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Short Story

Descartes Was Right!

A short story by Katherine Power.

How odd that Descartes should be right after all! (Well, almost.) I so wish I could let you know, sweetness, but, without a body, us souls are quite useless. You are a lecturer now. I’m so proud. I watch you explain mind-body dualism to first years. (I wonder if ‘watch’ is the right way of putting it — if I still see, strictly speaking…)

“Descartes,” you say, “was a substance dualist.” You write ‘substance dualist’ on the blackboard.

“He believed that mental events belong to a distinct kind of substance — an immaterial substance,” you explain. “He called this substance res cogitans, thinking thing. Res cogitans is to be contrasted with res extensa: material substance, that, unlike res cogitans, extends into space.” The students scribble down res cogitans, res extensa. You point out that dualism is the conception of the mind most common outside the academic world, and that this has been the case throughout history.

“Most religions,” you say, “are dualist.” You tell the students about the main difficulty with dualism: if mind and body are made of different substances, how is it that they interact?

“Think of the common experience of getting drunk,” you say, and the students laugh. “Alcohol is physical. It affects the brain, which is also physical. If the experience of being drunk — the way drunkenness feels — is not physical, then how can it be caused by something as physical as drinking a few glasses of wine?” You pause, let them think this through.

“Now consider a reverse example: think about what happens when you decide to close your eyes. How can your decision, if immaterial, if outside of the physical world, bring about the appropriate movements of your body, so that you do close your eyes?” You tell the students about Descartes’ clumsy solution to the problem: of how Descartes located in the pineal gland (which, you explain, “is a structure lying centrally within the brain,”) the place where the interaction between res cogitans and res extensa takes place.

“Merely locating where the interaction takes place, of course, achieves nothing.” Some of the students nod, others are beginning to look confused. “And even though Descartes had sensible reasons for thinking the pineal gland must be the place where-”; The bell rings, cutting you off. The students start to pack their bags. Quickly, you explain what, in fact, is the function of the pineal gland. Only a few very keen students are still listening, and everyone has stopped taking notes. You are right, baby, the pineal gland is not the place where the interaction takes place. Descartes was wrong about the details. The interaction takes place everywhere in the body. Just how this happens I cannot fully explain. Maybe more could be said about mind-body interaction, and I’m simply ignorant of it (I could never explain how my heart worked either). Or maybe mind-body interaction should be taken to be a primitive notion — perhaps, as Descartes himself thought, mind-body interaction is a fundamental and irreducible form of causation. Explanations, after all, have to end somewhere. We might explain gravitation is terms of supergravity and supergravity in terms of another more basic force, but, at some point, we must stop: just accept that A causes B, no further explanation given.

We were wrong to dismiss parapsychology, to explain away out of body and near death experiences. Let me quote from Parapsychology, The Controversial Science, a book I know you have on your bookshelf, and find, at best, amusing. This is what it says about OBEs, out of body experiences: “Typically the experience is described as especially vivid and realistic and distinctly different from a dream. The experient’s vision seems brighter and clearer than normal; even when the place ‘visited’ should be in the dark, scenes appear to be lit by a mysterious light. The OBE experient often reports being able to see through walls and other obstacles, and even to pass through them. Experients move by floating or flying, often accompanied with pleasant feelings of lightness and ease. In fact many of the experiences are described as pleasant, enjoyable, and even spiritual, though those experiencing their first OBE often feel uneasy at being separated from their body. Attempts to interact with the physical world, such as moving something or turning on a light, usually fail, as do attempts to make one’s disembodied presence noticed by other people.” Being dead is one long out of body experience. According to Susan Blackmore — and doesn’t it sound sensible (we both, of course, sided with her) — out of body experiences happen when sensory information is disrupted (by bodily trauma, say) and the brain has to make a ‘best guess’ regarding the mental picture each of us has of our body and how it is positioned. Similarly, it is easy to explain away near death experiences. Sure, subjects’ reports are remarkably similar. Sure, religious people and atheists alike have them. But might near death experiences be nothing more than what happens when the brain shuts down? Scepticism made perfect sense. But we were wrong.

