Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Richard Cumberland and the development of the Cartesian theory of emotions

You’ve probably never heard of philosopher and theologian (also trained in medicine) Richard Cumberland, but he was highly respected in his time, particularly for his work in political philosophy. He had a deep interest in the way the natural world worked and in identifying natural ethical laws. He followed many of his contemporaries in a spending tremendous amount of time and ink arguing against the philosophy of Thomas Hobbes (even though he shared Hobbes’ mechanistic bent). But the second most influential philosophy on Cumberland was Descartes’ intricate dualist theory of mind and emotions
Cumberland followed but also improved up on the Cartesian theory but his efforts led thinkers such as ShaftesburyHutcheson, and Hume to repudiate the cognitive line of thinking on emotions and morality, paving the way for William James’ wholly visceral account at the end of the 19th century.
Descartes’ Influence
Cumberland accepts in principle Descartes’ mechanistic philosophy, is an earnest metaphysical dualist, and is an even more avid student of anatomy and physiology than Descartes. But even as he works to further the general Cartesian project on the nature of the emotions he goes beyond Descartes’ theory in ways that undermine core Cartesian beliefs and set the stage for the twin emergences of fundamentally physiological theories of emotion and the sentimentalist ethics. He did so by intentionally making the physical processes of the body even more central to the creation of emotions than Descartes did, and further clouding the role of a separate mind in generating emotions, even as he worked hard to protect the ‘fact’ that the mind in fact did exist separately.
The first significant improvement over Descartes’ positions and arguments is that he starts from the point of view that we ought to compare the similarities and differences between human and animal anatomy and physiology. This immediately makes him less dependent than Descartes on the concept that the soul makes humans fundamentally different from animals.
This starting point also has the benefit of letting him:
1)    Allow for animal souls, beliefs and emotions
2)    Differ with Descartes on the nature of human will and what it can do
3)    Be seriously concerned with a duplex theory of communication between the brain and the viscera
4)    Start with a basic but well-founded conception of two types of emotions
5)    Argue that, properly harnessed, emotions are a wonderful thing
As I explain these five aspects of Cumberland’s work on the emotions we’ll see the good and the bad in it, understand how it extends and grows out of Descartes’ work, and how it sets the stage for the theories of Shaftesbury and Hutcheson, and sentimentalism.
How you to cut up the world
Descartes famously – and wrongly – cuts the world up between bodies-qua-machines and human minds (souls). Cumberland, however, takes a more nuanced approach to his ontology, which gives him what amounts to a quantum leap in theoretical sophistication and explanatory power.
Its so groundbreaking for two reasons: first, he’s willing to take human animal physiology seriously, believing that its not right to just think of our bodies as basically the same sort of machine; second, he groups animals with humans as things with mental lives, which means that the world is cut up between animals and humans on one hand and everything else on the other. This fundamentally alters what he can do when he takes up the nature of emotions.
Human and animal bodies are interesting
Cumberland saw what Descartes either missed or ignored; bodies –animal as well as human – are sources of sensation and perception. It’s hard to overstate the importance of Cumberland seeing that animals sense and perceive much as humans do, but as always we’ll focus on the importance for understanding emotions in ethics.
Recall that Descartes’ first error forced him to pack so many abilities into the soul, and make the soul so different than the body, that he was simply unable to tie the mind and the body together convincingly. With his view of human anatomy, Cumberland avoids a lot of this damage, even if he doesn’t completely escape it.
Cumberland remains a dualist, and his version doesn’t convince anyone that the position is true, but it does also go a long way toward helping him avoid the Second and Third Cartesian errors. That’s because his initial position allows him to account for body-level consciousness, which in turn lets him give up a rudimentary but legitimate account of how there are two types of emotions, and how the brain and viscera, mind and body, communicate via feedback loop.
Cumberland seems fine with thinking of animals as having souls, and so beliefs and emotions of a kind. That’s great, but he’s still a Cartesian in that he sees man as special due to our  “spiritual, incorporeal, godlike” minds. That means he doesn’t completely avoid the First Cartesian error, but he makes a connection between mind and body that Descartes couldn’t nail down and that gives him greater latitude for discussing emotions.
Duplex Communication
Cumberland’s desire to map communication between the brain and heart, along with his advanced-for-the-time knowledge of anatomy and physiology lead him to a dramatic change in the relative importance of the brain compared to the soul; the brain does much more work than in Descartes. If Cumberland can consistently attribute mental work to the brain rather than the soul, he can be said to have a duplex theory of communication between mind and body, something methodologically impossible for Descartes.
But at the very least, he goes beyond Descartes’ view that the soul/mind is a thinking thing that passively receives information, magically manipulates the pineal gland and thereby the body. Cumberland doesn’t see abstract thought as the only function of the soul but still argues that reason, through the emotions it helps beget, has a serious role to play in creating action, and he can offer a physical reason how.
Two types of Emotion
Cumberland identifies two types of emotion, The first, ‘passions’, are the intense feeling about or the intense force with, the vehemence with which we do – or refuse to do – things. The second type, which he calls ‘emotion’, are the visible disturbances of the body that go along with the passions.
To understand how emotion and passion relate, I’ll explain how Cumberland views cognition and volition, but for now let’s just say that the will is a function of the mind, different than abstract thinking, it is the agent for the thing that does the ‘real work’, and the strong feeling one has about the actions.
Emotions can be Wonderful 
Finally, unlike Descartes, Cumberland believes that properly harnessed emotions are necessary for being moral. One reason for this is a basic disagreement with Stoicism. As he explains, mankind would be better off “left to the sentiments of nature” instead of being forced into a “hardened virtue” that doesn’t recognize that the passions are “divine and gracious…divine virtues, if their objects be things divine” and allowing for sympathy with our fellow man.
Next time we'll unpack this a bit more and then move on to the rise of sentimentalism.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

