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Damasio And Descartes And Their Views On The “self” Essay, Research Paper
May 2, 2000
1. Explain Damasio’s view as to what Descartes’ error is, and why he thinks Descartes is “in error”? How do Descartes and Damasio differ as to what the “self” is?
Damasio and Descartes differ greatly as to what the “self” is all about. They have different answers to the philosophical question of what makes up the self, and determines who a person is. A person’s identity is more than just the body they both agree, but have different reasons why.
Descartes is also known as “ the founder of modern philosophy” he is most known for his cogito argument of “I think therefore I am”. He thinks that one cannot doubt their own existence because something must be doing the doubting. Although, that statement was refuted later by some, who said the fact that you think pre-assumes existence. Descartes also refutes skeptics by saying that they cannot deny they are thinking and something must be undergoing that thinking, so one cannot deny that they exist. Descartes starts his arguments by saying that God is the guaranteed, and uses his existence to prove other things. First though, he says he will not believe anything until he proves that God exists. Once he does this using the circular argument, he proceeds to talk about the separation of mind and body and his beliefs. The circular argument simply states that if you believe in the light of nature, you believe in God, and if you believe the causality principles you believe in the other two. He believes that the mind and body are two entirely separate entities, the soul is independent from the body, and the mind is for reason and rationality. The emotions of the body are what interfere with reason, and the body is used for all of the sensory things such as sound, sight, and pain. Based on this, he thinks that a person cannot know a substance. The way a person can “know” a substance is only through its qualities. For example, one cannot know soap; they can only associate its qualities such as scent, shape, and color. “How does one know the notion of color?” he speculates. One can only know a substance through experience. Descartes argument with the wax shows his idea of how one does not experience the thing itself, but its properties.
These physical characteristics are the only way to relate to the body, which one cannot know. One can only experience or “know” the mind. This leads to his discussion of complex and primitive ideas. Primitive ideas require experience, and complex ideas do not. A complex idea is something like the notion of infinity, or language. Descartes believed there was no definition of infinity, and would not accept a negative definition to resolve his problem. He believed that God was the infinite thing. The only widely accepted belief at that time was that mathematics were undeniable, and ever present in the world. Essentially the world is composed of mathematics, which gave a lot of merit to his proof of the existence of God.
Another two principles Descartes used to further his arguments were that of formal and objective reality. The idea of formal reality is that formal reality is what is actually out there in the world, kind of the ultimate truth. Objective reality on the other hand is the ideas that are in our minds, what we perceive to be true. Descartes comes to the conclusion that an idea must have at least as much formal reality as objective reality. He also uses this notion to further his proof of God’s existence. He wants to find an idea that has more objective reality than formal reality. This, he deduces, is God. He also comes to the conclusion that people cannot be the cause of an idea like God because it doesn’t have as much formal reality as objective reality. This means that as humans we cannot know for sure what the formal reality is, but what we do know is objective reality. Unless God is a deceiving demon this must mean that he exists, because why would he create a world of deception, when he is a perfect being? In other words, God obviously exists because what we know to be true about him must be true, because there is no truer formal reality in regards to the idea of God.
Eventually a problem arises for Descartes known as the Mind-Body problem. He observes that one can fully understand their own mind, thus understand their “self” without knowing anything about the body. He wonders how they are related, and how the mind connects to the body. He says that the mind is non-spatial and the body is spatial. How they work together though, is a mystery to him. He knows there must be some connection due to the fact that certain thinking brings about certain physical reactions. Also, there is the Ontological argument for God’s existence. The theory here is that God is the most perfect being, and he exists, so he is not a deceiver because he is the most perfect. This statement is what Descartes bases his hypotheses on to prove other things. This is contrary to the beliefs of other philosophers like Augustine who believe they are always being deceived. Descartes also follows the notion of causality in his thoughts. Causality is the principle that nothing exists without a cause, and the reality of the cause exceeds the reality of the effect. Ideas have objective reality, which is caused by formal reality. This shows how we, as humans, must have been created by something with a greater reality than ourselves, which Descartes believes to be God. This follows suit with his argument about how God is the being with more objective reality than formal reality. With God, you don’t have ideas that you can’t completely understand. If God isn’t a deceiver, when you are mislead it is due to your own free will. Descartes argues that, what “you” are is your ability to think, and that you do not have direct access to yourself. All of your identity comes from the mind, and the underlying self stays the same over time. He thinks that your body undergoes many changes, but your mind stays the same.
