Cartesian Madness & the Evil Demon

Dubbed the father of modern philosophy, René Descartes (1596–1650), like Aquinas, built a philosophy upon a foundation of superstitious imaginings from the Bronze Age. He arrived at conclusions that neatly gibed with Christian theology in a time when it would have been most unwise not to.

After the primary error of denying a God, he writes, there is nothing worse

that leads weak minds further from the straight path of virtue than that of imagining that the souls of the beasts are of the same nature as ours, and hence that after this present life we have nothing to fear or to hope for, any more than flies or ants. But, when we know how much the beasts differ from us, we understand much better the arguments which prove that our soul is of a nature entirely independent of the body, and consequently that it is not bound to die with it. And since we cannot see any other causes which destroy the soul, we are naturally led to conclude that it is immortal.[1]René Descartes, “Discourse on the Method,” in The Philosophical Writings of Descartes, Volume I;, trans. by John Cottingham et al. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985),
141.

We can laugh at his naivete, but what his thinking led to is no laughing matter. Notice how important it was for Descartes that animals should differ greatly from humans in support of his arguments? He could have it no other way. His earnest wish to rationalize superstition to fit perceived reality resulted in horrific and merciless tortures for animals—an animal inquisition, no less.

They administered beatings to dogs with perfect indifference, and made fun of those who pitied the creatures as if they felt pain. They said the animals were clocks; that the cries they emitted when struck were only the noise of a little spring that had been touched, but the whole body was without feeling. They nailed poor animals up on boards by their four paws to vivisect them and see the circulation of the blood which was a great subject of conversation.[2]Nicholas Fontaine, Memories pour servir a l’histoire de Port-Royal (1738), quoted in Peter Singer, Animal Liberation (New York: Ecco, 2002), 201-202.

Such is the monster offspring of superstitious claims when used to underpin rationale, of magical thinking accorded equality status with reasoning, and of Christian doctrine blended with a mechanistic worldview.

Descartes Toes the Line

Influenced by the growth of mechanics and science, Descartes conceived of the physical world as a vast complex of interacting matter that obeyed mechanical laws. This was a world where living things were beast-machines—bête-machine—or instinctual machinery. It is fair to say only someone already harboring a disregard for animals and bookish detachment from nature could come up with such a nightmarish vision.

Descartes accepted the standard Christian doctrine that animals were soulless and took it a step further. Not only did he deny them a soul, he denied them a life as well, an inner life. Animals as mechanical automata were exceedingly well constructed, thought Descartes, untroubled by the design paradox of entire brains with apparently no thinking function.

they have no intelligence at all, and that it is nature which acts in them according to the disposition of their organs. In the same way a clock, consisting only of wheels and springs, can count the hours and measure time more accurately than we can with all our wisdom.[3]René Descartes, “Discourse on the Method,” in The Philosophical Writings of Descartes, Volume I, trans. by John Cottingham et al. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985), 141.

Descartes could never concede that animals had cognition because if animals could think, it would prove they had souls, as he states in a letter to the Marquess of Newcastle in 1646.

if they thought as we do, they would have an immortal soul like us. This is unlikely, because there is no reason to believe it of some animals without believing it of all, and many of them such as oysters and sponges are too imperfect for this to be credible. But I am afraid of boring you with this discussion …[4]René Descartes, “To the Marquess of Newcastle, 23 November 1646,” in The Philosophical Writings of Descartes, Volume III, trans. by John Cottingham et al. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), 304

Descartes would never allow animals any qualities above the Thomistic Christian standard—certainly not a soul. To admit animals had souls threatened more than just the edifice of Christian metaphysics—a dangerous move to even try in his day—and it threatened his entire philosophy.

This is why, in the fallacy ridden letter to the Marquess of Newcastle, we see extraordinarily lax reasoning from the father of modern philosophy. A soul is not credible for oysters, therefore no other animals have souls, either? A school kid today would question such a non sequitur. This tendency to link highly developed animals with the simplicity of the less developed, so as to dismiss all animals, occurs elsewhere in Descartes’s writings, as does a general dismissiveness toward questions surrounding “brutes” and their souls: “it is more probable that worms, flies, caterpillars and other animals move like machines than that they all have immortal souls.”[5]René Descartes, “To [Henry] More, 5 February 1649,” in The Philosophical Writings of Descartes, Volume III, trans. by John Cottingham et al. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), 366. The ending of the letter to the Marquess suggests that Descartes finds the subject tiresome and boring—consistent with a man whose incontrovertible mind on the subject of animals was made up for him by Christian belief and ambition long before.

