Rene Descartes and the Distinction between Mind and Body
Rene Descartes was one of the most prominent philosophers in the world. His contribution to philosophy was remarkable; he was given the title “Father of Modern Philosophy,” as the thinkers who came after him developed their philosophies based oh his writings. His most relevant work is “Meditations on First Philosophy,” the text which contained his major arguments. One of the arguments contained in that book was his argument of the distinction between the mind and body.
Among the aspects of Descartes’ philosophy, it was the issue of mind-body distinctness which proved to be crucial and most controversial due to the discrepancies within the argument. The argument on the distinction of mind and body is crucial because it is grounded on Descartes’ methodic doubt. It was this doubt that served as the foundation for Cartesian philosophy. While the actual mind-body argument is discussed in the Sixth Meditation, its origin can be traced in the Second Meditation. It was in the Second Meditation where Descartes finally found something he cannot doubt: his own existence.
He wrote, “this proposition I am, I exist, is necessarily true each time it is expressed by me, or conceived in my mind” (Descartes, 1901, ¶ 3). It was also in the Second Meditation that Descartes started to differentiate between mind and body. He considered the self as a “thinking thing” and stated that both perception and thinking were attributes of the soul (Descartes, 1901, ¶ 6). Meanwhile, he stated that those aforementioned attributes did not belong to the body. He wrote, “likewise that of perceiving and thinking, I held as by no means pertaining to the nature of body” (Descartes, 1901, ¶ 5).
Hence, Descartes already established the grounds for the mind-body dualism early on in his text. The mind-body argument in the Sixth Meditation is not only crucial, but it is also controversial. It is controversial as many scholars and writers debate about this particular aspect of Cartesian philosophy. The controversy surrounding the argument is justified, as the argument itself is flawed and is therefore prone to criticism. One aspect of the mind-body distinction argument which is flawed was the role of God in the conception of things.
The argument of Descartes is as such: God is responsible for all I conceive; since I conceive the mind and body as distinct, this means that God caused these to be distinct from one another. He wrote, “For there can be no doubt that God possesses the power of producing all the objects I am able distinctly to conceive” (Descartes, 1901, ¶ 1). This was what Descartes (1901) conceived: “on the one hand, I have a clear and distinct idea of myself…on the other hand, I possess a distinct idea of body” (¶ 9).
Since he conceived the mind and body as distinct objects, he concluded that God made these two distinct. However, this line of reasoning is questionable. Based on Descartes’ arguments regarding the distinct nature of the mind, he indicated that a person can conceive almost anything. The ability of the human mind to conceive certain objects does not guarantee the possibility of such conception. Just because one conceives two objects to be distinct, this does not mean that the said objects are indeed distinct from one another.
Descartes tried to use the participation of God to prove the mind-body distinction. It is only the inclusion of God in the argument that supports Descartes’ claims. However, the participation of God cannot be proven. If God was absent from the Cartesian argument, there would be no justification for Descartes’ mind-body distinction. Hence, apart from God’s inclusion, the mind-body distinction theory of Descartes has no premise to support it. Also, Descartes’ argument on the distinction between the mind and body does not exactly prove that the mind and body are really distinct from each other.
His argument only suggests that the mind and body could probably be distinct. Descartes (1901) wrote: “it is sufficient that I am able clearly and distinctly to conceive one thing apart from another, in order to be certain that the one is different from the other, seeing they may atleast be made to exist separately, by the omnipotence of God” (¶ 9). From this passage, one could conclude that the mind and body can be different from one another only in the instance that God should make them separate entities.
Again, the inclusion of God in this argument is problematic. There arises the issue between distinctness and separation. Descartes utilized God’s omnipotence as the basis of the separation of objects, which is in turn the basis for their distinction. In Descartes’ argument, the line between distinction and separation is blurred. It seems to imply that distinction is the same thing as separation. Descartes not only failed to prove the distinction, he also failed in defining between distinction and separation.
Lastly, the mind-body distinction revealed a major loophole in Descartes’ argument: his notion of a human being. Through his arguments, he suggested that a human being is not a single object; instead, he insinuated that man is composed of two distinct elements. He maintained that the mind and body are distinct because their natures are different and opposite. He wrote: “there is a vast difference between mind and body, in respect that body, from its nature, is always divisible, and that mind is entirely indivisible” (Descartes, 1901, ¶ 19).
Due to this difference, Descartes upheld the belief that both the mind and body could be understood in the absence of the other. However, one would be forced to ask: “if the mind and body were so distinct, how can they function together? ” If the mind and body functions together in a person, they must not be so distinct as to prevent such interaction to occur. The mind and body must have something in common to allow them to function together. Hence, the mind and body may not be as distinct as Descartes claimed.
The argument on mind-body distinctness is an important aspect of Cartesian philosophy. It was based on Cartesian doubt, which is the foundation of the entire philosophy of Descartes. Despite its importance, the argument proved to be faulty and questionable. There are certain flaws within the argument which make it subject to intense criticism, as there are no solid premises to support the said distinctness. Indeed, the mind-body problem proved to be a major flaw in Descartes’ philosophy.
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