Plato thought that most of us do not really see objects outside our own heads. Instead, he thought that all we really see are mere representations of things — mental representations that exist entirely within our own minds. According to a famous passage in Plato’s Republic, these representations are like shadows on the walls of a cave, which remain inside the cave, even though they are cast by things outside the cave.
Other philosophers such as Descartes and Kant had similar ideas. Kant thought that what we really observe are not things as they really are ( = “noumena”) in the world outside our minds, but mere mental representations of those things inside our minds ( = “phenomena”). To Descartes, the mind is like a unitary “eye” of consciousness that looks at a “screen” of conscious experiences like a moviegoer in a cinema. It is anyone’s guess whether what’s happening on the “screen” is anything like the physical world outside the cinema.
Although this idea is very common among philosophers of nearly every tradition — it probably preceded Plato, and certainly continued long after Descartes — it was so clearly and compellingly expressed by Descartes that it is usually associated with him more than anyone else. The contemporary American philosopher Daniel Dennett dubbed it the “Cartesian Theater” view of the mind, and the name seems to have stuck.
The idea is very widespread, but it is deeply and insidiously mistaken. Remarkably, it survived almost completely unquestioned for centuries. Philosophers only began to cast real doubt on the idea in the twentieth century, when the American Pragmatists, the later Wittgenstein, some existentialists, and a few other distinctively “twentieth century” philosophers began to see the mind not as a “centre of consciousness” so much as “what the brain does” — it actively and directly engages with the world, as part of an evolved animal’s inherited physical equipment.
Here is a typical expression of that newer understanding from Donald Davidson (a recent American philosopher of the Pragmatist tradition): “we have unmediated touch with the familiar objects whose antics make our sentences true or false”. In other words, my belief that the cat is on the mat is true if one familiar object (the cat) and another familiar object (the mat) are arranged just as the sentence ‘the cat is on the mat’ says they are arranged. Davidson is expressing nothing more than modest common sense here, but it is remarkable that common sense needs the voice of a great philosopher to be heard.
The most important thing to note here is that it isn’t internal ideas — some sort of conscious experience of the cat or the mat — that are so arranged. It is the actual physical external-to-my-mind cat, and the actual physical external-to-my-mind mat, both of which exist independently of me, outside my head. These are external physical objects rather than internal mental ideas or experiences. Davidson felt it necessary to explicitly say that we have “unmediated touch” with these objects, because the alternative “Cartesian Theater” view is so all-pervasive, and it has been around for ages.
Why did it last so long? Why does it still have such a hold on the popular imagination? The answer is that in effect it assumes the mind is non-physical. Whether we are aware of it or not, we are all steeped in a long religious tradition that understands the mind as a non-physical “soul”. The soul is supposed to survive the death of the body (including the brain). Our religious tradition understands the mind as a sort of “economy” whose currency is not brute physical pushes and pulls, but conscious experiences. For example, it is widely assumed that if a person knows anything, then he must be “justified” in believing it — in other words, he must have a conscious assurance that it is true. Non-conscious physical pushes and pulls are not a valid currency in this economy, because it is assumed that there is something deeply problematic about the mental and the physical coming into contact with each other at all. As supposed “centres of consciousness”, our minds are thought not to be in direct contact with the world. Far from having Davidson’s “unmediated touch” with the physical world of everyday objects, our minds can only reach out with enormous difficulty to a world that is quite alien to us. Some think that the difficulty of bridging the gap is so enormous that the mind “never quite makes it” — so we live in a Teletubby world of our own imaginings. The physical world is an alien planet to our mental selves, the idea seems to suppose. As mental rather than physical beings, our proper place is therefore somewhere “above” the messy physical realities of death, sex, chemicals and parasites. Diseases are assumed not to be caused by physical invaders, but are instead the self-inflicted wounds of mental imbalances. And so on.
The idea that our minds do not engage with the world directly has some terrible consequences. Some of them are mere curiosities, of interest mainly to academic philosophers. For example, Thomas Kuhn (the recent American historian of science) said that scientists who work in different scientific traditions “live in different worlds”. The idea here is that each scientist’s world consists of his own ideas. (But as Davidson remarked, “there is at most one world”, and we all live in it.) Kuhn’s metaphor is striking, of interest to people who wonder about science, but it doesn’t affect ordinary people’s lives much. However, the “Cartesian Theater” idea has other consequences that really do have a bearing on ordinary life.
To see why, consider the difference between perception and volition. With perception, the world affects our minds by causing ideas to form in them, whereas with volition it’s the other way round: our minds affect the world through our actions. Although the “causal flows” of perception and volition go in opposite directions, the two are closely analogous.
When applied to perception, the “Cartesian Theater” idea says that we do not perceive things in the world directly, but instead only perceive things internal to our own mental economies — such as experiences of things rather than physical things themselves. Analogously, when applied to volition, the “Cartesian Theater” idea says that we do not desire that things in the world be arranged in any particular way, but instead desire that our own mental economies come to achieve a particular internal state. The almost universal idea here is that we don’t act in order to arrange things in the world, but instead we act in order to get a particular kind of experience, typically called “pleasure” (as if this were a uniform type of experience).
For example, suppose I want to build a tree-house for my children. Someone who believes in Freud’s “pleasure principle” might say that what I “really” want is pleasure — the pleasure of seeing my children enjoying themselves, or perhaps something less innocent than that. A follower of Nietzsche might say that what I “really” want is a sense of power. Instead of wanting to have some bits of wood arranged in a physical location outside my head, both of these approaches assume that my real goal is something “internal” to my own mind.
But I ask you: Do you want the mere experience of your lover being faithful to you? Or do you want your lover to genuinely be faithful to you? Do you want to have an erotic dream? Or do you want the real thing?
To put the idea another way, the “Cartesian Theater” idea says that when we hunt rabbits, we are really hunting pleasure. It is very common throughout the academic world. For example, economists (right across the spectrum from Marxist to libertarian) tend to assume that rational agents are seeking the most money or profit in all of their transactions, because money delivers pleasure, and at root we are motivated to seek pleasure. Or again, psychologists tend to assume that if we seek goals that involve pain, we must be masochists for whom pain is a form of pleasure. And so on, right across the groves of academe.
Perhaps the worst damage that this terrible “Cartesian Theater” idea does to ordinary lives is in the area of love and sex. For example, a large proportion of people who get married end up getting divorced. The ones who initiate divorce are usually people who have decided that they have “fallen out of love”. They usually check whether they are “still in love” by examining their own “feelings”. But as artists from Shakespeare to Chris Rock remind us, love always involves “negative” emotions, including feelings that are incompatible with the very feeling that is supposed to signal the continued presence of love. No married couple has ever lived together for any stretch of time without some such negative “feelings”. A much better test of love than introspected “feelings” is the extent to which two people’s lives are actually intertwined — how much they routinely do together, especially how often they have sexual intercourse (with each other). If all you do is look at the screen in the “theater”, much of what you see will be illusory.
In my view, the “Cartesian Theater” idea is hopelessly misguided, all the more poisonous and damaging for being so widely held. Apart from a narrow strand of academic philosophy, and a slightly broader strand of common sense, it remains an unquestioned bit of religious dogma. Essentially, it is the idea that the mind is isolated from the physical world because it is “spiritual” rather than physical. It is a hugely mistaken view of what we are, and why we do things. It has corrupted philosophical thought for centuries, and continues to wreak untold havoc in everyday life all over the world.
It is time to get ourselves out of this “Cartesian Theater”. We must walk out into the daylight, blinking and disoriented, and know the place for the first time.