allzermalmer

Truth suffers from too much analysis

Cartesian Mind-Body

Posted by allzermalmer on April 5, 2012

This a paper I once had to do for a class, and the subject of the paper is to  be about the Mind-Body issue with Descartes presentation of it in his works. We were suppose to try to defend Descartes about the Mind-Body issue, or how it might work out in Descartes works. I have not altered anything int his paper, unless other wise stated. I received an A on the paper, but that doesn’t mean much.

Renee Descartes is considered the first “Modern Philosopher”, and he is famous for his skeptical method and his conclusions that he drew from his skeptical methods. One of the things that he drew from his skeptical methods was based on what is called Dualism. This stance held that there are two substances in the universe. They are Mind and Body (or matter), and they are both distinct from one another. He also said that these two things would interact with one another. There is considered to be a problem with this reasoning in how two different substances can interact with one another, which is how the mind can make the body move. This is called the mind-body problem.

When Descartes wrote his Meditations on First Philosophy, he came to the conclusion that there are two substances. Descartes comes to state how he knows that mind-body are different things, or different substances. He says that “the fact that I can clearly and distinctly understand one thing apart from another is enough to make me certain that the two things are distinct, since they are capable of being separated, at least by God.”[1] A substance is something that we can, or God, can clearly and distinctly understand apart from one another. This would mean that one thing does not depend on the other in order to understand them. For example, I do not need to understand the Earth in order to understand the Sun. This means that they can exist separately from one another, and one does not imply the other.

For Descartes, the Mind and Body were two things that we could come to understand without needing to know the other. This helps to form the basis of the Mind-Body separation, or the Mind and Body being two different substances. In order to be a Mind, one must need to be thinking or willing thing, and the mind is not an extended thing. Now Body, or matter, is based on being an extended thing and an extended thing takes up space. A Mind wills things, thinks about things, and judges things, while not taking up space. Matter has shape, size, and takes up space. Mind is Active and Body is Passive. These help to form some of the essential points of what differentiates Mind and Body.

The most common problem that we have with the problem of Mind-Body interaction, especially of that of Descartes dualism of substances, is brought up by Princess Elisabeth of Bohemia. She was the first to states: “So I ask you please to tell me how the soul of a human being (it being only a thinking substance) can determine the bodily spirits, in order to bring about voluntary actions. For it seems that all determination of movement happens through the impulsion of the thing moved, by the manner in which it is pushed by that which moves it, or else by the particular qualities an shape of the surface of the latter. Physical contact is required for the first two conditions, extension for the third. You entirely exclude the one [extension] from the notion you have of the soul, and the other [physical contact] appears to me incompatible with an immaterial thing.”[2]

Elisabeth brought up how she comes to judge of causality between matter, and this seems to be different of that of body. Now we have to wonder about what is cause and effect, or at least how this idea has arisen in our minds. If we check history, we might notice that many “primitive” peoples have held that everything has a mind. We look at everything like it is alive. We come to think of them like us, or we anthropomorphize them. We first come to notice that when we will to move our arm, we find that our arm moves. We come to project this out onto non-human things. We come to think that a cat, a tree, a rock, or the planets move, which Kepler thought, because they have a mind of their own in order to move in a certain fashion.

With this idea in mind, we come to think of cause and effect like that of human beings. We will our body to move and our body moves. So, too, do we come to think that cats act a certain way because they will to act in that way, or that the planets move in a certain way because they will themselves to move that way. However, Descartes came to hold to a mechanical philosophy, which was that objects like planets do not have minds. What we do is take away the attribute of mind from these objects. But once we take away the action of mind, we have to wonder how is it that objects move as they do if they do not move by their will. In fact, Descartes held that matter is passive, and mind is active. Now that matter, in this mechanical philosophy, is no longer active by having a mind and now passive while having matter, it turns causality on its head. How can two passive things do something active like move or cause one another to move?

For Descartes, things that are passive, which is matter, move because of the Will of God. Only something that is active can move or have something moved. And God, being all powerful, has the power to move anything, like the whole of the universe. “The universal and general cause, God,  not only sets the world in motion, but preserves motion in the world…Descartes’ God is not merely the prime mover; He is the general cause of motion insofar as it is His continual activity.”[3] What we notice is that the motion of bodies is not because those motions themselves make contact with one another and cause the movement of one another, but it is God. It is impossible for passive things to interact with one another to cause motion. Only active things can cause passive things to move. And God preserves things, and is the general cause of bodies. Because God is the general cause of these bodies, he makes these passive things move about. This keeps in line with our primitive notion of how minds cause things like bodies to move.

