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Damasio's Error and Descartes' TruthReview - Damasio's Error and Descartes' Truth
An Inquiry into Consciousness, Metaphysics, and Epistemology
by Andrew L. Gluck
University of Scranton Press, 2007
Review by Sandra Egege, MA (Phil), ABD
Mar 23rd 2010 (Volume 14, Issue 12)

According to Gluck, drawing metaphysical conclusions from empirical findings commits a logical fallacy in that it 'presupposes what it sets out to prove.' Not only does it assume the reality of the physical world but it confuses a narrow, limited scientific reality with 'ultimate reality' (pp. xvii-xix).  In contrast to this, Gluck suggests that there may be more than one truth and puts forward a case for a pluralistic metaphysics.  This does not mean he is arguing for the mutual existence of the non-physical / spiritual with the physical as within the traditional dualist metaphysical model. Rather, he is putting forward the idea that different disciplines should use different metaphysical frameworks, as dictated by the limitations of their subject matter. He suggests physical monism as the most suitable for the sciences, neutral monism for aesthetics and mind/body dualism for the social sciences.  He takes this position because of the limitations of the scientific paradigm to deal with subjectivity and phenomena like consciousness.

Positing a multiple metaphysics is a controversial position, but one that could be of great import to discussions about the reality of the self and consciousness.  Within science, selves have no concrete reality or, at best, have a kind of abstract existence. Could a multiple metaphysical approach help categorise anomalous phenomena like selves and qualia and offer a clearer picture of where our experienced reality fits with the scientific worldview, and vice versa?  Could God still have a place?

Given this expectation, I began to read Gluck's text under the supposition that it would expound some kind of detailed metaphysics that, in the process, would reveal where Damasio (and those of his persuasion) had gone wrong in their contentions about the self and that this analysis would vindicate Descartes. Not so. While Gluck does begin by expounding a pluralistic metaphysical position, he does not directly offer a critique of Damasio's and others' ideas, nor does he offer a defence of Descartes. What he does claim is that Damasio was wrong in claiming that science has shown 'once and for all' that Descartes was wrong and that mind and body are not metaphysically separate entities. Nor can Damasio claim that Spinoza was right about ultimate reality being a neutral substance.  For Gluck, this is committing the logical fallacy of assuming what it is one wants to prove.  Science can't justify metaphysics because metaphysical assumptions are inherent in the scientific enterprise.

Gluck goes on to claim that this is part of what he calls the 'physicality bias' underlying most metaphysical frameworks. He claims that this physicality bias is present in Damasio and in most scientific treatises on the topics of mind, consciousness and the self.  He expresses his view thus:

Even when we try to conceptualize reality in a neutral monist or panpsychist fashion, we almost always end up thinking of it as physical matter. …even if unusual mystics and philosophers such as Plato, Plotinus, and Berkeley, who think quite differently, influence us from time to time. (p.6)

The physicality bias is one of many issues that Gluck raises which whet the intellectual appetite, particularly if one is not whole-heartedly within the scientific-reductionist paradigm. However, they remain just interesting ideas which never become defensible arguments. The statement above may well be a true statement about the limitations of our mental capacities but it needs some justification or resolution. At a minimum, Gluck needs to demonstrate that such a bias is false or misleading. He doesn't do this. Instead he deviates into a discussion about the short-comings of physical monism and the virtues of neutral monism.

His argument for an alternative to physical monism is similar and is typical of his methodological approach in general. Gluck defends physical monism as a framework within the sciences but declares it is limited and even incoherent, making it unsuitable for other areas of study. He raises psychology as an example where paradigms like behaviorism, physicalism and artificial intelligence equate 'consciousness with behavior, neural activity or information processing' (p.5), neglecting the existence of qualia. Gluck then concludes that 'it is possible, however, that to the extent to which that methodological view denies the reality of phenomenal consciousness, it is incoherent (p.5).'  This is not an argument. In later chapters, he claims that neutral monism is superior because it allows for both mental and physical phenomena.

Another illustration of Gluck's way of advocating a position is in his discussion of consciousness. In chapter three, he claims that the idea that consciousness has emerged from inanimate physical matter is another indication of the physicality bias. He also claims that such a view is a myth with no logical basis.  He goes on to explain that a myth, in this context, is not something necessarily false but it is neither self-evidently true nor deduced from empirical evidence (p.50).  As an alternative view, he claims that the very notion of a world without consciousness is incoherent, that it can't emerge from a non-conscious world and that it is a necessary condition for the universe to exist. Such claims, while interesting, need some kind of justification. I found that this idea, like many of Gluck's ideas, was just presented as outlined above, without further support or strong argument.  This is a distinct weakness in the text.

Having said that, the book is not without merit. If one is not looking for solutions but merely an overview of some of the ideas and possible positions available, then there may be something to be gained here. It is obvious that Gluck is a classical scholar. His historical overview of the origins of our conceptions of consciousness is enlightening. Gluck traces the lineage of ideas from the ancient Greeks, through the Arabic and Oriental philosophers to the Renaissance thinkers of Italy and finally to Descartes as the representative or epitome of modern thought. While there are some early traces of our modern-day conceptions of consciousness and the mind or self, it is only with Descartes that we get a clear espousal of the mind, self and soul (as these are one and the same for Descartes) as the singular reflective subjectivity that is distinct and distant from objective reality.

One clear implication of this historical analysis is to cast doubt on the belief that the development of ideas about consciousness and, more recently, the self, are the result of systematic philosophical and scientific enquiry. Rather this development, as encapsulated in the conceptual understanding of the period, reflects current social and political ideology. This is not new, and it is by no means the main thrust of Gluck's text. Nevertheless, one is left with the impression that our conceptions of the self and consciousness, along with their place within our metaphysics, are really just a matter of choice or preference. They are not inferences from the scientific data nor from a careful Husserlian phenomenological study. They are no closer to the truth today than they were yesterday. I find a similar implication behind the discussion of Gluck's metaphysics. It seems to me that the hidden thrust of Gluck's text is that there can be no empirical evidence brought to bear on a metaphysical discussion. Ultimately, we choose our metaphysics because of our beliefs and our beliefs will be dictated by our historical epoch. 

 

© 2010 Sandra Egege

 

Sandra Egege, MA (Phil), ABD, Flinders University, Australia


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