Tag Archives: René Descartes

Free Will, Materialism & Dualism

Drawing from René Descartes' (1596-1650) in &q...

Drawing from René Descartes’ (1596-1650) in “meditations métaphysiques” explaining the function of the pineal gland. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

During the Modern era, philosophers such as Descartes and Locke developed the notions of material substance and immaterial substance. Material substance, or matter, was primarily defined as being extended and spatially located. Descartes, and other thinkers, also took the view that material substance could not think. Immaterial substance was taken to lack extension and to not possess a spatial location. Most importantly, immaterial substance was regarded as having thought as its defining attribute.  While these philosophers are long dead, the influence of their concepts lives on in philosophy and science.

In philosophy, people still draw the classic distinction between dualists and materialists. A dualist holds that a living person consists of a material body and an immaterial mind. The materialist denies the existence of the immaterial mind and accepts only matter. There are also phenomenonalists who contend that all that exists is mental. Materialism of this sort is popular both in contemporary philosophy and science. Dualism is still popular with the general population in that many people believe in a non-material soul that is distinct from the body.

Because of the history of dualism, free will is often linked to the immaterial mind. As such, it is no surprise that people who reject the immaterial mind engage in the following reasoning: an immaterial mind is necessary for free will. There is no immaterial mind. So, there is no free will.

Looked at positively, materialists tend to regard their materialism as entailing a lack of free will. Thomas Hobbes, a materialist from the Modern era, accepted determinism as part of his materialism. Taking the materialist path, the argument against free will is that if the mind is material, then there is no free will. The mind is material, so there is no free will.

Interestingly enough, those who accepted the immaterial mind tended to believe that only an immaterial substance could think—so they inferred the existence of such a mind on the grounds that they thought. Materialists most often accept the mind, but cast it in physical terms. That is, people do think and feel, they just do not do so via the mysterious quivering of immaterial ectoplasm. Some materialists go so far as to reject the mind—perhaps ending up in behaviorism or eliminative materialism.

Julien La Metrie was one rather forward looking materialist.  In 1747 he published his work Man the Machine. In this work he claims that philosophers should be like engineers who analyze the mind. Unlike many of the thinkers of his time, he seemed to understand the implications of mechanism, namely that it seemed to entail determinism and reductionism. A few centuries later, this sort of view is rather popular in the sciences and philosophy: since materialism is true and humans are biological mechanisms, there is no free will and the mind can be reduced (explained entirely in terms of) its physical operations (or functions).

One interesting mistake that seems to drive this view is the often uncritical assumption that materialism entails the impossibility of free will. As noted above, this rests on the notion that free will requires an immaterial mind. This is, perhaps, because such a mind is said to be exempt from the laws that run the material universe.

One part of the mistake is a failure to realize that being incorporeal is not a sufficient condition for free will. One of Hume’s many interesting insights was that if immaterial substance exists, then it would be like material substance. When discussing the possibility of immortality, he claims that nature uses substance like clay: shaping it into various forms, then reshaping the matter into new forms so that the same matter can successively make up the bodies of living creatures.  By analogy, an immaterial substance could successively make up the minds of living creatures—the substance would not be created or destroyed, it would merely change form. If his reasoning holds, it would seem that if material substance is not free, then immaterial substance would also not be free. Leibniz, who believed that reality was entirely mental (composed of monads) accepted a form of determinism. This determinism, though it has some problems, seems entirely consistent with his immaterialism (that everything is mental). This should hardly be surprising, since being immaterial does not entail that something has free will—the two are rather distinct attributes.

Another part of the mistake is the uncritical assumption that materialism entails a lack of freedom. Naturally, if matter is defined as being deterministic and lacking in freedom, then materialism would (by begging the question) entail a lack of freedom. Likewise, if matter is defined (as many thinkers did) as being incapable of thought, then it would follow (by begging the question) that no material being could think. Just as it should not be assumed that matter cannot think, it should also not be assumed that a material being must lack free will. Looked at another way, it should not be assumed that being incorporeal is a necessary condition for free will.

What, obviously enough, seems to have driven the error is the conflation of the incorporeal with freedom and the material with determinism (or lack of freedom). Behind this is, also obviously enough, the assumption that the incorporeal is exempt from the laws that impose harsh determinism on matter. But, if it is accepted that a purely material being can think (thus denying the assumption that only the immaterial can think) it would seem to be acceptable to consider that such a being could also be free (thus denying the assumption that only the immaterial can be free).


