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Descartes and the “Engine Heart”

There is perhaps no greater proof that Marxism has become a dominant culture than our commonly shared history views. Because most of us living in the West today seem totally convinced of what until recently was called “historical materialism,” the belief that all of history is entirely determined by the technologies available to each society, while ideas, morals, and values – what Marx called the “superstructure” – are seen as but a mere function, a side-effect of these technologies and their respective sciences. That is a shame. Europe has produced enough philosophy to counter most of these views [1], and it’s only proof of Marx’s remarkable success in reshaping the modern mind that all competing ideologies are usually presented as the necessary precursor to the new materialist views that he more than anyone else helped to promote. Dominated by what most of us consider to be a “scientific mind,” we fail to realize the irony: that science itself came into being as an idea first, proposed by only a handful of thinkers during the 17th century. One of the most important was an unassuming Frenchman named René Descartes, whose short essay “Discourse on Method” – when read correctly – provides a terrifying glimpse into the heart of the modern world that gave us both Marxism and the transhumanist agenda of our global elites.

Like all of the great texts of philosophy, “Discourse on Method” works on many levels simultaneously. On the most evident, it’s an autobiography of Descartes the man, who left university to travel Europe in search of real knowledge, “seeing courts and armies, mingling with people of diverse temperaments and gathering various experiences.” This image alone is enough to seduce the modern reader, who will find something of himself in the story of the lone traveller, the “backpack-philosopher” ready to engage in adventures both physical and mental. In that respect, he is the precursor of the college dropout turned tech-millionaire through an idea he had while hiking through Thailand. However, Descartes’ own dissatisfaction with his studies was not spurred by boredom, but out of an intellectual frustration with the philosophers he was meant to study. In their most outstanding works, he says, the “pagan philosophers” of the past – Plato, Aristotle, Cicero – had built “a very proud and magnificent palace,” a palace however that was built on mud, their philosophy being little more than rhetoric… beautiful, but unprovable. And it was only mathematicians who, according to him, “have been able to find any demonstrations, that is to say, certain and evident reasonings.” But no one as of yet had put their method to work on problems of ethics and theology. And so, as soon as age permitted, Descartes abandoned the study of letters and set upon himself the task to search for knowledge of which he could be sure of.

Throughout his introduction to the Method, Descartes shows a personal temperament that is very compatible with our modern “cult of no-ego,” where even the most outstanding of persons are expected to never proclaim their own greatness out of a supposed humility. So does the writer of the Discourse satisfy this desire by claiming that, in contrast to the pagan philosophers, he will not try to erect an entire palace – missing perhaps the foundations once again – but a house, small, but firm and well-grounded. This house, of course, was his celebrated Method: the new mathematical science of nature, and to do that, he had first to get rid of “all the opinions to which one has heretofore given credence.” And so, in a single blow, this humble Frenchman dismantled the wisdom of ages for not conforming to the laws of mathematics, leaving a vast playing field for him to erect his new philosophy. And while he continuously stresses throughout his work that he could only assure the reader of the benefits his method had on his own personal life – going as far as to warn that many are totally unprepared for it – Descartes’ philosophy would define the modern world more than any other before or after.

It’s through his “Discourse on Method” that Descartes utters his most celebrated phrase: “I think therefore I am,” as the final conclusion of a through-experiment which put into practice what he set out in theory during the beginning of his intellectual journey: to start building from the ground up, and only from what he could be certain of, even if the world all around him were nothing but an illusion created by a powerful Demiurge, a trickster-god who built a “Matrix-like” universe to keep him in perpetual error. Once Descartes thought of this terrifying possibility however, he immediately noticed that “while I wanted thus to think that everything was false, it necessarily had to be the case that I, who was thinking this, was something” and he concludes that “from this, I knew that I was a substance, the whole essence or nature of which is simply to think, and which, to exist, has no need of any place nor depends on any material thing.” That is famously known as Descartes’ dualism, his decoupling of the mind from physical nature, that sent European culture to its dizzying trajectory of ever-increasing mastery over nature, coupled with an equally increasing feeling of alienation from it. In many ways, our great longing for a reconnection with some lost part of our human nature that we find so hard to even define can be traced almost directly back to Descartes’s reconfiguring that nature across a few pages of his work.

Having thus set his firm foundations, the writer of the Discourse continues by saying that he had built up to this point an entire philosophy of natural science which included a new cosmology that accounted for the motions of the planetary spheres, and could also prove the existence of God. For what would Descartes be if he could not account for what all philosophers had accounted for: the hidden order of nature as reflected in the stars. His new system, a Heliocentric one no less, would eventually be counted as the “beginning of theory in the modern sense” [2]. Yet, Descartes shies away from expanding on it. Some believe that his reasons lie in Galileo’s notorious prosecution for holding similar views only some years before. And while Descartes himself alludes to this in his text without mentioning specific names, do not be fooled: the “Discourse on Method” is a work of philosophy first, and everything included and excluded is done so for a reason. That is made evident by what comes next, the only part of his new science that Descartes felt worthy of including, the amount that would forever change Man into the mechanical being that we understand him today: a description of the human heart.

