Daily Archives: January 3, 2009

Descartes’s Skull Sent Back to School

descartesHow sweet the irony of it! A row has broken out about recent plans to transfer the skull of René Descartes back to his school in France. The irony of the story is that Descartes was a dualist. He proposed that the mind and the body were two separate things.

In his treatise of the subject, Meditations, Descartes wrote, “I have found by experience that the senses sometimes deceive, and it is prudent never to trust completely those that have deceived us even once.” He went on to argue that even statements such as, “I am sitting here by the fire,” may be false since one could be dreaming or hallucinating. In short, the only certainty of existence one could logically hold to be true was that being consciously aware of one’s own thinking was proof of existence. Hence his now famous dictum, “Cogito ergo sum” (“I am thinking, therefore I am”). For Descartes, the mind and the body where two separate entities.

I am not a dualist. I believe the mind is a product of the body or more specifically, the brain. To paraphrase Minsky and Pinker, “The mind is what the brain does.” So I find this story about fighting over the ownership of Descartes’s skull really quite amusing, as Descartes would have quite happily dispensed with his earthly remains. Not to mention the fact that the rest of Descartes’s skeleton lies in the Parisian Church of Saint Germain des Près and no one is certain that the skull really belongs to the great philosopher. 

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