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Anyone Home?

English: man coming out of coma.

English: man coming out of coma. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As I tell my students, the metaphysical question of personal identity has important moral implications. One scenario I present is that of a human in what seems to be a persistent vegetative state. I say “human” rather than “person”, because the human body in question might no longer be a person. To use a common view, if a person is her soul and the soul has abandoned the shell, then the person is gone.

If the human is still a person, then it seems reasonable to believe that she has a different moral status than a mass of flesh that was once a person (or once served as the body of a person). This is not to say that a non-person human would have no moral status at all—I do not want to be interpreted as holding that view. Rather, my view is that personhood is a relevant factor in the morality of how an entity is treated.

To use a concrete example, consider a human in what seems to be a vegetative state. While the body is kept alive, people do not talk to the body and no attempt is made to entertain the body, such as playing music or audiobooks. If there is no person present or if there is a person present but she has no sensory access at all, then this treatment would seem to be acceptable—after all it would make no difference whether people talked to the body or not.

There is also the moral question of whether such a body should be kept alive—after all, if the person is gone, there would not seem to be a compelling reason to keep an empty shell alive. To use an extreme example, it would seem wrong to keep a headless body alive just because it can be kept alive. If the body is no longer a person (or no longer hosts a person), then this would be analogous to keeping the headless body alive.

But, if despite appearances, there is still a person present who is aware of what is going on around her, then the matter is significantly different. In this case, the person has been effectively isolated—which is certainly not good for a person.

In regards to keeping the body alive, if there is a person present, then the situation would be morally different. After all, the moral status of a person is different from that of a mass of merely living flesh. The moral challenge, then, is deciding what to do.

One option is, obviously enough, to treat all seemingly vegetative (as opposed to brain dead) bodies as if the person was still present. That is, the body would be accorded the moral status of a person and treated as such.

This is a morally safe option—it would presumably be better that some non-persons get treated as persons rather than risk persons being treated as non-persons. That said, it would still seem both useful and important to know.

One reason to know is purely practical: if people know that a person is present, then they would presumably be more inclined to take the effort to treat the person as a person. So, for example, if the family and medical staff know that Bill is still Bill and not just an empty shell, they would tend to be more diligent in treating Bill as a person.

Another reason to know is both practical and moral: should scenarios arise in which hard choices have to be made, knowing whether a person is present or not would be rather critical. That said, given that one might not know for sure that the body is not a person anymore it could be correct to keep treating the alleged shell as a person even when it seems likely that he is not. This brings up the obvious practical problem: how to tell when a person is present.

Most of the time we judge there is a person present based on appearance, using the assumption that a human is a person. Of course, there might be non-human people and there might be biological humans that are not people (headless bodies, for example). A somewhat more sophisticated approach is to use the Descartes’s test: things that use true language are people. Descartes, being a smart person, did not limit language to speaking or writing—he included making signs of the sort used to communicate with the deaf. In a practical sense, getting an intelligent response to an inquiry can be seen as a sign that a person is present.

In the case of a body in an apparent vegetative state applying this test is quite a challenge. After all, this state is marked by an inability to show awareness. In some cases, the apparent vegetative state is exactly what it appears to be. In other cases, a person might be in what is called “locked-in-syndrome.” The person is conscious, but can be mistaken for being minimally conscious or in a vegetative state. Since the person cannot, typically, respond by giving an external sign some other means is necessary.

One breakthrough in this area is due to Adrian M. Owen. Overs implying things considerably, he found that if a person is asked to visualize certain activities (playing tennis, for example), doing so will trigger different areas of the brain. This activity can be detected using the appropriate machines. So, a person can ask a question such as “did you go to college at Michigan State?” and request that the person visualize playing tennis for “yes” or visualize walking around her house for “no.” This method provides a way of determining that the person is still present with a reasonable degree of confidence. Naturally, a failure to respond would not prove that a person is not present—the person could still remain, yet be unable (or unwilling) to hear or respond.

