Three Monkeys Online

A Curious, Alternative Magazine

Cartesian Dualism and Casper the Friendly Ghost

In an attempt to create my own rickety bridge between the “Two Cultures” described by CP Snow, I occasionally try to bring my liberal arts-trained mind to grapple with science. (I think this erratic urge was initially prompted by that thought experiment that tries to envision how you would get on if you were sent back in time a thousand years. Many people like to think they could become fabulously rich by astonishing the toothless yokels with “magical” modern inventions. Yet if you try to specify what gadget you would actually unveil, things get a bit harder. Stuff like light bulbs are out because the engineering/electrical infrastructure doesn’t exist. Even something as mundane as a bicycle would presumably require machine tools and a level of precision not available to your time-travelling self. In my case, the problem would be compounded by ignorance of first principles. Not only am I pretty vague about the mysterious operation of electricity (electrons being pushed around, yeah?) but I’d even have a hard time putting together a bike’s gearing. In other words, I’d be next to useless, with little to offer my fellow plebs except gentle advice about the need to wash a bit more and some unwelcome facts–and I’m not sure a garbled explanation of Darwinism or the Copernican System would go down well with a population not adverse to witch burning.) The book I’m currently reading would be unlikely to win you many friends in 1000 AD. It has the hubristic title of “Consciousness Explained,” and it’s written by the polymathic Daniel C. Dennett. As is usual with many well-written non-fiction books, I find myself nodding in agreement at its most outlandish propositions. This is perhaps a legacy of reading too many novels–my disbelief can be suspended at the drop of a hat. It’s only when I attempt to explain to someone else what (I think) Dennett means by his “Multiple Drafts model” or heterophenomelogy (which has nothing to do with straight phenomenologists) that I realise that what seemed entirely lucid on the page is no longer so transparently obvious. (Indeed, if my understanding of the latter theory is half right, there is no real difference between understanding a concept and being able to verbalise it to a third party).Still, it’s a hard not to be beguiled by a book that uses a cartoon strip to debunk Cartesian dualism. Even children sense something odd when the ectoplasmic Casper the Friendly Ghost is both able to float through walls and pick up real objects. It seems the Cartesian idea of the ethereal mind is trying to pull off the same trick: if the mind is “the ghost in the machine” of the brain then how come it’s able to interact with the physical world via the electrical input fired by the five senses? Is it just me or are the supposedly “glib” analogies usually the most illuminating?