First posted on Monday, 13 August 2012 at 20:32
The dualism of mind and material world has long been reflected in the the separation of the economic sphere from the religious and moral sphere, leaving the individual, at least notionally free to lead a parallel desacralised life, accumulating wealth in a way that would have been once abhorrent to the church and society at large in the pre-Reformation world. For a life led in pursuit of financial gain was considered sinful, and gain through usury, the lending of money for interest, the worst form of this avaricious sin. A dualistic life is not sustainable anyway. Jesus tells us we have to make a choice; “No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to theone and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.” Matthew 24.
The dualism was reflected too in political struggle, with individual liberty underpinning the the philosophies of liberalism,Marxism and anarchism. How noteworthy it is that their aspirations to freedom from social constraint have ultimately resulted in their opposites; inhumanness and sameness the world over.
And, of course, it is Cartesianism dualism that underpins science; it is the very foundation of today’s scientific worldview, one in which the disembodied observing subject seeks to understand all it can about the objective state of the material world external to it, through experiment and measurement. And measured in quantity against a human scale, science has met with a success that has served to reinforce Cartesian dualism as the unquestioned mode of modern thought. I consciously shared in this unquestioning servility towards science. And why not? Had not western rationality since the renaissance given us democracy, liberty and freedom of thought and expression? Then there are the benefits of modern medicine and has not scientific progress fed and clothed us and kept us warm? Would we not put all this at risk by questioning the very mode of thinking that achieved it all? Surely we should all spring to the defense of our western way of life whenever it is under threat, and aid those who want to throw off whatever tyrannous yoke they are under in order to join us in our dualistic existence.
And yet, what is this disembodied mind of western rationality? Nothing, argues the Cartesian position, most famously championed by John Locke (above). It is a ‘tabula rasa’, to be filled in by whatever worldly experience happens to come its way, for from where else might ideas and influences come if not this world? That the individual is a passive receptor is the implication of this position, a state of affairs which is distinctly at odds with the western mind’s hunger for freedom and scientific knowledge.
Oh the quest for knowledge, with which our minds are imbued, it fills not the emptiness, it simply hides it and buries the despair. If we commence life as a void, upon what is our knowledge grounded? More knowledge simply raises to consciousness our own innate emptiness. For, from the Cartesian standpoint, we are born into a fixed and finished world, there to labour within the strict confines of a mind-independent reality. Could there be a more cruel, elaborate and stultifying fiction? To be thrust at birth into a prefabricated external world, where most of our responsibilities are unacknowledged and are progressively diminished and our freedom is in reality a figment of our imagination. We imagine ourselves the product of genes and the environment, functions of complexes and familial trauma, inextricably dependent on external contingencies, but then proclaim ourselves free!
To hold a conviction that we can only come to know the world by observing it as spectators is to prescind from a direct, active and moral involvement. It is the very opposite of freedom.