Essay – Critically assess Descartes’ view of the soul

Critically assess Descartes’ view of the soul (35 marks)

Although, technically, Descartes is not on the specification as a named philosopher, his work is too important to ignore in the mind/body debate. The essay below was handwritten in 45 minutes (and subsequently typed up without alterations – save a few spelling corrections). The specification does mention “other concepts of the body/soul distinction”; this is where Descartes would be relevant along with “questions surrounding the nature of disembodied existence”. 

When assessing Descartes’ view of the soul there are a number of issues which need addressing. The first is the logical problems which arise from his original thoughts, the second the problem of interactionism, and the third is the problem of Descartes’ grammar which all go towards demonstrating that a Cartesian view of the soul is philosophically weak. We shall begin with the logical problems.

Descartes was a substance dualist and a product of the renaissance. He was influenced by Aristotle and the Christian worldview. He believed that the body and soul were two different substances. The body was matter and all matter was simply extension, inertia moved by other things or describable in terms of space, depth, distance or length. This res extensa required something else to move it. The soul or “mind” (res cogitans) as Descartes saw it, was radically different. It had no place in the spatio-temporal world. It was not in motion but simply an indivisible thinking thing.

In his work Meditations Descartes outlines the fact that his body is divisible. Descartes began the method of doubt. This led him to believe that the mind and body were separate as he could imagine his mind without a body. He could imagine losing a foot, an arm or some other part of his anatomy but suggested that this would not reduce his soul/mind in any way. His mind was a single thinking thing, capable of doing other than that which the body desired. The logical problem arising from this was his contention that the mind could be separate from the body. He employed the method of doubting but did not believe that he could deny his mind because he was thinking (cogito ergo sum – “I think, therefore I am”). He suggested that he may be being deceived by an evil deceiver but stressed that he had the concept of God as a supremely perfect being implanted in his mind. Since God, being perfect, could not deceive him he could trust his mental faculties. This is known as the Cartesian Circle. The argument is fallacious as the concept of God in his mind relies on his mental faculties being correct and his mental faculties rely on the concept of God not being some evil deceiver. The argument is therefore circular and so fails. Moreover, Descartes believed that God could do the logically impossible so it is plausible in this view, that God could be deceiving his faculties in to believing his thoughts are accurate. The justification of the sceptical method of doubting is too shaky to accept.

The second issue we have is the issue of interactionism. Descartes believed that the mind and body were two distinct substances: one of extension and divisibility, the other non-corporeal and indivisible. The issue surrounds how the two substances could be seen to interact. If the mental is non-physical then how can it “cause” anything to occur? Rather like a ghost riding a bike it seems as though the mind is causally impotent. Yet this seems to be counterintuitive. I am thinking about taking a sip of green tea and jasmine as I write. This is a mental event which will cause a physical event surely? Descartes’ solution for this problem is found in his work The Passions of the Soul and Treatise on Man in the form of the pineal gland which he sees as the seat of imagination and common sense. This is a physical gland in the brain which he argues is indivisible, unlike the rest of the body, as indicated by the senses which come in pairs. The pineal gland is capable of single thought and so he concludes this is the link between the body and mind. There are obvious problems with this. Firstly he is still using a physical thing to explain the link between the mental or incorporeal and the body/corporeal. Secondly he seems to forget that we only have one tongue as a sense organ. Zinn (1749) argued that the brain is fully divisible after split brain experiments on dogs. Although one might argue that a dog’s mind or brain is radically different from a human’s, leaving Zinn’s work to be irrelevant in this case. However, the Functionalist Putnam might argue that (at least in terms of pain) we are similar enough in experiences for this criticism to stand.

The last issue on interactionism comes through work following that of Descartes in the guise of Pre-established Harmony and Occasionalism. Leibniz and Malebranche would challenge Descartes’ use of the pineal gland as a reversal of his position. They both argue that the substance dualism Descartes outlines is correct. There is no causal relationship between mind and body for Leibniz and Malebranche as God is responsible for either setting up the two independent realities (Pre-established Harmony) or acting in each individual occasion (Occasionalism). As a DVD has soundtracks and visual files the world we experience has mental thoughts and physical activities or actions which coincide at the same time though are not causally linked. It is as though these two separate tracks run in parallel. It may be argued that at least Leibniz and Malebranche remain true to their philosophical values rather than accepting a dubious “out” in the guise of the pineal gland to slip the noose of Interactionism. However Leibniz and Malebranche’s theories did not pass the test of time mainly because of the lack of both causal power and moral responsibility we are left with if we accept their views. So Descartes’ idea of mind and body is severely limited by the issue of Interactionism not least in that he hasn’t fully explained where the causal relationship between mental and physical resides. It seems obvious that I can cause physical things to happen and that my body has an effect on me. However this view has been challenged on the grounds of a category mistake by the Oxford philosopher, Gilbert Ryle, in his work Concept of Mind (1949).

Ryle’s argument is that Descartes falls foul of a grammatical error when he advocates dual substances. The official doctrine as Ryle puts it, is just as Descartes describes, a separate substance for mental events and physical events. He demonstrates this mistake through several examples: a foreign visitor coming to see Oxford University and asking where the University was after being shown all the Colleges and offices; a young boy asking when the division will pass once seeing all the different elements of that division parading before him; someone suggesting that they have bought a right glove, a left glove and a pair of gloves. These examples demonstrate that the mind is like a ghost in the machine, an extra entity attributed when none is needed. Mental events and physical events are not distinct in this view which directly challenges Descartes’ substance dualism. However Ryle isn’t suggesting a materialist view necessarily, rather that the notion of consciousness or intentionality is more complex than dualism or materialism might suggest.

To offer a conclusion we may look at the work of Nagel, who builds on Ryle’s work. Descartes seems to assume that the human being is simple. Consciousness or “qualia” (a term which means what it is like to be something) is the subjective experience we all have in common, the thinking which Descartes wished to maintain was purely a mental occurrence in nature seems infinitely more complex than he had imagined. There is a relationship between the physical and mental but this does not necessarily mean that they are entirely separate as Ryle explains. Yet it still seems as though our subjective experience of mind or consciousness continues to defy full explanation. One thing is certain though, Descartes’ view of mind and body has too many philosophical problems to be held to be accurate.








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