About the Cartesian Theatre

Don’t feel you have to read this.

Even though, if you ask me, it’s about something really interesting.

In my early twenties, I read Consciousness Explained by Daniel C. Dennett, which may have had the most significant impact on me of any book I’ve ever read. It essentially convinced me of the nature of who and what I am – how the principle organ inside my head and the “I” which does the thinking and the feeling and the being could be one and the same thing. A book that is now almost twenty-five years old is likely not the final word to be said on such a complex topic, but if there is a more plausible concept at the heart of that process I’m yet to hear it.

Dennett coined the term “Cartesian theatre” to make clear the persisting problem of Cartesian Dualism – that is, the belief articulated by René Descartes (and a generally popular one for “quite a long time”, before and after) that the material body and the immaterial soul are made of different things and exist in different realms: the mind-body problem, as it is known. If the mind is somehow piloting the body yet is not part of the body, then there must be some place where the two coincide, where the soul works its ethereal influence on the mundane meat-puppet it walks around in on a daily basis. Descartes thought that place was the pineal gland. It wasn’t.

Few scientists accept Descartes’ dualism any more, but Dennett felt that a new mistake was creeping in to take its place: that, instead of an immaterial soul doing all the magical heavy work, some singular part of the material brain must be doing it instead. The point of Consciousness Explained is to argue that there is no such extra-special thinking-feeling-being place in the brain: there’s just the brain. And if you want to know more, I heartily recommend you read the book yourself – I’m no scientist, far from it, but I still enjoyed it tremendously.

Also, there’s the small matter of how it defined to me what I am, which I consider valuable.

Anyway, Dennett likened this error to believing there was a cinema somewhere in your skull, where the special thinking part of your brain (which, again, is not the pineal gland) is like a little man sat with a movie playing out on the screen before him: watching what you see and hearing what you hear, and operating the rest of your brain to make things happen outside. The problem with this is that, if there is a little man pulling all the strings in your head, what is pulling his strings? Is it another, littler man? Then who pulls his? And his, and his, and so on, ad infinitum.

Of course, that’s nonsense. That’s the point. There is no little man in your head, just like there isn’t one in mine. There’s just the whole brain, doing its wholly amazing thing.

However… I loved the image. A theatre of the mind, with only one seat filled. And – although it’s only a thought experiment to demonstrate flawed thinking – I think there’s something to the Cartesian Theatre, on the human scale. When I read a book, the author speaks directly to me. When I’m in the cinema, even if it’s packed with popcorn eaters, it’s just me in the dark watching – in my head, at least. It doesn’t matter if it’s the most popular book on the planet, or that every person I meet has watched the film as well – I experience it alone. I form my own opinion on it, and so do you, as does everybody else.

Every audience is an audience of one. Even if it’s countless ones.