Mind over body

In the last of his series on Descartes Richard Francks ponders the nature of objectivity

It seems to me that the big philosophical problem we all face today is that of Objectivity. Every day we run into situations where a clash of beliefs involves what is either literally or figuratively a clash of cultures, i.e. cases where what is at issue is not just the particular point we disagree about, but the standards we should apply for resolving it.

Moral cases are the obvious examples: those who are for and against abortion, or gay rights, or suicide bombings, seem so far apart that you have to ask yourself whether they have enough in common ever to come to an agreement. Is there such a thing as an objective answer to such disputes, or is each side trapped within its own little bubble of understanding which is impenetrable to anyone not brought up the right way, or who hasn’t seen the light?

But morality isn’t the only area where such disagreements occur. Questions like Intelligent Design, monetary policy, the Holocaust, alternative medicine, GM crops and the existence of God all seem on the surface to be straightforwardly factual disputes. But it soon becomes clear that the two sides disagree also about which facts are relevant, what counts as evidence, what constitutes a good reason, whose opinion is of value, and a thousand other things which leave you wondering whether we shouldn’t give up the idea that there is a correct answer, and just concentrate our energies on managing the battle in such a way as to minimise the damage it causes.

Descartes’ philosophical work was devoted to proving the possibility of an Objective answer to every question. Everybody has an innate ability to think clearly, and such clear thinking will always get to the truth. By such means we can see beyond the misleading appearances of the world to the reality that underlies them. Even in practical affairs, where the issues are complicated and the facts are few, we can achieve a detached, Objective view on which we can all agree.

Here too, Descartes’ view is the one that has filtered down to us through the ages. This is the faith of the Enlightenment, that a rational, scientific view is always available, and can in principle unite us all. That faith is still active in the world, and informs the way we think about these issues, and therefore about people who disagree with us.

For Descartes, though, the belief in Objectivity is essentially bound up with his views on the self, and on God. The Objective view is the view of the pure, immaterial mind, which can rise above the deceptive urgings of its physical embodiment and perceive the world through pure intellect. And the view of the intellect is guaranteed to be true, because by escaping in this way from the body, we can recapitulate in our own small way God’s own, non-sensory, understanding of his creation.

Most people now are unhappy with Descartes’ ‘dualistic’ account of the mind as essentially separate from the body it ‘inhabits’. And most people now would not accept his idea that through reason we can achieve quite literally a God’s-eye-view of the universe. The Big Question, then, is this: if you take away those metaphysical underpinnings, what remains of the idea of Objectivity?

It seems to me that the idea of an Objective point of view is a contradiction. Any intelligible opinion must make some assumptions, must operate by some standards – and those foundations will be challenged by people who don’t accept them. So if you think your standpoint is the correct one, you will need to defend it; and for that defence to be effective it had better start from something your opponent is prepared to concede. The alternative to a standpoint which can be challenged is not an Objective view, but no view at all.