One moral issue this method can held address is that of terminating life support. “Pulling the plug” on what might be a person without consent is, to say the least, morally problematic. If a person is still present and can be reached by Owen’s method, then thus would allow the person to agree to or request that she be taken off life support. Naturally, there would be practical questions about the accuracy of the method, but this is distinct from the more abstract ethical issue.

It must be noted that the consent of the person would not automatically make termination morally acceptable—after all, there are moral objections to letting a person die in this manner even when the person is fully and clearly conscious. Once it is established that the method adequately shows consent (or lack of consent), the broader moral issue of the right to die would need to be addressed.


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Playing with Solipsism

Ol' Solipsism

Ol’ Solipsism (Photo credit: found_drama)

Imagine that you are the only being that exists.  Not that you are the last person on earth, but that the earth and everything other than you is merely the product of your deranged imagination. This, very crudely put, is solipsism.

As with watching Star Trek, most philosophers go through a solipsism phase. As with the Macarena and Gangnam Style, this phases usually fades with merciful rapidity. This fading is, however, usually not due to a definitive refutation of solipsism. In many cases, philosophers just get bored with it and move on. In other cases, it is very much like the fads of childhood-it is okay to accept the fad as a kid, but once you grow up you need to move on to adult things. Likewise for solipsism-a philosopher who plays with it too long will be shamed by her fellows. Mostly.

Just for fun, I thought I would play a bit with solipsism-in the manner of an adult who finds an favorite childhood toy in the attic and spends a few moments playing with it before setting it aside, presumably to go write a status update about it on Facebook.

Interestingly enough, solipsism actually has a lot going for it-at least in terms of solving philosophical problems and meeting various conditions of philosophical goodness.

One obvious thing in favor of solipsism is that, as per Descartes’ wax example, every experience seems to serve to prove that I exist rather than that something else  exists. For example, if I seem to be playing around with some wax, I can (as per Descartes) doubt that the wax exists. However, my experience seems to show rather clearly that I exist and doubting my existence would just serve to prove I exist. In fact, as skeptics have argued for centuries, it seems impossible to prove that there is anything external to myself-be it an external world or other minds. As such, solipsism seems to be the safest bet: I know I exist, but I have no knowledge about anything else.

Another factor in favor of solipsism is its economy and simplicity. All the theory requires is that I, whatever I am, exist. As such, there would presumably be just one ontological kind (me). Any other theory (other than the theory that there is nothing) would need more stuff and would need more complexity. These seem to be significant advantages for solipsism.

A third factor is that solipsism seems to solve many philosophical problems. The problem of the external world? Solved: no such thing. The problem of other minds? Solved: no such things. The mind-body problem? Probably solved. And so on for many other problems.

Naturally, there are various objections to solipsism.

One obvious objection, which I stole from Descartes (or myself), is that if I was the only being in existence, then I would surely have made myself better. However, I make no claims to being omnipotent-so perhaps I made myself as well as I could. Or perhaps I did not create myself at all-maybe I just appeared ex-nihilo. In any case, this does not seem to be a fatal problem.

A related objection is the argument from bad experiences:  cannot be the only thing in existence because of the bad experiences I have.  I’ve experience illness, injury, pain and so on. Surely, the argument goes, if I was the only being in existence I would not have these bad experiences. All my experiences would be good.

Laying aside the possibility that I am a masochist, the easy and obvious reply is to point out that a person’s dreams are produced by the person, yet dreams can be nightmares. I’ve written up many of my nightmares as horror adventures for games such as Dark Conspiracy and Call of Cthulhu so it can be gathered that I do have some rather awful nightmares. I also have dreams with more mundane woes and suffering, such as nightmares about illnesses, injuries and so on. Given that it is accepted that a person can generate awful dreams, it would seem to make sense that the same sort of thing could happen in the case of solipsism. That is, if I can dream nightmares I can also  “live” them.

Another objection is that the alleged real world contains things that I do not understand (like specialized mathematics) and things I could not create (like works of art). As such, I cannot be the only being that exists.

The easy and obvious reply to the understanding reply is that I understand as much as I do and the extent of my understanding defines what seems possible to me. To be a bit clearer, I have no understanding of the specialized mathematics that lies beyond my understanding and hence I do not really know if there is anything there I do not actually know. That is, what is allegedly beyond my understanding might not exist at all. Interestingly, any attempt to show that something exists beyond my understanding (and hence must be created by someone else) would fail. To the degree I understand it, I can attribute it to my own creation. To the degree I do not, I can attribute it to my own ignorance.

