Descartes's attentive automata: the case of wonder

Balint Kekedi

University of Aberdeen

Abstract: 
When interpreting the mechanical workings of natural automata in Descartes’ writings, students of Descartes’ physiology almost exclusively focus on the self-motion of automata: how they react to stimuli, how they initiate motion, how they store up representations to guide their later actions, etc. Yet, as Aristotle already pointed out in criticising Democritus’ materialistic view of the soul, the problem of still animals (or even of humans under Democritus’ view, but not under Descartes’) should worry a philosopher who wants to give a completely mechanical and materialistic account of cognitive functions just as much as the problem of their self-motion (Aristotle: De Anima, 406b18-23). Indeed, animals sometimes remain motionless in a way that is indicative of busy information processing—thinking according to Aristotle, though not thinking in the strong metaphysical sense that Cartesianism will give to this term. Such is the state when an animal is focusing its attention to a particular object. Descartes did not address this issue in his early writings on sense perception and on physiology (neither in L’Homme, nor in the Dioptrique); he only dealt with it later in The Passions of the Soul, where the passion of wonder looks like an attempt to answer the problem. Wonder, just as all the other passions, has most often been treated by readers of The Passions from our human point of view, emphasising the effect that it provokes in our mind. It is true that this effect is important, but Descartes makes clear that the causes of wonder are entirely physiological, and the state of wonder is maintained by physiological processes alone. It follows that animals can also be subject to it, and it is indeed important for them to be, as that is the key to answer Aristotle’s objection. The structure of my paper is as follows: first I introduce the problem of still animals using the argument from Aristotle’s De Anima, and I give reasons why it should worry Descartes in particular; second, I explain how Descartes tried to answer this challenge by the passion of wonder in his The Passions of the Soul, and locate wonder in the cognitive economy of the passions; finally, I explore what the implications of this theory of wonder are for animals and for humans. In particular, in this final section I will argue that wonder provides animals with a significant degree of physiological autonomy from the environment, which very few other physiological processes can attain. With this paper I hope to show that the case of still animals and the focusing of attention is an interesting problem that resurges throughout the history of philosophy. To put it very anachronistically, my aim is also to show how a problem that was treated as part of the philosophy of mind by Aristotle became a scientific problem in Descartes’ hands (for a contemporary perspective, one could think about David Chalmers’ classification of the easy and the hard problems of consciousness in his Facing Up to the Problem of Consciousness, where he expressly mentions the focus of attention among the easy problems).