The Last Word on Descartes' Errors

Descartes’ theory of the emotions along with his Stoic tendencies pressure him to recommend that the emotions are fully controllable by the mind. In fact, he goes so far as to say that failing to eliminate them is wrong.
As we’ve explained, Descartes argued that only our thoughts are completely in our power. So that would mean that emotions better be thoughts. If they aren’t, if they’re more like natural appetites or drives, such as for food or sex, then they wouldn’t be under our control.
As he was so interested in providing a materialist, or physical-system explanation of how the mind and body work, Descartes recast the struggle between the natural appetites and the will as a battle between movements of the pineal gland caused by chemicals (body-caused) on the one hand and movements of the pineal gland caused by the will. (soul-caused). In this set up, there are no “parts” of the mind, nothing in the soul to compete against will-guided-by-reason, not even the emotions.
So the Passions of the Soul ends with Descartes trying to explain how some people could completely stop their emotions. But this goal doesn’t really follow from what he argues. The story he tells is that people with stronger souls can more easily “naturally conquer” the emotions. Think of it in terms of a video game – a character like Ryu from Street Fighter can fire an energy blast:

A hadouken, perhaps a useful visualization of the idea behind Descartes' 'emotion-battles'.
Some souls can naturally muster strong than average blasts, and these blasts are typically stronger than the normal blast from an emotion, and so overpower them. But some people can’t or won’t test the strength of their soul in such a battle, they never make their will go head-to-head, blast against blast. Instead, these weaker people try to find a way to manipulate the emotion’s own blast by forcing themselves to have a second emotion. The experience of having two emotions attack each other; if you are ‘attacked’ by sadness, you can attack back with anger, and hopefully they will cancel each other out. So Descartes is saying that a lot of people don’t really conquer or completely eliminate their emotion(s), they don’t totally undermine the emotion that was causing them a problem, they become in a way more emotional in order to deflect the worse emotion.
But the proper weapons of the will, the ones you’re supposed to fight and destroy your emotions with, are “firm and decisive judgments concerning the knowledge of good and evil, which [the soul] has resolved to follow in conducting the actions of its life”. I guess you can think of them as shields protecting the soul from emotions.
Weak people, or people with weak souls –weak in a literal physical/chemical sense it seems –have wills that don’t decide to follow these judgments. Instead they allow these souls continually allow themselves to be carried away by whatever passions are present, even as they oppose one another. This twisting and turning of the soul – again, somehow in a literal sense, make a soul “enslaved and unhappy”.
But Descartes doesn’t think weak people, weak-will souls, are so weak that they are doomed. For him, no soul is so weak that it cannot, when well guided, have absolute power over its passions. The way to do so is to undo the damage done by bad associations – one must undo the connections between specific thoughts in the soul and the movements in the pineal gland that lead to them, and replace them with others by repetition or habituation. So training yourself to have specific thoughts in response to certain chemical reactions in your brain will lead you to be a better behaved person and eliminate your emotions.
Now, we’ve got the whole story and we can better see how this fails as coherent explanation of the emotions. Its not so bad that Descartes’ attempt to explain the emotions way off on the science, its more that its internal problems historically lead other thinkers to start thinking it is hopeless to have a strongly ‘cognitive’ component to emotions and to try to explain it all in terms of physiology and feeling. The worst part, though, is that both his successors and his detractors continually repeat his errors.
In the next series of posts I’ll show you how throughout the 17th and 18th century both pro-cognitivist thinkers such as Richard Cumberland and various ‘visceral theory’ thinkers make the Cartesian errors and how this leads to 19th century thinkers favoring expressivist ethics and purely physiological theories of emotion. As I’m sure you’ve figured out by now, I think this was a huge mistake.
Next up – Richard Cumberland, a Cartesian who knew wayyyy more about the body than Descartes.

