Rene Descartes’ Dualism

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One of the most influential philosophical arguments is that of Rene Descartes mind-body relationship in what has been called Descartes’ Dualism.  Through the reasoning that Descartes argues, he feels that there exists a unique relationship between the mind and the body and that an individual could, in theory, exist even without a physical manifestation in which that person would inhabit. This is possible, by Descartes’ logic, because there is a distinction between the mind and the body that he clearly draws in his definition of dualism.  Descartes also famously claims that his existences cannot be questioned based upon his famous quote, “I think, therefore I am.”  Based upon the logic that Descartes provides, he feels that the unique yet distinct separation between the mind and the body are of significant importance and that the two are not necessary in order for existence of a person to be held as true; he is of the opinion that all that is required for proof of existence is the ability for an individual to have a thinking mind.

It is first important to understand the specifics of what Descartes’ Dualism entails.  The 6th of Descartes’ Meditations clearly brings into question and provides an argument for the distinction between the body and the mind.  By Descartes’ rationale, the body and the mind can be entirely seen as separate entities.  From his previous meditations, he already had questioned the physical world and even if the existence of his mind was a real entity.  Slowly throughout the meditations, Descartes built an argument that proved the mind cannot be denied as real based upon the logic that if he is thinking than there is no way he is not real as the thoughts he generates are uniquely his and cannot be made from nothing (Descartes Med. II).  Next, Descartes goes  about proving the existence of the physical world.  In the 6th Meditation, he presents an argument that “derives from the supposition that divinely-bestowed human faculties of cognition must always be regarded as adequately designed for some specific purpose,” (Kemerling).  Descartes furthers upon this idea based upon three logical inferences about the physical world as it is represented to an individual based upon traits that are related to the mind.  The three arguments offered by Descartes to back this claim are: the comprehension of physical items through geometrical means adds to the notion that there must be a physical world, the evidence of imagination being directed towards the idea of the alteration of physical bodies, and because of the way in which sense perception has the ability to produce a representation of physical entities that are not produced by the individual (Kemerling).   Upon proving that the physical world is real as well, Descartes then draws the conclusion that the two are completely separate from each other.  The basis for the distinction between the two comes from Descartes notion that no matter what, he cannot ever doubt the existence of the mind but there are ways in which he can doubt the existence of the physical world (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy).  The underlying logic behind this logic serves as the backbone for the argument that the mind and body are separate entities and can exist independently.

Based on the idea that there is a separation between the two entities, Descartes goes on to claim that it is not necessary for the two to be present for an individual to exist.  It is important to note what Descartes considers to be “a body” to fully appreciate and comprehend the relationship as Descartes is describing it.  From Descartes’ point of view, what he considers to be the body is much more closely related to his physics and that the body is nothing more than an extension into space, meaning that a body is simply anything that occupies space (Descartes Med. VI).  This is different than the initial though of a body being the physical entity of an individual that is, upon first glance, assumed to be the body that Descartes speaks of.  His definition of a body is much broader than this, and it is important to realize that in order to understand how he is able to, rather quickly, accept the idea that the physical world is a real entity and cannot be denied.  Based upon his notion of a body being an entity that takes up space, it is much easier to accept that Descartes’ notion f physics is highly mathematical in the sense that he understands a body as being linked into a geometrical sense of being able to be mapped out upon a coordinate space of some sorts.  Based upon this notion, Descartes major argument for the body comes down to the reasoning that he gives in order to prove its existence, namely that claim that primary attribute for the body is extension (Descartes Med. VI).  

With the understanding of what Descartes has defined as the body and mind, it becomes clearer as to how and why he draws a distinction between the two and claims that the two are not linked in proving the individual exists.  From the earlier Meditations, Descartes came to the conclusion that he is nothing more than a thinking thing and that his mind has a unique relationship to the body that he feels is his own.  Based upon the notion that a link exists between the two and that there are unique sensations that link them such as hunger, pain, etc., Descartes questions if there is a need for the existence of both for his existence as a whole.  He draws the initial conclusion that the two are not both necessary for existences based upon the premise that the body is essentially extended whereas the mind is non-extended and therefore that he is really distinct from his body and could, in theory, exist without it (Descartes Med. VI).  He uses the sensory perception system as one of the most integral parts of the argument for the distinction of the mind and the body.

