DESCARTES : WAS HE CARTESIAN?!

Not so sure!

The dualism he largely contributed to promote postulates that soul and matter don’t belong to the same world: the soul is immaterial and responsible notably of our free-will when our understanding comes from the working of our material and organised brain. Communication between these two realms could be done in the only odd organ of our brain: our epiphysis.

But we find a very different Descartes in the intimacy of his correspondence! Frontiers between immaterial emotions and organic illnesses aren’t impenetrable; dualism shows important breaches!

« The most ordinary cause of slow fever is sorrow; and chance continues to persecute your house, giving you continuous reasons to be angry (…). And one could fear that you couldn’t be freed of it, unless by the power of your personality you could make your soul happy, in spite of destiny’s disgrace. »

Descartes to Elisabeth of Bohème – Egmond, may 18 mai 1645

« But, as body’s health and pleasant environment greatly help our soul to quick off all sad emotions and bring in joyful ones, reciprocally when mind is joyful it helps the body to keep healthy and the environment seems nicer. »

Descartes to Elisabeth of Bohème – November 1646

Clearly the philosopher explains to Elisabeth her melancholy is the cause of her physical illness and that it should heal in relation to her mood; there is therefore a clear link between the body, ill or healthy, and immaterial thoughts or emotions. Today we know of « placebo » or « nocebo » effects. But we don’t yet understand how they participate to about 30% of the measured effects. Maybe we should look here also for a new paradigm that would let us better understand the links between thoughts, moods and organised living matter.

Descartes goes even farther when he links his own mood with chance in games! He suggests to Elisabeth to have an influence on events just by working on her mood that could change the sequence of events in the material world in her favour! It is psychophysics well beyond our time!

« And I’m led to believe that interior joy has some secret power to make chance events more favorable. I won’t write that to feeble minds since they could become superstitious; but in your highness presence I would only by afraid you took me for a gullible man. But I could present so many experiences, with Socrate’s authority, to confirm my opinion. I often realised that what I did with a joyful mood, without any reluctance, would succeed, even if they are chance games, where only chance reigns, I always found it more favourable when I was joyful instead of when I was sad. And Socrate’s demon wasn’t probably something else, he used to follow his intuitions and was convinced that what he did would succeed if he did it joyfully, and, on the contrary, would fail if he was sad. »

Descartes to Elisabeth of Bohème – November 1646

Descartes highlights that it could be dangerous for superstitious people to rely on this knowing that should therefore be kept secret and available only to strong personalities. The feeble could rely on this link between mood and chance and avoid progressing in personality and rationality. But he clearly accepts his experiences and the influence his soul could have on material things as chance games!

He doesn’t feel alone since he introduces Socrate’s demon; Socrate who followed the advices given by what we could, today, name his « intuition ». Again, an evidence of communication between what happens in an immaterial realm and the material one; a communication that seems to transcend space and time where matter belongs! A large breach in the dualistic wall between matter and soul.

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