Cartesian Dualism

The 17th century French philosopher and mathematician René Descartes was a dualist rather than a monist. He argued that there are two fundamental principles that compose our world as opposed to just one. In the monist’s view there is only the physical, but in the dualist’s view there is the physical and also the non-physical. The latter is most commonly understood as the spirit, soul, or mind (a separate entity other than the physical brain).

Descartes’ first argument for his proposition of dualism is a famous one. He claims that one can doubt whether or not one has a body (physical essence), but one cannot doubt whether or not one has a mind (non-physical essence). This concept is captured in his famous quote, “I think, therefore I am.” It would be a logical fallacy for one to doubt one’s own existence. In order to doubt, one must have a mind to do the doubting. An individual can doubt the existence of another part of his body, such as a hand or foot, but the action of doubting the existence of the mind requires one has a mind in the first place. This is not the case for a hand or foot. These appendages are not essential to the act of doubting itself.

This argument is a very appreciable one. From this, Descartes concludes that there must be two essences in the universe, those being the aforementioned physical and non-physical. In Descartes’ opinion, the argument of indubitable existence proves these two essences/principles exist. We know the physical world exists because it is what we are inhabiting at this very moment. Second, we know the mind exists because it has shown to be separate from the world of ordinary matter, and its very use verifies its existence to the user.

The argument is a clever one, but I think it could be expanded upon. This expansion could also possibly result in a conclusion very different from the one Descartes intended. If, “I think, therefore I am,” is enough to show that the mind exists, isn’t, “I feel, therefore I am,” enough to show that the body exists? If the brain’s sensation manifests itself as thought in our conscious experience, how is this different than our other Aristotelian senses manifesting themselves through different physical sensations?

Although I enjoy Descartes’ argument, I find the mind identity argument to be more superior. One could attack my proposition above by saying, “It is not sensation that proves the existence of an organ. The mind’s ability to doubt shows that only the mind’s existence can be absolutely concluded.” But, why does this conclude the existence of a mind, and not just a brain? If thoughts are the physical sensations of the brain, and perceptions of touch, taste, and smell are the sensations of other organs, then this doesn’t demonstrate the brain as unique in the sense it is non-physical. One must assume dualism before the argument starts to arrive at the conclusion that the mind and brain are two separate things.

Until evidence or a different philosophical argument suggests otherwise, the mind identity seems to be the more rational conclusion. Sensations are the result of the natural world, and many of them can be explained in depth. Even Descartes acknowledged that there are interactions between the physical and what he believed to be the non-physical. Music can alter a person’s mood, and thoughts can alter a person’s physical motions. He admitted the interactions can go both ways, but it appears that the unique physical behavior of the brain was misinterpreted as more than the physical. Just because we do not have a full understanding of the nature of the brain does not mean it is beyond nature.

If I know my mind exists because I can think, then I know my eyes exist because I can see. All these various sensations are channeled to the brain, and all those perceptions are made possible by the brain, including the thoughts of the mind. Our cranium is a remarkable feat of our biology, but I am cautious before I conclude that it is somehow more than just natural. After all, isn’t it biased to conclude that the brain is unique because you are using it? If marine life can contemplate its existence (as it has been suggested), would it be erroneous for it to conclude that it is beyond the physical, simply because it can acknowledge the physical?



  4 comments for “Cartesian Dualism

  1. vonleonhardt2
    April 23, 2015 at 9:42 pm

    I think the real issue in your reading is you are trying to make Descarte’s statement ontological when it is far more epistemological.

    So I think it presupposes your argument about empiricism; he would probably say thoughts (heard language) and senses come from raw sensory data… he claims all the data you receive could be bad if a demon or alien or something wanted to trick you in the matrix… but, he knows the data is still being processed. He would probably handle your brain question by pointing to the fact the process (S/w) has a distinct existence apart from the processor (H/w).

    I think it stands to say the fact you have sensory data to explain sensory data doesn’t prove all your data hasn’t been tampered with. The thinking how ever is neutral regarding bad or good data it just processes what it gets. The fact that something is thinking can’t be falsified is for Descartes enough to makes it a basis for positive truth claims regarding knowledge. We KNOW something is thinking so we can know other stuff.

    If it was ontological it would be more, is the data coming in real or imaginary? Like Plato’s cave.

    So I think he’s not trying to discuss “existence” in general; admittedly, that’s a latter development out of this but not the point here.

    Now, I’m not a dualist myself and actually abhor it; Descarte’s point is interesting and the bases of modern thought’s quest for “objective reason” (1700-1950-ish). The circle back to ontological arguments has been more post-modern and really came about once people started smoking things. LOL.

    • April 23, 2015 at 10:25 pm

      Thank you for reading, and for the insightful comment. It has given me some things to think about.

  2. Matthew Chiglinsky
    April 24, 2015 at 7:04 am

    It seems like a chicken-and-egg argument. (Which came first: the chicken or the egg?) Did the body create the mind, or does the mind create the body?

    Secretly, I’m a solipsist. I think my mind is the source of all life in the universe. I’m God, and this is all a very elaborate dream I’m having. But I have nothing better to do, so I persist in finding ways to entertain myself (like typing this comment). I invented you because I was bored. There’s a song about this by Nine Inch Nails:

  3. May 19, 2015 at 11:04 am

    Great post and I loved Von Leon Hardt’s comment and his dissection of the logic used by you.

    To me though, Dualism like the other twin concept of polarity, is indeed grounded in Ontology. Who one is ‘being’ when being who we are shapes one’s perceptions, emotions, creative imagination, thinking, planning, and consequently one’s actions.To gain actionable access into the nature and function of this ‘being’ and what has been revealed (opened up) by the ontological model, one needs to use the
    Phenomenological methodology. This allows an as-lived ‘On-the courts’ inquiry rather than a mere theoretical inquiry which is what one can achieve through an epistemological methodology.


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