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Jun 20 2006

Religion’s last stand-2: The role of Descartes

In the previous posting, I discussed two competing models of the mind/brain relationship.

It seems to me that the first model, where the physical brain is all there is and the mind is simply the creation of the brain, is the most persuasive one since it is the simplest and accepting it involves no further complications. In this model, our bodies are purely material things, with the brain’s workings enabling us to think, speak, reason, act, and so forth. The idea of ‘free will’ is an illusion due to the brain being an enormously complicated system whose processes and end results cannot be predicted. (A good analogy would be classically chaotic systems like the weather. Because of the specific non-linearity of the equations governing weather, we cannot predict long-term weather even though the system is a deterministic and materialistic.)

The second model, that of an independently existing non-material mind/soul, separate from the brain and directing the brain, immediately raises all kinds of problems, which have long been recognized. The scientist-philosopher Rene Descartes (1596-1650) of “I think, therefore I am” fame was perhaps the first person to formulate this mind-body dualism (or at least he is the person most closely associated with the idea) and it is clear that he felt that it was necessary to adopt this second model if one was to retain a belief in god.

But he realized immediately that it raises the problem of how the non-material mind/soul can interact with the material brain/body to get it to do things. Princess Elizabeth of Bohemia, with whom Descartes had an extended correspondence, was unable to understand Descartes’ explanation of this interaction and kept prodding him on this very question. Descartes had no adequate answer for her, even though both clearly wanted to believe in the existence of god and the soul. In the introduction to his translation of Descartes’ Meditations and other Metaphysical Writings (which contains extended segments of the Elizabeth-Descartes correspondence), Desmond Clarke writes:

After repeated attempts to answer the question, how is it possible for something which is not physical to interact with something else which, by definition is not physical?, Descartes concedes that he cannot explain how it is possible.

But he tried, using the best scientific knowledge available to him at that time. He argued that the location of the soul’s interaction with the body occurred in the pineal gland.

As is well known, Descartes chose the pineal gland because it appeared to him to be the only organ in the brain that was not bilaterally duplicated and because he believed, erroneously, that it was uniquely human. . . By localizing the soul’s contact with body in the pineal gland, Descartes had raised the question of the relationship of mind to the brain and nervous system. Yet at the same time, by drawing a radical ontological distinction between body as extended and mind as pure thought, Descartes, in search of certitude, had paradoxically created intellectual chaos.

Although Descartes failed in his efforts to convincingly demonstrate the independent existence of the soul, research into the relationship of religious beliefs to the central nervous system of the brain has continued.

Descartes is an interesting character. Much of his scientific work, and even his temperament, seem to indicate a materialistic outlook. But at the same time, he took great pains to try and find proofs of god’s existence. One gets the sense that he was a person trying to convince himself of something he did not quite believe in, and had he lived in a different time might have rejected god with some relief. The article on Descartes in Encyclopaedia Britannica Online, 13 June 2006 says:

Even during Descartes’s lifetime there were questions about whether he was a Catholic apologist, primarily concerned with supporting Christian doctrine, or an atheist, concerned only with protecting himself with pious sentiments while establishing a deterministic, mechanistic, and materialistic physics.

The article points to reasons for the ambiguousness of his views, which could be due to the fact that there was, at that time, considerable fear of the power of the Catholic Church and this may have guided the way he presented his work.

In 1633, just as he was about to publish The World (1664), Descartes learned that the Italian astronomer Galileo Galilei (1564–1642) had been condemned in Rome for publishing the view that the Earth revolves around the Sun. Because this Copernican position is central to his cosmology and physics, Descartes suppressed The World, hoping that eventually the church would retract its condemnation. Although Descartes feared the church, he also hoped that his physics would one day replace that of Aristotle in church doctrine and be taught in Catholic schools.

Descartes definitely comes across as somewhat less than pious, and non-traditional in his religious beliefs.

Descartes himself said that good sense is destroyed when one thinks too much of God. He once told a German protégée, Anna Maria van Schurman (1607–78), who was known as a painter and a poet, that she was wasting her intellect studying Hebrew and theology. He also was perfectly aware of – though he tried to conceal – the atheistic potential of his materialist physics and physiology. Descartes seemed indifferent to the emotional depths of religion. Whereas Pascal trembled when he looked into the infinite universe and perceived the puniness and misery of man, Descartes exulted in the power of human reason to understand the cosmos and to promote happiness, and he rejected the view that human beings are essentially miserable and sinful. He held that it is impertinent to pray to God to change things. Instead, when we cannot change the world, we must change ourselves.

