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Sunday, February 12, 2012

Essay on the Concept of Dualism of Rene Descartes

Essay on the Concept of Dualism of Rene Descartes

The concept of Dualism or the theory that there is a division between the mind and the body is not a novel one.  Long before the philosophers, people already thought and argued that man is not composed of a physical body alone but also the spirit.  Thus, our ancestors practiced elaborate rituals so that the spirit will be at peace after a person’s death.  Dualism continued during the time of Plato and Aristotle.  It even extended during the Medieval Era between St. Augustine and St. Aquinas. 

Rene Descartes’ concept of Dualism, otherwise known as Cartesian Dualism, is considered one of his greatest contributions in the history of philosophy.  He was the first to argue that the mind is a non-material entity which is distinct and separate from the brain.  He also identified the mind with concepts such as self-awareness and self-consciousness.  He emphasized the sharp division between the mind and the body as the most basic fact of our human existence. 

This essay will focus on Descartes’ concept of Dualism.  The very foundations of his philosophy and his method of doubt which led him to the theory of dualism will likewise be tackled.  Concepts such as Cogito Ergo Sum will also be discussed since it serves as the foundation for Cartesian dualism.  At the concluding part of this paper, I intend to state my position on Descartes’ Dualism.

In his work, Meditations, Descartes began his philosophical journey by finding out the things which he can claim absolute certainty from those which he is doubtful.  He started to clear his mind of all the rubbish knowledge that had been handed down from generations to generations.  He was well aware that he may have harbored certain ideas which may have been shaped by biases and prejudices.  He challenged himself to eliminate these prejudices so that he could arrive at the very foundations of knowledge.  He also refused to accept the Aristotelian and Scholastic philosophy which had dominated the traditional philosophical thought throughout the Medieval Period.  (“Rene Descartes”) He thought that if true knowledge is to be attained then we must start from the very foundation of our knowledge. 

He thus began his philosophy by doubting everything that he could not be certain.  Descartes doubted everything around him.  He doubted the existence of the physical universe, the people around, his body and even his existence.  He thought that it may be possible that he could be hallucinating about the existence of this physical world or his physical body.  He even doubted his senses, to wit: “All that I have, up to this moment, accepted as possessed of the highest truth and certainty, I received either from or through the senses. I observed, however, that these sometimes misled us; and it is the part of prudence not to place absolute confidence in that by which we have even once been deceived.” (Descartes’ Meditations, Meditations 1) He cautioned us not to trust everything that our senses tell us since they are deceiving.  He even argued that there is a thin line that separates the walking state from the dreaming state – meaning, we cannot be actually certain whether as of the moment we are imagining or not.  (Bryan Kidd, 1) Descartes argued that on many occasions, he had actually thought that he was awake when in reality he was merely dreaming.  It is possible, according to him that our whole life could be a dream.  He also questioned the truths of logic and reason since it is possible that he could be deceived by a demon which has the power to make things appear to be logical.    

Despite all these skepticisms, Descartes argued that there is one thing that he could be certain of and that is he doubted.  The mere fact that he was uncertain whether he is dreaming or awake manifests that he is in a state of doubt.  If he doubted then this could only mean that he is thinking.  Because he thinks, then he is a thinking being.  Thus “Cogito Ergo Sum” or “I think therefore I am.”   This expression summarizes Descartes philosophy.  Unlike his contemporaries who adopted the philosophical attitude of skepticism and began to doubt everything, Descartes believed that in reality it is not possible for us to doubt everything.  But it is possible to arrive at true knowledge of certain things.  

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Descartes proceeds to argue that he is sure that he has a mind that exists.  Since he has a mind that thinks then it follows that the mind could exist separately from the body.  He argues that he is sure that he has a mind but he still is not sure about the existence of his body since it is possible for him to be in a state of delusion still.  It is possible for him to doubt that his body exists but it is not possible for him to doubt that his mind exists.  The only logical conclusion that can be derived is that he has a mind that is distinct from the body. 

He then proceeds to make a distinction between the mind and the body.  The body is unconscious and is only an extension which takes up room in space while the mind which is conscious and does not take up room.  The body is divisible and is subjected to the laws of physical science.  The mind, on the other hand, is indivisible and is not subjected to the laws of physical science.  We know that the body exists because we can perceive it.  On the other hand, we know that the mind exists because of intuition.

B.        Descartes’ flirtation with the Mind and Body problem is a thorny issue which is full of complications.  Some say that his conclusion that his mind is distinct and separate from the body is not justified by the reasoning he offered in support of his view.  This is because scientific evidence itself is against this view.  They consider that that the mind and the body are only one thing.  From the scientists’ point of view, what Descartes’ called as the activities in the mind which is caused by non-material processes is actually caused by the neurological and chemical reactions in the brain. 

C.        Nevertheless, I fully argue with his concept of dualism.  The mind is not simply a result of the chemical reactions in the brain.  Consciousness and self-awareness are concepts that are beyond the capacity of the material body to comprehend.  Also, I believe in the immortality of the human soul which is the theory that the soul continues to exist even after it is separated from the body.  The dualism of Descartes sufficiently explains why the soul continues to exist after the person dies and why it is not affected by the processes in the body.  

On Descartes’ theory that it is difficult to determine whether one is awake or sound asleep, I find the same to be very objectionable.  I believe that if a person is thinking, perceiving, feeling, drawing inferences and making conclusions then one can be certain that he is awake and that he is not dreaming.  According to Descartes, on several occasions, he had actually thought that he was awake when in reality he was merely dreaming.  I believe that it is erroneous for one to say that one cannot tell the difference between being in a state of dream and being awake.  Indeed it is not possible to state that a person is awake when he is really asleep precisely because when one is reflecting or thinking then he is not asleep.  It would not be possible for a person to think when he is sleeping or dreaming.  When one feels something then it is not possible for him to be dreaming.  Indeed, experiencing the sensations of pain and pleasure are manifestations that one is awake and is not dreaming. 

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