Descartes' baby, the soul and art

Review of Paul Bloom's "Descartes' Baby"
(Basic Books: 2004)

Stevan Harnad
Chaire de recherche du Canada
Centre de neuroscience de la cognition (CNC)
Institut des sciences cognitives (ISC/CSI)
Université du Québec à Montréal
Montréal, Québec,  Canada  H3C 3P8

Summary: The notion of an immaterial, immortal "soul" is just a vague
telekinetic theory to fill an unfillable explanatory gap in our understanding
of the causal role of feelings.

From the fact that most adults and children believe in an immaterial, immortal soul, Paul Bloom, in Descartes' Baby, concludes that this is somehow part of our evolved genetic heritage.

If so, then it would seem to follow, by the same token, that the belief in the divinity and supernatural powers of kings is likewise innate, and so are innumerable other beliefs, actual and potential, right down to Schultz's Great Pumpkin.

More likely, our and our children's belief in the soul arises from (1) our undoubtable (and undoubtedly evolved) Cartesian feeling that we ourselves feel ("cogito ergo sum" -- "sentio ergo sentitur"), (2) our less indubitable but nevertheless irresistible (and probably evolved) feeling that others that are sufficiently like us feel too ("mind-reading"), plus (3) our complete inability to explain either the causes or the effects of feelings physically (the "mind/body problem"), so that, when forced, the only explanation we feel at home with is telekinetic dualism ("mind over matter").

I am not at all sure that this amounts to an innate belief in the soul, but if it does, we certainly didn't need empirical studies of children or adults to demonstrate it: Descartes could have deduced it from his armchair by reason and introspection alone.

Paul Bloom also presents developmental data that he thinks bear upon the question of what is and is not art, and on why we prefer originals to forgeries or to misattributed works by lesser artists. The findings concern children's ability to understand that a picture is a picture of an object, rather than just an object itself; that drawings they (or others) have drawn are drawings of what they meant to draw, even if they don't look like them; that a deliberate artifact is different from an accidental one, or a natural object; and that whereas children may sometimes prefer copies of things to the originals, when it comes to their own teddy bears, they'd rather keep the original. This tells us about children's understanding of representation and intention, and their ability to make the artifact/non-artifact distinction, but not about the art/non-art let alone the good/bad art distinction. Nor do the findings on children's attachments to particular things help, since the very same preference (for originals over copies or different objects) would apply to Eva Braun's underwear (which would have some cult/fetish/collector value while believed to have been hers, none once proven otherwise); hence these findings are about authorship, not art.

As to "Descartes' Baby" -- an apocryphal story that Descartes was so grief-stricken at the death of his 5-year-old daughter Francine that he built a life-like robot of her that he took with him everywhere till it was discovered by a ship-captain who was so horrified by it that he threw it overboard: This is another example of our overwhelming (and no doubt innate) "mind-reading" tendency to interpret creatures that look and behave as if they feel as if they really do feel (even if the feeling that evokes in us is horror or disgust). This innate tendency of ours is put to more practical scientific use in Turing's Test.