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by Paul Bloom
Basic Books, 2004
Review by Talia Welsh, Ph.D. on Sep 9th 2004

Descartes' Baby

Antonio Damiso's popular book Descartes' Error was first recommended to me by a psychiatrist in Germany.  She explained to me that philosophers, such as myself, had been completely wrong in assuming that such a thing as a soul or mind existed and that science proved that we were not minds and bodies, but one unity--one embodied being--completely assessable to any competent researcher in physiology and psychiatry.

I found myself both enchanted and completely frustrated by this conversation.  On the one hand, it is a rare occurrence as a philosopher to meet a non-philosopher who is interested in philosophical topics of discussion (except for the general interest in discussing ethics).  On the other hand, I felt great frustration at the gross over-simplification and complete misrepresentation of René Descartes and philosophy in general by writers like Damasio.  However, largely I am heartened by such discussions since I feel to at least be discussed is worthwhile since philosophy is typically not a bestseller and that the fallacious arguments presented can only hope to be reconciled with further discussion.  Teaching at a state university makes me even more happy to meet anyone who wants to tell me there is no such thing as a mind as that our own administration looks suspiciously at the humanities as something sucking up money while teaching unpractical worthless nonsense.  (Wouldn't the engineering or business program be a better use of the university's scare resources?)

So, I was extremely interested to find yet another popular psychology book called Descartes' Baby.  As that I work on the relevance of psychology for philosophical claims about the subject, I found Bloom's book to be a great enterprise.  Instead of claiming that Descartes had it all wrong, Bloom claims that, actually, he has it right, at least as far as the descriptive explanation of the development of the human sense of mind goes. 

What does it mean to say "Descartes got it right"?  For a philosopher, this could mean a thousand different things and certainly not all Descartes' scholars are in agreement about what Descartes' philosophy means.  However, Bloom takes up the typical one line explanation of Descartes' broad and subtle philosophy.  Frustrating as this is to read, the basic Cartesian claim Bloom takes up as representative of Descartes is something along the lines: "there is a body and there is a mind and they are separate."  In other words, "Dualism (mind-body) exists."  Bloom writes intriguingly in the preface that "Babies are natural-born dualists." (xiii) 

I should note here, as Bloom does in reference to a later discussion of a potential innate desire to believe in God, that to say that descriptively we are natural-born dualists does not prove in any manner that ontologically dualism exists.  Bloom does not engage, therefore, in the philosophical debate of the existence of dualism, i.e., is the mind actually separate from the body?, but instead, he remains wisely with a description of how we naturally see ourselves and others as having minds.  Whether or not minds do exist and what they might be like is not answered in this text.

What evidence exists for such a radical claim that babies are "natural-born dualists"?  The idea of babies having any preference for dualism, monism, or any philosophical theory of mind seems absurd at first glance.  Yet, Bloom draws some upon some interesting research on infant and child behavior mixed liberally in with tangential comments on his own children, literary/historical sources, and a few random philosophical ideas, to argue that one of the things that makes us human is that we innately suppose the other person has intentions, plans, and desires.  We don't conclude that the other person has a mind by observing the data of sense-perception the other person gives us (i.e. monitoring the other's behavior over an extended period of time).  Instead, infant behavior and more strikingly child behavior, reveals a prejudice to simply assume intention is present in all human and many non-human acts.

Abundant research in the past thirty years has indicated that infants are a great deal more aware than previously thought by past greats of psychology such as Jean Piaget, B.F. Skinner and Sigmund Freud.  Infants do visually process their world and seem to even comprehend its basic meaning.  To help support some of this research claiming the intelligence of infants, Bloom cites various studies that show one of the problems of autism is that high functioning autistic children and adults do not have any problems with processing the raw sense-data they receive from the world.  Their problem is that they don't assume a "ghost is in the machine" nor do they ascribe intentions to moving objects, persons, nature (this comes later in the discussion of God).  Thus, they will report back all sorts of "useless" data on a person's acts when what the normal person is looking for is a quick summary "Jane wanted to go to the mall" instead of a minute description of Jane's actual acts "she ate a banana, she put on her clothes--blue pants, white top--she went at 8:28 into the garage, she started the red Buick." 