Clearly he was not orthodox in his thinking. Although he tried to believe in god, it was his emphasis on applying the materialistic principles that he used in his scientific work to try and identify the mechanism by which the mind interacts with the brain that has the potential to create the big problem for religion.

To sum up Descartes’ argument, following sound scientific (methodological naturalistic) principles, he felt that if the mind interacted with the brain, then there had to be (1) some mechanism by which the non-material mind could influence the material brain, and (2) some place where this interaction took place. Although he could not satisfactorily answer the first question, he at least postulated a location for the interaction, the pineal gland. We know now that that is wrong, but the questions he raised are still valid and interesting ones that go to the heart of religion.

Next: What current researchers are finding about the brain and religion.

POST SCRIPT: Documentary on Rajini Rajasingham-Thiranagama

I have written before about the murder of my friend Rajini Rajasingham-Thiranagama, who had been an active and outspoken campaigner for human rights in Sri Lanka. I have learned that a documentary about her life called No More Tears Sister is the opening program in the 2006 PBS series P.O.V.

In the Cleveland area, the program is being shown on Friday, June 30, 2006 at 10:00pm on WVIZ 25. Airing dates vary by location, with some PBS stations showing it as early as June 27. The link above gives program listings for other cities. The synopsis on the website says:

If love is the first inspiration of a social revolutionary, as has sometimes been said, no one better exemplified that idea than Dr. Rajani Thiranagama. Love for her people and her newly independent nation, and empathy for the oppressed of Sri Lanka – including women and the poor – led her to risk her middle-class life to join the struggle for equality and justice for all. Love led her to marry across ethnic and class lines. In the face of a brutal government crackdown on her Tamil people, love led her to help the guerrilla Tamil Tigers, the only force seemingly able to defend the people. When she realized the Tigers were more a murderous gang than a revolutionary force, love led her to break with them, publicly and dangerously. Love then led her from a fulfilling professional life in exile back to her hometown of Jaffna and to civil war, during which her human-rights advocacy made her a target for everyone with a gun. She was killed on September 21, 1989 at the age of 35.

As beautifully portrayed in Canadian filmmaker Helene Klodawsky’s “No More Tears Sister,” kicking off the 19th season of public television’s P.O.V. series, Rajani Thiranagama’s life is emblematic of generations of postcolonial leftist revolutionaries whose hopes for a future that combined national sovereignty with progressive ideas of equality and justice have been dashed by civil war – often between religious and ethnic groups, and often between repressive governments and criminal rebel gangs. Speaking out for the first time in the 15 years since Rajani Thiranagama’s assassination, those who knew her best talk about the person she was and the sequence of events that led to her murder. Especially moving are the memories of Rajani’s older sister, Nirmala Rajasingam, with whom she shared a happy childhood, a political awakening and a lifelong dedication to fighting injustice; and her husband, Dayapala Thiranagama, who was everything a middle-class Tamil family might reject – a Sinhalese radical student from an impoverished rural background. Also included are the recollections of Rajani’s younger sisters, Vasuki and Sumathy; her parents; her daughters, Narmada and Sharika; and fellow human-rights activists who came out of hiding to tell her story. The film rounds out its portrayal with rare archival footage, personal photographs and re-enactments in which Rajani is portrayed by daughter Sharika Thiranagama. The film is narrated by Michael Ondaatje, esteemed author of The English Patient and Anil’s Ghost.

I knew Rajini well. We were active members of the Student Christian Movement in Sri Lanka when we were both undergraduates at the University of Colombo. It does not surprise me in the least that she threw herself with passion into the struggle for justice. She was brave and spoke the truth, even when it was unpalatable to those in power and with guns, and backed up her words with actions, thus putting her life on the line for her beliefs. Such people are rare. I am proud to have known her.

1 comment

  1. 1
    sumathy

    Dear Mano Singham,

    I briefly read what you had written on Descartes and found it to be very interesting, though I am no scientist. Also, I am rajani’s sister, Sumathy and found your posting rather moving.

    Sumathy

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