For Descartes, humans were machines too, except for a key difference that made all the difference—they had that divinely given immortal soul. Because humans have a soul, they have consciousness. Because humans have consciousness, they can say, “I think, therefore I am”—Descartes’ famous dictum cogito, ergo sum.[6]René Descartes, “Discourse on the Method” and “Principles of Philosophy,” in The Philosophical Writings of Descartes, Volume I, trans. by John Cottingham et al. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985), 127, 195, 196; and “Meditations on First Philosophy,” in The Philosophical Writings of Descartes, Volume II, trans. by John Cottingham et al. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985),15. The two entities—soul and consciousness—were linked. So Descartes simply had to reject animal cognition or risk the dangerous idea that if humans really were like animals, maybe the human soul was not immaterial after all.

Reducing animals to zombie-like machines without cognition, demarcating them further from humans, shored up Descartes’s assertions of an immortal human soul and a consciousness to go with it. Basically, like all before him, he assumed the Christian god existed, assumed humans had immortal souls, assumed humans were at the pinnacle of creation, and assumed animals could be disregarded based on all previous assumptions. Descartes was content, for example, with what commentators have aptly called a Turing test for animals, that “speech is the only certain sign of thought hidden in a body.”[7]René Descartes, “To [Henry] More, 5 February 1649,” in The Philosophical Writings of Descartes, Volume III, trans. by John Cottingham et al. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), 366.

Thus for all his claims of following reason, Descartes performed a bait and switch and embraced the unreason of theology. He had promised not to succumb to the “evil demon” that casts illusions and false beliefs, when setting out to find self-evident axioms. He had set up a hypothesis to ensure he would question everything about the external world.

I will suppose therefore that not God, who is supremely good and the source of truth, but rather some malicious demon of the utmost power and cunning has employed all his energies in order to deceive me.[8]René Descartes, “Meditations on First Philosophy,” in The Philosophical Writings of Descartes, Volume II, trans. by John Cottingham et al. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984),15 and see elsewhere, e.g. 180, 227, 305, 307, 316.

(How to tell them apart, the god and the demon?) He intends to “resolutely guard against assenting to any falsehoods, so that the deceiver, however powerful and cunning he may be, will be unable to impose on me in the slightest degree.”[9]René Descartes, “Meditations on First Philosophy,” in The Philosophical Writings of Descartes, Volume II, trans. by John Cottingham et al. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984),15. But here’s the kicker: Descartes succumbed to the “evil demon” of Christian absurdities long before he began his philosophical musings and made the fundamental error of clinging to his god delusion. As he admits, “if I were unaware of God… I should thus never have true and certain knowledge about anything, but only shifting and changeable opinions.”[10]René Descartes, “Meditations on First Philosophy,” in The Philosophical Writings of Descartes, Volume II, trans. by John Cottingham et al. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984), 48.

Descartes’s delusion was to believe he was freeing himself from preconceived beliefs and opinions, when in fact he continued to support a divine underpinning of everything: “I have perceived that God exists, and at the same time I have understood that everything else depends on him, and that he is no deceiver.”[11]René Descartes, “Meditations on First Philosophy,” in The Philosophical Writings of Descartes, Volume II, trans. by John Cottingham et al. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984), 48. If there was any evil demon he had to contend with, it was the false presumption of a god from which he derives everything else, it was the evil of his own faulty reasoning.

Toxic Rationalism & Ambition

By taking the standard Christian dismissal of animals to an insane degree, Descartes produced a toxic rationale that made the discontinuity between humans and nonhumans even more radical and plunged innocents into even more of a hell populated by sadistic tormentors. Out of Descartes deep prejudices and flawed sophistry came an evil that impacted the real world, just like the madness of animal sacrifice in ages past. Animals were ascribed qualities that did not exist and were then forced to play bizarre roles in self-interested human practices.

early-dog-vivisection

Thanks to Descartes, it was possible to say that animals did not suffer and their screams during torture did not matter. Although exhibiting every appearance of suffering and pain, their screams where put down to “the noise of breaking machinery.”[12]Quoted in Matt Cartmill, A View to a Death in the Morning: Hunting and Nature Through History (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1996), 96. Descartes took away sentience from animals and other intellectuals only compounded the fallacy.

Philosopher Nicolas Malebranche (1638-1715), a strong advocate of the Cartesian bête-machine concept, was convinced that “They eat without pleasure, cry without pain, grow without knowing it; they desire nothing, fear nothing, know nothing.”[13]Nicholas Malebranche, Œuvres complets, ed. Rodis-Lewis (Paris: J. Vrin, 1958), 2, p. 394, quoted in Peter Harrison, “Descartes on Animals,” in The Philosophical Quarterly, Vol. 42, No. 167 (April, 1992), 219-227. Intelligent men at the cutting edge (or, we might say, lunatic fringe) of knowledge and philosophical thought actually believed this nonsense in defiance of all common sense.

