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11/12/03



Home______Descartes & Prozac

Descartes split the modern world into mind and body. He imagined thought as an activity apart from the non-thinking body. The modern variants of that notion: the mind as the software program run in its computer, the hard-wired brain; or the view that brain and body are related but only in that what's above the neck cannot survive without what's below it.

The most famous statement in the history of philosophy: I think, therefore I am. Or, Cogito,ergo sum. This suggests that thinking and awareness are fundamental to being.

But what about beings before the dawn of man? When did elementary consciousness begin? What about the first simple mind? Only as layers of brain developed did it become complex enough to enable thought. Consider, too, that babies begin with being; adults think. Not I think, therefore I am, but I am, then I think.

But I think, therefore I am: this has the ring of certainty. How can it be doubted? It has been adopted by generations as the first principle of philosophy.

Compare it to St Augustine's Fallor ergo sum: I am deceived, therefore I am. Both he and Descartes indicate an awareness, a consciousness, that precedes the logical proof of existence.

Descartes took it further, however, by asserting that his being, what he was, was distinct from his body. This, his true being, was easier to know than Brother Ass, as St Francis of Assisi called the body. In it lay the seat of soul, and even if the body is buried, the soul continues.

To modern minds, this view has caused a fundamental disjuncture in philosophy, one that many modern thinkers have come to regard as a mistake. In particular, the view imparts to the body a mechanistic category and to the mind an exalted category in which suffering, morality, emotions, and pain occur. Biology was severed from psychology.

His modern legacy is the view of mind as a software program energized by binary circuitry in the brain. Many today still believe that Descartes' Cogito is self-evident and nothing remains but to pursue its logic. Think, too, of neuro science where many believe that mind can be investigated without accounting for anatomy. Brain events are explainable without the rest of the mouse, or rabbit, or human being.

For that reason only recently has mental disease come to be seen as real as body disease. In fact, mental illness still carries stigma. If one has paranoia, schizophrenia, or obsessive compulsive disorder, he has a problem with will power and nothing else. With enough volition, the mind can cure itself, so conventional wisdom goes. This view is rebutted by the splendid help to mental patients by pharmaceuticals. If it were merely a case of will power, then why does adjustment of the brain's chemistry cause such marked improvement in so many?

Until Descartes, from Hippocrates to the Rennaisance, patients had been treated wholistically, as mind and body. Aristotle wouldn't have liked what Descartes did to philosophy.

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