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How Did Descartes Come To Make Such a Mess of Dualism?

Mathematician René Descartes strictly separated mind and matter in a way that left the mind very vulnerable
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Neurosurgeon Michael Egnor did a recent podcast with Arjuna Das at Theology Unleashed, “where Eastern theology meets Western skepticism.”

In this segment, before getting into problems with René Descartes’ understanding of consciousness, they begin by talking about qualia, a topic considered “central to a proper understanding of the nature of consciousness.”

For example, I run my fingers over sandpaper, smell a skunk, feel a sharp pain in my finger, seem to see bright purple, become extremely angry. In each of these cases, I am the subject of a mental state with a very distinctive subjective character. There is something it is like for me to undergo each state, some phenomenology that it has. Philosophers often use the term ‘qualia’ (singular ‘quale’) to refer to the introspectively accessible, phenomenal aspects of our mental lives. – Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Here is a partial transcript and notes for the forty-two to forty-six minute mark:

Arjuna Das: You can’t explain qualia using the mind’s material cause because qualia, as you know, have that quality of “aboutness” [they are always about something, in a way that physical things are not “about” anything]. An excellent description of consciousness is unified qualitative experience.

Unified means we have a single experience. You can look at your yard and block your vision and see half of your yard. But you’ve got a single experience of seeing half of your yard. You don’t have half an experience. (00:42:40)

Michael Egnor: The qualia problem was basically created by modern philosophers. Qualia was not recognized as an issue by the classical philosophers, the scholastic philosophers, and so on. The whole notion of qualia was not considered particularly interesting because it was quite obvious how we have first person experience.

The reason that qualia became a problem really started with Descartes, although he obviously built on materialist perspectives that were the air in the 17th century.

Note: René Descartes (1596–1650), a French mathematician and philosopher “offered a new vision of the natural world that continues to shape our thought today: a world of matter possessing a few fundamental properties and interacting according to a few universal laws. This natural world included an immaterial mind that, in human beings, was directly related to the brain; in this way, Descartes formulated the modern version of the mind–body problem.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy His best known statement is “I think; therefore I am.”

Rene Descartes

Michael Egnor: Descartes cast aside the classical hylomorphic understanding of nature. Which I think is the deepest insight anybody has ever had into the way nature works. (00:43:24)

Note: Hylomorphism is a way of understanding nature: “every physical object is a compound of matter and form” – Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy Thus, a crystal consists of quartz molecules (matter) in the form of a six-sided figure (a hexagon); both features are needed for the quartz to be the mineral we see in nature. Absent form, nature — including ourselves — would devolve into a goo.

The concept was originally developed by Greek philosopher Aristotle (384–322 BC), possibly the first philosopher of science. Descartes challenged Aristotle’s approach. However, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy notes that “Aristotle’s hylomorphism has also enjoyed something of a renaissance in contemporary metaphysics.”

Michael Egnor: Descartes said that things that exist in the world can be broken down into two categories. One is res extensa, which is matter, just stuff as extended in space. And the other is res cogitans, which is “thinking” stuff. And thinking stuff was spiritual, it was the mind. He believed that human beings were composites of res cogitans and res extensa.

Thus we were immaterial spirits grafted onto material bodies. And Gilbert Ryle, a contemporary philosopher, referred to that concept as the “ghost in the machine.” While that might be a somewhat dismissive approach to what Descartes really meant, Descartes did believe that we were, in a sense, ghosts living in bodies.

Which is not at all Aristotle’s way of understanding human beings. It takes first person experience entirely out of our bodies. It says that our subjective experience is entirely in the res cogitans; it’s not in the res extensa. So in the body, there’s no first person experience. Only the mind has first person experience. (00:45:52)

Most materialists don’t realize this but modern materialism is just degenerate Cartesianism. Modern materialists swallowed Descartes’ metaphysics. And then they just got rid of res cogitans. They just said the whole world, everything, is matter extended in space. And that’s the whole story. There’s no minds out there.

So of course, if you take matter extended in space, which is defined as that which lacks first person experience, you’re going to have an awfully difficult time accounting for first person experience. Because you’ve put first person experience in the garbage.

So materialists have defined matter as that which cannot have first person experience. And then they write libraries full of books trying to explain how matter [which is all we are in their view] can have first person experience when they’re the ones that caused the problem. (00:46:46)

Note: The concept of “qualia” was introduced in 1929) to account for the existence of first-person experience in a philosophical world where the mind was assumed to not really exist. Accounting for qualia in a materialist way became a goal.

Michael Egnor: So if we dump Cartesian metaphysics and dump the materialism and go back to Aristotelian hylomorphism, these problems disappear. There’s no problem as to why you have first person experience. That’s a simple power of your soul. That’s how your soul works. It’s not the least bit mysterious.

Note: The “soul,” in this context, is not a religious concept. It is the “live” element of a body — the difference between a live cat and a cat who has just died. In one sense, it is the same cat, yet in another sense, it is quite different. A living cat has conscious experiences (it perceives experiences as happening to itself); a dead cat does not.

In this sense, the soul can be said to be the form of the body. After the cat dies, its body will decay into the environment because there is no longer any form that keeps it as a cat.

In the traditional hylomorphic approach, the concept of “qualia” would not be needed to explain why a live cat — or live human — experiences things. That’s just one aspect of the “form” of the body. It can be studied, certainly, but it does not need a separate explanation or defense.

Questions around the nature of the human mind and the immortality of the human soul are based on different considerations.

Next: How philosopher John Locke’s “little theater in the mind” cuts us off from reality

Here’s a transcript and notes for the first forty minutes:

What’s the best option for understanding the mind and the brain? Theories that attempt to show that the mind does not really exist clearly don’t work and never did. Neurosurgeon Michael Egnor reviews the mind-brain theories for East Meets West: Theology Unleashed. He think dualism makes the best sense of the evidence.

How we can know mental states are real?
Mental states are always “about” something; physical states are not “about” anything. Michael Egnor argues that doing science as a physicalist (a materialist) is like driving a car with the parking brake on; it’s a major impediment to science.

Why neurosurgeon Mike Egnor stopped being a materialist atheist. He found that materialism is just not working out in science. Most propositions in basic science are based on mathematics and mathematics is not a material thing.


How science points to meaning in life. The earliest philosopher of science, Aristotle, pioneered a way of understanding it. Neurosurgeon Michael Egnor talks about the four causes of the events in our world, from the material to the mind.

You may also wish to read: Why the universe itself can’t be the most fundamental thing. Atheist biology professor Jerry Coyne is mistaken in dismissing my observation that proofs of God’s existence follow the same logical structure as any other scientific theory. (Michael Egnor)

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How Did Descartes Come To Make Such a Mess of Dualism?