But as evolutionary biologists and cognitive neuroscientists peer ever deeper into the brain, they are discovering more and more genes, brain structures and other physical correlates to feelings like empathy, disgust and joy. That is, they are discovering physical bases for the feelings from which moral sense emerges — not just in people but in other animals as well.
The result is perhaps the strongest challenge yet to the worldview summed up by Descartes, the 17th-century philosopher who divided the creatures of the world between humanity and everything else. As biologists turn up evidence that animals can exhibit emotions and patterns of cognition once thought of as strictly human, Descartes’s dictum, “I think, therefore I am,” loses its force.
People often question the utility of philosophy. One use of philosophy is to protect us from bad philosophy, pseudo-philosophy, the 'philosophy' of those who denigrate philosophy yet cannot resist philosophizing themselves and as a result philosophize poorly. Man is a philosophical animal whether he likes it or not. Philosophize we will — the only question being whether we will do it poorly or well.
The two paragraphs quoted illustrate the sort of pseudo-philosophy that the genuine article must combat. Since to spend much time criticizing writing as shoddy and uninformed as the above is a poor use of time, I'll just make two brief remarks.
First, it was not Descartes who set human beings apart from the animal kingdom. This idea is a staple of the Judeo-Christian tradition and is already set forth in the Book of Genesis:
Faciamus hominem ad imaginem et similitudinem nostram . . . (Gen 1, 26) Let us make man in our image and likeness. . . Et creavit Deus hominem ad imaginem suam. . . (Gen 1, 27) And God created man in his image. . .
The idea is that God, a purely spirtual being, conferred upon man a spiritual nature that distinguishes him from the rest of the animals. In Imago Dei, I go into this at some length and ward off a common misunderstanding.
Second, the 'force' of Cogito ergo sum is in no way lessened by evidence that animals exhibit emotions and patterns of cognition found also in humans. The author betrays a complete lack of understanding as to what the Cartesian dictum means.
What it means is that there is something accessible to my experience that is indubitable. The existence of my thinking (in the broad Cartesian sense that includes perceiving, imagining, wishing, willing, hoping, desiring, and indeed every mental act that displays the property that Brentano called intentionality) cannot be doubted. Given that I am conscious of a (putatively external) object (in whatever modality: perception, imagination, recollection, etc.), it is possible to doubt whether the object of consciousness exists apart from my being conscious of it. Presently gazing at Superstition Mountain, I can doubt the existence of the mountain, but I cannot doubt that a mental act of visual perception is now occurring, or that this act is of a mountain of such-and-such a description. Both act and object qua object are indubitable as to their existence; dubitable alone is the existence of the object in reality. If I try to doubt the existence of my present thinking, I find that my doubting guarantees its own existence: Dubito ergo sum.
If you understand this, then you understand that the author of the NYT piece is an ignoramus.
J. L. Austin, in a footnote to p. 49 of Sense and Sensibilia (Oxford, 1962), writes of ". . . the absurdity of Descartes' toying with the notion that the whole of our experience might be a dream." In the main text, there is a sort of argument for this alleged absurdity. The argument may be set forth as follows:
1. "If dreams were not 'qualitatively' different from waking experiences, then every waking experience would be like a dream . . ." (49)
2. If the phrase 'dream-like quality' were "applicable to everything," then "the phrase would be perfectly meaningless." (49)
3. If dreams were not qualitatively different from waking experiences, then the phrase 'dream-like quality' would be perfectly meaningless. (From 1 and 2 by Hypothetical Syllogism)
4. The phrase 'dream-like quality' is not perfectly meaningless.
5. Dreams are qualitatively different from waking experiences, and "the notion that the whole of our experience might be a dream is an "absurdity." (From 3 and 4 by Modus Tollens)
This is what is called a Contrast Argument. The idea is that a term cannot be meaningful unless there are items to which it does not apply. The idea has some plausibility: if a term applies to everything, or everything in a specified domain, then there is a 'failure of contrast' that might seem to drain the term of all meaning. So if every experience were dream-like, then it could seem meaningless to say of any experience that it is dream-like.
But I see no reason to accept premise (2) above and the contrast principle on which it rests. The principle is
CP. If a term T applies to everything, then T is meaningless.