We notice that Elisabeth brought up that “For it seems that all determination of movement happens through the impulsion of the thing moved, by the manner in which it is pushed by that which moves it, or else by the particular qualities a shape of the surface of the latter.” Descartes holds that it is God who makes these things move from one place to another, at least when these objects have no mind. Only mind can move matter, or those passive things. God keeps things in a constant motion of preservation, keeps them in being. Now we have to come and wonder about God and motion, or God being the cause of motion in bodies. We might come to judge that it is body coming into contact with body that causes them to move, but this is false. We have only judged wrongly, as Descartes would say.

Descartes said that the substance of body is that of being passive, and this is distinctly understood. But once we come to understand that these bodies are passive, and understand this distinctly, we can only come to the conclusion that bodies cannot move one another. This would be impossible. Body does not have the power to move another body. In fact, Descartes has stated that “the distinction between preservation and creation is only a conceptual one…we easily understand that there is no power in us enabling us to keep ourselves in existence.”[4] What goes for us also goes for matter. What this tells us is that God keeps not only us in existence, but also keeps matter in existence. This idea of causality is similar to that of David Hume.

David Hume held to this idea of causality in which one moment was distinct from another moment. This idea of causality that he presented had a long reach. He even applied it to that of the mind-body problem. He talks about how some have said that we feel energy or power in our own mind, and we find that this is transferred to body. Now Hume finds this type of argument to be fallacious, and comes up with an objection. “So far from perceiving the connection betwixt an act of volition, and a motion of the body; ‘tis allowed that no effect is more inexplicable from the powers and essence of thought and matter. Nor is the empire of the will over our mind more intelligible. The effect is there distinguishable and separable from the cause, and could not be foreseen without the experience of their constant conjunction.”[5]

What Hume is pointing out is that first, that it is inexplicable how the mind and body can have power go from one to the other. This is also the objection that is raised by Elisabeth to Descartes. Second, the effects of one thing are distinguishable from one and the other. This means that at one moment we will to move our arm, and another moment we find that our arm moves. And from experience we find that there is a constant conjunction between them. One follows the other. However, from experience, we never find one bringing about the other, just that it follows. Imagine that we have two clocks. One is like the Mind and the other is like the Body. They both have the same time, and when one ticks the other ticks at the same time. This would be how our Mind Body connection would be. They just happen to move at the same time and we just judge that the mind causes the body to move. This, in some sense, is consistent with what Descartes would have to hold if God was not the one who kept things connected, or it is God that keeps us into existence and keeps things connected by its divine will.

Now Hume’s position, if we were to just add God into it, brings up something interesting and seems to be consistent with what Descartes might be forced to hold. The position that comes up is Occasionalism. Occasionalism is that view that “there is no creature, spiritual or corporeal, that can change [the position of a body] or that of any of its parts in the second instant of its creation if the creator does not do it himself, since it is he who had produced this part of matter in place.”[6] The point of this is that we cannot do anything we will, because only God can cause anything or make anything happen. This would be consistent with a form of determinism, if not fatalism. For it would be determinism because God determines what actions our body does, or the determinate cause, and it would be fatalism because God could have a purpose for things in which he determines what our bodies and actions will lead to. We cannot escape any of these things.

With Occasionalism, there is no mind body problem for us. We only find that our bodies move in a certain way because God wills our bodies to move that way. It is still the case that a mind moves matter, but it is not our minds that move the bodies. We think that our minds move our bodies when we will it, but we do not have the ability to move our bodies. It is only God who does it. But we might want to know, is this what Descartes is committed to? It appears that Descartes is not committed to this position. He appears to have a way around this position.

Descartes appears to break efficient causation down in two ways. There are two different ideas of efficient causation. There is cause of being and cause of becoming. The cause of being is that of God, and God is also a partial cause of becoming. The Cause of Being is that of God, for he keeps things in being, he keeps them in existence. But the Cause of Becoming can be other minds as well, like Human beings. God can sustain things in their being, Cause of Being, or God can sustain things in their motion. Now it should be these two things are distinct from one another. One does not imply the other, because something can exist and never move, but God would sustain it as being. Now if it moves, God can either be the cause of it or a human, for example, could be the cause of it.

Now this allows Descartes to escape the charge of Occasionalism, and would also allow people to be the cause of the motion of their body. For God only keeps us in existence, but God doesn’t cause our bodies to move when we do not will our bodies to move. We found out that matter is passive, while minds are active. God causes things to stay in existence, and he causes things to move, in general. However, we can cause things to move in particular, like our body. We can state this simply as Minds are the cause of the movements of matter, whether our own bodies or that of the planets. It would seem that the movements of the planets are outside of our power, but they are not outside of the power of God to move.