You watched me die. I did too. Initially I felt as though I was floating above my body. I took it to be a dream. “What an odd dream,” I thought. “It doesn’t feel like a dream. It doesn’t feel like being awake either.” And it felt good, I must say. No more pain, just lightness and brightness. The tunnel appeared, as irresistible as sleep can be in the morning. But I resisted its pull. I didn’t want to leave you just yet. I watched you cry, tried to console you. You couldn’t see me, couldn’t hear me. That was the most frustrating aspect of the whole experience. “I’m here! I’m here!” I cried. I tried shaking you. My hands just passed through your body. You didn’t flinch. I realized eventually what I was: a soul, a ghost. How odd, when materialism made so much sense! How odd, after all the heated arguments we’ve had with dualists! But I’m glad we were wrong.

I can do all the stuff ghosts do: I can pass through walls and see through things. I can fly and float. I feel no pain. (No pleasure either — how I miss it!) Sometimes I seem to hear people’s thoughts. I recognise other souls, and am capable of communicating with them. We don’t speak. We just understand each other. I cannot move objects — I’d need a body to do that, and I can only occupy bodies if their souls are missing. From time to time this happens, you know. Mediums, real mediums, not charlatans, can let their souls ‘take a walk’. The same happens when someone has an out of body experience or a near death experience: for a moment a body is soulless, and prey to any passing ghost. Occupying a body is hard, however. I’ve tried twice already, and failed both times. I just didn’t fit — that’s the best way I can explain it.

You’ll be glad to hear that being a ghost hasn’t turned me — to use one of your favourite expressions — all ‘wishy washy’! I am still the same old sceptic. I still have materialistic leanings. Don’t think that my life as a ghost doesn’t strike me as deeply odd.

How is it, for example, that I can see (I can see you right now — biting into an apple, turning a page of the book you are reading), but I cannot touch? I’m disembodied, so I can’t touch. Surely, a disembodied creature shouldn’t see either — aren’t physical things like eyes, optic nerve, visual cortex crucial to seeing? After all, if they weren’t, then why have them at all? And if they were merely some sort of back up, then why take care of them? Why should anyone ever be blind? So I ask myself: am I really seeing? And if I’m not, then what should I make of my experience of you, now, in front of me, putting the book away, getting up, adjusting your hair? (A soul wondering if it could all be a dream — how ridiculously Cartesian!)

Another, similar, puzzle: I have memories, recent, and old — I remember trying to occupy a body, I remember my death, and I remember my life. Damage to the brain can cause memory loss. My brain should be pretty damaged by now. Perhaps memory loss only happens to bodies and souls that are still connected. I cannot really make sense of it. But then again I accept that a lot of truths will not make sense — I didn’t dismiss quantum mechanics because I didn’t understand it, because it was ‘a bit odd’!

Quantum mechanics, however, makes no claim of being magical. It’s weird, but it’s not ‘paranormal’. It’s not ‘outside of physics’ — it is physics. But this — being a soul — this is supposed to be, somehow, external to the realm of science. One couldn’t have a science of souls (soulology?). And what I don’t understand — and I’m not the only soul to be puzzled by this — is why not? Why couldn’t souls be consistent with Materialism? Perhaps bodies and souls are made of different substances, deeply different substances (more different, say, than wood and water are different), but so what? What makes souls immaterial? That they don’t obey the laws of our physics or that they don’t obey the laws of a perfect physics, of the physics God might have, if he existed (which is still an open question, by the way, even for us souls!)? If by ‘immaterial’ we mean ‘what doesn’t obey the rules of our physics’ then ‘immaterial’ becomes an uninteresting word. If we mean ‘what doesn’t obey the rules of a perfect physics’ then it is simply arrogant to claim that souls aren’t material — as if we were experts in ‘perfect physics’.

I don’t know, baby. I don’t know what I am. But I’m glad that I am. That there is still something it is like to be me. And — I never thought I’d say this! — I can’t wait for you to die, sweetness.

© Katherine E. Power 2003

Katherine Emilia Power grew up in Italy (Padova). She moved to the UK at 15, and is now studying for a PhD at Reading University. She enjoys writing fiction and has published some of her short stories

Reference / Inspiration

Simon Blackburn, Think (Oxford University Press, 1999), pp.49-52.

Richard Broughton, Parapsychology, The Controversial Science (Chatham, Kent: Rider, 1991), pp.242-273.

R.C.Richardson, ‘The ‘Scandal’ of Cartesian Interactionism’, Mind, Vol.91, Issue 361, 1982, pp.20-37.

Galen Strawson, ‘Real Materialism’, in Chomsky and his Critics edited by L. Antony and N. Hornstein (Blackwell 2003), pp.49-88.

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