Richard Cumberland: philosopher, theologian and expert in anatomy for the 17th century

Sunday, January 29, 2012

The Third Cartesian Error – in One Post!

The main development or change in how Descartes understands the mind from Meditations on First Philosophy to Passions of the Soul is that in this latter book his theory makes it possible for the body to act without the mind. In fact, I argue, he doesn’t leave the mind any way to affect the body at all even though he of course wants it to. There are a couple of reasons for this state of affairs. First, as we saw in the first Cartesian Error, he argues that the only thing the mind can do is think, and the body cannot think at all. Then in the Second Error, he argues that emotions aren’t thinking and explains that the human body works in such a way as to be able to start, continue and end emotions and emotion-based behavior. I call this organization, this explanation, an example of half-duplex communication between body and mind, a type of communication I previously said was exemplified by walkie-talkies and text messages. Let’s briefly review why this can’t be a reasonable way to look at how the mind and body interact.
Not the way the mind and body interact
If the mind were like a walkie-talkie, by definition only one end at a time can communicate. So if you had a spider on your leg, what would have to happen for you to get rid of it? First, the body would feel the pressure on your flesh. But for your mind to know the spider was there too would require one of four things, all of which have problems and raise more questions than they answer, (at least for Descartes):
1) That by a stroke of luck, at the same moment when the body felt the pressure, the mind happened to not be communicating out any messages and so is  able to receive transmission, OR
2) The body not only feels the pressure on the skin, but also “knows” that the mind should stop transmitting and instead listen, and can force the mind to do so by accompanying important messages with a message such as “over” to tell the brain to start talking, OR
3) The body itself would just “know” how to stop the bug (like a reflex), OR
4) The body is constantly transmitting messages whether or not the mind is in a position to hear them, and sometimes it listens in for whatever reason.
On the other hand, Plato, Aristotle and Lucretius argued for something different, an interactive and reciprocal communication between the body and the mind (and the emotions), a process I called duplex communication. For them, the mind and the body are both duplex transmitters, such as cellular phones, which allow two constantly running communications to both be understood by their targets.
This not only fits common sense and firsthand experience, but our more advanced understanding of the body tells us this is correct. Duplex communication between the brain and the rest of the nervous system throughout the body allow for immediate response to outside stimuli by real-time measurement and analysis – Plato, Aristotle and Lucretius each saw that the body feels things that don’t quite rouse the mind, and that our bodies are actually sentient – aware – in a way akin to the way the mind is. The duplex process also allows for conscious analysis of the stimuli, the body’s responses, the results of the responses, what goals are being achieved, and what goals might be better, as well as the ability to seek after those goals. The body can run “on its own” but a conscious person can study her reactions and change her behavior to her preference. After all, they are made of the same stuff. Half duplex communication doesn’t allow this.
So the third Cartesian Error is that the theory cannot explain how the mind and body could have duplex communication, which the P-A-L theory gave an excellent argument for, and which I conclude is a fundamental aspect of the emotions backed up by contemporary research. More specifically, third error has to do with how Descartes thinks the mind and body communicate with each other.

Descartes’ half-duplex theory argues that the mind/soul is united to all parts of the body, not just the pineal gland (If you read carefully this theory is also there in Meditation VI) but that the soul is able to exercise its unique function – thinking – best in the pineal gland (and its my opinion that he really does think of it as more physically extended than he is usually given credit for). He says that the soul and body act on each other by taking turns “radiating”: as in the soul “radiates” into the rest of the body from the pineal gland. Think of it as sort of like an x-ray in reverse. Instead of shooting x-rays through our body to give us an image of our body, things like bears shoot ‘bear-rays’ at our eyes. A similar process happens from the pineal gland to the soul and vice versa. This is completely incorrect but such particulars don’t really matter. What matters is that he has in mind a physical process by which he thinks we receive our sensory information, and it works like in the diagram above. Think of sending a text or SMS message to a friend with your cell phone. Basically, what happens is that a message goes from your phone to an SMS site, and the site attempts to deliver your message to the other phone. If it is ‘delivered’, your friend can read and reply in the same manner.
Here is a “play by play” of his argument:
1) the soul is truly joined to the whole body, no part is excluded,
2) because of the centrality of the [pineal] gland’s location the soul can perform its function in a more particular way there than anywhere else,
3) The central location of the pineal gland allows the soul to “better alter the course of the spirits (chemicals) with the slightest movement”.
4) Similarly, the slightest change in the course of the spirits can greatly change the movements of the pineal gland, affecting the soul greatly.
5) This activity can happen because of the “mediation” of the spirits and the nerves and blood that carry them.
6) Our bodies use “fire” or “heat” to make all possible movements, and it is wrong to think that the soul can impart either to our bodies (A5-A8).
So what we’ve learned here is that because
A) Descartes has a complete, purely physical account of how sense perception and muscular movement are possible,
B) we have all manner of non-conscious motion (eating, breathing, walking aimlessly, etc) and
C) He firmly argues the soul imparts no motion to the body,
then it is fundamentally impossible on his theory for duplex communication to occur between the mind and the body. In fact, it seems impossible for him to seriously, coherently defend any meaningful communication between them. At best what he has is a “half-duplex” system, but that doesn’t match reality and it couldn’t work, as we discussed briefly in the sections on Lucretius.
The next post, the last one to focus on Descartes, will discuss the ethical implications of the three Cartesian Errors.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Whew! The last word on the Second Error!

