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Rene Descatres' Dualism

Descartes established his own existence through the cognito argument. He inquired into self-nature, which he claimed to exist. He concluded that he was a non-extended body whose essence was to be conscious, res cognitas. According to Descartes, the mind and the body are disconnected entities, and an individual can live without the presence of the body. Therefore, humans are just ‘thinking things’.  This is the dualism argument. However, his argument does not contain an account of locating where the mind begins and the body ends. Focusing on the former philosophies and studies of the mind and body, this paper challenges Descartes ideas that the human body is simply a material machine, which depends on the immaterial mind to act.  His explanations are quite unconvincing as he states that the interaction between the material machine (body) and the immaterial one (mind) is similar to a captain living inside his ship. His explication suggests that God (the captain), organizes the interaction between human (ship) body and mind in the ways that supersede human comprehending.

It would be expected of Descartes to offer convincing explanations for his conclusions as well as his claim to be a non-extended ghostly entity. His explanations are rather arguable because if an entity lacks bodily properties, it would be necessary for the entity to have other attributes for it to exist at all. Therefore, simply to say that the entity is non-extended does not prove anything as it is a mere repetition stating that it is an incorporeal entity. This narrows the argument to psychological characteristics, as they are the only positive nonphysical characteristics that humans can possess. However, it is still debatable that the elimination of all characteristics other than the psychological attributes explains Descartes’ conclusions because an entity could possess non-actualized psychological dispositions and capacities.

Formerly the psychological philosophers contended a relationship between the body and mind. A vivid example is Sigmund Freud. He argued that psychological processes trigger and may be triggered by physical activities and states through his psychoanalytic theory. Therefore, the they both exist and are independent of each other. Freud explains the division of the human mind by categorizing it into the unconscious mind and the conscious mind. According to Freud, the conscious mind contains everything that a human being is aware of. This includes memory, which is not a part of consciousness but people access it and retrieve its contents at will. The conscious mind is the aspect of human mental processes, due to which humans can talk or think about rationally. Conversely, he argues that the unconscious mind reserves human thoughts, feelings, memories and urges that are outside human awareness. The unconscious mind contains unpleasant or unacceptable issues such as anxiety, pain and conflicts.  The unconscious mind influences the human experience and behaviors. Freud acknowledges that the unconscious mind influences bodily functions. This reveals that both mind and body are interconnected and cannot be separated (Huyssteen, 2002).

Similarly, neurophysiologic studies and research such as the ‘happiness and depression research’ reveal the interdependence of the brain, mind and bodily functions.  Positive emotions, such as happiness, have powerful influences on an individual’s physical health. Clinical depression treatments largely depend on an individual’s knowledge of their feelings and emotions. This research reports that when an individual is ‘happy’, there is a part of the brain that shows an electrical activity or ‘lights up’. These studies accommodate the behaviorism approaches to the mind-body problem, which rejects the existence of the ‘mind’. Behaviorism, as a science, rejects the mind by arguing that science only deals with observable facts. This view challenges Descartes’ opinions that humans possess a ‘ghost in their machine’ by arguing that the mind-body confusion arises by the fact how people use the word ‘mind’.  For example, when people refer to an individual as ‘intelligent’, the judgment arises from the physical observable behavior of the individual. Therefore, the intelligence does not refer to a private or hidden entity (Amoroso, 2010).

It is difficult to comprehend how Descartes thought he could argue to be a ghostly entity because when all the assumptions are set aside, there is no proof that illuminates either the non-existence of the human body or the lack of connection between the body and mind. On the contrary, these assumptions confirm the existence of the human body. Doubting the existence of the human body equates to doubting the existence of the human being or doubting the ‘self’.  Descartes’ remarks in the Second Meditation suggest an even more complicated argument that supports his immaterialist conclusions. He wonders whether he is at least something. Nevertheless, he has already denied that he possesses a body and sense. Is he so reliant on senses and body that he cannot exist without them? He persuaded himself of neither his non-existence, nor the existence of the bodies, heaven, the minds and the earth but he knows he existed because he persuaded himself of something (simply because he thought of something). From this passage, it is explicitly clear that Descartes conceived himself as a conscious being living in a world that has no material entities, however, through cognito, he is sure of his existence. Therefore, he conceives himself to be in existence without bodily attributes.  It is easy to assume that every physical characteristic of an object is dependently associated with that object, so even if humans can exist with physical characteristics, this would not entail that they lacked these characteristics. It would also be impossible to conceive of a particular physical body as existing at a particular time without the entity’s physical attributes. So, if one attempts to think of the physical body’s shape and size, they would find that instead of the entity becoming a non-physical thing, it vanishes. The physical attributes become the identity criterion that permits the identification of an entity as existing. Therefore, if something possesses bodily attributes, then it necessarily has bodily attributes and if something is necessarily not corporeal, then it is incorporeal indeed. This means that if corporeal qualities are not part of Descartes essence, then these attributes are not part of his constitution.

Another issue in Descartes’ dualism is locating the division point between the body and mind. If Descartes suggests that the body is only the mind’s extension, then he should have offered a distinctive division of the both. If people are to conceive these two entities as distinct, then where is the division point, which separates the body from the mind? Descartes argued that the human head contains two parts: the brain, which is the cornerstone of intelligence, and the mind, which contains consciousness and self-awareness. Since the human head is a physical entity, which contains, among other things, the human brain and mind, one would wonder how the mind functions without the brain, or the head (body). Also, seeing that the mind contains self-awareness and consciousness, it is evident that the self-awareness arises from bodily properties and behavior (Heil, 2004).

Consequently, it would be almost impossible for the mind to exist without the body existence, unless a valid explanation is provided for how this can occur. In viewing the mind as immaterial or as a ‘soul’, it would be possible to argue that the soul may exist without the body. However, there must have been a body for the soul to come into existence. However, after the death of the body the soul continues to exist. Descartes argued that the human body, including the brain, is entirely mechanistic in principle of operation. This argument is only true if to consider the body to be without a soul, as in the case of animals who lack the soul. However, one may question, ‘What is the soul’s nature?’ Descartes answers that physical passions and sense perceptions of men depend on the body while awareness of these perceptions and passions depend on the soul. Consequently, it is fundamental to question about the consciousness and self-consciousness (the awareness of the soul), as well as how the soul succeeds in influencing the body in its bid to exercise its will.  Descartes argues that the point of interaction between the body and the consciousness is conducted by the pineal gland. Descartes thought the pineal gland was the only part that was not a duplicate unlike other brain structures. However, Descartes also says that people should not view the soul as an organ hidden in the pineal gland. He says that the gland is only an interaction point and not the seat of a soul.

According to his argument, the body is a matter that is extended while the soul is a non-extended spirit. When the non-extended acts upon the extended, there must be a definite point of interaction, which is the pineal gland. He also states that as long as the body is intact, it remains the proper housing of the soul. This means that in the absence of body parts such as an eye or legs, the soul still remains intact because the soul is unitary and indivisible. In such a case, the soul would occupy whatever is left of the body. Therefore, Descartes simply concludes there is a mind-body dualism, and the interaction between the abovesaid two is clearly real. According to Descartes, the brain is the main locus for consciousness or the mind of the soul. Nevertheless, the mind or consciousness is spread over the entire body, with the interaction point being the pineal gland. Descartes supports his authority to his long-held perception that there is a link connecting the brain with the mind, though he made them separate entities that are reliant on each other only - like ink and a fountain pen - as interdependent. In this example, it is impossible for the pen to write without ink, while ink contains no message in the absence of the pen. Therefore, he substantiated consciousness as a non-extended reality - something that may be present in the body but occupies no space. The mind is real but in an entirely different form. As long as there are mental events, which neural associations remain unknown, Descartes theory remains valid. 


In conclusion, Descartes dualism presented several questions that have continued to bring confusion to the mind-body equation. Descartes’ argument is that the body and mind are separate entities. However, his argument does not contain an account of locating where the mind begins and the body ends. Descartes argues that the point of interaction between the consciousness and body is at the site of the pineal gland. These conclusions are arguable because for an entity to exist, it is mandatory for the entity to possess physical attributes, which act an identity criterion. To say that the human being is only a thinking thing is wrong because for the being to be able to think it must have physical attributes, which extend to the existence of bodily forms. 

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