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The ghost in the machine fades away


Richard “Red” Watson, esteemed professor of philosophy at the esteemed Washington University in St. Louis and author of what’s now considered the definitive biography of the philosopher René Descartes, plops down on a bench, his pale, freckled skin shielded from the sun by a denim fishing hat. I hurry to balance my notebook in my lap. In front of us, students play Frisbee with the obligatory Labrador retriever, and slurp slushy, sweet cappuccinos.

I note the classical allure of academe, the pastoral green lawns and ivy-softened brick of the quadrangle, the romance of all this cerebral intensity. Watson snorts.

“Yeah, I had a student once from a circus family, and we talked for days about stringing a high wire across this quadrangle and making a professor walk across it. It’s not hard, you know, just a matter of nerve.”

So is writing an intimate biography of the father of modern science, to whose dualistic worldview we owe our technological ease, our medical advances -- and, I add to myself, our schizoid religious views, our false separation of mind from body, our materialism and reductionism.

I focus on the Frisbee and keep my mouth shut.

Watson, who worships Descartes’s genius, proceeds to gleefully strip the romance even from his own hero. Descartes would have been swaddled as a baby so his limbs grew straight, Watson informs me; he would have had enemas to clean him out, and run about without his bottoms like other children, “incontinent as chickens.” The adult Descartes cheated when he gambled, slept nude, smoked pot, had his illegitimate daughter baptized. He made much of proving God’s existence and the soul’s eternal life, but that was only politic, says Watson; he was a “good-enough Catholic” who came up with a dualism -- the mind-soul controlling the body like a ghost in a machine -- to satisfy Christian doctrine.

Risking splinters, I scoot forward: “Don’t you believe in an immortal soul?”

“I don’t. Such a belief detracts from this life,” he says. Then he sighs. “On the other hand, if you took it away from a lot of people, what would they have? All world leaders profess to believe. Jimmy Carter, I think, did believe. The people need an opiate.”

Feeling the need for one myself, I try to find my way back to Des-cartes. But Watson is on a roll.

“The question is, ‘Are we just the body?’ ” he says. “In this university, the work on neuroscience is very high-level, and these guys are saying the mind is the brain. There’s never been an article of evidence that it survives the body. People talk about ‘the ineffable,’ and their eyes light up and spittle drips down the side of their mouth. How can they believe in something that is literally nonsense?”

How, indeed? I rub surreptitiously at the side of my mouth, praying the skin will be dry. Have I romanticized the universe the way I romanticize college quadrangles? Or is this guy just an especially cranky and sharp-witted atheist?

“People call me curmudgeonly,” he says, reading my mind. “I don’t know, I think I’m fairly calm and quiet. I’m not bothered by the fact that some of the most intelligent people that ever lived believed in God. What I’m interested in is, how could they?” Especially now, he adds, when “the materialists are winning. They’re winning intellectually, they’re winning among scientists. Believers in the immaterial mind, in an immortal soul, have never worked out what its structure is or how it works.”

We haven’t worked out how love works, either, I mutter to myself, but I’m not giving up on it.

“What believers in the immaterial mind offer as a way of controlling the world is prayer,” he continues. “What believers in the mind-brain offer is all of science and technology. Even in theocratic states where religion rules, the leaders depend on bombs and not prayer to defend themselves in the modern world.”

And when the bombs land on them, I add to myself, they turn back to prayer. But he’s right: Prayer does not make for crisp logical debate.

Since Descartes started all this, I scan my notes, looking for all the arguments against his separation of mind from body. Ah, here’s my favorite: his Cartesian dualism desacralized nature, split it into bits of matter and cut it off from spirit and connectedness.

“The worst thing you can do is sacralize nature,” Watson rejoins. “It was sacralized out of ignorance, because people didn’t understand how nature worked.

“Some people climb a mountain and say, ‘This is wonderful. I feel one with God,’ ” he adds. “I get the same high, but I just say I feel really good.”

“What’s the harm?” I blurt, too exasperated to construct a formal question.

“My objection to reverence? Sure, there are mysteries, but to say there is a force of God leads straight to the Inquisition,” he replies. “It even leads to the Holocaust. The problem with a profession in which the goal is certainty is that some people think they have found it.”

“So how do you think about the deeper purpose and meaning of the world?”

“It don’t mean shit,” he flips back. “And people aren’t happy with that. Why aren’t they? Part of it is because they’ve been disappointed in their own lives. There’s a perfectly good biological answer to the problem of suffering and all the inequity in the world,” he adds. “We’ve been too successful. Population growth.”

Watson consoles himself with the certainty that some in-evitable natural disaster will eliminate most of us. “I think it will be a respiratory disease,” he says cheerfully. “Knock out maybe 90 percent.”

Unclenching my hands, I grab hold of his book, Cogito, Ergo Sum: The Life of René Descartes, and open it to a marked passage:

“This is how the last battle for the human soul will go … everyone will finally realize that the materialists have won,” he wrote. “When humankind finally faces the fact that the mind is the brain, that there is no independent existing mental soul to survive the death of the body, that none of us chirpy sparrows is immortal, when Descartes’ ghost in the machine finally fades away and his animal machine is triumphant, then there will be a revolution in human thought the like of which none has gone before.”

The worldview is too different. I don’t even bother framing a question. Later, I think about his insistence on materialism. Gray cells, animal instincts, and nothing transcendent to tie all the bits of the world together.

We’d see an even more profound revolution, it occurs to me, if instead of collapsing one-half of Descartes’s pesky dualism into the other, we could stitch the mind and body together again. Then we could imagine a soul shaped by its sensuous embodiment, not haunting the body like a wraith but enspiriting it, allowing us to imagine and empathize and transcend -- without denying -- our flesh. Such a soul would be in constant communion with its God, and that God would be not a distant monarch, but a spiritual force woven into the very fiber of the cosmos. Such a soul would also be in constant relation to the rest of the physical-spiritual world -- a living, interconnected world, not a pile of stuff to be manipulated.

Why should we reduce spirit to matter, when in every other arena, a balanced mesh of the two works best? I don’t want a marriage that’s only physical, or sacraments that are only abstract theories.

We are, after all, what we think.

And what we feel.

Jeannette Batz is a staff writer for The Riverfront Times, an alternative newspaper in St. Louis. Her e-mail address is jeannette.batz@riverfronttimes.com

National Catholic Reporter, February 28, 2003