Descartes and Vico Two Antithetical Views of the Mind

As I noted, the hope that mind can be mathematized can be traced to Descartes. This is also true regarding the concept of representation, which is central to cognitive science. The Cartesian concept of a representation in the mind that corresponds to objects in the world is also an implicit component of information theory.13 For this reason, it is worthwhile to review Descartes' ideas in greater detail. Descartes, who systematized analytic geometry, intended to apply a similar geometric precision to the mind by introducing the doctrine of "clear and distinct ideas," which are potentially quantifiable and organized in accord with a formal logic. If one accepts the fact that the mind contains clear and distinct ideas, those ideas could be subject to the formal logic of geometry (Gaukroger 1995). In Isaiah Berlin's words, "These ultimate atomic entities of thought were conceived as being connected with one another by 'necessary' logical links [which can be] mathematically described" (1976). Although Descartes separated mind from the natural world, he believed that the same formal logic by means of which science has obtained control and understanding of the physical world could be applied to the mind, provided one accepts his original premise that thoughts are clear and distinct ideas. To preserve clear and distinct ideas, Descartes needed to separate the corporeal passions from the mind / soul, which is immaterial and without extension. Descartes' idea of atomic entities connected by logical links still pervades the thought of some researchers in contemporary cognitive science, especially those who believe that meaning can be equated to a formal symbolic logic, a "mental code." For example, this aspect of Cartesian thought has reappeared as "mentalese," a term introduced by the philoso pher and former colleague of Chomsky, Jerry Fodor (1983). Fodor at one time believed that there is a mental code that corresponds to and mirrors reality.14 Chomsky's theory of syntax, a theory of formal rules of interpretation, has reinforced this neo-Cartesianism. Implicit in this is a further assumption—that language and thought can be conflated. This view of the mind has been extensively attacked by Hilary Putnam (1988), Gerald Edelman (1992, p. 43), and Lakoff and Johnson (1999).

Until the recent demise of logical positivism, traditional philosophers also believed that meaning could be defined by means of formal logic and therefore objectified. Belief in the objectivity of meaning required that one accept the concepts of correspondence and representation to account for the constant and truthful relation between what is represented in the mind and what exists in the physical world. Descartes' answer to the question of what guarantees the constancy of a connection between thoughts, words, and things is the existence of a benevolent God who would not play tricks on his subjects. That a representation in the mind, such as an idea of an object, matched the object itself assumed God's benevolence. Objective reality was a property of an omnipotent and infinite God. As God is the creator of all things, man's finite, subjective knowledge is a representation of God's view, and therefore a correspondence exists between man's subjective, finite knowledge and objective reality. This, Descartes believed, was one proof of God's existence. The flavor of Descartes' conception of representation and correspondence can be obtained from the following quotation. Descartes stated,

I understand a supreme God, eternal, infinite, omnipotent, the Creator of all things which are outside of Himself, has certainly more objective reality in itself than those by which finite substances are represented.. .. [To say that] external things exist subjectively and formally in themselves, but objectively or ideally in the understanding, means (as is evident) merely that an idea should agree with the thing of which it is the idea; and that it hence contains nothing of a representative nature which is not really in the thing itself, and represents more reality in proportion as the thing it represents contains more reality in itself. (1641, vol. 2, p. 157; my emphasis)

This Cartesian concept of the correspondence of ideas in the mind to objects in the world has been discarded by a contemporary philosophy that no longer believes in a correspondence theory of truth. But the notion of mental representation is still very much with us. The term representation is sometimes used in a very broad sense to denote all mental processes (the world "represented" in the mind). But when the term is used to refer to a specific content that is "represented" in the mind, there may be a naive assumption that the representation (in the mind) correspondingly mirrors what exists in the world. There is, as I have noted earlier, a growing literature within neurobiology and cognitive science that refutes the concept of representation, and I would venture that the lifespan of the concept of representation is limited. The mind/brain does not represent or mirror reality; it constructs a virtual reality of its own. Rodolfo Llinas in I of the Vortex observes that the brain is a "reality emulator, that we are basically dreaming machines that construct virtual models of the real world" (2001). A representation theory of mind cannot be reconciled to the instability of perceptual illusions or to the fact that the object constructed in the mind does not correspond to the physical object in the world (see, for example, Crick 1994). The concept of representation cannot explain Ramachandran's observations of phantom limbs, where patients construct experiences that do not exist in the physical world (Ramachandran and Blakeslee 1998).15 In chapter 10,1 will discuss the possibility that "mirror neurons" may offer an alternative neural explanation that may eventually substitute for the essentially misleading philosophical concept of representation.

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