mind, matter, meaning and information


mind and body

The philosophical proposition that a person consists of two kinds of substance, mind and body, is known as mind/body dualism. It can be traced back to ancient Greece, but the classic case for it was put by René Descartes (1596–1650).

Descartes was very interested in mathematics, being largely responsible for the development of the Cartesian coordinate system; and in science; and especially in the application of mathematics to science, believing that it must be possible to unify all natural science under mathematics. He was influenced, however, by the Church. It seems likely that Cartesian dualism was motivated largely by a desire to avoid conflict between science and religion, giving them different jurisdictions, over the body (and the rest of the material world) and the mind, respectively.

Descartes set out to construct a new philosophy from scratch. His method, which has been hugely influencial, was to doubt everything that he possibly could, and then build upon what was left. (He decided to behave during the course of this project in the conventional manner, to avoid being distracted by any untoward consequences of acting upon his new beliefs. This is, of course, normal academic-philosophical procedure.)

The evidence of our senses is unreliable, according to Descartes, because I might be dreaming that I am sitting here typing away at a computer keyboard. As the senses can be doubted, so can everything else—apart from the fact that I am doubting. To doubt that I doubt is a logical impossibility; and if I am definitely doubting, then I must certainly exist. Doubt is just a particular kind of thought, so: I think, therefore I am.

Having established the mind, Descartes goes on to deal with matter. His argument for its actually existing, just as it appears to do, depends upon a proof of the existence of God, who is by definition good, and who therefore would not allow his subjects to be deluded in such a fundamental way.

Descartes now had mind and matter, or “mental and material substances,” but he had yet to explain their interaction—why do I feel hunger when my stomach is empty, and how exactly does my will cause my arm to rise? More generally, how can two such fundamentally different things have any effect on each other? Some of his followers tried to sidestep the interaction problem by supposing that mind and matter were like two clocks keeping perfect time, so that one chimed when the other's hands pointed to the hour, though they were not connected; or that mind arises from matter (as an “epiphenomenon”) but cannot influence it.

In fact, Descartes thought mind/body interaction ultimately inexplicable, though he did believe it could be located: the point at which body influenced mind, and mind, body, was the pineal gland.

The main reactions to Cartesian dualism were materialism and idealism.



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Last modified 23-Feb-2005 14:36:17 by Robin Faichney .