Category Archives: Awareness

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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The Third Cartesian Error – in One Post!

The main development or change in how Descartes understands the mind from Meditations on First Philosophy to Passions of the Soul is that in this latter book his theory makes it possible for the body to act without the mind. In fact, I argue, he doesn’t leave the mind any way to affect the body at all even though he of course wants it to. There are a couple of reasons for this state of affairs. First, as we saw in the first Cartesian Error, he argues that the only thing the mind can do is think, and the body cannot think at all. Then in the Second Error, he argues that emotions aren’t thinking and explains that the human body works in such a way as to be able to start, continue and end emotions and emotion-based behavior. I call this organization, this explanation, an example of half-duplex communication between body and mind, a type of communication I previously said was exemplified by walkie-talkies and text messages. Let’s briefly review why this can’t be a reasonable way to look at how the mind and body interact.

Not the way the mind and body interact

If the mind were like a walkie-talkie, by definition only one end at a time can communicate. So if you had a spider on your leg, what would have to happen for you to get rid of it? First, the body would feel the pressure on your flesh. But for your mind to know the spider was there too would require one of four things, all of which have problems and raise more questions than they answer, (at least for Descartes):

1) That by a stroke of luck, at the same moment when the body felt the pressure, the mind happened to not be communicating out any messages and so is able to receive transmission, OR

2) The body not only feels the pressure on the skin, but also “knows” that the mind should stop transmitting and instead listen, and can force the mind to do so by accompanying important messages with a message such as “over” to tell the brain to start talking, OR

3) The body itself would just “know” how to stop the bug (like a reflex), OR

4) The body is constantly transmitting messages whether or not the mind is in a position to hear them, and sometimes it listens in for whatever reason.

On the other hand, Plato, Aristotle and Lucretius argued for something different, an, interactive and reciprocal communication between the body and the mind (and the emotions), a process I called duplex communication. For them, the mind and the body are both duplex transmitters, such as cellular phones, which allow two constantly running communications to both be understood by their targets.

This not only fits common sense and firsthand experience, but our more advanced understanding of the body tells us this is correct. Duplex communication between the brain and the rest of the nervous system throughout the body allow for immediate response to outside stimuli by real-time measurement and analysis – Plato, Aristotle and Lucretius each saw that the body feels things that don’t quite rouse the mind, and that our bodies are actually sentient – aware – in a way akin to the way the mind is. The duplex process also allows for conscious analysis of the stimuli, the body’s responses, the results of the responses, what goals are being achieved, and what goals might be better, as well as the ability to seek after those goals. The body can run “on its own” but a conscious person can study her reactions and change her behavior to her preference. After all, they are made of the same stuff. Half duplex communication doesn’t allow this.

So the third Cartesian Error is that the theory cannot explain how the mind and body could have duplex communication, which the P-A-L theory gave an excellent argument for, and which I conclude is a fundamental aspect of the emotions backed up by contemporary research. More specifically, third error has to do with how Descartes thinks the mind and body communicate with each other.

Descartes’ half-duplex theory argues that the mind/soul is united to all parts of the body, not just the pineal gland (If you read carefully this theory is also there in Meditation VI) but that the soul is able to exercise its unique function – thinking – best in the pineal gland (and its my opinion that he really does think of it as more physically extended than he is usually given credit for). He says that the soul and body act on each other by taking turns “radiating”: as in the soul “radiates” into the rest of the body from the pineal gland. Think of it as sort of like an x-ray in reverse. Instead of shooting x-rays through our body to give us an image of our body, things like bears shoot ‘bear-rays’ at our eyes. A similar process happens from the pineal gland to the soul and vice versa. This is completely incorrect but such particulars don’t really matter. What matters is that he has in mind a physical process by which he thinks we receive our sensory information, and it works like in the diagram above. Think of sending a text or SMS message to a friend with your cell phone. Basically, what happens is that a message goes from your phone to an SMS site, and the site attempts to deliver your message to the other phone. If it is ‘delivered’, your friend can read and reply in the same manner.

Here is a “play by play” of his argument:

1) the soul is truly joined to the whole body, no part is excluded,

2) because of the centrality of the [pineal] gland’s location the soul can perform its function in a more particular way there than anywhere else,

3) The central location of the pineal gland allows the soul to “better alter the course of the spirits (chemicals) with the slightest movement”.

4) Similarly, the slightest change in the course of the spirits can greatly change the movements of the pineal gland, affecting the soul greatly.

5) This activity can happen because of the “mediation” of the spirits and the nerves and blood that carry them.

6) Our bodies use “fire” or “heat” to make all possible movements, and it is wrong to think that the soul can impart either to our bodies (A5-A8).

So what we’ve learned here is that because

A) Descartes has a complete, purely physical account of how sense perception and muscular movement are possible,

B) we have all manner of non-conscious motion (eating, breathing, walking aimlessly, etc) and

C) He firmly argues the soul imparts no motion to the body,

then it is fundamentally impossible on his theory for duplex communication to occur between the mind and the body. In fact, it seems impossible for him to seriously, coherently defend any meaningful communication between them. At best what he has is a “half-duplex” system, but that doesn’t match reality and it couldn’t work, as we discussed briefly in the sections on Lucretius.

The next post, the last one to focus on Descartes, will discuss the ethical implications of the three Cartesian Errors.