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Mindy Dog Versus Rene Descartes

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Mindy Dog looked like an ironing board. If you could get her to stand still, you could use her as a small four-legged tea table. She was a black Labrador Retriever who enjoyed eating just as much as catching ice cubes.

Mindy had an enormous appetite. Food and ice cubes were her priority in her short life as witnessed by her swollen size (see diagram). One thing was certain, when Mindy was hungry, no such thing as peace existed until her dog bowl was filled with crunchy food.

In addition, when her mistress was still alive, Mindy not only finished her food, but then she barked until my mother-in-law repeatedly tossed portions of any edible scrap from her own plate to Mindy—thus maintaining her ironing board girth!

How Dogs Think (Stanley Coren) claims that Mindy has no human-like mental ability because dogs can’t think. Mindy simply acted on instinct. Years ago, William James defined instinct (Scribner's magazine: / Volume 1, Issue 3).

“(Instinct is) the faculty of acting in such a way as to produce certain ends, without foresight of the ends, and without previous education in the performance.”

When Mindy’s stomach was empty, she demanded food in the only way she knew how—barking. Of course, it may have been the time of day that the dog associated with hunger which made her salivate and begin to carry on. For sure, it never entered her mind that without Friskies, she could not survive.

Flatworm Planaria 

Like Mindy dog, a tiny, flat, worm-like creature named planaria must eat to survive. The worm has a strange shape with a definite head and tail end. It ranges from three to twelve millimeters in length. To eat, it extrudes a muscular pharynx tube out through its mouth and into its prey (Biology: The Study of Life, 1993). The tube is on the underside of its body, about 2/3 of the way from the head end.

How does it know when and what to eat? Planaria has a very primitive nervous system. A tiny brain-like thingie is located between its two eyes which, by the way, appear cross-eyed. Somehow, this primordial, many-celled creature is wired to eat and multiply in order to survive. I detest calling planaria’s hard wiring “instinct” because that mystifying word shoves any real understanding of the creature’s eating and regeneration habits back into the unknown.

One-Celled Paramecium
Now, we arrive at the very small. A paramecium is a tiny single-celled organism that can best be seen with a microscope. Mostly everyone who has gone to high school has studied one. It is about .02 inches (.5 mm) long and is typically found in pond water. Although microscopic, it is a rather complex creature.

Slipper-shaped, it has an oral slit along one side, which is lined with tiny hairs. These constantly moving cilia pull in even tinier microscopic particles of food, bacteria for the most part, so that they end up in a mouth gullet. This gullet leads to a food vacuole inside the animal where it is digested (The Anatomy of Paramecium 1964). When a paramecium encounters food, it turns its body so that the food can be pulled into its oral slit.

How does the paramecium know to hunt food? How does it know to turn its body when it finds something digestible? Once again, I can only answer with the word instinct. The tiny one-celled creature wants to survive. As primitive as it is with no brain as such, it “knows” it wants to survive at all costs.

Trillion-Celled Descartes
Rene Descartes (1596-1650) was a philosopher, scientist, and mathematician. Born in La Haye, France, to an aristocratic family, Descartes lived a life of relative ease devoting much of his time to scientific research and philosophic reflection. Although he published works related to Earth’s position in our solar system and also the nature of light, after hearing of Galileo’s trial in Rome, he suppressed his own works. Descartes was known for using algebraic laws to solve geometrical problems. It is often thought that without his application of mathematics to physics, the development of the calculus a generation later by Isaac Newton (1642-1727) might not have happened (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy).

Descartes is most well known for his philosophical ideas. He is often referred to as the Father of Modern Philosophy because his highlighting of the importance of rational thought laid the basis for modern scientific inquiry (The Life and Times of a Genius). What we gain through our senses can be doubted. It is the mind that gives a firm foundation to all true knowledge.

In his Discourse on Method, Descartes arrived at his conclusion by systematically doubting the reality of every belief that ultimately came through his senses. If Mindy Dog, mentioned above, was alive in Descartes time (1596-1650), he would look at her to see a black shape with fur, four feet, and an insatiable appetite for food.

But upon reflection, what he saw of Mindy, in the old Scholastic sense, were mere sensations of accidents. Mindy’s blackness, her shape, the appearance of her fur, and her hunger were all qualities that came through his senses. Descartes believed that his mind assembled these appearances into a form that he recognized as “dog.” If it wasn’t for his mind, Descartes would say that Mindy might not be out there in reality at all. She existed only within the confines of his mind.

