On a freezing eve deep in November of 1619, after an intense day of prayer and meditation, the brilliant twenty-three year old French mathematician and philosopher René Descartes (1596–1659) had an amazing dream. Upon this epiphany, and through later reflection, he envisaged a future unified science that revealed—with an objective mathematical certainty to a separate individual human objective conceptual consciousness—the precise nature of the two aspects of mind, our objective and subjective nature. This vision, based as it was in his reaction to the atavistically conditioned 17th century Aristotelian Scholastic “web of belief” (Aquinas’ union of Aristotle with the Christian schools), Descartes understood reality to be comprised of two ontologically separate, independent substances, namely, mind and matter. On this assumption, such a unified science could eventually come to know with perfect objective certainty, the very nature of the subjectivity that is mind—human consciousness—and its seemingly separate experienced material reality. Here we can know the nature of reality with the certainty of the deductive proofs of geometry, with which Descartes was quite fluent (Descartes, 1644/1911).
Our human thought systems—our conceptual paradigms—and the cultural belief systems that flow there from, have a history. Conventionally speaking, we are the heirs, indeed the reflexive consciousness products of that history. The great revolution of Modernity that began early in the 17th century produced our Modern and Modernist mind of today. Descartes’ mind, building upon Francis Bacon’s (1561–1626) proto-Modern “great instauration” of the Novum Organum (1620), was the lynchpin of this great “Enlightenment” revolution in science, religion and culture. It changed everything.
It was the great genius of Descartes (he published under his Latin name Cartesius) that liberated the 17th century European mind from the oppressive presumptive and arbitrary authority of prevailing Aristotelian Scholasticism, then cognitively framed the epistemic and cultural crisis of the Reformation: which church—Aquinas’ scholastic quiddities, or Luther’s re-formation of them—is the true teaching? Just so, Descartes refuted popular Greek Pyrrhonian Skepticism; addressed the rising tide of Neo-Pythagorean philosophy; created analytic geometry; created a science of mechanics; utilizing the polemics of Galileo, established a new quantitative objective Modern Science; with Bacon’s rhetoric, tamed the supernatural authority of the Church; changed the view of a superstitious polity on magic and witchcraft; with his two proofs proved the existence of a separate theistic creator God; and finally, formulated the mind–body problem that haunts us still. And his Latin prose, even in translation, is a joy to the ear, as well as to the mind.
Thus, it was Descartes’ dreaming mind that began the human scientific and cultural revolution called Modernity, with its pernicious mind–body split, and its many modern miracles. This Modern consciousness revolution, with the Copernican Revolution, the Newtonian Revolution, and the Quantum Revolution, is one of four consciousness/cultural revolutions of the Western mind.
Descartes opened a rationalist door upon the nihilistic darkness of Plato’s dualistic cave. We have still to emerge into the light of day. That desideratum is the task of our fifth consciousness revolution, namely, the emerging 21st century West/East Noetic Revolution in science, culture and religion/spirituality, of which I shall have more to say below.
I shall consider herein some Postmodern Neopragmatic and Neodualist ontologically relative resolutions to the destructive mind–body dualism of Modernity. Here we shall explore the recent neodualist “Two Truths” solution to this problem of consciousness as told by Thomas Nagel, Hilary Putnam, David Chalmers and Premodern Buddhist Prasangika Madhyamaka. We shall conclude that there is indeed a cognitive resolution to this apparent problem, but it is not merely an objective, rational or conceptual resolution.
Let us then state this ostensible “problem of consciousness” thusly: How does mere physical matter produce mental conscious life, and what is the relation between these two cognitive paradigms that are objective physical body and subjective mind/spirit? And how do they interact? Thus, the inherently vexed (to concept-mind) “problem of consciousness” is our primordial “mind–body problem.” The further “hard problem of consciousness” for recent Philosophy of Mind is this: how it is possible for our inner subjective experience to be explained by objective physical and functional organization of the brain? How do we bridge the “explanatory gap” between objective causal, functional, mechanistic physical reality, and subjective phenomenal experience (subjective awareness states)? Why is it so hard to relate our two modes of consciousness to any physical basis? How does the water of brain become the wine of consciousness (McGinn)?
Amazingly, consciousness has yet to be defined. “In the case of consciousness, we have nothing… Researchers are stumped… No one has come up with a theoretical perspective…to narrow the explanatory gap” (Block 1994, 1997). Philosophers don’t agree on much, but every-one seems to agree that “the subject of consciousness is an irreducible feature of reality…as matter, energy, space, time and numbers” (Nagel 1986, pp. 7–8). What is needed is interdiscip-linary, interepistemic research that includes both third person, objective, causal and first per-son subjective, phenomenal reports; that is to say, hard objective neuroscience, and soft noetic (body/mind/spirit) methodologies. Such an integral science of consciousness requires a relaxing of our deep-rooted dichotomies of objective and subjective, physical and mental.
With Descartes’ prophetic dream began 400 years of our adventitious grail quest for indubitable foundational truth, an infallible, objectively, even deductively certain perfect know-ledge of a separate, independently existing “real world out there” (RWOT) that is appearing reality.
Descartes and Galileo (1564–1642), with their Platonic Rationalism and Aristotelian Naturalism, and with Newton (1642–1727)—whom the great David Hume called “the greatest and rarest that ever arose for the ornament and instruction of the species”—framed the Modernist mechanistic objectivist picture of today’s much valorized foundational, functionalist, fundamentalist proto-religion (Scientism) that is Scientific Materialism. This picture set in re-lief the appearing physical object against its subjective consciousness ground. The cognitive pictorial elements of this consciousness masterpiece—the apparent but not ultimate duality of matter and mind—unfortunately became quickly stipulated as ontologically separate, language and theory-independent (existing independently of our theories and beliefs about them), absolutely existing physical substances, entities, or properties. Thus was “Substance Dualism”—Descartes’ “mind–body problem”—brought into the emerging world of Modernity. Indeed, this dualistic ontological view gave birth to the Modern mind.