Malebranche saw that rationalizing animal suffering out of existence was mutually supported by theological attempts to explain theodicy—why God tolerated the suffering of animals that were innocent of original sin. One version he accepted goes like this:

  1. There is a just God.
  2. Animals are innocent of sin.
  3. A just God would not permit the innocent to suffer.
  4. Therefore, animals do not suffer.[14]Andrew Pyle, Malebranche (London: Routledge, 2003), 252.

It was no better than anything before Cartesian thinking, when “the best response theists can offer to the problem of the suffering of lower creatures remains either the denial of animal pain, or the denial that animal pain constitutes a major evil.”[15]Peter Harrison, “Descartes on Animals,” The Philosophical Quarterly, Vol. 42, No. 167 (April, 1992), 219-227. But Cartesian thinking covered both and handed theologians a solution backed by the latest in philosophy and science.

The cold Cartesian conclusions on soulless automata did more than just get God and theologians off the hook, it granted absolution to every self-interested party that might want to abuse animals. And this was something of which Descartes was only too aware:

Thus my opinion is not so much cruel to animals as indulgent to men—at least to those who are not given to the superstitions of Pythagoras—since it absolves them from the suspicion of crime when they eat or kill animals.[16]René Descartes, “To [Henry] More, 5 February 1649,” in The Philosophical Writings of Descartes, Volume III, trans. by John Cottingham et al. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), 366.

Total absolution meant total brutality without cost. This came at a time of increasing scientific interest in vivisection—where live animals were restrained and cut open and tortuously probed with blades. Descartes himself boasted of his vivisection adventures, where animals were tortured out of curiosity.

With Cartesian theology, we get pernicious religious doctrine void of compassion injected into science, where it remained embedded for centuries. The denial of reason, soul, moral obligation, and now the denial of suffering provided all the vague rationale needed to easily doom animals to torture for the advancement of scientific careers. The most esteemed gentlemen of the scientific establishment were free to commit the most heinous suffering quite openly. Armed with flawed rationalizations and their knives, the only animals truly without feelings were vivisectionists.

Facts and logic have never been a great obstacle to the imprisoned mind of the truly superstitious or magical thinker, nor a great hindrance when convenience outweighs argument. Before long, cutting up living animals was widely practiced and institutionalized. Descartes’ mentality permeated across Europe, where ordinary people as well, with watered down notions on the nuts and bolts of zombie animals, acted with brutality and a disregard for other creatures.

Voices of Reason Against the Madness

Cartesian madness was not without its critics, and one of the most famous rejoinders to its flawed logic comes from Voltaire’s Philosophical Dictionary:

How pitiful, and what poverty of mind, to have said that the animals are machines deprived of understanding and feeling …There are some barbarians who will take this dog, that so greatly excels man in capacity for friendship, who will nail him to a table, and dissect him alive, in order to show you his veins and nerves. And what you then discover in him are all the same organs of sensation that you have in yourself. Answer me, mechanist, has Nature arranged all the springs of feeling in this animal to the end that he might not feel? Has he nerves that he may be incapable of suffering?[17]Quoted in Jon Wynne-Tyson, The Extended Circle: A Commonplace Book of Animal Rights (New York: Paragon House, 1989), 387-388.

The great Jean Meslier (1664–1729), “an atheist priest …an authentically passionate and vindictively, anti-Christian prophet” was not taken in by Cartesian nonsense, either.[18]Michel Onfray, “Jean Meslier and ‘The Gentle Inclination of Nature’,” trans. Marvin Mandell, New Politics, Vol: X, No. 4, Whole No. 40 (Winter, 2006), http://newpol.org/content/jean-meslier-and-gentle-inclination-nature. Meslier rejected the Christian assumption that man was at the peak of a hierarchical creation lording it over nature and was an enemy of Cartesian philosophers. Michel Onfray writes that for Meslier “Christian metaphysics and the Cartesian philosophy—so like each other after all—offer royal road for the wickedness of men.”

The massacring of cats at festivals was in Meslier’s view attributable to the false claims of Cartesian philosophy, which allowed ordinary people to “give free rein to their bad passions” and “transform vice, wickedness, perversion into a very popular spectacle.”[19]Michel Onfray, “Jean Meslier and ‘The Gentle Inclination of Nature’,” trans. Marvin Mandell, New Politics, Vol: X, No. 4, Whole No. 40 (Winter, 2006), http://newpol.org/content/jean-meslier-and-gentle-inclination-nature. The religious rejection of soul and sentence led directly to the rejection of kindness and compassion.[20]See Jean Meslier, Testament: Memoir of the Thoughts and Sentiments of Jean Meslier, trans. by Michael Shreve (Prometheus Books, 2009), 145-146.