Similarly, even scientific knowledge, because it comes to us through sensation, we cannot be certain of. This line of reasoning implies that what we know of reality exists only in mente. Thus, Descartes doubted the existence of anything and everything including his own corporeal body. But he had three additional reasons for doubt!

1)      As a further argument Descartes believed, that since he often had the same perceptions while dreaming as during wakefulness, all of reality might be a dream in his mind.

2)      An all powerful God could easily deceive us into believing things about reality which are not true. This would include our understanding of mathematical theories and operations.

3)      Instead of deception by God, a powerful demon could deceive us. "I shall suppose, therefore, that there is, not a true God, who is the sovereign source of truth, but some evil demon, no less cunning and deceiving than powerful, who has used all his artifice to deceive me." (Descartes 1641: believed in a Catholic God and in the power of the devil.)

After establishing his overwhelming system of doubt, one thing remained clear to Descartes. Even if he was deceived in what he sensed, what he felt, or imagined, or reasoned, one objective certainty held true: He could not be deceived about his existence. If he was using his mind, he was thinking. If he was thinking, he had to exist. Since his Discourse on Method was penned in Latin, thus was born the eternal statement: Cogito, ergo sum (I think, therefore I am).

This fact was undeniable. But herein lay a monumental problem for Descartes. Having separated mind from body, leaping the certainty gap from one to the other became a serious problem. His simple solution, while acceptable to Descartes, was not readily accepted in philosophical circles. In Discourse on Method, he explains that since God exists, the Almighty could not deceive us about reality or he would not be all-perfect.

Using Rene Descartes reasoning, eliminating the mind-body gap he created has only been partially successful down through the centuries. Other philosophers have simply ignored it, or denied it, or explained it, with their own ideas about how knowledge reaches our minds from the outside world.

 

My Solution to Cross the Gap
In my mind, however, there is no problem crossing the gap of Decartes’ mind-body dualism. My solution is extremely simple and probably falls more into the realm of common sense than any philosophical answer.

Above, I briefly talked about Mindy Dog and her instinct to eat when she was hungry. I talked about the simple creature, planaria using its pharynx tube to ingest food. Finally, I mentioned the single celled, slipper shaped paramecium which spends its life hunting for bacterial food.

Now, picture Descartes sitting in his room. His pet dog, which he considers a mere machine governed by instinct (Discourse) lies sleeping at his feet. Otherwise, he is alone and meditating. Through his mind repeatedly glides, “Cogito, ergo sum, I think, therefore I am, cogito, ergo sum, I think therefore I am.” He sits contemplating how he will ever reason from that undeniable truth to the fact that he has a body. His thinking disturbs him deeply because he wonders, “Maybe I am just a mind. Maybe my body is not real. Maybe I just think it is out there in reality.”

So taken is he by his contemplation that he ignores time passing. After an entire day slips by, Descartes feels his first hunger pang. He ignores it because his body just might not be there. He knows he must “withdraw the mind from the senses” (Meditations) because his craving for food might not exist. Several more hours slide slowly by; his hunger grows, especially his desire for a good cup of hot coffee. He needs stimulation from food.

Suddenly, the light turns on and the ah-hah thought breaks Descartes’ obsession with his Cogito, “Hm-m,” he thinks. “If I want to keep on thinking, something within me wants to eat. I can’t keep up this prolonged meditating without food or I’ll end up sick or dead. Damn, I must have a body that supplies my thinking mind with sustenance.”

So undeniable is his realization that a bright smile crosses the great philosopher’s face. “I’ve done it. I’ve crossed the gap. I have absolute proof that my body exists. It’s not just instinct; my body says I’m really hungry!”

Descartes gets up from his easy chair and walks to the kitchen where he asks his maid to heat up a huge piece of left over vegetable lasagna. Descartes was mostly a vegetarian (The Bloodless Revolution). Once and for all, he has solved the mind-body dualism.

He pours himself a cup of hot coffee and walks out on his veranda with his hands together behind his back and smiles at the world. “Edo ergo cogito atque sum!” he thinks. This, of course, is my Latin expression for I eat, therefore I think and exist.

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