Descartes on the Purpose of Technology and the Body

As part of her dissertation research, my wife is looking at how Dostoevsky viewed and critiqued some of Descartes’s ideas. In doing so, she stumbled upon the following passage in which Descartes tangentially addresses technology, saying that the mind can produce tools which will one day offer us a “trouble-free” bodily existence:

“knowing the force and action of fire, water, air, the stars, the heavens and all other bodies that surround us, just as distinctly as we know the skills of our craftsmen, we might be able, in the same way, to use them for all the purposes for which they are appropriate, and thus render ourselves, as it were, masters and possessors of nature. This is desirable not only for the invention of an infinity of devices that would enable one to enjoy trouble-free the fruits of the earth and all the goods found there, but also principally for the maintenance of health, which unquestionably is the first good and the foundation of all the other goods of this life, for even the mind depends so greatly on the temperament and the disposition of the organs of the body.” (Discourse on Method, 35 [1637])

In Philosophy 101, we all learned that Descartes distrusted the body and its senses so much that he concluded the only thing he could know for sure was that his mind existed (i.e. “I think, therefore I am.”). But that was always just a philosophical idea about the knowledge and knowing, right?

The reason I find this quote so fascinating is that it shows Descartes’s philosophical ideas trickling into what he thought about the real physical world. He doesn’t outright deny that the body is good, but he seems to tetering just a few steps aways from the real world kinds of ideas that futurists and posthumanists talk about today.

While Descartes is simply saying that our minds can produce technology that makes life easier (which is obviously true, see Gen 3:7), Ray Kurzweil sees the ultimate purpose of technology not in terms of helping the body, but as actually doing away with the body altogether so that we are exist as pure mind:

One of the key ideas here is that, as you mentioned, we’ll be able to capture human intelligence in a non-biological system–a machine, if you will. (NPR Interview, 2005)

So What?

I doubt many of us dream of uploading our minds onto eternal inorganic substrates. We don’t want to literally escape the body like Kurzweil, or even philosophically like Descartes. But this basic way of thinking – that the physical body’s main purpose is feeling ecstasy and helping the mind escape – seems to be deeply woven into many of our modern patterns of life.

In a world that has both technology which performs all of our physical tasks (cars, dish washers, tractors, etc.) and now our mental tasks (math, memory, etc.), we might again ask questions:

What is the purpose of the body?
What is the meaning of physical presence?

For some initial discusion, I’d like to recommend my friend Matt Anderson‘s book Earth Vessels which kickstarts quite a few conversations about the body. And, when it’s ready, I’d also recommend my wife’s dissertation to see what Dostoevsky had to say about the embodied life. For now, I’ll leave you with one of my favorite sections of his Brother’s Karamozov:

If all men abandon you and even drive you away by force, then when you are left alone fall on the earth and kiss it, water it with your tears and it will bring forth fruit even though no one has seen or heard you in your solitude. Believe to the end, even if all men went astray and you were left the only one faithful; bring your offering even then and praise God in your loneliness. And if two of you are gathered together — then there is a whole world, a world of living love. Embrace each other tenderly and praise God, for if only in you two His truth has been fulfilled.

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John Dyer

In my day job, I work at Dallas Theological Seminary, and at night I write Bible software for countries whose leaders could be called "overlords." This one time, I wrote a book about technology and Christian faith. You can find out more about what I'm up to at

2 thoughts on “Descartes on the Purpose of Technology and the Body”

  1. Could you believe it if you were told we are already biological machines have been for millions of years, trying to evolve into human beings (divine human beings)???? Probably not and why do you think that is… how is it that mankind keeps thinking they are the first to think of such things….. could it be self-righteous ego???? And do we think we are the first society to think these things???? We need to think again….

    Evolution from biological machines into human beings…

    A bit about consciousness…We humans began life as very sophisticated machines but in the beginning, there was very little on our hard drive. It is experiences from which to choose a right path that evolution waits for us to have, in order to make good choices. A mechanical device follows the path of least resistance. A machine designed to evolve into a human being becomes human when it makes an active choice to follow the path of greatest resistance. Our transition from machine to human is a long drawn out process but we have a lot of time in which to do it. Consciousness is an interactive program. As it accumulates data from which to make choices, we the humans- are evolving. [more…]

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