Descartes’ errors

I have finished reading Damasio’s Descartes’ Error and I was right to suspect that he saw more than one error.  The simplest one was his “I think, therefore I am” (‘cogito ergo sum’) that Damasio says is backwards, because being comes before thinking.  The backwardness is part of a larger error though as Descartes believed thought was a manifestation of spirit or soul and that the body was a mechanical, thoughtless bit of life.  This error, Damasio relates, has rippled out through our science and philosophy since Descartes plopped it down in the sea of intellectual life.  Never mind that many of his contemporaries challenged this, e.g., Diderot as reported in last post; Descartes’ stature was such that his name carried forth the error while those assigned a lesser prestige carried the truth to the discriminating few.

In the last chapters Damasio waxes a little philosophical himself as he extrapolates from his very real scientific understanding of neural processes and mind to what this knowledge means.  One important obvious conclusion that our culture seems to ignore is that given the lack of robustness, e.g., prone to error, in our rational thinking, we ought to cultivate a more rigorous intellectual way of thinking, e.g., perhaps staying closer to data, safeguarding our conclusions from errant assumptions and shortcuts, tending our logical ways more carefully, etc.  In short, ensuring our educational systems work to counter our tendencies to thinking falsely.  (Let’s not mention current political discourse here and keep our tears to a minimum).

Damasio also takes his understanding to a different place.  He writes that given that “reason is nowhere pure”, we need to attend to the vulnerability of the world within, and a most serious consequence of Descartes’ error is that its subsequent versions “obscure the roots of the human mind in a biologically complex but fragile, finite, and unique organism; they obscure the tragedy implicit in the knowledge of that fragility, finiteness, and uniqueness.  And where humans fail to see the inherent tragedy of conscious existence, they feel far less called upon to do something about minimizing it, and may have less respect for the value of life”.  Well now that is saying something so very well:  that ascribing mind to any supernatural forces prevents us from realizing that our biological nature is incredibly special and must be cherished—that this life and our minds that experience it is of the utmost value.  (And that is not done shutting off education, engaging in conspiracy theories, or misconstruing what we know to aggrandize our selves and our positions or beliefs).

Damasio also believes that neurobiology can and does contribute to our appreciation of, he quotes William Faulkner’s words, “the old verities and truths of the heart”.  Damasio points out that our challenge here is to understand how our neurons respond so “thoughtfully,” and that this challenge is literally enormous. The number of synapses is at least 10 trillion and the length of the axons forming neuronal circuits is “on the order of several hundred thousand miles.”  Some of our thoughts are indeed well traveled, eh?  Further, he asks why some events are experienced as suffering and answers, “Because the organism says so”.  Our suffering is a necessary feature of our existence and no wonder I find Buddhism’s percepts here so apt—they keep the cause of suffering in the natural world and the solution in our minds and actions towards others.

Damasio ends with a story about Almeida Lima, a gifted and compassionate neurosurgeon who helped develop a procedure called prefrontal leucotomy wherein pain centers are dissociated from emotional centers.  This is used very rarely in cases for the management of intractable pain—pain that is mind-numbing yet of no immediate consequence for life.  Lima introduced Damasio to one such patient, who, when asked if his pain was gone, replied, “Oh, the pains are the same, but I feel fine now, thank you”.  Though in pain, it was not emotionally excruciating and he did not ‘suffer’ the mind numbing effects.  I am reminded of Reynolds Price, a marvelous author who suffered spinal cancer.  Though it was successfully removed, it confined him to a wheel chair and left him in severe pain, unable to live and think and write.  He learned pain management skills using self-hypnosis at Duke Hospital and went on to enjoy life (I watched him enjoy dinner at a fine restaurant one evening) and write more incredible books.

So read this book or one of Damasio’s other books.  He understands that William James was correct when he asserted that humans have more instincts and not fewer than other animals, and that one of our instincts is a passion for reason, “a drive that originates deep in the brain’s core” for us to be reasonable.  It is still, after all is said and done, an instinct, and means that we must cherish our reasonableness all the more.  Travel on.