that the logical conclusion of his method of "doubt" would be the denial of God and the downfall of religion, right? Well, it's not possible to read his mind, but I'm inclined to agree with Russell that Descartes was probably just "a sincere Catholic, and wished to persuade the Church -- in its own interest as well as in his -- to be less hostile to modern science than it showed itself in the case of Galileo." Whether or not you believe that religious claims pass rational scrutiny, the fact is that a lot of geniuses have been genuinely religious, and Descartes may very well have been one of them. As Charles Taylor points out in Sources of the Self, we liberal elites in the current day tend to associate "rational" with "irreligious," but it's anachronistic to apply that assumption to a 17th-century thinker (see the bottom of page 151). Yes, his theological arguments were contrived and not up to his own intellectual standards -- but smart people can convince themselves of dumb things.

In another painful attempt to lend rational support to entrenched views, Descartes's disciple Geulincx had a "two clocks" solution to the mind-body problem, which Descartes adopted. This was supposed to vindicate the Christian idea of free will (bad acts are the fault of humans, not God, and they deserve to be punished) by explaining away the apparent causal connection between mind and body. The idea was: the mind and body are like two clocks that each keep perfect time. It would be mistaken to think that one caused the other to strike at the right times. They're both real things unto themselves that operate independently of each other but just happen to indicate the same thing at the same time, just as your body and mind will each indicate "thirst" at the same time when you're thirsty. I love this: "There were, of course, difficulties with this theory. In the first place, it was very odd." Thanks for the insight, Russell. More substantively, the theory was supposed to reconcile the existence of mind and body with free will, but it suggests that the mind, along with the body, is enslaved to some external set of rules, just as the clocks are enslaved to time. If the mind isn't autonomous but is strictly caused by some outside force, then -- sorry, compatibilists! -- we don't have free will.

So, that's a good lesson in how not to solve the mind-body problem. Hey, I told you it's easier to knock theories down than to build up your own.

Back to Descartes's method of doubting your own mind's ability to give yourself accurate information. It always puzzled me in class when they'd illustrate this idea by invoking a twig in the water that deceptively appears to be bent. This was supposed to be the quintessential example of how unreliable our perception is. But it doesn't seem to work. You don't look at the twig and mistakenly think it has a bent shape. You look at it and think, "Oh, the water is distorting its shape -- it's probably a straight twig, or maybe a twig that's bent at a less severe angle than it looks." I guess babies might think the twig was really bent, but they'll grow out of that phase pretty quickly -- isn't that good enough?! Russell gives the example of paintings that depict things that aren't really there -- same problem.

I know: those specific examples are just bad examples, but we now know that everything is made of microscopic particles floating around in space, and we definitely don't see that with our own unaided eyes. That's true, of course, but it's telling that even that example is still not an instance of "seeing" something that isn't really there; it's just a failure to see things at a certain level. At the level at which we do see things, we do a pretty accurate job of seeing what's really there. (If you really doubt the proposition that what we see really exists, you're free to test it out by banging your head into the wall.) This isn't like a hallucination -- it's more like not being able to read fine print or see objects off in the distance. That doesn't call into question your basic faculties of perception -- it just shows that some things are more immediately available to be perceived than others.

But what about actual hallucinations, huh? Yes, of course, sometimes people trip on acid and believe things are there when they really aren't. But philosophers will make an implausible stretch from saying that some people sometimes hallucinate, to saying there's a problem about whether you're always hallucinating.* Well, in theory there is this problem. But fortunately, it's not a real problem in practice. I might be able to conceive of someone having the exact sensation I'm having now (writing in a Moleskine at Quack's, or typing it up later in my apartment), but I'm sure enough that it's real not to need to worry about this particular "problem." The sure-enough-ness comes from having spent enough time on earth interacting with things and seeing them behave according to reasonably predictable laws. You might have the occasional dream that feels real, so if we choose to focus on that part of your life, then yeah, your perceptions don't seem accurate. But once you wake up, there's not really any doubt about what's real and what's not. The world you live in has simply been around too long, looking and feeling the way it does, for you to seriously contend (as opposed to hypothesize for the sake of a philosophical argument) that it might be just a hallucination or a dream. I can grant the theoretical possibility that even this is mistaken, but file it under "not probable enough for it to dramatically affect how I think about the world."

In other words, I agree with what John Searle says in an interview in What Philosophers Think: that skepticism about the existence of the-real-world-as-we-know-it is like Zeno's Paradox: an intriguing, mind-bending puzzle that smart people will mull over but then quickly move on from, to focus on more important philosophical problems. You don't let Zeno's Paradox reshape your whole view of what philosophers do -- they're not on a mission to explain how there can be motion. But that seems to be roughly what's happened with analytic philosophy,** thanks largely to Descartes. (Thus, my philosophy professor felt the need to qualify the steps of an argument with, "Assuming you believe that tables and chairs really exist ...")

This is one problem with studying philosophy: you're constantly told that you need to see certain things as problems. But they're not "problems" like "How do we fix the health care system?" or "How do we reduce crime?" In other words, they're not things that a normal person who's completely unfamiliar with the field would perceive as problems in need of solutions.

Of course, you could find problems in other fields that wouldn't be understood on their face as problems because they're laden with jargon or esoteric concepts. If these are real problems, though, they can at least be "understood" insofar as an expert can patiently explain the goal to a layperson: "It's important for us to figure out ____ because it could help us find a cure for such-and-such a disease," or whatever it does.

Even after spending hours and hours studying the philosophy of language (to take another example), I'd be hard-pressed to make the case that it's important for anyone to devote their life to explaining how it is that we can mean things through words. If you're like 99+% of humankind, you just accept that we do this, and move on with your life. And it seems pretty clear that if there's an option -- a perfectly feasible, easy option -- of just saying, "Oh well!" and moving on with your life ... and if this isn't a mere luxury enjoyed by some of the people while other people have to worry about it, but in fact the world would be just fine if no one worried about it ... then it's just not much of a "problem" at all.

That's my anti-philosophy philosophy.

* Note: I'm merely saying they argue that there is a problem about how we can have accurate perceptions, not that they argue that "we don't really know anything." Also, I know it's foolish to attribute anything to "philosophers" in general, but I think I'm describing something that's been pretty prevalent among analytic philosophers in the past few centuries. [back]

** Again, I know I'm painting with a broad brush. For instance, Searle himself is confident we've moved on. I don't have a nuanced enough knowledge of the current trends in philosophy to be able to evaluate that. [back]


Ann Althouse said...

Very interesting. I enjoyed reading that. Thanks. Especially liked Descartes in the oven and in the snow.