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Concept of the Cartesian Dualism in Philosophy Essay

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Updated: Jan 12th, 2020


Since medieval times, human beings have been faced with the dilemma of the relation between the mind and the body. The first response to the mind-body question was proposed by Descartes. Descartes argued that minds are entirely separate from bodies and from material objects of any kind. This view that suggests that the mind (thinking thing) is distinct from the body (unthinking thing) is referred to as the Cartesian Dualism.

It holds that the mind has neither a size nor a location, and is purely spiritual. As such, an individual is a duality that comprises a body that is paired to a mind. Descartes also argues that the body cannot exist without a mind; however, the mind can endure the annihilation of the body to which it is paired. Cartesian dualism holds that minds and bodies interact casually despite their radical distinctiveness (Larmer 279).

This is seen in the bodily interactions that result in sensation, experiences and thoughts in mind, as well as mental action that sparks speech, action and movement. This paper seeks to find the truth behind the concept of dualism by evaluating Descartes’ main arguments and criticisms. The paper also argues against Cartesian dualism by examining the concepts put forward by other philosophers regarding the relationship between mind and body.

Descartes’ main arguments

Cartesian dualism uses three primary arguments based on doubt, simplicity, and clear perception. Descartes’ argument from doubt holds that an individual can doubt the existence of the body, but not of the mind.

According to this argument, the mind is separate from the body since its properties vary from those of the brain. Descartes used this argument in order to create a notion of himself as a separate entity from his body. In doing this, he realized that he could not disregard the possibility that there is an element of materiality to the soul (Larmer 280).

Descartes argument from simplicity claims that the body is extended while the mind is not. According to Descartes, everything that can be extended is divisible into different parts, which implies that the body is divisible, but the mind is not. In addition, being extended implies that the body has a location in space that it occupies.

As such, the mind is separate from the body since it does not occupy space. Descartes believed that the mind could not be divided into parts, even though various body functions were under the control of different cognitive processes. His arguments were based on the belief that these parts were driven by the same force. Since the mind was the driving force, it could not be extended. As such, he concluded that the mind must be separate and distinct (Larmer 281).

Descartes argument from a clear and distinct perception claims that individuals are not physical things but thinking things. He further argues that the mind can live without the body since it is separate from the body. Descartes’ line of thought was supported by the notion that two things that could exist apart from one another must be distinct and separate. In addition, Descartes claimed that the body and the mind had separate properties, such that thought is a property of self while extension is a property of the body (Larmer 281).

Arguments against dualism

The concept of Cartesian dualism is easily believable since the mind of a human being does not feel physical at all. Consequently, the claim that the mind can exist by itself in the absence of a physical world appears to be true. Descartes’ philosophy dominated many discussions regarding the relations between the mind and body until mid twentieth century.

Before the 1950s, philosophers believed the claims by Descartes that: an individual understands his mind more than his body; the mind is in control of the body; and that human beings are faced with the challenge of knowing about the existence of objects that they interact with, despite the existence of solutions to that problem. However, this changed due to the accumulated effect of logical positivism, as well as, the surfacing of various philosophical arguments to Cartesian dualism (Bennett 318).

Logical positivism

In the mid nineteenth century, scientists began to emphasize inter subjective verifiability of both scientific integrity, as well as the efficacy of linguistic. For scientists to agree with the claims put forward about the mind, they demanded that those mental attributions go through a public and physical verification process.

The fact that science takes an inter-subjective, third person perspective on all things implied that the conventional first-person perspective, such as that supporting the claims of dualism, would be discarded for scientific purposes (Bennett 328).

One of the key problems with Descartes dualism is the interaction between two distinct and separate entities: an immaterial mind and a material body. Descartes argues that the force of gravity has the ability to exert its force on any part of the body at the same time. He compares the effect of gravity to the effect of the soul on the body. Descartes further states that the soul and the body interact in the brain, at a point known as the pineal gland.

However, naming the point does not explain the process involved when the two distinct and separate entities interact. Descartes also compares the body and mind relation to a pilot steering a ship. The problem with this comparison is that a breakdown of the ship does not impact the pilot. However, a breakdown of the body impacts the mind. Strawson also questions the individuation of the mind by inquiring about the possibility of two or more minds inhabiting one body, either simultaneously or in succession (Strawson).

