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This, the third of
Damasios influential books, continues his war against a persistent enemy:
dualism. Dualists hold that mind and matter, and therefore mind and body, are
composed of fundamentally different substances. Mind is immaterial, immune to
ordinary causes, and potentially immortal. It is higher, purer, more spiritual.
Body is lower, cruder, and destined to die, the very embodiment of mans fall.
Of course, this kind of dualism has been battered many times, at the hands of
philosophers and of scientists, yet it clings on, in the popular imagination
and even in the less reflective moments of many of its foes. Damasios
arguments as to how mind arises out of body is a powerful antidote against its
The first half of
this book is devoted to emotions and feelings. Emotions, in Damasios
terminology, are bodily events: the chemical, neural and muscular changes that
the body characteristically undergoes in the appropriate circumstances. Our
heart rate, our posture, the chemical signals and electrical signals sent from
and to the brain, all have characteristic patterns, which are the visible and
measurable correlates of fear and anger, pride and shame, joy and sadness. So
defined, emotions are things we share with lower animals; indeed, primitive
emotions are to be found in very simple animals.
Feelings, on the
other hand, are the phenomenological experiences which emotions give rise to.
Damasio argues that feelings essentially are perceptions of a certain states of
the body. That is, a feeling is the perception of an emotion. It is worth
remarking, in passing, that is unclear how literally we are meant to take this
claim. Does Damasio really mean that feelings are nothing but perceptions of a
state of the body? Or does he really mean that feelings are caused by perceptions of body states,
and importantly made up of such perceptions? Is my anxiety just this yawning
feeling in my stomach, my elevated heart rate and the tenseness of my muscles?
Or is there an affect over and above all these, caused by them but irreducible
to them? It is not clear that any mere perception would account for the
phenomenological character of the feeling, the way it feels. It seems possible, in principle, for us to perceive that our
body is undergoing certain alterations, without feeling anything at all. But
perhaps our imaginations mislead us here, and the intuition that this is
possible is a vestige of dualism. In any case, Damasios thesis would have
gained in clarity if he had addressed this issue directly.
The perception of
the body which is, or which causes, the feeling is not always accurate. All the
sensors we have throughout our body produces a map in our brain, and this map
is the proximate site of the feeling. But that map can be misleading.
Sometimes, it is misleading for a reason, as when the bodily signals which give
rise to the experience of pain are filtered out, to allow a person to flee from
danger; sometimes, it is misleading as a result of malfunction, or drug
ingestion. Moreover, the simulation of the body states of others might give rise to characteristic emotions, such as the
feeling of empathy.
It is plain why
Damasio is so taken with the notion that feelings are perceptions, usually
relatively accurate, of states of the body. At a stroke, it undercuts one of
the strongest sources of our intuition that our minds are independent of our
bodies. When we see that feelings can be induced rapidly and reliably, by
manipulating the body in certain ways, our confidence is shaken. This
buttresses the case Damasion began to construct with Descartes Error, in which he argued that feelings are necessary
for rational behavior. But Damasio is after still bigger game. The grand claim
he hopes to defend is that mind, and not just feelings, is essentially a map of
the body. Emotions come first, evolutionarily speaking: our ancestors reacted
in certain characteristic ways in the appropriate circumstances for many millenia.
But at some point they came to have minds, to be aware of their emotions. Mind
is dependent upon body, ontologically and genetically.
What has all this
to do with Spinoza, the seventeenth century Dutch philosopher? It is not merely
Spinozas monism that attracts Damasio to him, nor the fact that (at least as
he interprets him), Spinoza too held that mind was dependent upon body. For
Damasio, linking his reflections upon the mind to Spinozas work allows him to
tie it in to grander questions; indeed, to the very grandest questions of all.
Unfortunately, here the book is at its weakest. Damasio claims that
understanding his claims, in the light of Spinozas work, helps to see how it
can be relevant to the great questions of philosophy and ethics. It shows how
neurobiological knowledge can contribute to the search for meaning in life, to
the pursuit of happiness, to ethics. But when we strip away the rhetoric what
he has to say is frequently trivial or obvious. We are told, for instance, that
neurobiology vindicates Spinozas insight that joy is preferable to sorrow, and
that our feelings can be controlled to some extent. Too often, he asks a great
question, and answers it by changing the subject: how can neurobiology help us
pursue the good life? It can lead to the production of more effective
Damasio is, it
seems, not content with being one of the most influential neurobiologists
alive. He wants to be a philosopher as well. He would do better to stick to his
craft. So long as he switches between them, as he does here, he risks failing
at both. Not only are his philosophical reflections all too often banal, the
communication of his neurological findings suffers as well, as we lose the
ability to distinguish his data, his considered interpretation of that data,
and his looser speculations. Antonio Damasio has a lot to tell us, and his
message is important enough unadorned. It would be a pity to have it drowned
out by his strained attempts to make it more relevant.
2003 Neil Levy
Levy is a fellow of the Centre
for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics at Charles
Sturt University, Australia. He is the author of two mongraphs and over a
dozen articles and book chapters on Continental philosophy, ethics and
political philosophy. He is currently writing a book on moral relativism.