Last time I finished up by saying that because of his interests and assumptions, Descartes was unable to reach the conclusion he wanted, that emotions are purely mental, and that he looked to be forced into one of two other conclusions: 1) that emotions can exist without mental content, or that emotions can exist without the soul; or 2) that his theory contradicts his assumptions because it's actually lends itself fairly well to defending the idea that emotions must be a type of thought and must have a physiological basis. 

Let's have one last closer look. At the very beginning of his book (A1) he explains emotions are "passive events" that happen to the person/soul, but are specifically referring to the person who they happen to. This fits well with his theory of how perception of things like pictures works. However, he also determined that what emotions are made from and how they are made is completely explainable by mechanistic physiology! To put it super-briefly, though he fixes the "home" of emotions in the soul, it is the body and memory that do nearly all, possibly even all, the work of supplying the mental/belief content necessary to start the physical processes that are emotional actions and reactions. This is actually pretty brilliant, but it was a disaster for his beliefs. So he had to find a way out, a way to show that emotions are perfomances of the mind and could not possibly be performances of the body. 

To flesh it out a little more, lets look at how fear would work (A38): he explains that the movements of the body that "accompany" the emotions do not depend on the soul, all that is required to put a passion in the soul is the proper course of certain chemicals towards the nerves in the heart. From there they can then strike the nerves that make the legs move - and sustain the action - which automatically causes movements in the pineal gland, which causes the soul to "feel and perceive" that we are fleeing from danger. This process can be started by a learned response (as a child you saw a bear eat your dog, now you see a bear and you run), or by "dispositions of the organs" (think reflexes or innate behaviors (flinching when you believe you see a snake, even if its a stick). That is, in a word, bodily volition. 

Descartes goes on to explain (A40) that the emotions mainly incite and dispose the soul to will things for which the passions already are preparing the body. To me, that sounds like a rubber stamp, not an instigator.

Perhaps worse, this sort of explanation leads to a very hard question - in what sense is fear a mental object? How is it cognition, the thing that only the soul/mind can do? Consider - don't animals "fear"? If they do, and they don't have souls/minds, how is that possible? (Descartes would say they don' t have souls and don't fear). But beyond that, we've seen that in some cases the body can start and sustain an emotion, like fear, without any direct influence of the soul. So whatever mental content they have is included in them by means other than the soul!

Remember, on Descartes' view, the body is supposed to have absolutely no part in cognition, yet the first two Cartesian errors have already exposed that instead, he's nearly made the mind/soul impotent or redundant, a position that we'll see later fits easily with Sentimentalism in ethics.

While Descartes is making these points, he also tries to tie on a couple of saving moves: 1) He argues that the pineal gland is really where emotions are felt, even though they feel like they are happening in our body (A33-34), and 2) he argues that the only use of the emotions is to inspire volition/will in the soul (A52). If these two things were right, he'd be making a decent case that the emotions provide the initial motivation for volitions, create them and sustain them. BUT at the same time he is denying #2, saying that the emotions incite a "will for" doing actions they already prepare the body to do, and #1 is very hard to believe (much less prove). 

To conclude, bodily voliton exists: In at least some cases the body is already performing and doing what needs to be done in emotion-situations, as well as in day-to-day actions, just from an image in the brain ("bear") + either learned responses or human nature, and though he wants it to be that the souls is ultimately the "decider", it really seems to be a lot less involved than that. Descartes' theory has two arguments smashing into eachother - one explaining how the emotions are of the body, and the soul is irrelevant, and another concurrently arguing that the body is merely the substratum on which the emotions of the soul perform.