In terms of the art objection, the easy reply is to note that I can dream of art that I apparently cannot create myself. To use an example, in the waking world, I have little skill when it comes to painting. But I have had dreams in which I saw magnificent  original paintings I had not seen in real life.  The same applies to dream statues, architecture and so on. As such, the art that seems beyond me in the world could be produced in the same way it occurs in dreams.

Descartes (or me), I think, had the most promising project for refuting solipsism: if I can find something that I cannot possible be the cause of, then that gives me a good reason to believe that I am not the only being in existence. Or, more accurately, that I am not the only being to ever exist. However, there does not seem to be anything like that-after all, everything I experience falls within the limits of me and hence could all be about and only me.

But surely that is crazy.


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First Philosophy Shooter: Cartesian Apocalypse

The year is 2056. The majority of the world’s population has been deceived and enslaved by the virtual reality of the Evil Genius.  Only the mysterious Cartesian Circle has the will and the means to oppose the Evil Genius. Using advanced technology and theology, they resurrect the one man to ever face off against the Evil Genius: Rene Descartes.

In FPS: Cartesian Apocalypse you take on the role of Rene Descartes. Guided by the Panopticon, you use the power of philosophy (and lots of guns) to battle the tyranny of the Evil Genius. Your mundane arsenal is augmented by powers drawn from the great philosophers of history: the Socratic Method, the Platonic Form, the Inverted Spectrum, the Chinese Box, the Second Sex, Mad Pain & Martian Pain, the Will to Power, the Categorical Imperative, and more. Do you know how to save the world?




“Step over Diablo, there is a new Evil Genius in town!”
-A. Blizzard

“This game reminds me that the French once did real philosophy.”
-V. Quine

“It is imperative that you play this game.”
-I. Kant

“FPS maximizes utility. And destruction. Five stars.”
-J. Mill

“It is nothing, but what kick-ass nothing it is being.”
-J. Sartre

“F@ck Yeah!”

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Realisms: truth and Berkeley (part 2)

This post is a continuation of a multi-part series that began here.

Many philosophers patrol the armistice line between realism and anti-realism. These philosophers optimistically claim that there is a substantive disagreement between the schools.

Some of these philosophers might be described as hybrid theorists, owing to their acceptance of both realism and anti-realism, albeit in different senses. These philosophers have noticed that the conditions of presumption and modesty are not very clear. They contend that our cognitive abilities have limits, and the degree of access we have to the world must be held up against the horizon-line of our abilities.

This is how I think we should read Kant. He made the distinction between phenomena and noumena (thing-in-itself), and argued that powers of reason could be used to access the former but not the latter. In his way of speaking, noumena could only be contemplated by speculative reason, even though such speculations held no potential for vindication. In other words, the noumenal realm is mind-independent, in that it transcends the evidence accessible to our cognitive powers, while phenomena are mind-dependent.

Other hybrid theorists suggest that there might also be different ways of construing the meaning of “the world”. In effect, such forms of thought would argue that there are two interacting worlds. I think Descartes‘s substance dualism might be cited as an example.

The Kantian and Cartesian views are remarkable because they are optimistic about the use of the realism/anti-realism language, at least once one accepts the nuances they want to add to our conceptions of modesty and presumption. The conviction in favor of the preservation of the realism/antirealism debate is given succinct expression by Wright: “If anything is distinctive of philosophical enquiry, it is the attempt to understand the relation between human thought and the world… If our successors come to reject not the details but the very issue of the contemporary debate concerning realism, it will be because they have rejected philosophy itself.” (1)

But other philosophers have outright rejected the distinction by arguing that we can’t make much sense of what the debate amounts to. Rosen explains, “… after a point, when every attempt to say just what the issue is has come up empty, we have no real choice but to conclude that despite all the wonderful, suggestive imagery, there is ultimately nothing in the neighborhood to discuss.” There can be many kinds of failures at articulation. If the debate, for example, rests upon a misguided use of language (as Wittgenstein insisted), or a muddled understanding of how metaphysical access fits with the substance of the world, or a bogus distinction between appearance and reality (as Rorty claimed), then we ought to abandon all hope of progress towards enlightenment on the issue. At its most extreme, pessimism results in theory quietism, and indifference towards generic realist/anti-realist debates. Whether or not this amounts to a “rejection of philosophy itself” remains to be seen.


