Exit Cogito

Jonathan Rée

  • Looking for Spinoza: Joy, Sorrow and the Feeling Brain by Antonio Damasio
    Heinemann, 355 pp, £20.00, May 2003, ISBN 0 434 00787 0

Antonio Damasio’s two previous books, Descartes’s Error and The Feeling of What Happens, appealed not only to scientists. The citations, prizes and honours, not to mention the author’s photograph, reveal that Damasio, one of the world’s leading neuroscientists, is also a person of deep sensitivity and broad cosmopolitan culture. Readers in search of a Renaissance man need look no further.

Neither Descartes’s Error nor The Feeling of What Happens quite worked for me. They were fluent enough, but fluency can be a matter of laxity rather than control. I also found them short on scientific information: I was more than willing to be taught the elements of neurobiology, but I learned almost nothing. Of course, it may have been my expectations that were at fault. Damasio, I now realise, is an ideas man: not a retailer of small facts but a manufacturer of big pictures. His trademark suggestion is simple but vivid: the brain is not a cold, calculating, logical machine, but a fully integrated component of the biochemical brewery of the human body. In fact, the brain is more deeply implicated in our general physiology than any other organ: it is constantly monitoring bodily processes, silently resetting rhythms and balances that may have been disturbed and, as a last resort, alerting the conscious mind to catastrophic damage or looming danger. Once we grasp this truth, we will be able to free ourselves from centuries of crabbed philosophising of the kind churned out by Kant (‘a bit of a dry stick’) and the egregious Descartes, with his rigid divisions between mind and body, reason and emotion, and even mental and manual labour. Exit cogito, enter Damasio.

This line of attack is rather cheap. The pages Descartes devoted to the human brain may often be fanciful, but they never treat it as anything other than a physical organ which, through the nervous system and the circulation of the blood, maintains continuous two-way communication with the rest of the body. Its biological task is to supervise our bodily machinery, and – mostly without our conscious knowledge – to keep it in good condition and out of harm’s way. If you go in for that sort of thing, you might well think of Descartes as a proto-Damasio rather than a historical dead end.

The issue on which Damasio really disagrees with Descartes concerns philosophy rather than physiology. Damasio seems to think that problems about knowledge, ethics and the passions will be sorted out for good when the brain yields its last secrets to neuroscience, whereas Descartes was convinced they would always be with us. Philosophical difficulties are part of the condition we’re born into, and we have no choice but to grapple with them as best we can. Descartes may well have shared the neurologist’s dream that science will one day reach a stage where every idea in the mind can be paired off with a particular process in the brain, but he knew that the achievement would contribute nothing to the task of sorting the good ideas from the bad. The distinction between a valid inference and a fallacious one is not a distinction between different kinds of brain-process, any more than the distinction between sound and unsound money is a distinction between different kinds of coin. The marks that distinguish lucidity from confusion will not show up on any brain scan.

In a way Descartes was simply restating a case that had been well known since Plato’s time. If numbers and forms meant different things depending on which of us was thinking about them or how we happened to feel at the time, there could be no such thing as mathematics, or any kind of science, or indeed meaningful conversation. Systematic, cumulative and communicable knowledge would be impossible if our thoughts were confined to the ebb and flow of vital forces within our individual bodies. For Descartes – who pioneered the idea that everything about the human body, including the brain, could be described with the mathematical concepts of natural science – this old argument led to an acute new dilemma: how could reason play an effective part in a physical world governed by uniform natural laws? How could thinking make a difference in reality? His solution, which involved an immaterial ‘mind or soul’ interacting with the brain, may well be as ridiculous as most people now think; but the general argument – that an understanding of the brain will never add up to an understanding of knowledge – looks as robust as ever.

Damasio begins Looking for Spinoza with the idea of ‘feelings’, by which he means our more or less unconscious perceptions of our bodily state – not just aches or ecstasies in particular organs, but the whole ‘internal economy’ of our lives. ‘I just wish to make clear,’ he says, ‘that our brains receive signals from deep in the living flesh and thus provide local as well as global maps of the intimate anatomy and intimate functional state of the living flesh.’ Readers may not find this theory as outlandish as Damasio seems to hope; indeed, they may well be bewildered that such an obvious-sounding proposition should be thought to need any supporting arguments at all. Among neuroscientists, however, things are not so straightforward: ‘The idea that we are privy to a sense of the body’s interior, an interoceptive sense,’ according to Damasio, is ‘traditionally denied in textbook neurology’. Before he wrote Descartes’s Error, it seems, ‘science studiously avoided the assignment of feelings to any brain system; feelings were just out there, vaporously hanging in or around the brain.’ Damasio assures us that in scientific circles the question of feelings has been ‘perennially deemed unanswerable’. Feelings have been ‘thrown outside the door’ not just by the usual suspects – the Kantian and Cartesian ostriches – but also by ‘card-carrying neuroscientists themselves, proclaiming allegedly insurmountable barriers’.