First, Descartes draws the idea that sensory perception is a mode of thought and cannot, therefore, exist without a thinking mind.  Based upon this, Descartes makes that claim that an individual’s perception of this feature could not exist without a mind capable of thought to contain them within (Descartes Med. VI).  However, because the sensory perception is a passive faculty, there has to be some active cause that exists that serves to create the sensory perception, which is located outside of the mind because the sensations are not being created from within the individual.  Descartes reasons that for this to be the case, there are two distinct possibilities.  First, it could be the case that other bodies that exist have an objective reality about them, or that God, or some other being capable of creating, has given bodies this ability (Descartes Med. VI).  As Descartes is more partial to the notion of an existence of God, he argues that in the induction theory of God, God exists to great length in his other work, he determines that these sensations must be real and must exist because God is not a deceiver and would not purposely mislead an individual into a false line of thinking. 

From this line of thinking, Descartes concludes that there is no possible way that the mind and the body are the same entity because of the relation described in the sensory perception system, chiefly that body creates the sensory perceptions whereas the mind could not possibly create them.  This, however, brings about the natural question: how do the two interact if they are separated from each other?  Descartes openly admits that he does not have a complete explanation for this question.  He can only really make the claim, “it seems that, somehow, the states of mind and body must be brought into relation, because when we deicide to puck up a pencil our arm actually moves, and when light hits our eyes we experience the visible world,” (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy).  Followers of Descartes’ teachings and those that have followed him have attempted to make claims as to nature of this relationship following from his logic.

The followers of Descartes have had several such attempts at explaining the relationship between the mind and the body even though Descartes himself claimed that he was not entirely able to answer the question as to the relationship between the two.  One of the more prevalent ways to deal with this issue came from followers adopting what is known as an occasionalist position.  This position takes the stance, “God mediates the causal relations between mind and body; mind does not affect body, and body does not affect mind, but God gives the mind appropriate sensations at the right moment, and he makes the body move by putting it into the correct brain states at a moment that corresponds to the volition to pick up the pencil,” (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy).  Descartes himself would most likely not entirely accept this line of thinking, however, because it relies so heavily on God controlling almost every aspect of the physical world and could be taking away from the individual’s ability to act in such a manner that allows the mind and body to have an actual relationship and not simply be playing out a scripted set of actions.  In his own works, Descartes is not as concerned with the interaction between the mind and body and instead focuses on the functional role between the two.  What he did observe and conclude was that the union between the two (mind and body) must have been instituted by God in the best possible manner for beings that are not omnipotent and all knowing so that they could exist and interact with these two separate yet important entities of the mind and the body.

In general, Descartes lays the foundation for separation between the mind and body in what is commonly known as Cartesian Dualism.  Based upon the logic that he provides, he firmly believes that the two are not necessary for existence.  So long as one is generating their own thoughts they are in existence.  The need for a body is negated based on this reasoning.  That is not to say, however, that the physical world and bodies do not exist but that the nature of their relationship is such that one is not dependent upon the other.  Descartes’ form of dualism is most firmly based upon the idea that in order for one to exist they must be able to produce thought and that sensations that are generated from the body are not created from the individual’s mind and must therefore be from a separate entity.  This all builds up to the conclusion that in order to exist, an individual does not necessarily need a body.                            

Works Cited

Descartes, Rene. Mediation on First Philosophy. Sioux Falls, SD: NuVision Publications, 2007. 

Kemerling, Garth. "Descartes: God and Human Nature." Philosophy Pages. n.d. n.p. 12 Apr. 2013. http://www.philosophypages.com/hy/4d.htm.

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. "Rene Descartes." Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 2008. http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/descartes/