Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Theory of subjective and objective worlds

To: Walter F.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Theory of subjective and objective worlds
Date: 2 March 2006 11:19

Dear Walter,

Thank you for your email of 20 February, with your fifth and final essay for the Philosophy of Mind program, in response to the question, 'How successful in your view is the theory of subjective and objective worlds in accounting for 'my' unique place as a self-conscious subject in the world?'

Congratulations on completing your program. I will be forwarding your Certificate and my summary report.

This is a nice little essay. The Genie in the bottle image seems very appropriate for Descartes' 'discovery' of the soul, and its repercussions for the history of philosophy.

You asked, 'Shouldn't [Descartes] have been alarmed to perceive his mind separate from his body and able to do without it?'

This is an interesting question. Did Descartes in fact believe that the soul or mind is able to 'do without the body'?

Ostensibly, the evil demon argument of the First Meditation establishes that I could exist in a world where no physical objects exist. My body is a physical object. Ergo, my soul can exist without my body.

However, the thought experiment which Descartes considers is not the possible experience of 'disembodiment' - whatever that would mean - but rather the discovery that my experience of being embodied does not have the significance that I previously attributed to it.

In the Sixth Meditation Descartes observes that I am not lodged in my body as a pilot in a ship. The pilot can get out of the ship and walk on dry land. Whereas I am intimately connected with my body, my very sense of self involves my powers and capacities which can only be realized and expressed through my body.

This is a far cry from crude 'spiritualist' beliefs or stories of ghosts, where souls wander free. You only have to ask some basic questions to see how difficult such views are. When a soul 'wanders' how does it move? How does it 'do' any action? How does it see, and from what perspective?

(See the story 'Walkabout' from the Pathways program A. Possible World Machine http://sophist.co.uk/world/walk.html.)

And yet we do seem to imagine the possibility of one arm dematerializing, then the other arm, then our legs, then our trunk until all that is left staring at the mirror is a single eye - until that disappears to leave everything else unaltered. The question is what such speculations show (cf unit 3).

What we imagine is being like the 'invisible man'. I could still 'look' right and left, 'walk' away from the mirror and so on. In other words, my body has not dissolved away but merely become invisible. Ghosts are able to walk through doors, yet they still managed to find a way to throw a vase across a room or tap a table. In other words, we are selectively getting rid of the body, but always keeping hold of one bit of it.

To my knowledge, this is not a thought experiment which Descartes ever considered. He does cast scorn on the spiritualist idea that the soul is 'a breath of wind, a vapour' in the First Meditation. Lacking any of the essential attributes of body, the Cartesian soul is not located in space, but merely acts locally via the medium of the body.

The full title of the Meditations promises a proof of the 'immortality of the soul'. When Thomas Hobbes called Descartes' attention to the fact that he had said nothing about the immortality of the soul (in the Objections and Replies) Descartes admitted that no definite conclusions could be drawn regarding the immortality of the soul based on his theory of mind-body dualism.

In heaven, so far as I understand Christian teaching, we do not exist 'without bodies' but rather have different bodies, incorruptible rather than corruptible. In unit 1, I observed that there is nothing in the idea of a soul which is separate from body which entails immortality. Death - in the form of an end to experience - can come to a soul just as it can come to the body.

I really liked your comment on the subjective/ objective world theory:
In answer to the question, how successful is the S/O worlds theory, I would say that it is quite successful or maybe as Churchill said about democracy, 'it is the worst one except for all the others.'

At this point in time, a new theory has to account for that little bit of subjectivity that is left over after the largely successful refutations of Descartes. This little bit though is like a little bit of plutonium and it shows no signs of ever being analysed away.

That's my theory nailed for sure.

All the best,

Geoffrey