Category Archives: Lucretius

How Descartes Methodology contributed to the First Cartesian Error

Recapping the first Cartesian error

In the previous post I explained that the first Cartesian error is the belief that ‘mind’ or ‘mental activity’ is pure cognition and that ‘body’ is an unthinking machine, responsive only to pleasure and pain and having nothing to do with cognition. I say this because Descartes begins the Passions of the Soul with the claim that the soul is the mind, the nonphysical source of thought, and the body is its vehicle; physical, extended, sensitive and mobile.

A couple of other important background points: He believes that by the 17th century there had been little progress in understanding true human nature, in explaining ourselves to ourselves (You may agree!); and he believes his problem solving method will enlighten us as to the nature of dualism.

Descartes’ method

Descartes’ method, as explained in his justly famous and immensely influential work, Discourse on the Method, has four parts:

  1. Never accept anything as true that you can’t obviously accept as true.
  2. Divide each of the problems you are examining in as many parts as you can
  3. Develop your thoughts in order, beginning with the simplest and easiest to understand
  4. When you go to review, make sure you establish every indubitable claim possible and every link you possibly can among them and check that everything you’ve included is correct.

Descartes was convinced that this method, with its fundamental premise of breaking down problems into their smallest possible components, lead him to offer a good explanation why humans’ smallest parts are the nonphysical mind and mechanical body. In his words, “I had little trouble finding which propositions I needed to begin with, for I already knew they would be the simplest and easiest to know”.

It’s of course convenient that this split fit with his bedrock beliefs. However it turned out to be very inconvenient that his method is based on confidence that no falsehoods were accepted.

Unfortunately, Descartes combination of assumptions and methods leads to what he sees as the immediate, unassailable result that the exclusive function of the soul is thought and that everything else is the function of the body – exclusive meaning only the soul can think and the soul can do nothing but think. As we’ll see, his initial assumptions taken together lead to disastrous results.

Descartes’ method absolutely depends on as much rigor as possible in establishing the ‘first principles’ to be used, but he refuses to challenge mind-body dualism because it is obvious to him, partly because he thinks the emotions are actually evidence for it. He argued that emotions are the perfect wedge with which to pry open the secrets of how dualism works, thereby explaining the essence of humanity. And the way he set things up, in this book he had to find a way to show that the emotions are evidence of dualism.

So, to summarize, Descartes method of breaking down problems into their bits leads to a need to understand the two basic parts of a person, the mind and the body. This understanding takes the form of the attribution of functions to each part, and the only function of the soul is to think.

An unforced error

Descartes could have started his project in other ways than breaking the world up into thinking souls and inanimate machines. For instance, he could have started by considering all the capabilities of humans, such as abstract thought, hunting and lifting heavy objects, and categorized them as things that can be done by: only humans, by animals, and by inanimate objects such as pneumatic or water-powered tools.

But because of his deep commitment to dualism and mechanism he decided to categorize all activities as either something we know from experience can be performed by bodies (such as our own), or as activities that couldn’t possibly be done by such inanimate machines. Since his assumptions and method led him to see the human body as nothing more than a machine with interacting parts, that when set in motion can perform various actions, but when not set in motion does nothing, he then asked himself what could a machine never do?

The ‘obvious’ answer is whatever the soul does, because what else is there? You’re probably thinking, wait, common sense tells me that, e.g. dogs and monkeys don’t have souls and they aren’t robots – they have mental lives and are capable of all sorts of complicated behaviors. But Descartes couldn’t agree; since animals don’t have souls, and since the best science of the time said animal bodies are machines (that happen to run on hot blood and muscle tension rather than water or rope tension), they are simply robots.

[[A fascinating side note: Descartes was well aware of, and fascinated by, stories of amazingly lifelike automata from Europe and China from as early as the 13th century. There is even speculation that he himself was deeply involved in creating such robots, but these stories are impossible to verify. But it seems very likely that he knew of Leonardo Da Vinci’s production of robots.]]