Take for example that we throw a football to another person. The football, on its own, is following the laws of God, which we typically call the laws of motion or the laws of nature. These are just the laws of how God dictates matter to move, and keeps them in being and keeps them acting in those ways until another mind acts upon them. These other minds, like ours, can alter a normal course they would take in our absence. “Just as two human beings can exert their contrary impulses on the same bit of matter, so can we impose an impulse contrary to the one God imposes. Indeed, we do so every time we lift a stone, on which God is imposing an impulse to move toward the center of the earth.”[7]

What we find here is that mind is the cause of the matter, because the active is the cause of the passive moving. The passive cannot resist the active. For the passive to resist the active would for the passive to be active, and this would just be a contradiction and therefore make it impossible. Now let us go back to something that David Hume said. He happen to mention, previously, that “from perceiving the connection betwixt an act of volition, and a motion of the body; ‘tis allowed that no effect is more inexplicable from the powers and essence of thought and matter.” The point is that he is making it is inexplicable how this could happen, and what that means is that we cannot explain how this happens. It is like me trying to explicate what Blue is. It is just such a brute fact, or something that is so primitive that we know what it is but cannot explain it to others. So when Elisabeth asks for an explanation of how the mind-body interacts, she wants us to explicate it. But do I have to explicate to her what the color blue is, or how pain feels? No. This is something that is just there for us, and we know it by experience. It is so basic that we need not an explanation and must just reflect on our experience to find that it is obvious.

We find that it is so obvious to us that we have, secretly, projected it out onto other things like trees and planets, but have robbed these objects of a mind while trying to keep them as efficient causes. However, we have come to know of efficient causation through our primitive notion of mind-body interaction. If we were to get rid of this primitive notion of mind-body interaction, then efficient causation is gone from the world. In fact, this is exactly what David Hume did. He got rid of efficient causation from the world because he does not find it through sense experience. However, we also find some slight evidence that Hume’s position also stated that the “Self” does not exist. And the self would be the thing that causes the motion of the body. However, he later on had to give up this position because he could not render it consistent. For he restates his original position on the “self” with, “When I turn my reflection on myself, I never can perceive this self without some one or more perceptions; nor can I ever perceive anything but the perceptions. ‘Tis the compositions of these, therefore, which forms the self.”[8] Yet he has a surprise in store for us when he says, “In short there are two principles, which I cannot render consistent; nor is it in my power to renounce either of them, viz. that all our distinct perceptions are distinct existences and that the mind never perceives any real connection among distinct existence. Did our perceptions either inhere in something simple and individual, or did the mind perceive some real connection among them, there would be no difficulty in the case.”[9]

What we can recognize is that there is something simple and individual, which would call Descartes Cogito, the Mind or Self. Thus, if we accept this move, we find that there is mind-body interaction, because the interaction is of such a simple kind that it requires no real explication on it, because it is as obvious as the color blue or the feeling of pain. In conclusion, the mind-body interaction is of a simple, “primitive”, kind. Mind is active and body is passive. Efficient causation only makes sense with something active, and that resides in the mind. The active works on the passive which means that the mind acts on the body and God keeps matter in motion when humans do not act on matter.

Bibliography

Descartes, René. Descartes: selected philosophical writings. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988.

Lisa Shapiro, ed. Princess Elisabeth of Bohemia and Rene Descartes: The Correspondence between Princess Elisabeth of Bohemia and Rene Descartes. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007.

Garber, Daniel. Descartes Embodied: Reading Cartesian Philosophy through Cartesian Science. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2001

Pierre Clair, ed. Lousi de La Forge: Oeuvres Philosophiques. Paris: Presses Universitaires de Frances, 1974

Hume, David. A Treatise of Human Nature. New York, NY: Barnes & Noble, 2005.

Baker, Gordon P., and Katherine J. Morris. Descartes’ Dualism. London: Routledge, 1996

Machamer, Peter K., and J. E. McGuire. Descartes’s Changing Mind. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 2009

 


[1] Descartes, René. Descartes: selected philosophical writings. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988. P. 114

[2] Lisa Shapiro, ed. Princess Elisabeth of Bohemia and Rene Descartes: The Correspondence between Princess Elisabeth of Bohemia and Rene Descartes. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007. Pg. 62

[3] Garber, Daniel. Descartes Embodied: Reading Cartesian Philosophy through Cartesian Science. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2001. Pg. 186

[4] Descartes, Renee. Descartes: selected philosophical writings. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988 pg. 96/167

[5] Hume, David. A Treatise of Human Nature. New York, NY: Barnes & Noble, 2005. Pg. 478

[6] Pierre Clair, ed. Lousi de La Forge: Oeuvres Philosophiques (Paris: Presses Universitaires de Frances, 1974) pg. 240

[7] Garber, Daniel. Descartes Embodied: Reading Cartesian Philosophy through Cartesian Science. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2001. pg. 201

[8] Hume, David. A Treatise of Human Nature. New York, NY: Barnes & Noble, 2005. Pg. 479

[9] Ibid pg. 480-481

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