Descartes, René (mechanism: cosmological, biological)

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Descartes, René. The Philosophical Writings of Descartes. Trans. John Cottingham, Robert Soothoff, Dugald Murdoch. 2 vols. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge UP, 1985.

Gives marginal page citations to Oeuvres de Descartes, ed. Ch. Adam and P. Tannery, rev. edn. (1964-76), which we give below in square brackets. Does not contain Geometry (1637) but does have the rest of the works that laid the groundwork for a rigorously mechanistic view of the physical universe, nonhuman animals, the human body, human thought, and, ultimately—though emphatically not for RD—human beings. (In Geometry, RD presents analytic geometry, where the world can be placed on Cartesian coordinates and described algebraically. Truly Modern cities are placed on precisely those coordinates, and we who grew up in them look for 0, 0 points as the "natural" way to begin mapping the world.)

For RD on mathematical reasoning as the way to truth and for the assumption that "[...] there is only one truth concerning any matter," see Discourse on the Method, Part Two, I.120-21 [VI.19-22]. For RD's limitation of physics and possibly science in general to what can be done with the "principles . . . of geometry and pure mathematics," which can "explain all natural phenomena, and enable us to provide quite certain demonstrations regarding them" (italics removed), see Principles of Philosophy, Part Two, assertion 64: I.247 [VIIIA.78-79].

For RD's granting that, prior to admitting the human soul, he had "described this earth and indeed the whole visible universe as if it were a machine," see Principles of Philosophy, Part Four, assertion 188: I.279 [VIIIA.315-16].

For mechanistic explanations of the human body and animals, and a word or two on automata, see Treatise on Man, I.100-101 [XI.131-32]; Discourse on the Method, Part Five, I.134 [VI.46], I.139 [VI.55-56], I.139-40 [VI.56-57]; Meditations on First Philosophy, II.58-59 [VII.84-87]. See also T. Hobbes's objection to "I am a thinking thing," which Hobbes finds "Correct" — but concludes that it "seems that the correct inference is that the thinking thing is material rather than immaterial": Objections and Replies to Meditations on First Philosophy: "Third Set of Objections with the Author's Replies," Second Objection, II.122-23 [VII.172-75]; the classic insult is that with the soul RD presents a "ghost in the machine," and Hobbes does his best to remove the "ghost."

For a major work featuring Descartes and his idea of the animal-machine, see The Restless Clock: A History of the Centuries-Long Argument over What Makes Living Things Tick, especially chapter 2, "Descartes among the Machines."


Descartes is also of potential interest for background on an issue of definite interest: "the Turing Test."[1]

From the on-line Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: There is archival evidence that Alan Turing was aware of the Cartesian language test when he wrote "Computing Machinery and Intelligence," his article on "The Imitation Game" and what became the practical test for whether or not a communicating entity is thinking. The Stanford editors quote the following from Descartes's Discourse, with the citations given. That Descartes comes to a conclusion opposing Turing is less important than their dealing with the same sort of test.

If there were machines which bore a resemblance to our bodies and imitated our actions as closely as possible for all practical purposes, we should still have two very certain means of recognizing that they were not real men. The first is that they could never use words, or put together signs, as we do in order to declare our thoughts to others. For we can certainly conceive of a machine so constructed that it utters words, and even utters words that correspond to bodily actions causing a change in its organs. … But it is not conceivable that such a machine should produce different arrangements of words so as to give an appropriately meaningful answer to whatever is said in its presence, as the dullest of men can do. Secondly, even though some machines might do some things as well as we do them, or perhaps even better, they would inevitably fail in others, which would reveal that they are acting not from understanding, but only from the disposition of their organs. For whereas reason is a universal instrument, which can be used in all kinds of situations, these organs need some particular action; hence it is for all practical purposes impossible for a machine to have enough different organs to make it act in all the contingencies of life in the way in which our reason makes us act. (Translation by Robert Stoothoff)

[Citations:] Abramson, 2011a, “Descartes’ Influence on Turing,” Studies in History and Philosophy of Science, 42: 544–551.

Gunderson, K., 1964, “Descartes, La Mettrie, Language and Machines,” Philosophy, 39: 193–222.[2]

RDE, early; finishing 5Sep21