Term Paper: Phantom Limbs When We Ask

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[. . .] This is indeed a push toward simplicity: The world for him consisted of only those things that we had proven to ourselves were true, or combinations of those things.

This is an appealing argument, but Ramachandran (viz. Ramachandran etal, 1992; Fabiani, Stadler & Wessels, 2000) argue that we cannot assume that there is a blank slate with which we set out on the journey of life. We inherent a template that pushes us to accept certain meanings and not others. This is only most obvious in the relatively rare case of phantom limbs (Ramachandran & Blakesee, 1999). But it is just as true - and rather more important, Ramachandran will argue - in the case of other arenas in which our conceptions of the borders of the self affect our conceptions of the reality of things in the world.

This question of where the borders of our bodies lie is taken up by Ramachandran in a fairly literal way in his work on phantom limbs. It is taken up in a slightly more metaphorical way in his work with Blakesee on the location of God. This may seem to For the neurologist - along with the psychologist, and indeed the rest of us as well - the question about the nature of humanity and divinity should perhaps not be "Does God exist?" But "Where does God exist?" Is he (or she or they, depending upon one's pantheon) something real and external, or a product of our immensely busy human brain?

Descartes, as we all know, begins his philosophical journey by doubting everything. He argues that we must begin with a blank slate, not taking the nature of any object or its relationship to any other object on faith. We must treat the objects in the world as we treat a geometrical problem: We must prove everything. However, having initially dismissed the world and everything in it to the regions of doubtful (non)-existence, Descartes immediately sets out on a quest to reclaim them and our knowledge of them. He begins this question to understand the nature and reality of external objects with an examination of the nature of internal objects in the form of the content of his own thoughts.

He is reassured - at least in largest measure - about the reality of these thoughts because among these thoughts of his is the idea of a Perfect Being (whom Descartes believes to be the Christian God but who might well be some other form of perfect being without any substantial alteration of Cartesian argument). Descartes then makes what seems to be a rather long leap of faith in arguing that the idea that he has (internally) of a Perfect Being serves as proof of the fact that there must in fact be something real that exists outside himself that corresponds in a direct way to this idea.

In other words, Descartes begins his defense of the real existence of objects in the external world by arguing that God (as a Perfect Being and so something that would otherwise be outside of our limited minds) must exist in reality and not merely have a form of mental reality. Another way of saying this is that no human being (since humans are imperfect) could conceive of the idea of (an external) perfect God without there being an actual external perfect God that exists. This is - although it may not be obvious from first inspection of this argument - an argument for the centrality of simplicity. The idea of perfection is an inherently simple one: The perfect thing is irreducible; it is the definition of simplicity.

While it was at least seemingly easy for Descartes to move from a methodical doubting of everything to an acceptance of the external existence of God and from there to an acceptance of the external existence of other things, including people and trees, this should not be such a smooth transition for us because the nature of Descartes' ontological argument is highly circular and so in fact should prove less than fully convincing to us.

Descarte's ontological argument - which lies at the heart of his entire philosophical method - is an attempt to reduce the world to the simplest possible description without violating the reality of the world. Descartes argues that a simple description of the complexities of the world is possible because such a description focuses on the essential, on the divinity that lies at the heart of world and that - because of its perfection - is irreducible to anything simpler.

Descartes' argument is based in his idea that a Perfect Being (whom he calls God) exists. Second, God must therefore exist because if he did not, he would not be perfect. Third, if he were not perfect, Descartes could not conceive of him because no imperfect human can conceive of any perfect being without taking this conception as a demonstration of the a priori existence of that being. Fourth, because God is perfect, he does not lie. Fifth, because God does not lie to humans like Descartes, Descartes' own ability to sense the functioning of his mind and to determine the existence of God and therefore of other external objects proves the existence of that mind, of God and of the entire external world.

This series of steps of reasoning is referred to as the ontological argument, and it should be clear how central it is to the entire framework of Descartes' rationalist philosophy because it is the first step in establishing that a human being can have certain knowledge about something real that exists in the external world with no other proof about its existence than the human ability to reason from innate ideas. In other words, Descartes is here arguing for the existence of God, arguing for the existence in fact of an entire external world and arguing against all of the precepts of Empiricism, for Descartes (as a central part of this ontological argument) argues that one can determine the nature of the external world through the basis of purely internal (i.e. innate) mental processes; one needs no sensory experience of the external world to know that it is real.

This is, indeed, very neatly argued, but it is also very much a circular argument; indeed one of the most famous refutations of Descartes' ontological argument is called Arnauld's Cartesian Circle because it emphasizes the essentially iterative nature of Descartes' arguments. Arnauld argued that the simplicity that lies at the heart of Descartes' arguments derives not from the soundness of the argument but from its circularity. Descartes' description of the world and our place in it is so simple, Arnauld (and others) object because it touches on so little of the world itself. But while we may find problems in his central argument, Descartes himself saw it as a pathway to simplicity.

In other words, while Descartes argues that the existence of God in reality can be determined from the fact that people can have an a priori concept of a perfect being, Arnauld argues that Descartes is in fact beginning his argument by positing the reality both of the concept of God and of his truthfulness. He is not proving one from the other as a good mathematician should, but merely assuming the existence in certain forms of his basic arguments. It is acceptable to assume the nature of a line and a point; one may not, however, assume that two lines are parallel. One has to prove a proposition of this nature. Descartes has assumed rather than proven his argument.

Thus it may certainly be argued that Descartes (while one must think that he had satisfactorily proven to himself the external existence of God) did not succeed in proving the existence of God to others. This is a different question of whether he proved the existence of his own self; it is quite possible for a modern critic of Descartes to believe in the reality of the philosopher himself - perhaps through extrapolation of the fact that we believe ourselves to exist - without believing his proof of the existence of God or indeed any other proof offered of the existence of God. God and Descartes are not, after all and in spite of what he himself believed, the same sort of ontological beings in the real world. The argument that Descartes makes about the nature of the self is indeed a philosophically simple one in ways in which his argument about the nature and existence of God is not.

Of course, it may be true that God exists… [END OF PREVIEW]

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