Return of Descartes

the simulating mind



Descartes initiated the scientific revolution in the 17th century by escaping from the prison of idealism of Euclidean geometry, Aristotelian philosophy and religous scholastics, into a new world of constructive rational logic and geometry. Descartes body-soul dualism can be given an interpretation in our post-modern information society with the soul representing simulation of (possibly non-existing) body, which in the terminology of Baudrillard represents hyperreality. The dualism of Descartes in the form of reality-hyperreality thus offers an alternative to pure materialism without soul and pure psychologism with the soul a computer program.

 I think (simulate), therefore I exist. (Descartes)

All thought is a form of computation. (Hobbes)

Descartes (1596-1650) 

René Descartes , father of analytic geometry and calculus, modern philosophy, the scientific revolution and more generally the enlightment, frequently set his views apart from those of his predecessors. In the opening section of the Passions of the Soul he asserts that he will write  ”as if no one had written on these matters before”.  In his natural philosophy, he rejects any appeal to ends — divine or natural — in explaining natural phenomena. 

Descartes shaped together with Leibniz the 17th century continental rationalism (opposed by the empircists Hobbes, Locke, Berkeley and Hume),  which forms the ground of our information society

Body-Soul Dualism

Descartes distinguished between res cogitans, the soul/mind defined as something which thinksand res extensa, the material body characterised primarily by extension and weight amenable to measurement. 

In recent years neuroscientists and cognitive psychologists have argued that this ontological separation of mind and body is no longer tenable. The former maintain that mental functions can be fully explained by brain science. The latter make the case for a distinct psychological realm but one whose operations, like those of computer software, are measurable and open to scientific investigation. The res cogitans is illusive no longer. We can map it, scan it, and explain its functions in biological or computational terms [1].

The Method: Critical Independent Thinking

The concept of simulation coined by the postmodern philosophers Baudrillard and Deleuze suggests a new meaning to Descartes body-soul dualism of I think, therefore I exist into I simulate, therefore I exist, as a possible complement or alternative to the extremes just described.

Simulation expresses an important aspect of thinking, in the sense that some understanding of meaning
is required. A simulation is not simply a recording like a photo with pixels chosen mechanically, but rather like a drawing or painting with pixels chosen according to some understanding of what is being depicted. Thinking is not like the pumping of blood by a heart inside a body, but neceessarily related to something outside the thinking substance itself, by Heidegger described as being-in-the-world.

Descartes’  Method for understanding consists basically of independent critical thinking with a healthy scepticism to established truths of religion, science or society, using a scientific method . We cite from  Discourse on the Method of Rightly Conducting the Reason, and Seeking the Truth in the Sciences: 
  • I was especially delighted with the mathematics, on account of the certitude and evidence of their reasonings. 
  • Of philosophy I will say nothing, except that there is not a single matter which is not still in dispute.
  • For it occurred to me that I should find much more truth in the reasonings of each individual with reference to the affairs in which he is personally interested … than in those conducted by a man of letters in his study, regarding speculative matters that are of no practical moment, and followed by no consequences to himself, farther, perhaps, than that they foster his vanity the better the more remote they are from common sense; requiring, as they must in this case, the exercise of greater ingenuity and art to render them probable. In addition, I had always a most earnest desire to know how to distinguish the true from the false, in order that I might be able clearly to discriminate the right path in life, and proceed in it with confidence.
  • For to be possessed of a vigorous mind is not enough; the prime requisite is rightly to apply it. The greatest minds, as they are capable of the highest excellences, are open likewise to the greatest aberrations; and those who travel very slowly may yet make far greater progress, provided they keep always to the straight road, than those who, while they run, forsake it.
  • It has been my singular good fortune to have very early in life fallen in with certain tracks which have conducted me to considerations and maxims, of which I have formed a method that gives me the means, as I think, of gradually augmenting my knowledge, and of raising it by little and little to the highest point which the mediocrity of my talents and the brief duration of my life will permit me to reach.
  • I was thus led to take the liberty of judging of all other men by myself, and of concluding that there was no science in existence that was of such a nature as I had previously been given to believe.
  • I esteemed eloquence highly, and was in raptures with poesy; but I thought that both were gifts of nature rather than fruits of study. Those in whom the faculty of reason is predominant, and who most skillfully dispose their thoughts with a view to render them clear and intelligible, are always the best able to persuade others of the truth of what they lay down, though they should speak only in the language of Lower Brittany, and be wholly ignorant of the rules of rhetoric; and those whose minds are stored with the most agreeable fancies, and who can give expression to them with the greatest embellishment and harmony, are still the best poets, though unacquainted with the art of poetry.
  • As soon as my age permitted me to pass from under the control of my instructors, I entire abandoned the study of letters, and resolved no longer to seek any other science than the knowledge of myself, or of the great book of the world.
  • I learned to entertain too decided a belief in regard to nothing of the truth of which I had been persuaded merely by example and custom; and thus I gradually extricated myself from many errors powerful enough to darken our natural intelligence, and incapacitate us in great measure from listening to reason. But after I had been occupied several years in thus studying the book of the world, and in essaying to gather some experience, I at length resolved to make myself an object of study, and to employ all the powers of my mind in choosing the paths I ought to follow, an undertaking which was accompanied with greater success than it would have been had I never quitted my country or my books.

Evidently, Descartes’ Method is primarily an appeal that each individual should try to think as independently as possible, and not accept anything by authority or because it is written in a book, as the credo of cogito ergo sum. This was a most revolutionary thought in Descartes’  time controled by religious authority, and is as revolutionary in our time controled by scientific authority. A demonstration of the power of the Method is given by our sequence of Knols on problems of fluid dynamics starting with  d’Alembert’s Paradox and including Why It Is Possible to Fly and Why It Is Possible to Sail.

Interaction Soul-Body

The main problem of Cartesian dualism of how an immaterial soul can interact with a material body, is in different ways addressed by Spinoza’s monism, Malebranche’s occasionalism, Leibniz’s preestablished harmony, Berkeley´s idealism and Hume’s sceptical minimalism, while Descartes himself suggested causal interaction through the pineal gland by esprit animaux (animal spirits), which in modern brain science could be described as electro-chemical connections between synapes.

In the context of simulation, mind-body interaction can be illustrated as follows: You are about to cross a street and see a car coming at some distance. Question: Can you safely cross the street or should you wait until the car has passed? Answer: You make a simulation in your brain with the distance and speed of the car as visual input combined with past experience of how cars move and your own capabilities. During the simulation you somehow compute the motion of the car and yourself and check if the passage seems safe. If so, then you decide to take the risk, which sends a message to your legs to get moving. In other words, your mind as a simulacra interacts with the body.


The Cartesian Diver: Poetic/Lyrical Soul

In The Cartesian Diver [2] the German poet Durs Grunbein describes the soul as a form of poetic or lyrical soul first identified by Descartes. We here make a parallel into a mathematical soul , more specifically into a computational mathematical soul or computing soul, also first identified by Descartes. We argue that there is a close connection between a poetic soul and a computing soul, which gives a new perspective on traditional analytical mathematics education and points to a modern computational mathematics education. 

     Cartesian diver descending by squeezing the bottle to increase pressure and reduce divvers air volume. 

Grunbeim writes: 

  • Cogito ergo sum means that everyone draws his/her reality from a (sub)conscious thinking soul, and in this sense is his own Cartesian diver picking up treasures from the bottom of the sea. But nonone can look into that thinking soul, not even myself. The body is the arena or musical instrument of the soul, not a cage. Unseparable they are, but never identical. Descartes, the dreamer per se, claims that the soul creates its own laws and reality. 
  • Modernity is often the label of discoveries made long ago.
  • Descartes is the old epistemology´s happy destroyer and at the same time one of the last classical thinkers, before science destroys the bridges to humanity. 
  • Descartes idea about the thinking self as the origin of real existence, makes him to the persona non grata of science par excellence.
  • The allegory returned during the Barock together with the start of the scientific revolution followed by the metafore as a free imagevariable for capturing constellations and correspondencies in space and time.

