Consciousness, Intelligence, and Early Modern Philosophy

modern philo


Exponential trends in the progress of science and technology are rapidly changing the way we view and experience the world. I will address the likelihood that early modern philosophy will maintain valid philosophical arguments. Advances in neuroscience, deeper understandings of consciousness, enhanced cognitive abilities, artificial intelligence, and the like, may drastically change the way we view reality as well as the place of the human mind within it.

The most common notion among most early modern philosophers is that they all incorporate some kind of subjective identity that somehow interacts with reality and is presumed to exist by virtue of experience. I challenge this notion of identity, which raises serious problems to rationalism and further explore their mind-body problem within this new perspective which lacks identity.


Descartes is a dualist, which is to say he subscribes to the idea that one’s mind or soul is somehow seporate from one’s brain. Descartes identifies the perceived differences between the subjectivity of the mind in relation to its extended self, which is the body (including brain). Elizabeth of Bohemia illuminates the crucial error in his logic by exposing the unreasonable connection of extended and nonextended substances. Later developments in physics suggest otherwise. The first law of thermodynamics states that energy can neither be created or destroyed. Descartes model of dualism would violate this law in that an un-extended body has influence over an extended one, which is to say some matter of energy is transferred.

Descartes finds this connection difficult to substantiate. He evokes a Kantian like view that describes a deeper underlying connection in which we cannot observe or reason. For both Kant and Descartes to concede this, is to also concede that there may be other underlying truths about reality and the mind, which a thinking thing may not exist at all.

Descartes skepticism was later expounded upon by philosopher David Hume, who went even further and claimed that nothing is known for certain and we can only obtain a very high probability of certainty. In this Humean model, ultimately anything is possible, however we should use the best of our assumptions to predict aspects of reality. By Hume’s logic, the mythical assumption to link extended bodies with non-extended ones, holds equal weight (in terms of probability) with the notion that thinking things may not actually exist by means of mystical intervention of the same sort. This claim is evident to Descartes and Kant because they have no knowledge to assert one claim to be more probable than the other.

One of the central tenets of Descartes claims in the Meditations, is that the mind is an indivisible and must be composed of an identity unbound to the extended world. Earlier in this paper the claim that the unextended mind has a reasonable way to interact with the extended world, was found highly improbable by both reason (Elisabeth of Bohemia) as well as by observation (1st law of thermodynamics). From here I argue there is reason to believe that identity and the sense of self, as well as its implications Descartes makes about them, are false.

The Changing Self

While Descartes might claim the body (as well as the brain) are mere vessels for the spirits that inhabit them and damaging them may result in a sort of damage to tools, he makes no effort to explain the possibility of enhancement. From the first development of the nervous system to the point of total electrical death of the brain, the identity of a mind is constantly changing. If what Descartes proposes as the actual identity of the mind is most closely represented by the height of its abilities, the argument is still problematic. There are different ways to interpret what psychologists call “self actualization”. One may achieve multiple and equal levels of self actualization in different times of one’s life and therefore would have multiple identities (if one regards self actualization as the closest thing to the identity of a mind). Today, cognitive enhancement is also available in ways that substantially increase natural capabilities. The exponential growth of science and technology suggests with a great deal of certainty that ways to enhance the brain will also exponentially grow. With the possibility that the mind may become godly in its intelligence and capacity, the means identity of mind becomes impossible to pinpoint.

Mary’s Room and AI

Though the identity of a mind can not be consistent, Descartes can still hold that it is a thinking thing and therefore has some claim to identity even if that identity is ever-changing. Modern neuroscience also suggests reason to believe a greater degree of certainty exists in claiming the mind to be information based, including aspects of conscious experience. This claim has serious philosophical implications. First, it suggests that experience is transferable via information. A thought experiment dubbed “Mary’s Room” helps to elaborate on this implication. While Mary learns everything about color in a black and white room, the wavelengths, photon properties, etc., she will presumably still learn something when she leaves the room and experiences color. This argument is often used in support of the notion that there is something unique to conscious experience which supersedes any application of knowledge and is only obtainable through subjective experience. This experiment also supports the idea that Descartes is correct in assuming that consciousness is different from say machinery by the property of subjective experience.

By the information based mind model one can conclude that the logic behind this argument is false and one only needs to further expand ideas of learning from traditional ways to understand why. Mary was a brilliant scientist, but it would help her even more if she were a brilliant bio-engineer. With presumably unlimited information, she could study the ways in which the occipital lobes (responsible primarily for vision) interact with the frontal lobes (primarily responsible for conscious thought) in people who do experience color. Through her advanced knowledge of bio-engineering, she could then recreate structures and states of her own brain to the extent that they sufficiently mimicked the structure and activity to that of a color seeing person. By the application of information alone, Mary was able to experience color without ever having left the room. Another implication of this informational based mind model is that Mary isn’t required to be human at all. Mary could have been created by engineers at Google or by the minds of DARPA. To artificially create a thing that thinks, yet has no connection with the biology that Descartes claims is the only medium for the mind to interact with the environment, is to disprove the necessity for a mysterious connection of mind to body. Further, if one can conclude that mind is contained within body, then one can also claim that the self is a type of modular illusion.

Another thought experiment is helpful to explain this reasoning. Theseus’ Ship is one that accrues wear over time but is repaired to its original state after one or another component breaks and is replaced. After all of its components have been replaced it is no longer physically the same ship, yet all of its information is preserved. This example is similar to the human condition in that the cells which comprise the human body metabolize energy as and replace themselves about every five years. There is one cell that constitutes a notable exception, and that is brain cells, which can last a lifetime. To say that the preservation of the self is maintained simply by the survival of brain cells is also false, as every moment our minds are slightly changed by experience and natural biochemical processes.

Free Will

Some philosophers, rely on free will to suggest that subjectivity is substantially different from unconscious entities. Because some creatures are endowed with the capacity to recognise themselves and their place in the world, with some being able to predict the future, somehow empowers an individual to act in one way or the other. This notion of free will is also an illusion. Conscious beings physical composition and behavior rely solely on states of the world they are not responsible for. Any combination of genetics, place or time of birth, exposition of circumstantial events, or other aspects of environmental influence are as out of the individual’s control as their height or skin color. Events are determined for creatures who are born or created because the parameters of their creation and subsequent development are uncontrollable to the individual. This is not to say that all events are a consequent of fate or that events must happen by the nature of reality. There may be some room for randomness or uncertainty in the context of individual but should not be credited to an individual as a decider. Some philosophers argue that free will is possible because of this randomness however, the individual is no more in control of the random events that happen, nor the previously established mechanism that determined how the randomness is dealt with. Individuals simply react from some combination of  previous experiences and genetics.


Something in which has no presumable connection to the supernatural, no identity, and no free will, is far more relatable to unconscious objects than the perspective that Descartes takes on a thinking thing. Conscious seems to become more of an illusion of sorts that can be dissected, broken down, expanded, and copied, making it an elusive notion. Subjectivity continues to perplex scientists and philosophers however. As Kant would suggest about free will, even if it doesn’t exist, we must act as if did. The same too goes for conscious experience, however out of control or influence it may seem, the only way to acceptably deal with it is to act as if we are thinking things.


One thought on “Consciousness, Intelligence, and Early Modern Philosophy

  1. bunny138

    “… free will, even if it doesn’t exist, we must act as if did.”

    I often hear this, and sometimes think it myself. Why must we act this way? Is it too much for our puny egos to confront the truth? Or to even look for it?

    What would it look like if we didn’t have free will? What would it look like if we did? If we KNEW we did not have it, must we still act as if we did?


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