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Why Does Descartes Consider Himself Distinct From His Body? Is His View Plausible? Essay, Research Paper

Rene Descartes (1596-1650) is a famous philosopher and mathematician whose most influential work is his Meditations of First Philosophy. It is through this work that he pioneered the philosophical notion of distinction between the human mind and body as two independent entities or things. This essay intends to explore the aforementioned notion by first discussing how and why it is that Descartes came to believe in this dualistic existence of the mind and body, and why it is that his view was plausible upon conception and still resonates in philosophical debates today.

By employing what is now known in philosophy as the Method of Cartesian Doubt, casting from the mind all that could be prone to any form of doubt and building an edifice of certain and error-free knowledge from what remains, in Meditations on First Philosophy, Descartes embarks on an epistemological odyssey to construct a system of reliable beliefs. After he discovers his ability to doubt and to understand, he is able to substantiate his necessary existence as a consequence. ‘I am, I exist,’ is Descartes’ most prominent declaration in Meditations and it is a conclusion he reaches in his second meditation after much deliberation on the existence of anything certain. What we doubt or understand may not ultimately correspond, but we can never be uncertain that we are in the process of thought. If as in Descartes’ claim, existence relies upon the presence of thought, then by proclaiming ‘I think’, existence of one’s self can no longer be doubted.

“I have convinced myself that there is nothing in the world – no sky, no earth, no minds, no bodies. Doesn’t it follow that I don’t exist? No; surely I must exist if it is me who is convinced of something… I must finally conclude that the statement ‘I am, I exist’ must be true whenever I state or mentally consider it.” (Descartes, p118)

Although he cannot yet be sure of the existence of anything external to or outside of his mind, the certainty of his own thoughts cannot be doubted. Descartes now establishes that this existence of self, ‘I’, is the existence of a thinking thing.

Hoping to discern the existence of anything else aside from himself, an immaterial substance, Descartes considers a variety of ideas he has within his mind and contemplates whether he could have conceived them himself or not. In the following meditation, it seems that Descartes finds it necessary to first establish the existence of a non-deceiving God before he can be assured of the existence of anything beyond himself and his mode of thought. He does this by the rationalization that his perception of God is that of a perfect being. In order for a being to be perfect it must exist. Since he himself is an imperfect being, he cannot conceive the idea of perfection on his own. Therefore, it must have come from some other faculty that must be perfect, which is God.

“By ‘God’ I mean infinite substance, independent, supremely intelligent, and supremely powerful – the thing from which I and everything else that may exist get our existence. The more I consider these attributes, the less it seems that they could have come from me alone. And I must therefore conclude that God necessarily exists.” (Descartes, p125)

This argument however is a little weak. Descartes neglects to provide the same level of concrete certainty within the existence of God as he initially did with the existence of self. Nonetheless, this idea of a non-deceiving God is a major component in Descartes’ proof of the external world, so we will continue to follow Descartes’ thoughts.

Although he assures himself of his own existence by his modes of thought, he continues to remain uncertain of the reality of an external world. He doubts whether there is anything of material substance that provokes thought within him rather than it being conceived in his mind completely independent of anything else. Descartes then considers those reasons that have inclined him to believe these material things exist in the past. Since however, he has called upon anything to be false that provokes any doubt he does not believe this explanation to be enough for the proof of the external world. Descartes goes on to argue that an external world exists after calling it into doubt by the invocation of the dream argument. In this argument, Descartes suggests the possibility that none of our ideas are caused by external objects, as is the case when dreaming and therefore, such objects may not exist. Ideas come to be in dreams independent of external objects and perhaps this is true of ideas when we are awake.

It is not until he returns to his concept of the existence of God that Descartes comes to accept that clear and distinct ideas can be trusted. After this deliberation his process of coming to the realisation existence of an external world seems rather direct. Descartes has the clear perception that material objects exist. Since he has already determined that God is not deceiving him nor his perceptions, his perceptions can be trusted as being actual. If Descartes’ perceptions of material objects and an external world are actual, then they must exist.

Nevertheless this external reality is different from our reality of thought. It becomes dualistic by the idea of two separate substances. Descartes establishes a sort of isomorphic state between the mind and its extension, the body. The mind is a completely immaterial substance which consists of the senses and all modes of thought, argues Descartes. On the other hand the body is purely material, it takes up space but is incapable of thought. And it can also be divided into smaller and smaller components, unlike the mind, which is an indivisible unit. Descartes infers that both the mind and the body have God as their source because God, alone, exists independent of anything else. And so in Meditations Descartes concludes that the existence of mind, body and creator is infallible knowledge.

If, as Descartes argues, the mind and body exist completely independently of each other (irrespective of the existence of God since it is of no consequence at this stage) this leads us to wonder about the relationship between the immaterial mind and material body, commonly known in philosophy as the mind/body problem. Descartes takes the stance of a strong dualist or someone who believes that the mind and the body are not only separate, but capable of independent existence. Other positions are that of the weak dualist, who feels that while the mind and body are metaphysically distinct, they cannot exist independently of one another, and that of the materialist who deem that only physical things and physical procedures exist, while the mind does not.

With all the scientific knowledge of today, a materialistic viewpoint is considerably more favoured than it would have been in Descartes’ time. According to Descartes, by employing the Method of Cartesian Doubt, it is not possible to exist as a body without a mind since the very first indubitable proof under this method is ‘I think’. However, philosophers today could argue that perhaps the mind is impossible to differentiate from the brain. They could argue that all sensations are not workings of the mind as Descartes would argue, but rather that they are electro-chemical processes within the brain. There are now very few attributes that were once considered to belong to the mind, that today can be found to belong to the brain. Even consciousness, awareness of one’s self is explained by materialism to be “the scanning of one part of our central nervous system by another” (Armstrong, p331).

Nevertheless, regardless of how much more universally acknowledged scientific proof demonstrates that Descartes’ claims in Meditations can be disproved, there will never be a consensus on the matter of existence of the mind and the distinction, if any, between the mind and body. If the mind truly exists, as Descartes propounded, then it most certainly is distinct from the body. And despite the elusiveness of what kind of relationship links mind to body, it is a certainty that there is some degree of interaction therein. Dualism will always be popular, no matter how many faults are highlighted by materialists. Granted, materialism is such a reasonable alternative, but it fails to satisfy (for most people) the most significant case of all – the first person.

Most cannot even conceive of the possibility that the ‘mind’ is nothing more than part of a physical material substance controlled by electrical and chemical activity within the brain. How could our own awareness of being, in all its complexities, possibly be accounted for by the comparatively primitive notion of materialism? Billions of religiously affiliated people have minds and souls imposed upon them simply by having their respective beliefs. In religion itself people have grounds to reject materialism. Hence, asked if such a concept as dualism were plausible, they would be compelled to consent.

Descartes’ dualism is one of the most controversial concepts in philosophical thought. Yet still, it is one of the most accepted explanations for existence. If, as Descartes so famously said, ‘I am, I exist’ then based on the already self-acknowledged existence of mind and subsequent existence of body, a distinction therein is not only a plausible proposal but indeed, almost a certain one.

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