Now I will move on to Damasio’s views and what influenced him to believe that the mind and body weren’t separate after all. Damasio believes that for pain, happiness, depression, sound, and pleasure, something happens in the brain. He speculated, do the brain and body work together, or is it all a result of the brain’s processes? He believes the brain just explains the emotions. He thinks that pain is just an inbuilt mechanism for survival, and that all of the moral principles in society were derived from survival techniques. He thinks that reasoning involves immediate processes in the brain and that every single one of our notions go back to some sort of biological basis. In Damasio’s work there is a great focus on evolution and moral principles to explain the behavior of the people. He got some insight from Freud, who had the idea of mind, soul, ego, and super ego. You get ideas from your influences, which become internalized, and these are the rules, which allow a person to live. He concluded that reasoning is our only form of decision-making, and that certain markers in the brain function in an automatic way. Reasoning, he deduces, is a conditioned response in the ways and methods that the brain operates.
Damasio thinks that the mind is a condition of the body, and that there is no true “self”. Another philosopher, Hume, says, you can be aware of things or unaware, there are different ways of experiencing things. If you want to think of a “self” you must construct it yourself. All the self could possibly be is a collection of experiences tied to a certain body. You don’t find a true “self”. One can remember certain experiences which no one else can, and feelings too. These experiences are all related in memory, there is no difference between the conscious state and the neural state. This is very similar to Damasio’s views, of not believing in a “self” of any sort. There is also the notion of the “amounculus” which is a body, holding a directing mind. The “self” is a reconstructed biological state. In reality, there is only the neural state according to Damasio. All you know about an object you get from experiences, moment by moment you are experiencing yourself. Animals cannot think and have no notion of self; he uses that idea to support his arguments about humans. Since we evolved from animals we must be very similar to them. The so-called “self” we believe to experience is just a series of successive responses in the brain, and the ability to think this way is only a result of the advanced development of the brain. Experiences are just part of a neural state. An example that is brought up is the example of the water and the H3O, where the water is the experience and the H3O is the neural state. Damasio notices how these are the same, and this relation just furthers his point of how the mind and body are the same. The mind is just made up of the physical states of the brain.
Damasio also ponders that although your body grows and changes, you are the same person. There is the “Myth of the Self”, which also adds to Damasio’s argument. It is a memory network, there is something behind these experiences, and there is nothing that can be called “the” self because in relation there is no “the” rose. So there is no “self” he concludes. The mind is the brain, and when you have experiences it is due to a physical occurrence in the brain, such as neurons interacting. Once a complete neurobiology is completed, Damasio believes one could know “you”, simply due to the patterns of neurons interacting in the brain or whatever processes are discovered. He thinks that one could not have experiences without the actions of the body, although the brain is continually generating mental experiences. The sematic map: Pain is not in your knees, but in your mind, and the body continually does things to regenerate the body image.
Now, to compare the thoughts of these two philosophers, one must recognize their most obvious difference. Descartes believes that there is a distinct separation between mind and body, and Damasio believes that the mind is the body. Damasio believes that Descartes’ error is the fact that he separates the two. He thinks that this is the greatest error possible because he strongly believes that the mind and body are one, that the mind is the body. One area where they agree is the fact that the body changes over time. According to Descartes that shows that one would not be the same person if the mind is the body, but Damasio thinks that it is obvious that one undergoes changes in thought process over the years as they acquire more experiences. Which to him is what the “self” really is, simply a collection of experiences linked to a body. Descartes believes the “self” to be all of your thoughts, and a sense of being, a “soul” individual to each person. He believes in the afterlife where you simply exist as a soul and your soul is essentially your “self”. Damasio thinks that when you die and are brain-dead you cease to be a person. Once no more neurons are interacting you don’t have any thoughts or experiences. These two philosophers have very different notions about all of the major principles, which leads to their complete disagreement. Mainly, Damasio disagrees with Descartes because he doesn’t believe in the idea of a “self” or a soul individual to each body. Because of this, their views differ on almost everything else because without a common foundation, it is impossible to agree on rational terms.
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