Friday, May 2, 2014
Cartesian long enough
Rene Descartes was, in many senses, the father of modern analytic philosophy. While very few modern philosophers would imagine that they are dualists, almost all of them have confined themselves within the categories of Cartesian dualism. Descartes saw the physical world as fundamentally dead: matter in motion. Thus conscious mind could be accounted for only by supposing that it was ontologically independent of the physical body. Physicalists and materialists have supposed that the mind was ontologically dependent on the physical body, as red paint is ontologically dependent on the stuff in the paint can. Yet in doing so they maintain the Cartesian understanding of mind and matter as the phenomena to be explained or, in the former case, explained away. Descartes’ mind remained something of a scandal for modern physicalist thought.
This is one reason why Darwinism has been an open wound on the modern soul. Apart from its supposed challenge to Biblical creation, Darwinism seemed to many to amount to an invasion of the realm of the mind by the physical sciences. If mind is simply a Darwinian engine for survival and reproduction, then art, literature, music, are only so many scratches and cat calls produced by Cartesian machines. This is why confirmed evolutionists like Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Lewontin went to war against the “ultra-Darwinists” like Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett. Gould and Lewontin were trying to save a space for Cartesian mind to do beautiful things and care genuinely about each other. I believe this is a dilemma easily escaped once one is liberated from the Cartesian dichotomy.
The philosopher Hans Jonas saw early that Darwinism cuts both ways. If it means that life is more dependent on physical processes than Descartes had supposed (and it is) it also means that physical processes are less dead than he supposed (and they are). As mind and information are always embedded in some material, so the physical matter in the kosmos has within it the potential to produce mind. Were it not for planet Earth, with its astonishing variety of living organisms, some ghostly visitor to this kosmos would never have guessed that stardust and light had such a potential.
I submit that the thesis that autonomy is an essential element in the phenomenon of life is the means for finally liberating us from the Cartesian trap. Here is a bit from the conclusion of the Kepa Ruiz-Mirazo and Alvaro Moreno paper I referenced in my last post:
If we understand the phenomenon of life as a complex network of processes that take shape and propagate both at an individual and a historical-collective dimension—in our terms, as the history of the proliferation of various forms of autonomous organization (from chemical to unicellular, multicellular, developmental, cognitive, and, only recently, to rational autonomy)—the radical Cartesian separation between nature and mind simply disappears. The capacity of a system to determine itself, to establish its own rules and norms of behavior, and to create meaningful environments no longer belongs exclusively to the realm of rationality. At the same time, the natural world cannot be regarded as a universe where blind forces, acting without any sense or purpose, operate: the study of the fundamental mechanisms underlying biological organization, with all their intricacies, has clearly refuted that possibility.
Once life begins on this world, it begins exploring. Lineages extend across time but they also fork. Organisms push into new niches as they create new niches. Such niches are defined not only geographically, as creates crawl up the sand of the primordial beach; they are also defined in terms of complexity. All organisms are autonomous‑resisting what is outside and other in order to preserve what is inside and the self. As Mirazo and Moreno argue, life jumps to increasingly robust kinds of autonomy. The eukaryotic cell, possessing a nucleus, can regulate itself in ways that prokaryotic cells cannot. Multicellular organisms add further levels of self-regulation, including, eventually, conscious awareness.
Human freedom and nobility are greater, I submit, than anything else in the visible kosmos. They are greater by many magnitudes than the simple cells from which they arose. Yet they are expressions of the potential already evident in the Ur organism. The Cartesian dichotomy has blinded us to this for a long time. It is time to drop it.