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When Western Civilization Submitted Itself to a Lobotomy

Descartes' dualism was obviously wrong, but it won over western civilization.

Descartes was a philosophical surgeon who lobotomized common sense from the modern mind without most people even noticing. It helped that western civilization was thoroughly prepped and anesthetized for the procedure.

Descartes’ emphasis on one’s ideas (“idealism”) led to a fierce subjectivism, which, in turn, led to all sorts of problems, which I delved into last week and touched on previously.

Today, I’m turning to Cartesian dualism.

The 12-Step Thought Process that Brought Descartes to Dualism

I wasn’t sure how to approach this. It’s dry stuff. After three attempts that made my eyes glaze over, I decided simply to lay it out in bullet-point format. My apologies if you’d rather commit suicide than grapple with this.

If you’d rather not grapple, you can just accept one premise and jump to the next section. The premise is: Descartes’ logic leads to the conclusion that everything is either mind or body. Here’s how he got there:

1. I can’t know anything. My senses can’t be trusted because, among other things, an evil being might be tricking me.

2. But I know I’m thinking. Even if I’m being tricked, I’m thinking. Because I’m thinking, I must exist and my mind must exist.

3. My mind has concepts that, at the very least, have existence in my mind. A unicorn might not exist in the world but it exists in my mind.

4. My mind has a concept of God: the perfect being. Therefore, God exists . . . at least in my mind.

5. If God is perfect, however, He must exist in reality, too. If He didn’t exist, He wouldn’t be perfect. Therefore, He exists and, being the perfect and omniscient creator, made everything.

6. Similarly, God must be good. If He weren’t good, He wouldn’t be perfect.

7. If God is good, He wouldn’t let the evil being deceive me.

8. Therefore, I can trust my senses.

9. But I still can’t know things (the essences of things) because they’re constantly changing (e.g., hard wax melts).

10. But I can know one thing about things: they have extension (length, width, breadth). Just as the essence of mind is thought; the essence of body is extension.

11.  Extension involves dimension, motion, and mechanics (bodies acting on other bodies: force and motion).

12. Because God created matter, and God, being perfect, has an immutable will, the laws that govern matter are also immutable: fixed, mechanical, and can be explored and controlled with mathematical certainty.

The First Consequence of Dualism: Mind and Body Don’t Interact

This 12-step thought process left Descartes—and his swooning western civilization crowd of fans—with two substances: Thought (Mind) and Extension (Body).

There’s thought—and our ideas that emanate from thought. There’s extension—and the mathematical mechanical laws to which they’re subject.

And never the twain shall meet. Mind (thought, ideas) . . . separate from Body (objects governed by mathematical mechanics). Autonomous, free-standing, hegemonic within their spheres . . . but entirely distinct. The “proofs” that brought Descartes to this point result in two entirely distinct substances that operate autonomously, with no interaction.

The whole thing is ludicrous. It contradicts everyday experience. My mind tells my left hand to go up, and it goes up. There’s an indubitable connection between mind and body.

Some people saw the problem immediately, like the wag who commented that he saw Descartes’ mind riding down the road in a wagon.

I think even Descartes knew he had a problem but didn’t know how to solve it. He speculated that the two substances intermixed in the soul, which he said was situated in the pineal gland which was full of “animal spirits” that are material but so fine or rarefied (like air, which is material but rarefied) that they could interact with the spirit.

The notion was so absurd, I get the impression people just politely ignored him on this point.

But Descartes had still won the philosophical day. Most everyone was in love with dualism.

Why Would a Whole Culture Jettison Common Sense?

It’s really pretty remarkable. Here you have a philosophy that contradicted everyday experience, but it carried the day. Indeed, it carried the modern centuries: from Descartes to the rise of existentialism and postmodernism, albeit with significant hiccups and objections (e.g., from John Locke).

How did it happen?

I can write all day long about how Descartes, with a significant assist from Francis Bacon, established the modern mindset, but that doesn’t entirely explain the phenomenon.

Let’s face it: No thinker gains traction unless his words resonate in the first place. History is littered with profound thinkers who scarcely registered on their contemporaries’ mental Richter scales. For a thinker to create a devoted following—to, essentially, found a new religion—there must be a ready congregation. Luther wouldn’t have resonated in the 13th century. Marx wouldn’t have resonated in the 8th.

But Descartes resonated in the 17th . . . big time. He was, Cambridge Don Basil Willey notes, “the most conspicuous representative of a way of thought which was irresistibly gaining ground.”[1]He used his genius to devise an entirely new way of thinking and Europe was ready.

Like, really, really ready.

Europe was tired and looking for answers.

Starting in 1300, everything went to crap: plagues, earthquakes, wars.

Constantinople fell to the Turks in 1453. It was the last remnant of the Roman Empire, the bedrock of the earthly realm.

The bedrock of the heavenly realm (the Papacy) crippled itself with self-inflicted wounds: exiling itself from its eternal home (Rome) by moving to Avignon, allowing two (then three) popes to get elected (the Great Western Schism), attempting to restructure its finances (that had weakened due to the Exile and Schism) in ways that led to corruption.

Columbus discovered a land mass that no one knew existed, thereby shattering every authoritative geography lesson, among others.

The Reformation tore apart Christianity permanently.

The vicious Thirty Years’ War.

When life gets hard, people look for answers in weird places. Magic, black magic, Gnosticism. It doesn’t matter. People reach for something.

And when life’s difficulties are combined with a shattering of one’s religious world, like the one that occurred as Christendom annihilated itself from the Avignon Exile through the Reformation? At that point, I suppose a guy is prepared to toss everything out the window in his attempt to find something certain.

And then a genius like Descartes comes along and offers a solution with the certainty of mathematics?

It’d be like standing with a gallon of water in front of a dehydrated man crawling in the desert. The man will take the water, beg for it, pay dearly for it, and maybe even sacrifice his most cherished principles.

When Descartes came along with his philosophy, western civilization was dehydrated and was willing to sacrifice its most cherished principles—which circumstances had dashed to hell already—to get a drink and some existential clarity.

It was even willing to sacrifice common sense.

[1]Basil Willey, The Seventeenth Century Background (Doubleday, 1953), p. 93.