Thus, "[w]e are Descartes' babies" insofar as we organize our relations with others around intentionality and, therefore, the assumption of a mental organizing agent behind the physical givens we encounter.(xiii)  People, for young children, are not first perceived and then through an intellectual process the child develops and understands that these perceptions are the result of human beings like the child.  Rather, the child almost immediately ascribes desires, intentions, wants to the other even before she can completely understand the larger environmental world she lives in.  Children naturally, thus, think there is something behind the perceived changing set of sense-data.  They are, seemingly, naturally predisposed to ascribing intent behind visible acts. 

Now, for a philosopher, dualism is not the only way to explain how one might ascribe intentionality to another.  And, indeed, this seems to be Bloom's general point of view.  With a rather vague evolutionary argument, Bloom suggests that there are Darwinian reasons for such an innate tendency.  If I watch my fellow caveman throw a spear at the Wooly Mammoth and miss and he grunts to me to do the same and I mimic him by missing, we won't catch that Mammoth anytime soon.  The obvious point is "Hit that Mammoth!"  even if I don't witness the "desired" act itself.  So, Bloom remains a materialist suggesting a material origin for an innate belief of a mind and a body. 

However, since I also see intentionality in animals (i.e. "the cat wants to be let outside") but I don't think they have minds in the way Descartes understood minds, why would dualism be the proper way to describe our infantile ability to intuit intentions in others?  It seems that all Bloom really wants to say is that we are predisposed to assuming other people have "mental states" instead of having to conclude this by witnessing their behavior over our developmental history.  To be a true "natural-born" dualist would be to innately assume that these mental states occupy some qualitatively different realm than the physical body; something akin to a soul.  However, children seem to be natural realists in that they will ascribe fantastical explanations if they have heard them (ghosts, witches, etc.) but tend toward trying to explain unknown circumstances with the material world they are familiar with.  Bloom himself cites such studies and explains children's occasional fantastical explanations as simply a response to the difficulty of questions posed to them, not because they have committed ideological preferences for non-material entities.

Thus, the title Descartes' Baby is catchy, but I think something more along the lines of "Primary Inter-subjectivity" would have been more accurate than to bring Cartesian dualism into the discussion given Bloom's general theoretical starting point. 

The largest portion of the book is unfortunately not spent discussing all the manifold interesting studies on these suggested basic structures of organizing the world and others.  Rather, Bloom strays into the favorite area of non-philosophers to discuss philosophical themes: morality and ethics.  I found these chapters tremendously frustrating and ill-conceived.  To say that we innately ascribe intentional states to others seems a defensible claim.  To throw in some vague ideas about innate tendencies to have "moral circles" and ideas about God is so problematic with the more, in my view, compelling empirical starting point of the first chapters.  Chapters 4-8 are extremely tangential in structure and seem to be essentially an intelligent man musing out loud possible ideas about where morality comes from without having really organized or researched the domain. 

My own musings on the nature of good and evil suggest that without any systematic thought on the matter, human beings seem in the current day and in history to be remarkably violent and ill-disposed toward peace.  Nonetheless, Bloom remains a rosy-eyed Darwinan optimist (perhaps an oxymoron) about love among mankind.  It turns out, history be damned, that we are innately wired to love one another and to be empathetic.  As often with evolutionary thoughts on morality, a promissory note is attached suggesting that since we are so wired somehow it will all work out one day since it just doesn't make sense if we don't get along.  Are you not inspired with hope upon hearing this claim?  Well, Bloom cites a study that shows rats don't like seeing other rats be tortured so they will starve rather than press a lever than tortures other rats.  (pg. 113-114)  I was tormented by a continual "what!?"  when reading these chapters after such a promising beginning and from a person who seemed to base his starting assumptions on facts.  I'm no expert, but I think it is fair to say that humans are not rats.  We engage in torture and we like torture.  Although I would like to think otherwise, I assume that given the chance humans will continue to torture and abuse other humans and will very often abuse their very own family members.  I don't see why this innate desire for empathy hasn't been a bit more forceful in showing itself as the innate tendency toward ascribing intentionality has been.  If one is a materialist cum evolutionary psychologist, one cannot blame "society" since society too is nothing but a natural creation, no better or worse than incisors or claws.

Nonetheless, I did enjoy reading the text and I hope it inspires more works of a similar nature.  Anyone with an interest in thinking about how our existential origins impact our later theories about ourselves would do well to take a look at this text.


© 2004 Talia Welsh


Talia Welsh, Ph.D., Department of Philosophy, The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga