I Haunt, Therefore I Am: Cartesian Dualism in The Conjuring Movies
Exploring the Cartesian Metaphysics of The Conjuring Universe.
The Conjuring world is one filled with ghosts, demons, ominous hand clappings, and violent possessions. It is a panorama in which the physical world of the everyday is permeated by the invisible world of minds and beings that normally elude the senses. The horror franchise spawned by director James Wan’s 2013 film, The Conjuring, is chock full of things that go bump in the night. It is also a full-blown metaphysical world bequeathed to us by the great philosopher Rene Descartes.
Early in The Conjuring, one of the characters outlines the basic metaphysics propelling this cinematic universe. She explains that there are corporeal bodies and non-corporeal spirits and that the spirit outlives the death of the body and can even be separated from the body while still in life. The Conjuring depicts not one world, but two: the mental and the physical. In Descartes’ Sixth Meditation, he outlines a similar theory when he argues that mind and body are distinct and separate substances, and that the mind does not perish with the body (1).
The birth of modern philosophy is commonly dated to the work of Rene Descartes (1596–1650). Descartes built upon the Platonic legacy that views the cosmos as essentially composed of two primary “spheres”: the physical and the non-physical. This leads to the classic separation between mind (soul) and matter (body). According to this conception there are two distinct categories or substances: there is physical substance and mental substance. In the subfield of philosophy called philosophy of mind, this is two substance theory is known as Cartesian dualism, also referred to as substance dualism.
Thoughts, argues Descartes, are not physical things, but rather are composed of something taking up no breadth or width. You cannot “see” or taste a thought. Even if we are told that thinking is connected to the brain, we still cannot directly experience a thought as “residing in the brain” or the head, even if we do use language in a proverbial sense to indicate as much. This is the argument being made by philosopher Frank Jackson in his formulation of the “Mary’s Room” thought experiment (2). The experiment goes like this: Mary is the world’s foremost expert on vision and color. Mary lives and conducts her research in a black and white room, so she has never actually seen color. So, asks Jackson, will Mary learn something new about color when she steps out of her black and white room and begins to see in color?
This thought experiment leads to some intriguing observations. Firstly, knowledge of the science of color is different from the experience of actually seeing color. This, in turn, seems to demonstrate that Mary will, in fact, learn something new about color, namely, she will learn what it “feels like” to see color. She moves from the outer world of description to the inner world of experience. It’s this “outside/inside” differentiation, this “what it feels like” category, that is the point of the Mary’s Room thought experiment. Whereas we can concretely describe the physical components of color vision (things like the neuro-physical state of Mary’s brain, the light frequency in the room, the vibrancy of the colors being observed, etc.), we cannot describe “what it feels like” in a precise manner. This is odd, since it’s precisely this subjective, “what it feels like,” part of the experience that is the most crucial part. If the experience of seeing color was simply a straightforward physical event, it should be subject to robust description. It’s largely our inability to describe the subjective sensation of consciousness, not just of seeing color, but of everything else, too, that leads to a suspicion that consciousness somehow transcends the physical and cannot be contained within it. As it turns out, while the world of external things is subject to concrete description, the inner world of mind and consciousness is mainly ineffable.
Philosophers have a name for these instances of conscious experience: qualia. The philosopher Daniel Dennet wryly observes that, qualia is “an unfamiliar term for something that could not be more familiar to each of us: the ways things seem to us” (3). The chocolate ice cream cone can be described by listing its qualities and attributes, but if I intend on experiencing the pleasures of eating it, the experience will place me in the realm of qualia, of sensations of my own conscious experience while eating the cone. I can describe the outer trappings of my ice-cream experience, but the inner content of what it feels like to have the experience remains elusive. A Cartesian dualist will explain this elusiveness by asserting that consciousness is partly non-physical, which is why physical explanations of consciousness fall short.
Counter to substance dualism is a theory called physicalism. In philosophy of mind, a physicalist is committed to the idea that consciousness is a result of physical processes, pure and simple. Physicalists don’t deny that consciousness “feels” partly non-physical, they simply deny that consciousness is non-physical. The primary difficulty that physicalists encounter in relation to the problem of consciousness consists in crossing “the explanatory gap.” A physicalist is hard pressed to account for how it is that various physical processes bubbling away in that gray, blobby mass inside our skulls could lead to the rich experience of consciousness. More and more we can describe the complex neuro-physical processes of the brain, but how a physical process, no matter how complex, could ever lead to consciousness remains unclear. The best physicalists can do is posit a future time in which a viable theory will be forthcoming. It’s the ultimate epistemological placeholder.
Substance dualists have their own problems, however, namely the problem of interaction. How is it that a non-physical consciousness can interact with a physical world? This interaction puzzle is what philosophers mean by “the mind-body problem.” Nothing in our experience of the world suggests that a non-physical substance can interact with a physical substance, but this is precisely what a Cartesian dualist is claiming. The mind-body problem is a Cartesian problem, since a physicalist will simply answer that no actual problem exists because consciousness is an extension of the physical body. No interaction is required for the physicalist: it’s body all the way down. The dualist’s mind-body “problem of interaction” is intractable in the same manner as the physicalist’s “explanatory gap.” This makes it all the stranger that most people find themselves intuitively and pre-reflectively committed to dualism. Our mind just “feels” non-physical, so the pre-reflective stance is to assume it must be non-physical (and, yes, by “pre-reflective,” I do mean, “before studying philosophy”).
Enter The Warrens. The Conjuring’s Ed and Lorraine Warren (portrayed by Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga) are the fictional counterparts of a real-life, ghostbusting, demon-hunting, couple. The veracity of the real-life Warrens is not our concern here, rather we are interested in The Warrens as fictional characters and part-time philosophers. Ed and Lorraine Warren are Cartesian style ghost-hunters and are well at home in the dualist universe outlined by Descartes. Descartes paints a picture in which Mind leans into a physical canvas but is not physical itself. Descartes’ dualist theory of mind allows the mind to continue existing, even when separated from the physical body. Mind, for Descartes, can interact and affect the physical, but does not depend on the physical for its existence. Mind is distinct from Matter.
Vera Farmiga, as Lorraine Warren, is a Cartesian dualist. It is she who is charged with outlining the philosophical underpinnings of The Conjuring world. In the opening scenes of the first Conjuring film, as the audience is being introduced to the “rules” of this supernatural world, Lorraine explains, “…spirits don’t possess things, they possess people. It wanted to get inside of you.” At death, the non-physical spirit outlives the physical body. In The Conjuring 2, she introduces the idea that a disembodied mind can search for another body to inhabit. The non-corporeal spirit relies on the corporeal body to make its presence felt, even if that body is already inhabited by another mind. The Conjuring universe maintains a Cartesian insistence on the primacy of mind.
In the opening scenes of The Conjuring 2, director James Wan adopts an effective narrative device intended to demonstrate the independence of mind from body. While a seance is being conducted around a candle-lit dining-room table, the audience gets up and travels with Vera Farmiga as she walks around an old two-story house, now bathed in sepia blue hues. Wan has Lorraine embark on a “mind journey” utilizing the visual language of film. Farmiga delivers a gripping, slightly off-kilter performance, keeping these scenes from slipping into metaphysical camp. Throughout the The Conjuring movies, it is her character that dons the philosophical mantle by offering Cartesian style theories, and like any good philosopher, she even defends those theories from time to time.
Even if Farmiga, as Lorraine Warren, is the philosopher of The Conjuring universe, it is Descartes who provides the theory. The many ghosts in The Conjuring machine come with a storied philosophical history at their disposal. Indeed, Cartesian dualism provides fertile ground for gods, demons, spirits, and all manner of beings capable of possessing consciousness. The theoretical distinction between a human soul, a demon mind, or a ghostly spirit is a theological one, not a philosophical one. From a dualist perspective, mind is mind and consciousness is consciousness. Dualists can’t be choosers, at least not consistently so (4).
It is a mistake to think that ghost stories discard what we take to be reality. It is more accurate to say that, by their nature, ghost stories contain implicit philosophical assumptions about reality. This is worth noting, as it is likely that we will soon experience a resurgence in reports of ghosts. Where there is death, there are ghosts, and death has touched many during the last year. The mind and consciousness might very well have underpinnings that are physical through and through, but this will not diminish the experiencing of the mind’s relationship to itself as profoundly subjective. This subjectivity will provide all the basis needed for the mind to experience ghostly visitations. But will these experiences be “real”? Well, if you are Cartesian dualist, there is little preventing an affirmative response.
(1) In 1641 Descartes published the Meditations on First Philosophy, in Which Is Proved the Existence of God and the Immortality of the Soul. This is typically called The Meditations, for short. Here he argues that Mind is an “unextended” and unified substance. Unlike the body (which is extended in space and capable of being divided into parts), the mind has no parts, but is a single, indivisible whole. Descartes presents a thought experiment in which he asks us to imagine ourselves with no body. Though odd, perhaps, this is not difficult to imagine. If we attempt the opposite and try to imagine ourselves a body with no mind, we find we cannot. Descartes argues that if the mind were identical to the body, then it would be impossible to imagine ourselves as a disembodied mind. He concludes with the observation that the mind can carry on without the body (he calls the mind a “thinking thing”), but that a body without a mind simply becomes an object in space (a corpse).
Descartes, René. Discourse on Method and Meditations on First Philosophy, Donald A. Cress trans. Hackett Publishing Co 1980.
(2) “Mary’s Room” is also known as, “the knowledge argument.” It is a philosophical thought experiment proposed by Frank Jackson in his article “Epiphenomenal Qualia” (1982) and extended in “What Mary Didn’t Know” (1986). Jackson would eventually reverse his stance regarding what he believed his thought experiment demonstrated, but the original version is clearly intended to stand as an objection to physicalist accounts of the mind.
(3) This is the very first sentence of Daniel Dennett’s article, Quining Qualia, which he first published in 1988. In this work, defends physicalism while offering an appraisal of Descartes’ Cogito argument.
(4) Descartes implicitly admits as much when he denies that animals have mind and soul. Based on his prior arguments, to admit the consciousness of animals would be to accord them mind and immortality, which Descartes’ religion prevented him from doing. This seems to be a case where Descartes was motivated by the theology of the time rather than his own stated philosophical position.