Why the heart? Descartes goes through a rhetorical path that essentially states that during the time he wrote the Discourse he felt that most people were not yet ready for the full publishing of his theories. A work of a smaller magnitude perhaps, like the work that the reader was holding in their hands, was preferable. But like the sorcerer that he really is, Descartes politely deceives that same reader as to the true magnitude of what he is about to accomplish: the redefinition of the human organism from an “essentialist” one, where a unique inner quality separated Man from the rest of creation, to that of a machine, animated by the same forces that moved everything else in the universe. In this context, the heart is not just a quick and easy way for Descartes to showcase his new theories, but a surgical operation on human consciousness, and the factual errors that he makes along the way while describing the heart’s actual functions are well besides the point, as they will in time be corrected without altering Descartes’ radical vision of human nature. Because the heart, he tells his reader, is where the soul emanates from to the rest of the body. The heart is where the “generation of animal spirits,” the source of animal motion is found. Yet, this same heart functions in a purely mechanical way that is eerily similar to that of a diesel engine. An engine-heart where a single drop of blood goes in through the major valves and inflates from the heat that is always present in its cavities. This drop never gets “burnt” like petrol, of course, but is heated-up, turning “thinner” in the process, pushing the cavities of the heart outwards to account for half-a-beat, until the secondary valves open to let the blood out, forcing the heart into contraction, completing a full beat while animating the whole human body through something akin to hydraulic pressure. That is the moment this humble Frenchman, René Descartes, stood like Dr. Frankenstein above his new man and proclaimed in similar wonder – but surprisingly lacking in horror – “it’s alive!” For the vision that would unfold in the next centuries would be one whereby man is practically defined by the functions of his organs, paving the way for the modern neuroscientist to proclaim there is no such thing as free will, and the cosmologist to insist on our insignificance based purely on his relative material size. In short, Modern Man arose uglier, but somehow superior after being stitched together from his most reliable parts.

Like all great minds that came before him, the Descartes we encounter in the Discourse seems to have a real sense of what he had accomplished. Still, being a good Christian who wanted to avoid the arrogance of the pagans, he insisted that what he laid out in his book were only observations to be taken at one’s discretion. But the greatness of his vision is betrayed in Descartes’ understanding of its future possibilities: the construction of an artificial organism that will be indistinguishable from man, at least in aspect. And why not? If life is but a function of its mechanisms, as elaborate as these might have looked to the 17th-century man, they will eventually be understood and replicated. Having performed a feat of philosophical engineering, placing a mechanical heart to the center of the human being, Descartes opened the way for the dominance of materialist science over all of its opponents, to such a degree no less, that one is exaggerating only slightly if they were to say that from Descartes’ now-celebrated book to the transhumanist agenda of today, all that is required is a single step in logic. When Donna Haraway wrote her famous “Cyborg Manifesto” in 1985, the technologies that she was proposing as the future of mankind, based on a synthesis of biology and electronics, were not there to begin with, at least not yet, but she could already proclaim herself to be a “cyborg” (short for ‘cybernetic organism’) simply by going to a modern gym, as the “Nautilus” training equipment that was being installed there could not have existed without the “preconception of the body as high-performance machine” [3]. “If you start talking to people about how they cook their dinner” she concludes, “or what kind of language they use to describe trouble in a marriage, you’re very likely to get notions of tape loops, communication breakdown, noise and signal – amazing stuff.” And it’s amazing indeed.

Descartes’ book “Discourse on Method” has the length of an essay, yet, its writer suggests that some readers might find it difficult to go through it all at once, a strange premise indeed, considering the reading habits of Descartes’ contemporaries. Combine it with his insistence on colloquial French rather than Latin, and we get the full sense of what he means. For the “Discourse” was perhaps one of the first philosophical treatises meant to be read but the general public, the average Frenchman of his times who, should not only be able to understand Descartes but can actually contribute to his Method through experiments. That is perhaps the last of his work’s many layers, his populism, intended as more than a form of convenience to increase his reader base, but a statement of the all-conquering power of exactly that which is familiar rather than unique to all men: reason. For those “half-conscious Marxists” who are still convinced that Materialism is the only right kind of history, Descartes’ work is a clumsy precursor to modern science’s ultimate triumph following the Industrial Revolution. For those however who believe that anything that happens on the material plane is actually preceded by a similar change in the human mind, Descartes is the dark sorcerer that Don Quixote believed had enchanted the world, redefining the human organism by way of its repetitive functions, that appear to work like parts in a machine, one of great complexity but with nothing that’s more mysterious than a clock-work. His astonishing foresight into the effects of this view, his mention of androids – even if he believed them to be devoid of spirit – shows that world-views as powerful as his, once taken, can lead us into a brave new world.

 

Notes

[1] Hegel, for instance, showed that Man is unique among creatures because while animals live by “metabolizing” nature, Man does so by changing it into an idea – Spirit in Hegel’s terms – like cutting down a tree to build a temple for a god that he can only imagine. And as abstract as this sounds, only a simple glance at even the most primitive tribes can prove Hegel, at least partially, correct. Anthropologists have long observed that ritual practices among natives such as piercing and tattooing, elongating the neck, cutting off parts of the body, are understood by members of their society as “completing” the work of nature. Man is not born as such according to them but is made into one through acts of intervention. The result that we often see pictured on the covers of National Geographic, is not a “noble savage” ready to fulfils our back-to-nature fantasies, but a creature that went against nature, to become Man. Only that Hegel, as taught in schools, is not the great German idealist who showed that Matter and Spirit come together in Man, but the philosopher of history who inspired Karl Marx with his idea of dialectics, the notion that history moves by creating self-competing forms that can eventually lead to a final synthesis.

[2] Truesdell, C., 1984, An Idiot’s Fugitive Essays on Science, New York: Springer Verlag.

[3] Hari Kunzru, “You Are Cyborg” [Wired Magazine Online Edition] Published: 02.01.1997 12:00 PM. Available from: https://www.wired.com/1997/02/ffharaway/

 

Michael MichailidisMichael Michailidis
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