Descartes’ Mind

The mind is according to Descartes a thing that doubts, understands, affirms, denies, is willing, is unwilling, and also imagines and has sense perceptions. Descartes distinguishes intellectual perception and volition as what properly belongs to the nature of the mind alone, while imagination and sensation are, in some sense, faculties of the mind insofar as it is united with a body. Descartes distinguishes between adventitious ideas and fabricated ideas connected to reality and hyperreality, possibly generated with the help of innate ideas (somehow placed in the mind by God at creation).

The Ghost in the Machine

The ghost in the machine is the British philosopher Gilbert Ryle’s derogatory description of Descartes’ mind-body dualism in The Concept of Mind (1949) indicating absurdity of interaction of mental and physical activites. The fundamental error, according to Ryle, is a category mistake made when philosophers talk about mind and matter as if they were “terms of the same logical type”. But a simulation is different from what it simulates, and so is of different logical type, while interaction still seems possible.

Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679)

Thomas Hobbes presented  in Leviathan (1651) a foundation of Western political philosophy in the form of social contract theory based on interaction between soul/man and state, where the state in the form of a contract regulated the interaction of the different souls of the society. The individual soul could likewise be
seen as a contract for the interaction of the different parts of the individual body. 

Leviathan was written during the English Civil War  to demonstrate the necessity of a strong central authority (The King) to avoid the evil of discord sending society into ”brutishness and misery”. In particular, separation of powers is rejected: the sovereign must control civil, military, judicial and ecclesiastical powers.

The need of a social contract is very evident in the present time of global financial crisis, as is the need
of a strong central authority in the form of a soul controling the lusts of the body.

                Thomas Hobbes 1588-1679       Leviathan 1651             Writing social contracts

Soul = Simulation = Computation = Thought

Following the idea of Thomas Hobbes that all thought is a form of computation and Descartes idea of the thinking soul, we are led to associate the soul with computational simulation. A soul would thus be capable of performing simulations by letting brain cells process information or compute according to some rules specified by a model of the phenomenon being simulated. Once the model is formed it can be used for simulations and the próperties of the model (and of what is being modeled) can thus be discovered by thought experiments. The soul thus harbors computational models, which themselves can be subject to study, while the process of creating these models might be inaccessible to study. We would then be led to view the self or I as a simulation of a “real self´´, which is hidden (and may not even exis)t. This is like saying that Jack Nicholson is excellent in playing the role of Jack Nicholson. 

Computational simulation connects to the concept of hyperrealiy and more specifically to  Hyperreality in Physics and Simulation Technology as a realization of Descartes’ vision of a unification of science based on constructive or computational mathematics.

The Birth of Consciousness

According to the American psychologist Julian Jaynes, consciousness is an acquired set of language skills allowing us to form mental models or simulations of the world including our body:

  • Subjective conscious mind is an analog of what is called the real world. It is built up with a vocabulary or lexical field whose terms are all metaphors or analogs of behavior in the physical world.
  • Consciousness is a much smaller part of mental life than we are conscious of, since we cannot be conscious of what we aren’t conscious of.
  • We have said that consciousness is an operation rather than a thing, a repository, or a function. It operates by way of analogy, by way of constructing an analog space with an analog ‘I’, that can observe that space, and move metaphorically in it. It operates on any reactivity, excerpts relevant aspects, narratizes and conciliates them together in a metaphorical space where such meanings can be manipulated like things in space. 
  • Conscious mind is a spatial analog of the world and mental acts are analogs of bodily acts. Consciousness operates only on objectively observable things. Or, to say it another way with echoes of John Locke, there is nothing in consciousness that is not an analog of  something that was in behavior first.