The Mind Body Problem: Descartes' Theory of Dualism

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The mind-body problem links to questions surrounding personal identity; discussing how our mental activities relate to that of our bodily actions. It can also be argued that the idea that there is a mind-body problem is a mistaken assumption, instead it encompasses many problems which all fall under the same term. One response to the so called ‘problem’ comes from a branch of philosophy known as dualism. Throughout this essay I will support this dualistic viewpoint (that of seeing the mind and body as separate entities), focusing specifically on Frank Jacksons version of the ‘Knowledge argument’. Although J.J.C Smart puts forward a convincing objection from a physicalist point of view, I will ultimately demonstrate that Jackson’s argument for the existence of qualia seems to be more plausible when solving the mind-body problem.

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The idea that the body and soul are distinct from each other is persuasively summarised by Chad Meister where he expressed that “the human person consists of two fundamental substances, one material (the body) and one immaterial (the soul or mind),’ (Meister, 2009) and that these are separate components. This view is corroborated by Frank Jackson in ‘Epiphenomenal Qualia’ where he refers to himself as a “qualia freak” (Jackson,1982). This term refers to someone who believes that there are certain features of our brain sensations which no amount of physical information can explain. This proves how we might know everything about what happens in the brain without knowing the “hurtfulness of pain” for example (Jackson, 1982). Qualia freaks rightfully reject physicalism arguing that it misses something out which can be demonstrated through the thought experiment of ‘Mary the brilliant scientist’ (Jackson,1982, pg. 130). Jackson asks us to suppose that Mary had been brought up in a black and white world and therefore has never seen colours such as red. We also learn that Mary is the world’s leading scientist surrounding visual experiences. When Mary eventually experiences a colour, for example, red, she will gain non-physical knowledge (Jackson,1982, pg. 130). Through this thought experiment Jackson convincingly shows how physicalism about the visual experiences of false and therefore dualism is a more persuasive solution to the mind-body problem.

However, a physicalist such as J.J.C Smart objects this dualistic point of view by arguing that brain processes and consciousness are separate entities. Smart uses Occam’s razor to demonstrate that organisms can be explained in physical terms (Smart, 1959). In ‘Sensations and brain Processes’, Smart introduces many objections to the physicalist point of view and attempts to reply to these. The first objection is the idea that anyone can talk about sensations yet know nothing about brain processes. Smart demonstrates this by using the example of an illiterate peasant who can talk about aches that he has yet knows nothing about neurophysiology (Smart, 1959, pg.146). Smart then contrasts this with a philosopher such as Aristotle who “may believe that the brain is an organ for cooling the body without any impairment of his ability to make true statements about his sensations.” (Smart,1959, pg. 146). This could show how when we describe sensations these cannot be processes in the brain. Smart then replies to this objection by explaining how we can still talk about thing we do not necessarily know about, giving the example of the Morning and Evening star. (Smart, 1959, pg.146 and 147). According to Smart, just because one may not have heard of one of these terms does not mean that sensations are not brain processes, hence physicalism could be seen as a compelling solution to the mind-body problem.

Nevertheless, the flaws in Smart’s theory that I will highlight prove how dualism is still a better approach to the mind-body problem. Due to modern science, Smart’s claims seem almost impossible as a lot of research has been carried out to prove that parts of the brain result in certain sensations. This can be seen through the example of pet scans which reveal that when a person experiences pain, part of the brain is activated, thus physicalism cannot be correct. The strengths of the dualistic position can also be seen through Thomas Nagel’s ‘What is it like to be’ argument which Jackson discusses in ‘Epiphenomenal Qualia’. (Jackson, 1982, pg.131&132) (Nagel, 1974) Nagel explains how physical information can only be understood from a subjective perspective; we may know all the objective facts about what it is like to be a bat, for example, how to hang upside down, but according to Nagel this does not give us an insight into what it is really like to be a bat (Jackson, 1982, pg.131&132) (Nagel, 1974). René Descartes, a radical sceptic who was dubbed as the ‘father of philosophy’, also believed in a clear mind-body distinction and proves how dualism can be seen as the only rational solution to this mind-body problem. Descartes rightfully claimed that the fact we can think of ourselves without a body but cannot think of ourselves not thinking shows how the body can be doubted and the soul cannot, as shown though his famous phrase ‘I think therefore I am’ (Descartes, 1941, pg.10). Although, Norman Malcom does put forward a convincing argument against Descartes arguing that perhaps our essence is just to exist (Malcom, 1975), for example, just because I consider myself to be sober this does not mean I actually am sober. Nevertheless, I believe that dualism can still be seen as a more persuasive solution to the mind body problem. This is due to the fact that when we consider life after death, dualism overcomes the identity problem, as, while the body will decay or be burnt, the immortal soul survives, and it is that which makes a person who he or she is.

In conclusion, I would hold that although dualism can be seen to have flaws, such as those pointed out by J.J.C Smart and Norman Malcom, I still believe that a dualistic approach to the mind-body problem is a much more reasonable one. Jackson convinces us of this in his article through the use of qualia which provides large implications for a physicalist monism.  

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