Category Archives: Meditations on First Philosophy

Cumberland on the role of anatomy and physiology in emotion and thought

Cumberland examines the human body from three angles; that of the anatomist, the physician and the psychologist. The first focuses on the organized nature of the body, the second at its liability to preventable and curable “distempers”, and the third focuses on the relation of the mind to the body.

The Brain

His work in all these facets tells him that there are aspects of human bodies that allow it to strengthen the imagination and memory far beyond animal imagination and memory.

The first thing is how large the human brain is relative to the body when compared with other animals. Because of this and because all the nerves come from either the brain or the spinal marrow, he thinks the brain can exert a tremendous amount of control on action, and he thinks “all voluntary motion is directed and governed by the brain”.

He also thinks that our first apprehension of things is passive and therefore necessary. So, for example, what we see when we open our eyes can’t be anything but what it is. And he thinks the same goes for our desire for good and aversion from evil: the mind is innately, constantly working – understanding, choosing, refusing, deciding – moving the body to get what it wants. The brain lets us observe sensible objects and better understand which ones are good or evil, and, through a process then not yet understood by science, the nervous system relays messages to the brain, assisting the imagination and memory and to the body, aiding muscles and nerves to allow motion.

Now, what would seem to follow from this is that the soul does not “direct and govern” voluntary motions of the body unless it governs the brain directly. And as we saw with Descartes, trying to explain that is a very tall order, but he tries.

He expects that science will one day explain the workings of the nervous system but he cautions that it can’t explain everything; specifically he thinks it is impossible that we could ever reduce the workings of the mind to the “mechanical powers of matter and motion”. In fact, he thinks the more we learn about the nature of the brain, “the more we shall despair of the possibility of explaining the operations of the mind by its motions”. In other words, our mental lives are not reducible to mechanical talk.

At the basis of this belief is his commitment to dualism. He as sure as Descartes was that the mind, not the brain, can in the end control its reactions to sensations. But he doesn’t give any reasons that should convince us that this is true. Instead, his deep study qua anatomist and physician recommend us that the mind may just be unnecessary and irrelevant in understanding thought and emotions. For all his advances, our hero is just as guilty of the First Cartesian Error as Descartes.

Beyond the Brain

The internal organs in our chest cavity, the viscera, also have tremendous influence in “governing” and “determining” of emotion to seek the good of others rather than hurting them. Basically, he thinks the structure of our bodies serves as a continual reminder to very strictly govern our emotions. He goes so far as to say that the only reason we obey laws of nature and the source of every virtue is that we can govern the emotions that we use in “settling or securing every man’s property”.

Due to the amazing connectivity and back-and-forth communication between the viscera and the brain, the heart, diaphragm, etc, via the nervous system, they affected in various ways by violent emotions about good or evil. (And believe me, he gets into some detail about how this might actually work!). Its similar in all the other kinds of emotion; the heart and other viscera are more moved by the influence of a more powerful brain than animals are. Animals have emotions, but ours are much stronger.

Furthermore, the heart is the fountain of all the pleasures we enjoy, so any passions that help or hinder it “more powerfully” in us than in animals “necessarily affects” us more than them. Specifically, two properties peculiar to human bodies (I’ll spare the details) that allow for communication between the viscera give us the ability to better effect diligent government of the passions, along with the motivation to do so.

All this might remind you of the Homeric theory, and I agree they’re quite similar, but lets not jump to the conclusion that Cumberland is really a confused visceral theorist. Instead, he thinks that the peculiarities of human anatomy and physiology actually suggest that the mind’s province is to “diligently attend the helm committed to its care, and to steer it skillfully”. (This is reminiscent of Descartes sailor/ship metaphor in Meditation VI).

An even stronger point against viewing Cumberland as a visceral theorist is the previously stated claim that “the strongest passions are employed regarding the selling of private property…because nothing moves men more strongly”, meaning that concepts, beliefs and expectations play a huge role in the passions, or at least in a certain type. The “conceptions of the brain affect the heart”.

What these passages also show is a deep understanding of the importance of duplex communication between the brain and the rest of the body, which I’ve said numerous times is critically important.

Conclusion

So in the end, Cumberland more or less escapes the Second and Third Cartesian Errors and its mostly his falling to the First Cartesian Error that keeps me from listing him as part of the P-A-L progression. And like Descartes, Cumberland finds himself confused in the end as to whether and how the emotions are physiological phenomena or phenomena of an impalpable mind. This confusion makes fuzzy the role of the soul in our mental lives and emotions much in the same way it was by Descartes, though in a more ‘agreeable’, scientifically more rigorous way.

I’d also point out that his methodology as a philosopher is a little troubling, as in many places he’s utterly confident that scientific advancement simply will fill in gaps in his theory while at the same time he insists that such advancement will not undermine his other fervently held belief, that the mind is not physical and really can control our emotional responses to sensory phenomena. I might even argue that this is a weak version of the Second Cartesian error.

But for our purposes, the most important takeaways are:

1)    Cumberland should be credited for further solidifying the methodological point that the physiology of the body is absolutely fundamental to the nature of the emotions, even to the exclusion of the metaphysically distinct ‘soul’.

2)    Cumberland keeps at the core of his theory the idea that the mind’s role is important and only partially independent of the body.

3)    He is seriously confused about just what role the metaphysically separate soul he so strongly insists on has in mentality to the point that he is guilty of the same incoherence as Descartes.

4)    His confusions make it unclear whether he is a cognitivist or a sentimentalist about morality, a general issue we’re about to spend a lot of time on.

Its fair to say Cumberland has a stronger feel for these confusions, but he still has them. At the least we can say that though he is a partisan of Cartesian philosophy of emotions, he seriously advances that project.

 

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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.