Damasio is one of those scientists who feel as much at ease with broad historical narratives as exact natural laws, and he likes to set the follies of pre-Damasian neuroscience in the context of a grand old story. It begins in the 17th century, the ‘century of genius’, when ‘the foundations of the modern world were laid down.’ ‘The importance of measurement was established at this time and science became quantitative. Scientists now used the inductive method as a tool, and empirical verification became the foundation for thinking about the world. An open season was declared on ideas that did not accord with fact.’ Natural scientists are often very casual when it comes to the science of history, and Damasio will probably be unfazed if fault is found with his historical generalisations. His ideas about the 17th century are only background, after all, so who cares if they ‘accord with fact’? Like most professional researchers, he is inclined to believe that the only knowledge really worth having is extremely ‘recent’, and certainly no older than his own career. But Damasio’s habit of focusing on ideas from ‘the past decade’ or at most ‘the past twenty years’ means that when he picks up an occasional pebble from the past he is liable to be captivated by what seem to him signs of uncanny prescience.

There is an engaging generosity in Damasio’s enthusiasm for Spinoza. His tributes to Spinoza as a ‘revolutionary’ who ‘stood out in a sea of conformity’ may be unhistorical, and his recollections of visits to Spinoza’s house in Amsterdam are a little tiresome. But when he fixes his attention on one of the famous enigmas of Spinoza’s Ethics, the affirmation that ‘the human mind is the very idea or knowledge of the human body,’ his idiosyncrasy pays off. It may be anachronistic to treat Spinoza as a ‘protobiologist’, but the idea that he had some of the same interests as recent neuroscientists puts him in an unusual light, and makes him less wilfully esoteric than he has often seemed.

All the same, Spinoza may prove quite awkward as an adoptive ancestor for the new neurobiology. Damasio admires him for being prepared to get on the wrong side of the religious authorities in the Dutch republic, but if Spinoza was some kind of heretic, it was not because he was a partisan of ‘empirical verification’, still less a ‘protobiologist’ or a pioneer of scientific secularism. It was because he thought that everything was ultimately divine, and hence that there was no reality to sin, evil and error, and no need for the rabbinates and priesthoods that had set themselves up to do battle with them. From the point of view of orthodoxy his mistake was that he made too much of God rather than too little. Damasio, who apparently has no use for the God-hypothesis, is very sparing with his quotations from Spinoza; but they give him trouble even so. At one key point he has Spinoza saying – prophetically, he thinks – that ‘the very first foundation of virtue is the endeavour to preserve the individual self.’ This may sound like an extraordinary anticipation of neo-Darwinism; but it isn’t what Spinoza said. Damasio takes the trouble to refer to the Latin of the Ethics, but gets it slightly wrong: his ‘individual self’ is an interpolation that has no business in Spinoza’s argument.

Immediately after postulating an ‘endeavour to conserve one’s own being’, Spinoza argues that over time the force of human reason will ensure that ‘everyone will agree so much with everyone else that the minds of all will combine into a single mind, and the bodies of all into a single body.’ The word ‘pantheist’ was not minted for another forty years (by the philosophical conspirator John Toland), but it fits Spinoza perfectly: as far as he was concerned, God suffuses everything, and individual selfhood is just a passing illusion which will succumb in due course to its own contradictions. The true terminus of our endeavours is the melting away of our passion-wracked selves and their incorporation into something wiser, larger and more deeply interfused – our community and state in the first place, and eventually Nature or God as a whole. We might start out by thinking of ourselves as autonomous individuals, but our rationality would not allow us to cling to our separate identities for ever.

Damasio seems quite prepared for the possibility that his negotiations with the shade of Spinoza could get complicated. He is bold enough to believe that the most recent findings of neurology will enable us to understand Spinoza better than he understood himself: ‘We can fill in the brain details,’ he says, ‘and venture to say for him what he obviously could not.’ But he is also modest enough to acknowledge that there are still some ‘knowledge gaps’ in the modern science of mind, though confident that they ‘can be bridged in the future’ – even, perhaps, with a little help from Spinoza.

There may, however, be something about knowledge in general that Spinoza understood and Damasio has not. Knowledge can vary in quality as well as quantity, and its growth may sometimes require rather more than the insertion of new ‘details’ into old ‘gaps’. Spinoza made the point by drawing a celebrated distinction between three different varieties of knowledge. The first kind was the everyday opinion-mongering which seizes on the disorderly impressions of hearsay and ‘vague experience’ and takes them all at face value. The second comprised the relatively intelligent knowledge furnished by the ordinary sciences, which take care to organise their facts in terms of ‘adequate ideas of the properties of things’. But there was also a third kind of knowledge – ‘intuitive science’, as Spinoza called it – which carries us into the realm of impersonal rationality, disclosing the world to us ‘under the aspect of eternity’ and transfiguring us in the process. Its procedure was intensive rather than additive, divine rather secular, wise rather than intelligent, and it was what Spinoza sought to convey in the Ethics. What separated it from other kinds of knowledge was much the same as what separates neurobiology from an adequate science of mind – not a knowledge ‘gap’, but a chasm.