Oct 052002

I’m having trouble structuring my paper on Cartesian substance dualism. So perhaps a bit of blogging will get me going.

The paper topic is:

Are minds and bodies essentially different substances that nevertheless causally interact? First, briefly spell out and explicate the basic steps of Ren´ Descartes’s argument in the second Meditation for the thesis that he is essentially a thinking thing. Second, briefly spell out and explicate the basic steps of Descartes’s arguments in the sixth Meditation for the “real distinction between the mind and the body” and for causal interactionism (you can also use the excerpts from the Passions of the Soul). Third, answer the following question and give detailed reasons for your answer: Is Cartesian substance dualism true?

So there are essentially four issues to examine in this paper:

  • Descartes’ argument that he is essentially a thinking thing.
  • Descartes’ argument for the real distinction between body and mind.
  • Descartes’ argument for causal interaction between body and mind.
  • The truth or falsehood of Cartesian substance dualism.

    So here’s my basic game plan:

    Gilbert Ryle’s essay “Descartes Myth” shows the absurdity of substance dualism by painting a clear picture of it as “the dogma of the Ghost in the Machine.” Ryle’s substantial philosophical arguments in this essay are thin, however, in that they largely consist of the suggestion that to speak of mind and body as a substance dualist does is to commit a category error. (Ryle’s substantial arguments for the category mistake later in The Concept of Mind rest upon a behaviorist conception mind and body that need not be accepted in order to reject Cartesian substance dualism.)

    However, by looking more closely at Descartes’ own philosophical premises and methodology, we see that many of the absurdities of substance dualism are the result of two basic problems with Descartes’ arguments about body and mind:

    (1) Descartes repeatedly argues from epistemological premises about what can and cannot be doubted to metaphysical conclusions about what is possible or necessary. Descartes uses these methods to show that he is essentially mind, essentially a thinking thing. As such, he does not even consider the possibility that the mind might be an action or property of the body, such that having a mind would necessarily imply having a body as well. We need not accept the hidden premise of this methodology that we are infallible about what can and cannot be rationally doubted. If we are mistaken about the basic nature of something (as Descartes may be with respect to mind), then we may sometimes be mistaken about the doubtfulness of the existence of those things. With such fallibility established, we cannot accept Descartes’ inferences from epistemology to metaphysics.

    (2) Descartes understands consciousness as essentially diaphanous, without identity. This diaphanous model of the mind is clear in Descartes’ definition of mind in terms of what body is not, not in terms of what mind is. As a result, mind and body seem far more ontologically distant than they actually are. Additionally, coherently explaining the causal interactions between a body and a diaphanous mind is nearly impossible. A diaphanous mind could not have effects in the physical world, nor could the physical world have effects on a diaphanous mind.

    These two basic errors in Descartes reasoning about mind and body substantially contribute to his strange and unscientific account of the relationship between mind and body.

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