Philosophical objections

There were also philosophical arguments against Cartesian dualism that led to the rejection of Descartes’ philosophy. The first reason why philosophers rejected Cartesian dualism was due to the interaction problem of course. Secondly, the philosophers cited the Cartesian egos as odd and ambiguous, which nullified their validity in explaining any publicly known fact.

Thirdly, the Cartesian interactions violated the laws of physics including the vital law of conservation of energy. Fourthly, dualism differed with evolution theories. It failed to create the link between natural selection and Cartesian egos. The scientists argued that immaterial substances, such as Cartesian egos, could not follow the law of adaptation. Fifthly, philosophers argued that dualism was explanatorily impotent when compared to neuroscience.

Sixthly, Cartesian dualism contradicted the concept that all known mental phenomena are largely reliant in depth brain function (Lycan 233). Seventhly, philosophers claimed that the epistemology by Descartes was wrong. According to Ryle, Cartesian dualism does not hold because human beings can easily determine what is going on in someone else’s mind. Other limitations of Cartesian dualism look at the unity and individuation of the mind, as well as, the problem of causal pairing between the brain and the body (Larmer 283).

Lycan (236) argues that there is no logical sense in Descartes notion that the mind, which lacks physical space, has the capacity to interact with a material body. The material body that Lycan refers to is the pineal gland in the brain. Lycan argues that the mind and body are in a pre-established harmony. He compares this pairing to clocks that are synchronized by businesses that open every morning, after God starts off the minds and bodies of human beings in a harmonic relationship (Lycan 236).

In support of the arguments by Lycan, Malebranche argues that the two substances discussed by Descartes, body and mind, are causally unproductive (Bennett 319). He claims that God is the one and only true cause. He states that there is no effect of the mind on the body or of body on mind.

Furthermore, there lacks causality functions unless god intervenes to bring about the familiarities that occur in experience. As an example, he states that any motion made by human beings is guided by God to bring about an occasion, such as moving an object in the line of sight so that it catches one’s attention.

Arguments for dualism

Cartesian dualism fits well with common sense of the obvious division of mind and body. Human beings perceive the qualities of experiences in terms of thought, which vary significantly from the qualities of material bodies in terms of extension). This argument is also supported by Joseph Breur who claims that the mind casually affects the body.

Breur claims that there was a woman who suffered from a variety of unusual symptoms including impaired speech, memory loss and distorted vision. Scientific efforts to arrive at a solution were unproductive since the condition had no factual history. Attempts to find a solution revealed that she had not fully grieved the loss of her father (Mills 107).

When she started to talk about her feelings, the suppressed emotions in her unconscious that had caused her physical symptoms began to emerge. This translated to her physical recovery, which supports Descartes theory of interactionism. This theory holds that causal interaction between the mind and body takes place in the pineal gland in the brain. The physical symptoms were a product of her mental state. Consequently, dealing with her hidden emotions led to the resolution of the physical symptoms (Mills 107).


Studies indicate that the claims by Descartes were influenced by his desire to appeal to both the church and the world of science, which were in conflict at that time. Since the church dealt with matters of the soul while science dealt with the corporal body, Descartes’ claims that the mind is immaterial and the body is material gave them both a level of credibility.

In writing this paper, the question that keeps arising is whether the ability of an individual to clearly perceive the mind and body as distinct means that they actually are. There are arguments that support of Descartes’ claims. However, the arguments against dualism that comprise concepts of logical positivism and philosophical objections are more convincing than the arguments in support.

Various new theories exist to fix the shortcomings of Cartesian dualism including behaviourism theory, the identity theory, machine functionalism, homuncular functionalism, and other teleological theories (Lycan 238). While the arguments about dualism by Descartes may be faulty, his principles have an element of truth, which provides other philosophers with an opportunity to contribute on the topic.

Works Cited

Bennett, Karen. “Mental Causation.” Philosophy Compass 2.1 (2007): 316-337. Print.

Larmer, Robert. “Mind-body Interactionism and the Conservation of Energy.” International Philosophical Quarterly 26.1 (1986): 277-285. Print.

Lycan, William G. “The Case for Phenomenal Externalism.” Philosophical Perspectives 15.1 (2001): 233-241. Print.

Mills, Eugene O. “Interactionism and Overdetermination,.” American Philosophical Quarterly 33.1 (1996): 105-115. Print.

Strawson, Galen. Mental Reality. Cambridge, MA: Bradford Books, 1994. Print.

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