Typically, history was with ruling elites and religious authorities, those who would gain from profiteering and exploitation, those whom Meslier was thinking of when he wished “all the rulers of the earth and all the nobles should be hanged with the guts of priests.”[21]Jean Meslier, Testament: Memoir of the Thoughts and Sentiments of Jean Meslier, trans. by Michael Shreve (Prometheus Books, 2009), 20, 37. And let’s not forget its variant, “Men will never be free until the last king is strangled with the entrails of the last priest.” Amen to that.

Notes   [ + ]

1. René Descartes, “Discourse on the Method,” in The Philosophical Writings of Descartes, Volume I;, trans. by John Cottingham et al. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985),
141.
2. Nicholas Fontaine, Memories pour servir a l’histoire de Port-Royal (1738), quoted in Peter Singer, Animal Liberation (New York: Ecco, 2002), 201-202.
3. René Descartes, “Discourse on the Method,” in The Philosophical Writings of Descartes, Volume I, trans. by John Cottingham et al. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985), 141.
4. René Descartes, “To the Marquess of Newcastle, 23 November 1646,” in The Philosophical Writings of Descartes, Volume III, trans. by John Cottingham et al. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), 304
5. René Descartes, “To [Henry] More, 5 February 1649,” in The Philosophical Writings of Descartes, Volume III, trans. by John Cottingham et al. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), 366.
6. René Descartes, “Discourse on the Method” and “Principles of Philosophy,” in The Philosophical Writings of Descartes, Volume I, trans. by John Cottingham et al. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985), 127, 195, 196; and “Meditations on First Philosophy,” in The Philosophical Writings of Descartes, Volume II, trans. by John Cottingham et al. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985),15.
7. René Descartes, “To [Henry] More, 5 February 1649,” in The Philosophical Writings of Descartes, Volume III, trans. by John Cottingham et al. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), 366.
8. René Descartes, “Meditations on First Philosophy,” in The Philosophical Writings of Descartes, Volume II, trans. by John Cottingham et al. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984),15 and see elsewhere, e.g. 180, 227, 305, 307, 316.
9. René Descartes, “Meditations on First Philosophy,” in The Philosophical Writings of Descartes, Volume II, trans. by John Cottingham et al. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984),15.
10. René Descartes, “Meditations on First Philosophy,” in The Philosophical Writings of Descartes, Volume II, trans. by John Cottingham et al. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984), 48.
11. René Descartes, “Meditations on First Philosophy,” in The Philosophical Writings of Descartes, Volume II, trans. by John Cottingham et al. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984), 48.
12. Quoted in Matt Cartmill, A View to a Death in the Morning: Hunting and Nature Through History (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1996), 96.
13. Nicholas Malebranche, Œuvres complets, ed. Rodis-Lewis (Paris: J. Vrin, 1958), 2, p. 394, quoted in Peter Harrison, “Descartes on Animals,” in The Philosophical Quarterly, Vol. 42, No. 167 (April, 1992), 219-227.
14. Andrew Pyle, Malebranche (London: Routledge, 2003), 252.
15. Peter Harrison, “Descartes on Animals,” The Philosophical Quarterly, Vol. 42, No. 167 (April, 1992), 219-227.
16. René Descartes, “To [Henry] More, 5 February 1649,” in The Philosophical Writings of Descartes, Volume III, trans. by John Cottingham et al. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), 366.
17. Quoted in Jon Wynne-Tyson, The Extended Circle: A Commonplace Book of Animal Rights (New York: Paragon House, 1989), 387-388.
18. Michel Onfray, “Jean Meslier and ‘The Gentle Inclination of Nature’,” trans. Marvin Mandell, New Politics, Vol: X, No. 4, Whole No. 40 (Winter, 2006), http://newpol.org/content/jean-meslier-and-gentle-inclination-nature.
19. Michel Onfray, “Jean Meslier and ‘The Gentle Inclination of Nature’,” trans. Marvin Mandell, New Politics, Vol: X, No. 4, Whole No. 40 (Winter, 2006), http://newpol.org/content/jean-meslier-and-gentle-inclination-nature.
20. See Jean Meslier, Testament: Memoir of the Thoughts and Sentiments of Jean Meslier, trans. by Michael Shreve (Prometheus Books, 2009), 145-146.
21. Jean Meslier, Testament: Memoir of the Thoughts and Sentiments of Jean Meslier, trans. by Michael Shreve (Prometheus Books, 2009), 20, 37. And let’s not forget its variant, “Men will never be free until the last king is strangled with the entrails of the last priest.”

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