Of course, a science that says robots can be complicated enough to live the ‘lives’ of tigers and orangutans and pigs is capable of quite a lot. That’s probably why Descartes concluded that only the body can create and use heat to create movement and the soul, and only the soul, can think: “we do right to believe that every kind of thought within us belongs to the soul” and “it is an error to believe that the soul imparts motion and heat to the body”.

In perhaps his most famous work, Meditations on First Philosophy, Descartes gives a bit more explanation, saying that mind is “a thing that thinks…a thing that doubts, understands, affirms, denies, wills, refuses and which also imagines and senses”. (But not emotes!)


Be clear that the error I’m worried about here is not that he believes in souls, (though I do not), after all there’s many ways to think of souls. The fundamental error here was deciding that thinking has absolutely nothing to do with the body. As we’ve seen, Plato, Aristotle, and Lucretius each gave good reason to believe that thought is dependent upon and deeply engrained with human flesh. But Descartes chose to reject out of hand any evidence of that, and instead to argue for his “obvious” assumptions.

In the next post we’ll take up the second Cartesian error.

What Everyone Ought to Know about Stoic Thought on the Emotions pt III of IV

Son, friend, American, New Yorker, white, Hispanic, employee, writer, volunteer, customer, fan

Last time we finished up with the example that if you get ‘angry’ about your mom complaining about your driving, the Stoic view would be that you are misunderstanding the situation. You are choosing to believe you were slighted or violated by your mom’s comments, even though in reality, given that moms are supposed to care deeply about their children’s safety, you should expect such comments. It’s part of the parent-child relationship. And if you understand that, then it should eliminate the idea that you’re somehow being hurt by the comments. So you can and should choose to stop being angry. And when you do so, you will cease to be angry.

Epictetus goes even further than that in §42 of Enchiridion when he recommends that when a person “treats you ill or speaks ill of you” we should be ‘mild in temper” and say to ourselves “it seemed so to him”. The idea being that their opinion of you can’t hurt you unless you decide it is really a hurt and that in cases where they really are wrong about you they are the ones who get hurt because they are deceived and it’s bad to believe false things.

This can probably be summed up by the later Christian idea of “turning the other cheek”. You won’t find recommendations like that from the line of thought extending through Plato, Aristotle and Lucretius (which I’ve been calling P-A-L).

In fact, in the very first chapter of the Nicomachean Ethics Aristotle hits on a key problem with the idea of the weight of relationships in ethics. He advises that you can’t judge whether a person’s life was virtuous or happy until they have passed away because there is so much unpredictable stuff that can happen that could ruin the life or the person. Like a parent losing a child: A vivid example of this is in the classic movie Ordinary People.

The underlying idea here is that specifically because of the intimate, fundamentally important relationship you have with your family, your emotional well being is not totally in your hands. To form those types of bonds and gain all that they can give you requires being vulnerable to the possibility of ruin. And the kicker is, as the heading above indicates about me, we can all be described by quite a few different relationships, we all wear many hats. And each of them works to change our frame of reference.

The Stoics refuse to accept this, and to me this is unrealistic for all but the most terribly isolated people. It’s hard to imagine a world where you aren’t ever supposed to take it seriously when e.g., your lover, employer, a rival, etc, expresses a highly negative opinion of you or your behavior, or when a close friend dies.

Patience and control

§10 reinforces the point made in §1 that we must be clear on the difference between what is truly controllable and what is not. It explains that you must look to yourself and see what abilities you have that can deal with things that happen to you. So if you have to deal with someone being really vulgar, though you can’t control them, you do have the power to be patient. So you must train yourself to know that you always have a faculty to deal with that which is not directly in your power to control. Religious folk might note this sounds like the saying that “god never closes a door without opening a window”. This is good advice, but according to P-A-L they are neglecting the fact that emotions are just as effective a tool, and in many situations they are much better. As I’ve said, the Stoic starting point that what is in our control (our minds) matters greatly and what is out of our control (our bodies, others) does not matter is dangerous. And it’s hard to take. But Epictetus himself is inconsistent on it.