(CP) readily succumbs to counterexamples. 'Self-identical' applies to everything without prejudice to its meaningfulness. The fact that nothing is self-diverse does not make it meaningless to say that everything is self-identical. Or consider a nominalist who claims that there are no universals, that everything that exists is a particular. Is our nominalist saying something meaningless? Clearly not.
Or if a Buddhist maintains that all is impermanent, is he maintaining something meaningless? Must there be permanent entities for it to be meaningful to say of anything that it is impermanent? I say no. It would be a cheap and feeble response to the Buddhist to allege that the very sense of 'All is impermanent' requires the existence of one or more permanent entities. It is not even required that it be possible that there be permanent entities. If it is necessarily the case that all is impermanent, then there cannot be any permanent entities. Nevertheless, it is meaningful to make this strong impermanence claim. One understands what is being said.
There are philosophers who hold that every being is a contingent being. Surely this cannot be refuted by claiming that the very sense of the thesis that all beings are contingent requires the existence of at least one necessary being. It is true that 'contingent being' has sense only by contrast with the sense of 'necessary being': one cannot understand the one term without understanding the other. But it does not follow that 'contingent being' has sense only if there are necessary beings.
The senses of 'good' and 'evil' are mutually implicative. But it does not follow that there cannot be good without evil.
Returning to the Cartesian Dream Argument, could the whole of my experience be dream-like? This supposition may at the end of the day be absurd; but it cannot be shown to be absurd by Austin's contrast argument.
William Sloane Coffin (Credo, Westminster John Knox Press, 2004, p. 5) thinks to correct Socrates and Descartes but makes a fool of himself in the process. Here is what he says:
Socrates had it wrong; it is not the unexamined but finally the uncommitted life that is not worth living. Descartes too was mistaken; "Cogito ergo sum" --"I think therefore I am"? Nonsense. "Amo ergo sum" -- "I love therefore I am."
This is pseudo-intellectual tripe of the worst sort. It is an asinine form of cleverness in which one drops names without understanding the doctrines behind the names. It is the sort of thing that can impress only the half-educated, while eliciting scorn from those who drink deep from the Pierian spring.
Socrates' point is that self-examination is a necessary condition of a life well-lived. Coffin's point is that commitment is a necessary condition of a life well-lived. These two points are obviously consistent: they can both be true. (And I should think they are both true.) But by saying that Socrates had it wrong, Coffin implies that his view entails the negation of Socrates' view -- which is silly. Suppose A says that G. W. Bush was once governor of Texas, and B says, 'No you've got it wrong, he was once in the National Guard.' It is the same kind of silliness.
It should also be pointed out that even if commitment is a necessary condition of a life well-lived, it doesn't follow that it is a sufficient condition thereof. The committed but unexamined lives of a Nazi, Communist, or Islamo-totalitarian are not examples of lives well-lived.
As for Descartes, Coffin doesn't understand him at all. Else he would have realized that loving is a species of thinking in the broad Cartesian sense of the term. Thinking in this sense covers all mental acts, including remembering, anticipating, perceiving, imagining, wishing, willing, loving, hoping, and thinking in the narrow sense of conceiving. All mental states having the property Brentano called intentionality (object directedness) fall under the cogito, the 'I think.' Thus Coffin commits an obvious ignoratio elenchi when he takes Descartes to be using cogito in the narrow sense that excludes amo.
Alexander Pope penned the following lines:
A little learning is a dangerous thing Drink deep or taste not the Pierian spring There shallow draughts intoxicate the brain But drinking largely sobers us again.
I learned these lines in high school, and they have stood me in good stead ever since. 'Pierian' from Pieria, a region of ancient Macedonia where the Muses lived. Not to be confused with Peoria.
As we have been learning, the conceivability of such theological doctrines as Trinity, Incarnation, and Transubstantiation depends on one's background ontology. Erlangen University's Theodor Ebert, according to this Guardian account, argues that the father of modern philosophy was poisoned with an arsenic-laced communion wafer by a Catholic priest because his metaphysical position is inconsistent with the Transubstantiation doctrine.
This raises an interesting question: Isn't a Catholic priest's commission of murder by desecration of the host far worse than a philosopher's holding of heretical views?