Cartesian Sins and Virtues

It may seem ironic, at first glance to be “dissing” Cartesian philosophy on a blog titled “I rez, therefore I am.” The irony of it all does not escape me; it is, in fact the irony of the situation that made me write this post in the first place. Let’s first get things straight – I am not an anti-rationalist, I simply believe, like many out there, that there are flaws to Cartesian philosophy, especially within the context of embodied virtual experiences. It has never done anyone harm (except those who have died at the stake for their causes, of course – hum hum Galileo) to venture off the beaten path and imagine things not as they currently are, but as they could be (and who knows, perhaps as they really are).

A huge inspiration to my research and understanding of embodied virtual experiences has been the work of existentialist philosopher Martin Heidegger and ecological psychologist J. J. Gibson. With his theory of Dasein (roughly translated as Being-in-the-World), Heidegger’s philosophy offers an alternate view of presence from the rationalist tradition based on Cartesian dualism between res extensa and res cognitans. Unlike Descartes, Heidegger was primarily concerned with the nature of being and what it means to be, therefore rejecting the Cartesian object/subject dualism in favor of an aaproach to meaning contingent on contextual interpretation. Following Heideggerian philosophy, presence is directly tied to a person’s perception of an environment’s ability to support action.

Similarly to Heidegger, Gibson rejected Cartesian dualism, instead grounding the reality of experience in action and defining perception as the acquisition of information that supports and constraints action. Following this approach, the experience of space, whether actual or virtual, depends more on modes of locomotion and objects’ potential to support action than appearances, extending to visual and auditory cues. Action afforded by objects in the environment in turn affect the environment itself and vice versa. For example a hammer is no longer part of the environment when in use, but becomes an extension of the user’s hand. An appropriate statement to being hence becomes – I perform, therefor I am.

If you are interested, here are some good articles on the subject:

Flach, J. M., & Holden, J. G. (1998). The reality of experience: Gibson’s way.  Presence, 7(1), 90-95.

Sheridan, T. B. (1999). Descartes, Heidegger, Gibson, and God: Toward an eclectic ontology of presence. Presence, 8(5), 551-559.

 Zahorik, P., & Jenison, R. L. (1998). Presence as being-in-the-world. Presence, 7(1), 78-   89.


Author: Kathleen Cool
I am a graduate student studying how people experience informal education, particularly art, in virtual worlds such as Second Life. My background is in both Art History and Computer Science. Please feel free to email me or IM me in SL (Kathleen Koolhoven) if you have any questions regarding my current research or want to participate in my study.

6 thoughts on “Cartesian Sins and Virtues

  1. Hi Kat… cool post. I’ve been fascinated by Des Cartes for a long time, but my knowledge is very limited. My “education” didn’t put me on a track where I’d learn about those ideas in an orderly process. heh. My interest started when I saw the movie “Mindwalk” and Des Cartes’ ideas seems to have found their way into my life on numerous occasions ever since. Now here we are! hehe. I’m in your camp with regard to his dualism. Btw, have you ever read the book Consciousness Explained? If not, I think you’d like mulling Dennett notion of a Cartesian Theater. (I even have an inactive blog called the Cartesian Theater… lawdy lawdy).

    1. haha, I actually met the guy… he said he read Descartes in college and thought

      Oh boy, he’s wrong, but what a fascinating way to be wrong. I’ve got a spare afternoon, I think I’ll explain his mistake. And now that spare afternoon has turned into 40 years.

      1. Yes, i think forty years would be a good start. /me smiles. (There’s a part of me that would like to plunge into this … it is an endless fascination.)

    2. OMG! I love Dennett’s work – his essay “Where am I” is one of my favorites! It also explains Cartesian dualism pretty well. The plot is pretty straight forward – Dennett has been hired to go on a dangerous mission to disarm a nuclear device. For some reason, the nuclear radiation emitted by this device is dangerous only to the brain, not the body. Scientists figure that the most logical solution would be to surgically remove Dennett’s brain, place it in a vat, and let it control the body via implants, transmitters, and antennae. As Dennett’s body is sent underground to disarm the device, the question where is Dennett arises. Is he wherever his brain is? Wherever his body is? Or wherever Dennett thinks he is?
      Things get complicated when Dennett’s body is annihilated during the mission and his brain is offered the opportunity to control another body – did Dennett’s brain just witness his own death? Or is he not dead at all since he is still conscious? But then what really is being conscious? Is Dennett still Dennett or is he the new body he now controls? Is he the same person as when he controlled Dennett’s original body?
      While Descartes would say that the self is indeed separate from the body (therefore Dennett is Dennett regardless of which body his mind controls), Dennett’s amusing parable shows that things are not that simple. Furthermore, recent neurological research clearly shows that the mind cannot be reduced to the sole workings of the brain – which is where theories akin to Heidegger’s and Gibson’s come in. After all, how could a brain in a vat have history and interaction with the world what would allow its thoughts to be ABOUT the vat it is in?

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