I grew up in a village at the foothills of Western Ghats mountain range in southern India. Set in the lush greenery of pepper and coconut groves, it was a community of over one hundred families. Every morning, children of the village walked to a school nearly two miles away. Some of my fondest childhood memories are linked to these daily walks through narrow hillside paths embedded in dense monsoon vegetation. Like most other kids, I never visited a doctor except the local homeopathy practitioner during my school years.
That was more than thirty years ago. My kids today enjoy much better physical comforts, but I often wonder about the price. They rarely get an opportunity to interact with nature the way my generation did. Can they survive without the liberal use of antibiotics doctors today consider normal?
Progress comes with a price. Our greed is poisoning the air and water meant for our grand children. Environmental degradation, depletion of non-renewable resources, disintegration of social institutions, people complaining about emptiness in their lives despite material comforts- these are the side effects of man’s quest for unlimited economic growth driven by science and technology.
Two eyes are essential for stereoscopic vision. Single eye vision will be flat, two-dimensional. This is the case with perception too. We should see quantity as well as quality in the world. Human cerebral cortex has two halves. Left half specializes in analytical and logical functions. Right half is more at home with intuitive and holistic functions. Both left and right brains need to work in harmony for stereoscopic perception, to experience ‘meaning’ or ‘depth’ in the cacophony of inputs arriving through sensory channels. Evolution gave us two eyes and two brains. It is natural for us to see depth in what we observe. It is equally natural to perceive meaning in what we experience.
We suffer from an over-dependence on left-brain perception. Our right brain functions have atrophied as a result of three centuries of lopsided scientific progress. A dark, bottomless pit has appeared in the place that used to be our soul. We attempt to fill its emptiness with more and more possessions, more and more noise, but fail miserably.
Rene Descartes (1595-1650), French philosopher and mathematician, is often considered responsible for installing dualistic thinking at the heart of modern science. Descartes suggested that human body is like a machine. Its functions could be analyzed in mechanical terms using gears, valves and pumps. This fantastic machine has a creator, an omnipotent being called God. Mechanical analogies alone are not enough to explain man. There is another non-material entity ‘soul’ or ‘mind’, somehow integrated with the body-machine. Descartes speculated that body and mind interacted through the pineal gland (a small endocrine gland located near the center of brain). Separation of mind and matter into fundamentally different categories inaugurated a new way of looking at nature. Cartesian revolution firmly established matter as a topic of investigation in the laboratory but soul appeared non-existent when scientists studied its seat, the pineal gland.
Descartes was attempting to solve the riddle of universe as it was understood in mid 17th century, fusing his own insights with critical elements of Christian world-view. Like solving a complex jigsaw puzzle, he arranged pieces of different size and shapes to form a meaningful whole, a system of inter-linked ideas that provided self-consistent explanation for observed reality:
1) Universe is a gigantic clockwork.
2) Human body is a machine.
3) Physical body together with a soul residing in pineal gland makes up the human being.
4) Animals are machines without soul.
5) God is the creator of this clockwork universe and its inhabitants.
Some of these ideas appear weird to us today, but Descartes could explain observed reality in a meaningful and self-consistent manner using these hypotheses. Mind-matter complex was divided into independent entities mind and matter, but maintaining both material and non-material kinds of explanatory mechanisms compensated this un-natural division.
Scientific quest is ultimately a search for patterns. Modern scientists limit their search to well-defined areas of specialization, often forgetting that such specialized patterns with strict boundaries must eventually merge into a beautiful, border-less tapestry. The genius of Descartes saw it necessary to maintain God hypothesis for overall consistency of the pattern of clockworks.
Will the idea of a mechanical universe make sense without an omnipotent God as its creator? Would it have made sense to postulate human body as a machine without a mechanism for body-mind interaction? God and Soul were concepts that imparted ‘meaning’ or completeness to Cartesian worldview. Body-machine is a meaningful concept only with a non-material soul and a mechanism of interaction, however far fetched it be. Similarly universe may be treated as a clockwork if we could swallow the idea of a creator God.
Looking from another angle, introduction of mind-matter division was a masterstroke. It made science as we know possible. Early scientific explorers attempted to grasp mind-matter complex in its entirety but failed to make much progress. Descartes’ insight of splitting the complex entity into a real ‘material’ part and imaginary ‘mental’ part was indeed revolutionary. Today, after three and a half centuries of ‘lopsided’ scientific progress, we can look back and realize that this division was a necessity.
Scientific progress could be seen as a process of gradual elimination of ‘meaning’ (ideas that appear wrong to our limited understanding) from overreaching thought patterns created by men of genius. This process of meaning elimination can be painful in the short term, but three and a half centuries is only an insignificant eye wink on evolutionary time scale.
We have now reached a stage were we can heal this division at the heart of man’s quest for patterns. We are almost ready to discard the supernatural ‘meaning fillers’ of Descartes, to move beyond the dumb solidity of matter and slippery vagueness of mind. There is no independent matter or mind. What exists is a unity or a mind-matter complex. Science is slowly but surely inching towards this realization. Key to this final step lies in figuring out the true nature of objective knowledge and its relationship with evolution.