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Mind – Body Problem Research Paper

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Updated: Oct 22nd, 2021

Introduction

One of the major questions still under debate in philosophical circles is the mind/body problem. This problem is also often referred to as dualism because of the way that it tends to divide human experience between what is experienced in the mind and what is experienced in the body. This question has only become more complicated in recent years as the new concept of ‘virtual reality’ became a visible possibility and as new science has continued to throw doubt on the possibility that such a division can occur. Essentially, the mind/body problem revolves around trying to determine what constitutes real experience. The mind can fool the body into thinking it is experiencing something, such as in the case of lost limbs or psychosomatic illness, but the body can also fool the mind into thinking it is experiencing something, such as in the case of false scents, misperceptions or vertigo. Researching the mind/body problem necessarily involves a discussion of the theories of Descartes as it was he who first proposed the division and began to define the proper realms of the mind versus that of the body.

Main body

Dualism is Descartes attempt to bring the discipline of mathematics with its basis on ‘real’ knowledge, information that just cannot be wrong, together with the concepts of thought. “He calls into question everything that he thinks he has learned through his senses but rests his whole system on the one truth that he cannot doubt, namely, the reality of his own mind and the radical difference between the mental and the physical aspects of the world” (Brians 1998). To do this, he applied four basic rules of logic to the process of discovery. The first rule was that he could only accept truths that were clearly and distinctly known to be true. The second rule was to reduce problems down to their most common elements and solving them at the micro level as a means of solving the macro. The third rule was to proceed in order from the easiest solution to the most difficult. The fourth and final rule was to be sure to take a broad view of each individual micro-problem in order to be sure nothing has been missed at the macro level. Through the application of this thought process to the process of thinking itself, Descartes developed his theory that mind and matter are not one and the same thing – dualism.

Through the application of the logical questioning process, Descartes demonstrates how thought, not observation is really the right foundation for knowledge. “When I considered that the very same thoughts (presentations) which we experience when awake may also be experienced when we are asleep, while there is at that time not one of them true, I supposed that all the objects (presentations) that had ever entered into my mind when awake, had in them no more truth than the illusions of my dreams” (Descartes, 2001). His idea of discovering truths about the world was defined by whether he had a clear and distinct perception of them and that was sufficient for knowledge. However, the idea that knowledge can be defined by a “clear and distinct perception” is foiled by its own dependence on the senses. Assuming that what he is able to perceive as distinct must be true, he strives to erase his mind of all information that has been gained through his five senses to arrive at what he knows deep within himself. In doing so, he also establishes the ‘proper’ realm of the mind as opposed to the realm of the body. The realm of the mind is truth or knowledge while the realm of the body is sensation and perception.

After rejecting all of the information, he seems to know about the world because it has all come to him through one or the other of the senses, about the only thing Descartes is still sure of is that there is something within him that can be informed, rightly or wrongly, by these senses. He reasons that in order to fool a mind, a mind must first exist. “But there is I know not what being, who is possessed at once of the highest power and the deepest cunning, who is constantly employing all his ingenuity in deceiving me. Doubtless, then, I exist, since I am deceived; and, let him deceive me as he may, he can never bring it about that I am nothing, so long as I shall be conscious that I am something” (Descartes, 1989). This conclusion led to the now-famous line “I think, therefore I am” that is at the heart of the dualism question. It also seems to suggest that the mind is something that can transcend the physical functions of the body through the central nervous system.

Conclusion

Common sense and recent science demonstrate that Descartes’ conclusions that the mind may be able to transcend the functions of the body must be false. The mind is unaware of anything until the sensations of the body provide it with the information necessary to formulate thought. This is perhaps best illustrated through the function of dreams. Whether dreams have meaning or not is irrelevant to this discussion, but what is relevant is that the language of dreams is always tied to the physical experiences of the individual. A person who has never experienced the image of an elephant will have a very difficult time dreaming of one. They may be able to dream of a large grey animal, but this animal will tend to take on characteristics and features of other animals that they have seen either in real life, in picture books or had described to them in some degree of detail. At the same time, it is the body’s perception of what is large, the eyes perception of what is grey and the mind’s understanding of what is an animal that come together to create the image. The mind and body function together as an integrated team in which neither can be separated from the other. The mind depends on the body to give it information while the body depends on the mind to give it direction.

References

Brians, P. (December 18, 1998). “Rene Descartes: Discourse on Method.” Department of English, University of Washington.

Descartes, R. (1989). Meditations on First Philosophy. Trans. John Veitch. New York: Prometheus Books.

Descartes, R. (2001). Discourse on Method. Vol. XXXIV, Part 1. The Harvard Classics. New York: P.F. Collier & Son, 1909–14; Bartleby. Web.

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