I count myself among the pessimists. In order to argue for quietism, in the sense of indifference towards any generic claims about realism, I am interested in exploring the very slight role that immodesty plays in George Berkeley‘s anti-realism. That is to say, I wish to show that, as far as human knowledge of truth and meaning are concerned, he is a realist.

It goes without saying that, as far as the broad caricature of Berkelean idealism goes, objects are dependent upon the operations of the understanding and ideas before the mind (dependent on the mind). Berkeley is at his clearest at the outset of the Principles, when he writes: “It is evident to anyone who takes a survey of the objects of human knowledge, that they are either ideas actually imprinted on the senses, or else such as are perceived by attending to the passions and operations of the mind, or lastly ideas formed by help of memory and imagination”. (89) So Berkeley, when reduced to slogan form, can be considered immodest. But there is no question that he would support explication of what the knowing subject happens to be. For “…all those bodies which compose the mighty frame of the world, have not any subsistence, without a mind, that their being is to be perceived or known; that consequently so long as they are not actually perceived by me, or do not exist in my mind or that of any other created spirit, they must either have no existence at all, or else subsist in the mind of some eternal spirit.” (91)

Berkeley chooses John Locke‘s realism as a central target. Specifically, Berkeley argues against Locke’s distinction between primary and secondary qualities. For Berkeley, the distinction between these qualities raises the question of how ideas (secondary qualities) could resemble insensible material things (primary qualities), which cannot be given a credible answer. Hence, the distinction acts as a wedge that can be exploited by the skeptic. So, again, it would seem logical to characterize Berkeley as an anti-realist. He does, after all, abhor the idea of material substances, lurking beneath our sensations like the dullest of ghosts.

Yet this surface anti-realism is merely apparent. A.C. Grayling comments, “Berkeley’s denial of the existence of matter is not a denial of the existence of the external world and the physical objects it contains, such as tables and chairs, mountains and trees. Nor does Berkeley hold that the world exists only because it is thought of by any one or more finite minds. In one sense of the term ”realist”, indeed, Berkeley is a realist, in holding that the existence of the physical world is independent of finite minds, individually or collectively.” (Grayling:168) The fact that Grayling takes pains to talk about realism in terms of finite minds, we can infer that the phrase “independent of the mind” need not be ambiguous about the knowing subject.


The debates that have informed present-day arguments on realism/anti-realism have rested upon different philosophical ways of speaking about the phrase “independent of the mind”. Hence, the denial of modesty is ambiguous unless the definite article is replaced by reference to the kind of knowing subject. If we try to fill in the gaps, we find that there are at the very least three kinds of immodesty: dependence upon our collective of minds, dependence on an individual mind, and dependence on the divine mind. In Berkeley, and in scholarly commentaries on Berkeley, we find explicit illustrations of this threefold distinction. We shall examine each in turn.

Berkeley’s arguments frequently seem to begin from an individualistic point of view. This is evidenced by constant explicit personal references, marked by phrases like “for my part”, “I sense”, and so forth. This is just to say that he chooses a phenomenal examination of the objects of his senses as his provisional starting point. Such a strategy is to be expected of philosophers that have proceeded in the wake of the Cartesian method. Yet he frequently leans away from the egocentric and into the social by explicitly leaving the ultimate verdict up to the audience, and by advertising himself as being of one mind with the “vulgar”. He continually asks the reader to troll their own thoughts and put his claims to the test of their own experience.

But, of course, this starting point is merely provisional. For it is also common knowledge that Berkeley believed that objects, like the tree in the yard, had an quality of “outness” that persisted even when we were not attending to it. As he puts it in the Second Dialogue (through the mouth of Philonous): “…I conclude, not that [sensible things] have no real existence, but that seeing they depend not on my thought, and have an existence distinct from being perceived by me, there must be some other mind wherein they exist.” (Berkeley, 202; emphasis his) We are left, at the very least, with individualistic realism.

Where he drew upon his individual experience for the purposes of explaining that real things must be comprehended by cognitive powers, we fnd him abandoning his own experience in application to his metaphysics. In that way, the tree in the yard continues to exist in such a way that transcends his evidence for it. The passage continues: “As sure therefore as the sensible world really exists, so sure is there an infinite omnipresent spirit who contains and supports it.” So Berkeley’s anti-realism is only relative to the divine knower.

