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Descartes is remembered mostly for his method of doubt — trying to doubt everything until what remained as indubitable could serve as the foundation for “first philosophy”
Most who come to Descartes’ Meditations for the first time read the first two meditations, in which he gives an exposition of methodical doubt — and this is probably what is of lasting value in Descartes. After Descartes’ initial excursion into radical doubt, however, what follows reminds me of a passage from Kierkegaard:
What is madness? When a privatdocent, every time his scholastic gown reminds him that he ought to say something, says de omnibus dubitandum est, and at the same time writes away at a system which offers abundant internal evidence in every other sentence that the man has never doubted anything at all: he is not regarded as mad.
The Cartesian madness was to systematically set out to doubt all of traditional philosophy, and then to painstakingly reconstruct scholasticism. One of Descartes’ favorite authors was Aquinas, and in the later portions of the Cartesian system there is more of Aquinas than there is of methodical doubt.
After doubting almost everything at the beginning of his philosophical effort, Descartes returns to a philosophical effort not unlike scholasticism, and patiently reconstructs not only the world simpliciter but also the philosophical world of his predecessors.
There is a sense in which this more comprehensive view of Cartesianism (i.e., understanding that once Descartes doubted the world away, he then reconstructed it in a fairly conventional manner for this time) resembles the theoretical position of physicalism.
Physicalism was formulated as a contemporary analog to materialism, though recognizing aspects of the world recognized in physical theory that did not figure in classical materialism. Contemporary physics requires a battery of entities that cannot be encountered in ordinary experience: “not just matter but energy, space, time, physical forces, structure, physical processes, information, state, etc.” (as Wikipedia puts it).
Contemporary physics not only entails unobservable entities and theoretical entities, among the theoretical entities it requires are those required by mathematics. The mathematization of physics has made the two — i.e., mathematics and physics — inextricable.
Moreover, we know from indispensability arguments in contemporary philosophy (sometimes called Quine-Putnam Indispensability arguments) that contemporary physical science requires mathematics, and quite a bit of “higher” mathematics, so that the reliability of physical science entails the reliability of mathematics. Mathematics quantifies over abstract entities, therefore physicalism requires quantification over abstract entities. Exactly how much mathematics is necessary to physics is a matter of continuing controversy, but no one doubts that a good deal of classical mathematics is implicated in physics.
I would argue that there is very little mathematics that can be excluded in good conscience on physicalistic grounds, up to and including large cardinal axioms for the farther reaches of transfinite set theory. If we can quantify over “lower” abstract entities and manipulate “smaller” infinite sets, at what point do we draw the line for “higher” abstract entities and “larger” infinite sets? And how can we even confront this question without seeing that we face a sorites paradox here?
I would further argue that quasi-Kantian transcendental arguments can furnish a bridge from the higher mathematics indispensable to physics to other abstract objects and non-observable entities not specifically mathematical. Once again, a sorites paradox would force us a draw a line that would, in practice, be arbitrary. To paraphrase F. H. Bradley, short of Platonism mathematics cannot stop, and, having reached that goal, mathematics is lost, and strict physicalism with it.
And so it is that, like Descartes, beginning with radical doubt and ending with a nearly conventional scholasticism, physicalism begins with an apparent radical rejection of all non-physical phenomena but is compelled to let back in — by the back door, as it were — all (or almost all) of the conventional non-physical apparatus of ontology, and in so doing rendering physicalism meaningless because indistinguishable from theories that do not deny the non-physical dimenstion of the world.
scintilate-deactivated20120823 asked: could you explain physicalism to me? im doing a research project and im having trouble understanding it
Physicalism is the simplest of doctrines. The easiest way to understand physicalism is to understand it as the contemporary expression of materialism. Physicalism is as old as Democritus claiming that the world was nothing but atoms whirling around in the void (this was, after all, the “best science” of the day). Since the time of the ancient Greeks there have been continuous re-formulations of physicalism in accord with the latest philosophical fashions (as, for example, La Mettrie’s L’homme machine).
Physicalism as we know it today is primarily derived from the success of the physical sciences in explaining the world. In the early twentieth century the claim was made that the science of physics was adequate to explain everything about the world (or, at least, everything that could be explained). Physicalism in this scientistic form, then, may be formulated in terms of the adequacy of the concepts and methods of physics. Once physics has had its say, there is really nothing more to add.
A distinction is often made between reductive physicalism and eliminative physicalism. The former reduces all apparently non-physical phenomena to physical phenomena (for example, the mind is explained by, or reduced to, brain functions) while the latter outright denies that there are any non-physical phenomena whatsoever to be explained — or explained away (for example, consciousness is a “user illusion” with no underlying reality). Physicalism thus requires a robust distinction between appearance and reality (apparently non-physical phenomena in contrast to actual physical reality), and in this respect is very like the Platonism that physicalism claims to reject.
Another way to formulate physicalism is that it is realism limited to physical entities and their physical states (making it a kind of substance monism — there is only one kind of thing, namely physical things), in contrast to Platonic realism, which is a more comprehensive realism that includes everything identified as “real” by physics, as well as a great deal more — like minds and qualia and the Idea of the Good, etc.
Does that help?
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It is ironic that among the most strident critics of Cartesian dualism are the physicalists and the identity theorists, since Cartesianism was the original mechanistic philosophy, and it could be said that the whole physicalist program has its roots in Descartes.
Indeed, the whole of physicalism could be said to be implicit in Cartesianism and to have developed into its present form as a natural extrapolation of the same.
Thomas Henry Huxley thought so, and said as much in his 1870 essay On Descartes’ “Discourse Touching the Method of Using One’s Reason Rightly and of Seeking Scientific Truth”:
I hold, with the Materialist, that the human body, like all living bodies, is a machine, all the operations of which will, sooner or later, be explained on physical principles. I believe that we shall, sooner or later, arrive at a mechanical equivalent of consciousness, just as we have arrived at a mechanical equivalent of heat.
And in the following paragraph of Huxley’s essay:
I am prepared to go with the Materialists wherever the true pursuit of the path of Descartes may lead them; and I am glad, on all occasions, to declare my belief that their fearless development of the materialistic aspect of these matters has had an immense, and a most beneficial, influence upon physiology and psychology. Nay, more, when they go farther than I think they are entitled to do — when they introduce Calvinism into science and declare that man is nothing but a machine, I do not see any particular harm in their doctrines, so long as they admit that which is a matter of experimental fact — namely, that it is a machine capable of adjusting itself within certain limits.
I would argue that the “true pursuit of the path of Descartes” has led to precisely what Huxley envisioned, namely, “a mechanical equivalent of consciousness” — or, least least, the attempt to formulate a mechanical equivalent to consciousness. This attempt has not been successful. I will go farther and argue that the attempt cannot be successful.
There is a different path that can be pursued that also has its origins in Descartes, and this is the mind-body continuum that I have recently attempted to outline in Naturalism and the Mind, Of Distinctions, Weak and Strong, and Of Distinctions, Principled and Otherwise.
Both mechanism and organic continuity have their origins in Cartesianism; mechanism seeks to pursue the extension of the mechanistic until it swallows the mental entirely; the organic continuity of the mind-body continuum seeks to demonstrate that the mechanistic is an extension of the mental or the mental is an extension of the mechanistic, depending on your point of view. The important thing is that there is a continuity between the mechanistic and the mental, although that continuity is distinct from identity.
Seen in this perspective, these theories are not entirely alien each to the other. Indeed, we can see at least three obvious approaches to overcoming Cartesian dualism while starting from Cartesian premises:
1) starting with matter and working toward an explanation of mind, or
2) starting with mind and working toward an explanation of matter, or
3) starting someplace between the two and working outward toward both.
There are, of course, other possibilities, but today I just wanted to point out the similarity between the programmatic responses to Descartes.