Descartes: “I am a thing that thinks”

  1.  “I am a thing that thinks”.

Descartes, pondering what is doubtful and what is certain in order to find truth, comes to the conclusion that he exists and the self can only be described as a thing that thinks. Descartes concedes that whilst he cannot be sure of his body, his senses or the physical world around him, he can be sure that he himself exists. In order to be deceived and to think and doubt, Descartes concludes that he exists. Descartes then considers what “I” or the self is, and scrutinises his past conceptions of the self. He raises and rejects some of these conceptions on the grounds that they require further truth or definition or can be doubted; therefore they are not self-evident and not truthful. Descartes finally concludes that he is a thinking thing, as this is the only certain fact that the Cogito can provide about the self and is self-evident.

This account of the self can be supported as, even whilst employing Cartesian doubt, one cannot deny that they are thinking. The distinction drawn by Descartes, that whilst physical substances can be doubted, the mind and thought cannot be doubted, seems sound. For example, one can doubt whether they hear a particular sound, yet cannot doubt that they seem to be hearing that sound. Also, in our society, particularly in popular culture and religion, the mind and body are regarded as two distinct entities. With this distinction, one’s mind and thought seem more prominent in defining ourselves, as it is a cause of behaviour and occurs constantly, so Descartes’ statement seems quite reasonable. This conception persists even with the advancement of modern science towards a monist account of mind and body. Yet Descartes’ assertion that he is a thing that thinks is perhaps tautological. For one to think, by the definition of thinking, one must exist. The statement is true by definition, and therefore is not a strong argument. Additionally, by questioning the self that Descartes has earlier contended that exists, he may be committing a Homunculus fallacy. His argument explains the self in terms of the self he aims to explain, leading to infinite regress.

  1. Is a belief in dualism incompatible with advances in modern science?

Dualism, the idea that the mind and body are distinct entities which can exist independently of each other, could be seen as incompatible with advances in modern science. I will argue that a belief in dualism, as supported by Rene Descartes, is not necessarily incompatible with modern science, yet is definitely less plausible. The scientific materialist view adopted by David Armstrong seems much more relevant in today’s society, as monism, the idea that the mind is purely physical and is the same as the body, is more plausible through these advances in modern science.

Rene Descartes, in his “Meditations on First Philosophy”, accounts for mind and body in terms of dualism. When pondering the nature of physical and mental substances, Descartes states that physical objects are known through the mind, rather than sense perception. Using the example of a piece of wax, Descartes states that sense perception of the wax would give the inferior knowledge of its appearances. The nature and properties of the wax are known through intellect, the mind, which provides more perfect knowledge through mental judgement. 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 the mind is thought, whereas the essence of the body is extension. As identical substances should have identical essences, and mind and body have different essences, this indicates that mind and body are different. This establishes Descartes’ Cartesian Dualism; the mind is an immaterial substance which causally interacts with the body, a physical substance.

The argument of Descartes can be supported for several reasons. The conception of the mind and body as two different entities is embedded in our language, culture and religion. Mind and body are often regarded as two distinct substances, and whilst this may not be based on truth or knowledge necessarily, it does place Dualism with some support and relevance to today’s society. Also, the wax argument does seem to reasonably account for the way in which we understand the nature and properties of substances through the mind, indicating a sound argument. Yet Descartes had earlier identified perception as an activity of the mind, perhaps suggesting inconsistency as understanding through intellect also includes perception. Also, Cartesian Dualism is made less plausible by the direct relationship shown between the mind and body as well as advancements in neuroscience. Brain injuries which have affected thought or personality dramatically or the effect of drugs like alcohol on one’s mood and thought demonstrate a direct interaction between the mind and body. Whilst Descartes elsewhere states that the mind interacts causally with the body via the brain’s pineal gland, he fails to provide a reasoned and plausible account for this interaction. In addition, modern neuroscience is suggesting that the mind is just the brain, suggesting a degree of incompatibility of Cartesian Dualism in today’s society.

David Armstrong, adopting a scientific materialist viewpoint due to the intellectual consensus that science provides, asserts that the mind, identical to the brain, is an inner cause of behaviour. Armstrong firstly describes the views of Behaviourism, that the mind is outward behaviour, and Rylean Behaviourism, that the mind is dispositions to behave. He acknowledges that the mind is logically tied to behaviour, yet finds fault with identifying the mind as behaviour. For Descartes, thought must occur in the mind and be the cause of behaviour, differing his account of the mind from behaviourism. Descartes asserts that mental states cause behaviour, and from a scientific viewpoint, these are neural states and processes. Therefore, physical states of the central nervous system, or brain states, are the inner causes of behaviour. This establishes Armstrong’s Causal Analysis or Identity Theory. Recognising that his account must explain the first-person experience of the mind, Armstrong explains that consciousness is the perception of the state of one’s own mind. Following from this, as perception is a mental states, consciousness is another mental state; Armstrong provides a monist account for the mind from a first-person viewpoint and in terms of materialism. Both Armstrong and Descartes conceive the mind as an inner arena; it is an inner cause of behaviour. Yet Armstrong postulates that mental states, the causes of behaviour, are physical things, neural states and processes, whereas Descartes asserts that the mind is an immaterial substance separate from the body;  a “ghost in the machine”.

Much support can be found for Armstrong’s account of the mind and its relevance to today’s society. His physico-chemical view of mind and body carries obvious appeal in terms of science and materialism. Neuroscience has suggested that the mind is just the brain, and that the mind does act as a cause of behaviour through neural states and processes. With the prominent role that science plays as a source of truth and knowledge in today’s society, this monist and materialist account of the mind seems much more relevant and factual than Cartesian Dualism. Armstrong’s Causal Analysis also provides a more reasoned and plausible justification for the way in which mind and body interact causally. Yet there are also some issues with Armstrong’s viewpoint. Identical things or substances should have identical qualities; mental states are known personally to us through qualities that make them knowable, such as the feeling of sadness. However, we do not have personal knowledge of correlated physical states, indicating that mental states and their corresponding physical states are not identical. Further mental events like thought seem to have intentions, purposes behind their occurrence. Yet physical substances like rocks do not have these intentional qualities or purposes. So Armstrong’s theory that mental states are physical states seems slightly less plausible, as physical objects like the brain should not have these intentions.

In conclusion, David Armstrong provides a more justified account of the mind which is compatible with today’s society as a result of advancements in modern science. Descartes’ Cartesian Dualism, whilst less plausible or relevant to the modern world, still holds some credibility due to the way in which mind and body are regarded in our society.


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