Cumberland on perception and thought

Perception and thought is Mechanistic

Like most philosophers of his time, Cumberland admired the mechanistic philosophy, and he was also committed to the truth of free will and substance dualism. Like Descartes, he found that these positions are incredibly difficult to mesh consistently.

Cumberland has high hopes for what science can show us, even saying that all of what we can learn about moral philosophy “is ultimately resolved into observations of nature that are known by the experience of all, or into conclusions acknowledged and established by true natural science”. That is, experimental physics and psychology are fundamental to our learning about morality. We’ll see this nestle at the core of visceral theories of emotion and leading eventually to the prominence of sentimentalism in moral theory.

There are four claims in particular Cumberland makes that we need to note because of their ramifications for how perception, cognition and the emotions work, and how we come to understand right and wrong.

The claims:

1)    Natural science shows that the laws of motion account for every thing that impacts our senses, which he refers to as impressions.

2)    Matter produces impressions so they are natural effects

3)    When we perceive in our imagination (our mind’s eye) that two or more impressions are making a coherent individual thing, we perceive that both impressions are made upon us by the same cause.

4)    The reasons or causes that allow us to apprehend things placed in our imagination, or perceive things as being connected, or to be self aware happen naturally and necessarily because the imagination is presented with perceptions and the mind has an “intrinsic, natural faultless inclination towards observing things placed before it.”

The basic idea is that the world outside is responsible for creating the ideas in our mind. The measurable motions of matter produce thoughts and even our awareness of ourselves. All our behaviors – and emotions – are caused necessarily by the mind’s doing what it naturally does when it is presented with things.

What he tries to establish is that the way our minds work means we get necessary truths by thinking about the real world. Much like Descartes said, when things are clearly presented to our minds, our minds will necessarily make certain conclusions about those things. He argues that even though science hasn’t yet revealed to us how to predict all the changes in our bodies due to external stimuli, everything but the free will can be reduced to calculations about physical properties.

Because of that it will necessarily follow that we’ll have certain emotional responses to the impressions our senses give our minds. Cumberland is trying to set it up so that the mind, aside from just the bodily mechanism, adds something to the picture, but in the end we’ll see he doesn’t quite get there.

But we are a combination of Mind + Body

Though Cumberland is a Cartesian dualist, his conception explains the differences between man and animal and body and soul very differently; in short man is “an animal with a mind”.

There are two ways or modes to consider the distinction between mind and body – abstractly or theoretically and in vivo or ‘in the flesh’, so to speak.

His abstract argument is straightforward: to be conscious there has to be a specific, discrete/individual, coherent subject that has the thoughts, memories, perceptions, etc. His argument for it is also very simple:

  1. To be conscious there has to be a specific, individual (discrete), coherent subject that has the thoughts, memories, perceptions, etc that are the hallmark of consciousness
  2. Anything made of matter always consists of separate and distinct parts so matter is divisible, not discrete
  3. Because of (2), no system made up of matter, regardless of how its organized, could ever be an individual conscious being
  4. Because of (3), no organized system of matter could be an individual person or subject

In short: it makes no sense to talk about anything being conscious if there is no specific, particular locus; the ‘experiencer’ and a system of matter can’t be a specific locus because it’s a system of parts, not an individual thing.

But if that’s the argument, how does it play out “in vivo”? Cumberland starts by accepting that humans and animals share the ability sense the world around them, and by the same basic mechanisms: impressions enter the organs, are transmitted to the brain via nerves, and depending on circumstances, there is transmission to various muscles and organs.

But, the power of ‘distinctly perceiving” impressions is “peculiar to the human mind”. Only human mind (soul) – not senses, nerves and brains – can understand concepts such as the fact that the image in one’s retina is not the same thing as the object in the world, and know a things size, how it is moving, etc, because he doesn’t see how it would be possible for any “corporeal substance” to be able to separate out these sorts of facts and distinctions, compare them to each other and distinguish between them.

All this is fairly close to Descartes’ views, so it won’t be a surprise to see he defines ‘mind’ in a way similar (but importantly different) to him as well:

Cumberland says mind is understanding + will. The understanding aspect is responsible for things like comparing, judging, reasoning, the ability to be methodical, and to remember all these things. And the object of the understanding is truth, while the object of the will is good.

The will is choosing and refusing, and the vehemence with which you do so. You see the vehemence of what you will by the passion (emotion) with which you do it, above and beyond merely the ‘disturbance’ of the body that happens when you will. So the power of the soul is the combination of the power to understand and to will.

From the two major components of mind, he explains we get five powers, which really boil down to the ability to get knowledge of abstract concepts (specifically God), and to decide on what is properly moral, properly socialized action.

Briefly, they are:

  1. Right reasoning
  2. Understanding
    1. Understanding universal ideas (e.g. ‘Human nature’) and the judgments or propositions that come out of them or disagree with them
    2. Understanding what actions, generally speaking, will agree with those true universal ideas. – – and the ability to use language to express the ideas and volitions
  3. Knowledge of number, measure and weights
  4. The ability to see order and to make things organized
  5. The power to raise, stop and moderate emotions, and to direct them to desire greater good and avoid greater evil than what any other animal is capable of knowing.

The power of the soul “immediately” lets us keep ourselves from succumbing to any sudden rush of passion and to conform our behavior to laws, and therefore to live in civil society, which animals can’t do, though they can have some level of emotion.

Next time we’ll look more deeply at the anatomy and physiology

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