Beyond Dualism and Materialism


Is there an account of the nature of the mind which is superior to both Descartes’ dualism and Armstrong’s materialism?

Both Cartesian dualism, which asserts that mind and body are separate substances that interact causally, and Armstrong’s Materialism, which adopts a monist view by positing the unity of mind and body, have flaws in relation to their account of the mind-body problem. Yet each provides, to some extent, a reasonable philosophical conclusion for these views. I will argue that Armstrong’s Materialist analysis of the mind is the most valid account provided for the mind-body problem thus far due to the prominence of science in the modern world and the consequential irrelevance of dualism.

Rene Descartes, in his ‘Meditations on First Philosophy’ and elsewhere in his philosophical works, gives an explanation of the mind and body as different substances, known as Cartesian Dualism. Descartes firstly employs Cartesian doubt, scrutinising every belief, in order to find indubitable truth; he concludes that one’s existence is certain if they think (Cogito ergo sum) and that physical substances can be doubted. Descartes then uses the Wax argument to illustrate that the mind is better known than the body. He argues that a physical substance like wax is known by means of the intellect, rather than sensory perception, as the mind gives the more perfect knowledge of its true nature and properties, rather than just its appearances. This suggests that the existence of the mind is distinct from our knowledge of the physical world, positing Descartes as a dualist. For Descartes, the essence, or principle attribute, of mind is thought, whereas the essence of body is extension. Therefore, mind and body are different substances; the mind is immaterial, the body is physical, establishing the view of Cartesian Dualism.

Descartes’ argument seems like a reasoned account of the mind in some respects. The notion of mind and body existing as separate substances is embedded on our language, culture and religion, giving it some support or relevance in today’s society. With this distinction, one’s mind is more prominent in defining oneself, so Descartes’ statement seems quite reasonable. Also, the wax argument provides a reasonable view of the way in which we understand the nature of substances through the mind. Yet it may be inconsistent, as Descartes had earlier identified perception as a mental activity; so perhaps understanding through intellect includes perception. Also, Cartesian Dualism is challenged by the role of science in 21st-century society, as a direct relationship between the mind and body has been shown to exist. Drugs such as alcohol, which affect body systems, have clear effects on one’s mood and thought, implying this mind-body interaction. Whilst Descartes elsewhere states that the mind interacts causally with the body via the brain’s pineal gland, he fails to provide a satisfactory account for the mind-body relationship. Therefore, Cartesian Dualism is incompatible or irrelevant to modern society, superseded by more justified accounts of the mind offered through science.

David Armstrong, in “The Nature of Mind”, explains his account of the mind-body problem according to a scientific materialist view of man due to the intellectual consensus that science provides, reaching the conclusion that mind and body are one. Armstrong describes Behaviourism and Rylean behaviourism, accepting that the mind is logically tied to behaviour yet rejecting the idea that the mind is behaviour. Armstrong asserts that mental states are inner causes of behaviour, and these are neural states and process according to neuroscience. So physical states of the central nervous system, brain states, are the inner causes of behaviour, establishing Armstrong’s Identity Theory. Turning to the first-person experience of the mind, Armstrong states that consciousness is the perception of the state of one’s mind. As perception is an inner state itself, consciousness is an inner state that can cause behaviour. Therefore, Armstrong’s monist view of the mind and body accounts for the first-person experience and in terms of scientific materialism. This account seems much more relevant to today’s society, as it is guided by science and empirical knowledge.

Both Armstrong and Descartes assert that the mind is an inner cause of behaviour, an inner arena. Yet Armstrong postulates that mental states are neural states and processes, suggesting that the mind and brain are identical, whereas Descartes draws a distinction between the mind, an immaterial substance, a “ghost in the machine” and the body, physical in nature and existing separately from the mind.

Armstrong’s Materialism carries obvious appeal in modern society. Due to the prominent role science and empirical knowledge play in the modern world, his monist account seems quite relevant and justified. Modern neuroscience suggests that the mind is just the brain, and that the mind does act as a cause of behaviour. The scientific viewpoint adopted by Armstrong also seems reasonable due to the intellectual consensus it provides as well as its fallibility, aiming only at truth. Yet Armstrong’s Identity Theory is not without some flaws. One of the most prevalent objections to this monist view is the problem of intentionality. Mental activities, such as thought and perceiving, seem to have purposes or intentions behind their occurrence. In contrast, physical substances like rocks do not seem to have these intentional qualities as they do not think or perceive, do not perform mental activities. Hence, Armstrong’s view that mental states are physical states seems less plausible, as physical objects like the brain should not have these intentions. Whilst Armstrong addresses this somewhat when considering consciousness, he does not seem to have reached such a sound conclusion on the first-person experience of the mind. However, Armstrong’s account seems more reasoned on the whole. His causal analysis provides a much stronger justification for the causal interaction between the mind and body, perhaps being superior to Cartesian Dualism in this way.

In conclusion, David Armstrong’s monist view of the mind-body problem is more justified and relevant to modern society. Whilst Cartesian Dualism and Armstrong’s Materialism both seem to disregard vital aspects of mind and body, leading to weaker arguments, Armstrong’s account is altogether a more reasoned one, more rational than that of Descartes, and is the best possible account of the mind provided at this stage, due to its reliance on science.




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