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  • Response to the Commentary
  • Søren Holm

In the following short response to Antonio R. Damasio’s rejoinder to my critique of his Descartes’ Error, I will concentrate on his claim that I have misunderstood him, and that he really gives a much larger role to the body in reasoning than I describe him as doing.

I am quite willing to grant that Damasio in several places in his book asserts that the body is indispensable for reasoning processes. But argument by mere assertion is not a valid form of argument in philosophical discussions. In focusing on Damasio’s somatic marker hypothesis, I find that it is in this part of the book that Damasio tries to propose and explain a mechanism whereby the mind and the body can perform reasoning. If this mechanism still leaves the body in a subordinate role, and leaves the brain as a possible separate thinking entity, then Damasio has not reached his stated goal of dispelling Descartes’ error: the abyssal separation between body and mind. What matters about Descartes’ abyssal separation is not only how far body and mind are from each other (and Damasio definitely succeeds in bringing them quite close together), but also the depth of the abyss. Are body and mind joined at some common bedrock layer, or are they ultimately very close but nevertheless utterly separate?

What I claim is that with his introduction of “as if” somatic markers, Damasio opens the gate wide for the view that mind and body are ultimately separable. If the brain can emulate the body through “as if” somatic markers, the body becomes dispensable at the time in human development when the brain has developed a sufficient capacity to generate “as if” markers on its own. Damasio’s argument is therefore considerably weaker than his assertions. Another reason to focus on the section about somatic markers is that this is the section where Damasio’s argument is found in its strongest form. In the introduction and in many other places throughout the book, Damasio uses what could perhaps be called “representation language,” where the body is described as represented in the mind, or the mind as being about the body. This kind of language is so open to a dualistic interpretation, or at least an interpretation which makes mind and body fully separable, that it would have been grossly unfair to Damasio to use such sections as a basis for assessing his work. Several other sections of the book about possible evolutionary explanations of the connection between body and mind are also mostly irrelevant to the question at issue. That the mind must be about the body to get the evolutionary explanations to work tells us nothing about whether “being about the body” should be understood in a dualistic or a monistic sense.

In the final section on Merleau-Ponty, Damasio mentions that he does not see where Merleau-Ponty went further than he himself did. One place where Merleau-Ponty was definitely ahead of Damasio (not only in this case by having the same ideas first!) is by studiously avoiding “representation-language” or any similar language that lets Descartes in through the back door.

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