The Colossal Cartesian Blunder

The French philosopher René Descartes is held in high esteem for a number of reasons. One reason is that he made a number of important contributions in the development of analytic geometry. In the realm of philosophy, he is widely considered to be the father of modern philosophy and the modern Western outlook – first, for declaring that mind and body are two fundamentally different substances that are united in every human being, which Cartesian duality still plagues philosophy and science to this day; second, for believing that, by understanding Nature’s processes, we would be able to control these processes for our benefit; and third, for his belief that humanity should look to itself to improve its lot, through the judicious employment of reason, and not to God or divine intercession, which begat the widespread modern belief that we humans are the masters of our destiny. By doing so, he pushed God to the background of human affairs, and human reason, knowledge, and foresight into the foreground, so that, henceforth, at least in this terrestrial existence, man – and not God – would be the measure of all things.

Descartes arrogantly declared that only human beings possess souls, meaning that all other animals do not possess souls. By doing so, he elevated human beings above the rest of God’s Creation, which he believed that we noble and enlightened humans could do with as we want.

Mechanics is the basis of his medicine, or physiology, which in turn is the basis of his moral psychology. Descartes believed that all material bodies, including the human body, are machines that operate by mechanical principles. In his physiological studies, he dissected animal bodies to show how their parts move. He argued that, because animals have no souls, they do not think or feel; thus vivisection, which Descartes pioneered, is permitted.[1]

The Cartesian belief that all living things are merely complex machines whose operations can be studied scientifically has yielded a detailed understanding of Life’s numerous complex processes. However, the many individuals today who believe that Life consists of nothing but inanimate matter which is animated, regulated, repaired, and reproduces itself in accordance with these processes have made the same mistake as Descartes did, by failing to understand the essentially miraculous nature of all Life. For this miraculous nature of Life is something that science cannot explain. You can spend your entire lifetime trying to fathom the Mystery and Miracle of Life, but you will not succeed in discovering its essential secret, and what distinguishes Life from non-living matter. For although we humans have been able to comprehend many of Life’s mechanical, physiological, and chemical processes, my belief is that we will never be able to comprehend the Secret of Life, for this is something that is comprehended only by God. In other words, contrary to what Descartes and his many philosophic and scientific admirers have believed, living creatures most certainly are not merely complex machines.

There have been numerous attempts, whether religious, philosophical, scientific, or otherwise, that have been made to account for this fundamental difference. These include positing the existence of non-material substances like the soul, mind, spirit, or Henri Bergson’s élan vital to account for it. However, if one recognizes the essentially miraculous nature of Life, then one can dispense with these beliefs, every one of which is accompanied by serious problems and irresolvable mysteries, such as mind-body duality, or what exactly is the nature of this incorporeal substance called the soul. It is the irony of ironies that, as human beings have been able to understand, predict, control, and manipulate Life’s numerous processes in greater and greater detail and precision, many of these scientifically-educated – and, in my opinion, scientifically-confused and deluded – individuals have lost their wonder at, and reverence for, the Miracle that is Life. And this is because, just like René Descartes did, they mistakenly regard Life as being nothing more than a complex machine that is devoid of anything miraculous.

The strong desire that many people feel to preserve both themselves and their loved ones in some form or other after death arises from their desire to preserve the things that they greatly value. But merely wanting something to be true, no matter how ardently, is not sufficient to make it true. And the mere fact that billions of humans want there to be something after death, some sort of immaterial existence in which the essential elements of our and our loved ones’ lives are continued indefinitely in another form, does not mean that this is in fact the case. In my opinion, there is no Life equivalent to the physical Law of the Conservation of Energy. When an organism dies, whatever it was that animated it during its lifetime, whether one calls this its soul, mind, or spirit, is not preserved, either to exist indefinitely in that state, or to be passed on to, and thus animate, another living organism, as is the case with its body, which can be consumed, decomposed, and integrated into the living bodies of other organisms. After all, there was a time when there was no life on the Earth, and those who believe in the preservation of the animating substance or force must account for how it arose when it didn’t yet exist. But such a difficulty does not pose a problem for God, whose ways and powers, as is demonstrated by the consideration of how the Miracle of Life first arose and has been preserved uninterrupted for a period of billions of years, while the variety and complexity of Life have gradually increased to its present astonishing degree, are indeed mysterious and unfathomable.

There are many thinkers, writers, scientists, and intellectuals who have been deceived by the many similarities that exist between living organisms and our technological creations into asserting – or fearing – that the latter will one day become alive.[2] If one understands the very simple fact about the miraculous nature of all Life, and that there exists a fundamental difference between living and non-living things, then one will see that the notion of the singularity[3] – the belief that our human inventions will one day become alive – is complete rubbish. For everything that we humans manufacture from non-living substances, including substances, such as bone, hair, wood, fossils, flowers, leaves, fur, leather, cotton, wool, and shells, that were once alive or formed part of a living creature, will forever remain, despite their complexity, ingenuity, and apparent aliveness, in the category of non-living things. And this basic rule holds for all our technological inventions, since they are all, without exception – whether cars, telephones, calculators, computers, robots, the Internet, rockets, spaceships, the electricity or telecommunications grid, smart devices, guided weapons, chess-playing programs, artificial intelligence, microprocessors, and so on – made from non-living substances. Although we humans are highly adept at taking life away from living organisms, which we are doing on a greater and greater scale while we vainly glorify and exalt all forms of human life and our many non-living creations, we are not at all capable of giving life to things that are not alive.

One of the basic features of all life forms is that, provided they have the necessary physical conditions that Life requires to exist, they can continue to exist integrally without the care and maintenance of the Creator. However, if humanity were to disappear, or, less dramatically, if we were to neglect our numerous technological inventions, allowing them to fall into disrepair and ruin, then it would be manifestly apparent that these things are not alive – contradicting the hopes or fears of many a science and science-fiction-addled human fool who is not capable of distinguishing living from non-living matter – since they would not long survive, in their functioning, integral state, the death or neglect of their creators.

[1] Encyclopaedia Britannica, “René Descartes: Physics, physiology, and morals”. CD-ROM version, 2004.

[2] I have considered this common fallacy in the essay, “Art is Deception.”

[3] This is merely the latest version of the ancient tale of a human bestowing, breathing, or giving life to one’s inanimate creation. Other examples are the Jewish tale of the golem, a creature made of mud that protects the inhabitants of a shtetl from attack by gentiles, the Greek sculptor Pygmalion and his beauteous creation Galatea, and more recently, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.