The only thing that matters is your mind, so do what’s right no matter what…sort of.

In §35 Epictetus asks rhetorically, “If you’re action is wrong, avoid doing it all together, but if it is right, why do you fear those who will rebuke you wrongly?” That’s honorable, and it’s consistent with the other major claims we’ve looked at. But it turns out that it’s really complicated to see what that means when you’re dealing with others. For example, at §33 Epictetus says we should “refuse the entertainment of strangers and the vulgar” because if you don’t you will “share the stain of any comrade” – even if you are both actually ‘clean’. On one hand this makes sense, people do judge you by the company you keep. But why should a Stoic care? Say that you are a Stoic spending time with someone with a bad reputation, or who is otherwise considered undesirable, but you are yourself faultless. Earlier the recommendation was to ignore people who say bad things about you. So why does it matter now that there is a social cost – getting a stain – for hanging out with people, even friends, who some people don’t like? Shouldn’t he say that it’s completely irrelevant whether you suffer socially for befriending ‘stained’ people? In the same section.

Then in §36 Epictetus says that “if you want to maintain social decencies, it is worthless to do things like taking the larger portion at a banquet, even though it is worthwhile for your body. You should remember to maintain your self-respect before your host”. I guess you could argue he’s not saying you should maintain social decencies. But the fact that it’s not a very long book and he still thought to include this advice says something. But where’s the virtue in starving rather than maybe seeming immodest to your host? After all in §30 he says that “every living creature has a natural tendency to avoid and shun what seems harmful and all that causes it, and to pursue and admire what is helpful and all that causes it”.

Supposedly, for a Stoic neither being punished nor being poorly thought of is ever a reason to do a bad action or to avoid a good action. So the only reason a Stoic could have for following the advice in §33 would be if there was reason to avoid a right action because of the impressions you might cause in other people. But that doesn’t make sense. Are Stoics expected to live their lives trying not to give strangers bad impressions by consciously avoiding friends who are stained – even wrongly stained?

He’s already insisted that anything that is not in our power does not matter at all. And I’m sorry but you can’t say with a straight face that we can control how a third party feels about our friends – or even ourselves. We can control how we present ourselves to people, but what goes on in other people’s heads, and by what measures and prejudices they judge us, are largely a mystery. Seriously trying to be inoffensive to strangers would lead to paralysis or obsequiousness (which many find offensive).

The principle of charity suggests that there’s a way to mesh A) “things that you don’t control don’t matter” with B) “always do what’s right no matter what”, C) “let it slide when people insult you”, D) “don’t bore people”, E) “don’t seem greedy to people” and F) “avoid social stain”. I just don’t see it. To me, you can’t get the social rules like C-F without dropping or editing A or B.

Emotions cause problems for Stoicism that they don’t for P-A-L

So now we have a good understanding of the Stoic idea that emotions are judgments. And we see that they make it pretty clear that emotions are bad judgments that need to be eliminated. Now here’s the thing. The P-A-L account does not want to do away with emotions; it says that correct emotions are a big key to human happiness. And a fundamental support for that is this idea that humans are social animals, for whom interpersonal relationships matter deeply. Put simply, the P-A-L account says that emotions are a major faculty for social animals to coexist successfully, for individuals to properly relate to their groups. One explanation for the Stoic dismissal of emotions might be that Stoicism really is an ethical theory for ‘radical’ individuals. But that’s not it. Eight of the fifty-two sections of the Enchiridion discuss the social aspects of being a Stoic and analyzing these sections shows the real issue. Stoicism has a huge problem with properly explaining morality in social situations because their theory of emotions kills them.

We’ll have one more post on the Stoics and then it’s on to the modern world.

The Modern World: Brought to you in part by René Descartes