So far, we have looked at the objectivity of truth relative to individuals, and relative to the divine. But we have left out two other issues: the objectivity of meaning, and the collective as a knowing subject. That’s saving the best for last. After all, if it turns out that Berkeley thinks that we have no collective access to the world, then we will have found some grounds for saying that Berkeley is an anti-realist about human knowledge. But if we can’t make that claim, then the whole debate over realism and anti-realism ends up being vapid pontification over God’s ideas.

Whereas, musing over God’s ideas is about as worthwhile as asking the question, “How now Brown Cow?”; and whereas, the realism/anti-realism debate is a keystone to philosophy; we must be resolved to face the possibility that, if Berkeley is not an anti-realist about collective access to the world, we will have shown that much of philosophy is absurd.

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Debating Meat III: Cartesian Cutlets

Cover of "Descartes (Collector's Library ...

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In my previous post on this subject, I discussed the theology of eating meat. My main focus was on the Christian view of the matter as exemplified by the writings of Thomas Aquinas and Augustine. I now turn to look at the metaphysical view put forth by Rene Descartes and how this relates to the ethics of eating animals.

In his 1648 letter to Henry Moore Descartes addresses the question of whether or not animals have minds. He begins by presenting the main reason that we think that animals think: an argument by analogy. The gist of this argument is that animals resemble us in terms of their behavior and physiology. Hence, we infer that animals also think  because we do so.

Descartes first main argument is based on a common method in philosophy and science, that of Occam’s Razor.  The rough idea is that if something can be explained without assuming the existence of an entity (such as a metaphysical mind), then there is no reason to accept that such a thing exists.

In the case of animals, Descartes argues that all their movements and actions can be explained in purely mechanical terms. Hence, there is no need to accept the existence of animal minds in order to account for their doing what they do. In modern terms, Descartes takes animals to be biological robots-they do what they do on the basis of their mechanical parts rather than on the basis of a metaphysical mind.

While Descartes finds this argument convincing, he thinks that his strongest argument is the language argument. He contends that animals do not use true language (he does concede that they do make sounds that express the states of their bodies, such as pain or hunger) while humans do. He takes this distinction to be the key difference between people (who have minds and bodies) and animals (who are mere bodies).

He concludes his letter, interesting enough, by noting that he is speaking to  “those not committed to the extravagant position of Pythagoras, who held people under suspicion of a crime who ate or killed animals.”

In many ways this argument is similar to those put forth by Augustine and Aquinas. The basic idea is that animals are metaphysically different from us (inferior, of course) and this morally allows us to eat and kill them. While Descartes does not explicitly develop the moral argument, it seems quite reasonable to take this as his view of the matter.

This argument does have  a certain appeal. After all, the moral status of a being does seem to depend on its qualities and the mental qualities (or lack thereof) do seem to be especially relevant. For example, if I get angry and break my laptop, I might be wasting a perfectly good computer but I am committing no wrong against the laptop. After all, a laptop  is simply not the sort of thing that can be wronged. It lacks the qualities that enable it to be a morally relevant agent.

If animals lack minds, then they would be on par with laptops. While they would be complex machines, they would still be mere machines and hence lacking in moral status.

Of course, there are various ways to disagree with Descartes’ argument. One is to argue that animals do, in fact, have minds and that although they are not as complex as the typical human mind, this still entitles them to a moral status. Some folks have even tried to prove that certain animals do use true language. This status might (or might not) be suitable to make the killing or consumption of animals an immoral act.

Another way is to argue that animals have a moral status that does not depend on their having minds. Since Descartes concedes that animals feel pain (but not in the mental sense, since they lack minds) this could be used as a counter against his view (perhaps by making a utilitarian style argument).

One final point I will consider is that some philosophers and scientists (actually many) think that humans lack metaphysical minds. Interestingly enough, one view is that humans are as Descartes saw animals: complex biological automatons (that is, meatbots). So, if Descartes’ argument holds for animals then it would also hold for us as well. Of course, it can also be argued that while humans do not have Cartesian minds, humans do have minds and these minds are superior to animal minds in a way that justifies killing or eating animals.

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