Mind Body Problem: Dissecting Descartes' Solution to the Debate

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In this paper, I will explain why Rene Descartes’ account of substance dualism is inadequate and fails to provide a logical solution for the mind-body problem. Descartes makes the distinction that the body is physical and that the mind is nonphysical, but is unable to provide an explanation regarding how they interact, therefore his solution is insufficient. To start, I will explain the mind-body problem and Descartes’ solution to it. Then, I will explain why his solution is inadequate and discuss the two strongest objections in my opinion. Lastly, I will make any conclusions on the subject.

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The mind-body problem refers to the question about how the brain/physical body interacts with the mind/consciousness. For Descartes, if the mind-body problem has the 4 contradicting principles below, he will discard number 4 (Maiese 2).

  1. The body is a physical thing.
  2. The body is not a physical thing.
  3. The mind and body causally interact.
  4. The mind and body do not causally interact (Maiese 2).

This leaves the idea that the mind is not a physical thing but the body is and that they causally interact. By employing the method of doubt, Descartes discards all things he previously believed to be true in order to create a new and certainly true foundation of knowledge (Descartes 6). He first concludes that he can doubt his physical existence, but he cannot doubt his mind because he is engaging in the process of doubting, a type of thinking (Descartes 16, 28). Because of this, Descartes’ first solid truth is that he is a thinking thing, hence the phrase ‘Cogito, ergo sum”, or, “I think, therefore I am” (“Cogito, Ergo Sum.”). He then goes on to say that the mind and body do causally interact.

To support the idea that the body and mind causally interact, he explains two types of thinking: intellectual and imaginative (Descartes 26). Intellectual thought is strictly a process of the mind, while imagination requires the idea to be able to be perceived by the senses, and therefore includes the body. You can imagine something on purpose, but things perceived by the senses are things that we have little control over seeing, hearing or feeling (Descartes 26-27). Descartes says that since ideas perceived through the senses are more vivid and lively than an idea from memory, for example, then we can say that the ideas perceived from the senses must be coming from an external source that is not the mind (Descartes 27). This difference between intellectual thought and imaginative thought also shows a separation of the mind and body in addition to them working together.

Descartes also uses the phenomenon of phantom limb pain to illustrate the separation of body and mind and also their interaction (Descartes 27). If one can experience pain in a body part that no longer physically exists, then he concludes that the sensation of pain lives in the mind and is separate from the body since the body part in question no longer exists (Descartes 27). He also says that nature allows him to experience hunger and innately understand that he must eat and that pain is a safety warning. He says that since God would not deceive him of his existence, he can trust his experiences with hunger and pain (Descartes 29). He rules that if he only had a mind, then he could know pain without feeling the sensation of it, and if he were only a body, he could experience the sensation but not associate it with any specific meaning, which is another way that Descartes claims body and mind are separate but interact to achieve the full experience of pain or hunger (Descartes 27, 29). Descartes then claims that the mind is only a thinking thing, and the body is only an extended thing that takes up space (Descartes 28). This thinking thing that is the mind is not extended and takes up no space, while the body is an extending thing that does not think but does take up space (Descartes 28).

There are several objections to Descartes’ reasoning and his “solution” to the mind-body problem. The first objection I will discuss is that Descartes relies on fallacious reasoning–specifically, that he is guilty of the masked man fallacy (Philosophy Tube). A simplified example of the masked man fallacy is as follows:

  1. I know who Dr. Maiese is.
  2. I do not know who Wonder Woman is.
  3. Therefore, I know that Dr. Maiese is not Wonder Woman.

This is fallacious because while I may know who Dr. Maiese is, I do not know who Wonder Woman is, so Dr. Maiese could still be Wonder Woman, and I would not know. The masked man fallacy assumes that just because we know one thing, we can then consequently know another, somewhat unrelated thing (Philosophy Tube). This objection to Descartes’ solution to the mind-body problem says he cannot know the mind and body are truly separate and different because his logic relies on the idea that he cannot doubt the existence of his mind, but can doubt the existence of his body, therefore they must be separate and different things. This does not decide anything about their actual properties, only what Descartes thinks about them (Philosophy Tube). Even if they were separate and different things, physical and nonphysical as he claims, how would something nonphysical be able to affect something physical like the body? This mysterious interaction between the nonphysical mind and the physical body was described by philosopher Gilbert Ryle as the ‘Ghost in the Machine’.

Gilbert Ryle’s ‘Ghost in the Machine ” dogma describes the way Descartes explains how the body and mind interact. The interaction is vague and mysterious as if the mind were a ghost and the body was a machine (Ryle). Ryle’s objection to Descartes is that he made a category-mistake in classifying the mind as negatives of the body instead of its properties, ‘Minds are not clockwork, they are just bits of not-clockwork.’ (Ryle). Ryle doesn’t deny that mental processes occur, but he says that they are not the same sort of processes as physical processes. Since the processes of mind and body are so different, we should not attempt to separate or equalize the two (Ryle). When the mind is nonphysical and the body is physical, there is no logical way to explain how they influence each other, as a body takes up space and is extended, while the mind is neither of those things. It also creates the problem of how my mind always seems to be in the same place as my body. There is no logical reasoning offered that should explain how such a thing occurs when one is physical and one is nonphysical. It is because of these reasons that Ryle concludes Descartes has made a category-mistake when he claims the mind is nonphysical by means of the negative attributes of physical bodies.

In conclusion, Descartes’ solution to the mind-body problem fails to clearly explain how the mind and body are able to interact and is only able to identify them as thinking things and extending things, respectively. If the mind is nonphysical, nonextended, and takes up no space, it seems that it cannot be tethered to our bodies. After all, something kept within one place must be able to take up space and have some sort of physical attachment or limitations. We can say from the human experience that our mind is exclusive to us to some degree. You may be able to look at my face and know I am happy, but you do not have access to my uninhibited thoughts and feelings the way I do. It does seem as though my mind exists in my body or is especially accessible to my body and no one else’s, so it does not follow for my mind to be nonphysical when it travels with my body and only my body as I move through life. The masked man fallacy here shows the flawed logic in Descartes’ reasoning, and along with the category-mistake objection, makes his solution inadequate for the mind-body problem.

Works Cited

  1. “Cogito, Ergo Sum.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 9 Feb. 2020,,_ergo_sum.
  2. Descartes, René. “Meditations On First Philosophy”. Internet Encyclopedia. 1996. PDF file. 
  3. Philosophy Tube, Olly. “Cartesian Dualism”. YouTube, Caption author Ishwinder Singh, 7 Feb. 2014.
  4. Maiese, Michelle. “René Descartes, Meditations I & II”. 2020. Powerpoint.
  5. Ryle, Gilbert. “Descartes’ Myth”. The Concept of Mind. pp 11-24. PDF file.

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