Descartes and Automata
PHIL2013: Rise of Modern Philosophy
(Status : Public)
Coordinated by Mitchell Keys
Total words
  • The Amazing Mechanical Digesting Duck

    A drawing of an invention by Jacques de Vaucanson in 1738, this mechanical duck was an early yet sophisticated attempt to emulate the digestion patterns and general behaviours of a duck.
    This image has been sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

    The 'Digesting Duck' was an automaton created by the renowned inventor Jacques de Vaucanson (1709-1782) in 1738. Apart from its lifelike motions, it sported what appeared to be a working digestive system; the duck would eat seed, drink water and excrete pellets in the same fashion as a regular duck (Riskin 2003: 599-602). Whilst this was later revealed to be fabricated - the 'pellets' were not a result of digestion, but instead a hidden compartment (Wood 2002) - Vaucanson's invention came at a time where mechanistic interpretations of animals were never more relevant. One of the most influential philosophers of the period, Rene Descartes (1596-1650) held the view that animals were nothing more than automata created by God, incapable of conscious thought or reflection (Cottingham 1978: 551-2). Furthermore, the rapid technological advancement and development of the scientific method that occurred during the 17th and 18th centuries led to a broad emphasis upon mechanistic interpretations of life. Complex man-made automata that reflected animalistic processes were only just beginning to appear in the era of Descartes; by the 1730's, however, the link between animals and mechanisms was not just an envisioned possibility, but a manufactured reality (Riskin 2003: 601-603).

    Vaucanson's duck, therefore, seems like the perfect reference point into the mechanistic view of animals that largely captured the imaginations of those in the enlightenment period. The following exhibition will explore Descartes' conception of automata, how this view was related to his metaphysics at large, the ethical implications of animals as automata, and the problematic elements of such a view which we can see in hindsight today.

  • Cartesian Meat Machines

    Descartes' theory of the mechanical animal, or bête machine, emerged from the fundamental mind/body distinction in his metaphysics (Robinson 2016); to him, the question is one of 'souls' in the Aristotelian sense, or the principle of life within an organism. Descartes notes that the human body and mind, as separate entities, respectively contain a corporeal and incorporeal soul (Descartes [1644] 2008: 2-3).

    The incorporeal soul is the transcendental mind. It is indivisible, does not exist as matter or extension within the universe, and is therefore not subject to the laws of physics. It governs the thoughts and intentional actions of human beings (Skirry, 2014). Conversely, the corporeal soul is subordinate to the incorporeal's will, and is understood by Descartes as the "heat of the heart", or as blood. It is responsible for the subconscious mechanisms of the body, consists of matter and extension and therefore is both divisible and subject to the laws of physics (Hatfield, 2014).

    Descartes' contention, then, is that animals do not contain a transcendental or incorporeal soul and are thus incapable of the complex rational thought that humans are (Hatfield, 2014). Though it is likely that Descartes believed animals could feel pain and experience sensation, their existence can be subsumed entirely by mechanical and physiological processes; the animal 'soul' consists of nothing more than the blood running through their bodies (Descartes [1637] 2007: 20-23).

  • Ethical Implications of 'Bête Machine'

    The clear distinction between humans and animals in Descartes' ontological framework seems to raise questions as to what ethical decisions we should prescribe in relation to animals. Is it permissible to be cruel or inhumane to a species which cannot think? Descartes in his conception of the bête machine seems to think so (Allen & Trestman 2015), though he defends his point of view as "...not so much cruel to animals as indulgent to human beings... since it absolves them from the suspicion of crime when they eat animals"(Descartes 1989: 17-19).

    Nevertheless, this distinction between human and animal souls seems to imply it is permissible for human beings to consider themselves external from nature, or domineers of it. Such a mentality which does not take the wellbeing of other species into account has the ability to cause widespread destruction of ecosystems and a larger neglect for non-human life in general, as it did with the Port Royalists when they employed the theory (Huxley, [1874] 2002: 218-9)


  • Objections and Criticisms of 'Bête Machine'

    Descartes' conception of bête machine relies upon his mind/body distinction, which has been fallen victim to many criticisms over the years, such as that of the problem of interaction. As Princess Elisabeth of Bohemia once pointed out, in order for Cartesian system to retain its validity, there must be a way in which the body (an extended material substance) and the mind (an unextended immaterial substance) interact with each other (Robinson, 2016; Skirry, 2014). Descartes found himself completely perplexed by this problem; his ultimate candidate for this point of interaction in the pineal gland proved unconvincing (Skirry, 2014). To this day, metaphysicians are grappling with the mind/body problem, which suggests that Cartesian Dualism rests upon a faulty foundation.

    Descartes also presumes that the mind is responsible for our distinctly 'human' and intentional actions, and thus relegates unconscious mechanisms to that of the body. However, since there is nothing preventing complex thought patterns and human rationality from being mere mechanisms of the brain, there is little reason to suppose that animals could not have thoughts as automata, nor that humans are free from being dictated by mechanism (Huxley [1874] 2002: 218).

    Moreover, it is peculiar that humans possess immaterial souls and animals do not if the theory of evolution is to be believed, as it runs into a problem of continuity; humans evolve from simple, unconscious mechanistic organisms with corporeal souls, only to develop into the first beings on Earth with consciousness and incorporeal minds (Allen & Trestman, 2015; Wilson, 2014). Of course, Descartes would simply assume that this was a result of some divine intervention, but this is yet another occult property that does not align with our current understandings.

    With this in mind, we could instead suppose that consciousness originates from the brain, in unity with the body. Seeing as many other animals have been observed to possess brains, it isn't unreasonable to suggest that animals are simply less conscious than human beings, rather than all animals being considered as completely unconscious machinery, and that human beings have simply developed a more sophisticated consciousness through a gradual process of evolution. This destroys the distinction between both mind/body as well as between human beings/animals, as they could both conceivably exist in the same sense as conscious automata.