Relationship between mind and body

Subject: Psychology
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The mind/body problem is one of the main questions in philosophy that defines the ideological viewpoints of several philosophers. The main contention point arises from the question of whether the mind is part of the body or if the body is part of the mind (Humphrey, 2012). In some arguments, as this paper will define, the mind and body are portrayed as two distinct entities, hence compounding the problem into the interaction between the body and the mind considering their distinctiveness. Along this argument, it would be interesting to understand which between these distinct entities is in charge. As such, many philosophers have devised theories to support their standpoints, key among them being the empiricists and rationalists. This paper, therefore, attempts to crack the mind/body problem from the lenses of the arguments brought forward by either side of these philosophical standpoints.

Cartesian rationalism and the resulting mind/body problem

Cartesian rationalism is a philosophical viewpoint that was established by Descartes, who was a rationalist. According to rationalists like Descartes, real knowledge is acquired through reason. The rationalist position has attracted criticism from the empiricist position, more so on the basis of knowledge acquisition. Besides, these differences have been expanded by the different ways in which these philosophers approach the mind/body problem.

The Cartesian rationalism theory refers to the mind/body problem as a problem of dualism. In the belief held by Descartes, the mind is indestructible because it is aspatial and a temporal (Barry, 2014). This reflects the rationalist viewpoint that reason is everlasting and innate. According to Descartes, the interaction between the mind and the body occurs at the pineal gland. This way, the explanation by Descartes establishes a bipartisan interaction between the physical and mental substances, thereby creating a duality or dualism that proposes the mind’s control over the body. Descartes, however, is quick to point out that the body has the ability to influence a rational mind, putting forth an example of people acting out of passion. In this example, Descartes argues that the previous accounts of the relationship between the body and the mind had been unidirectional (Kim, 2010).

According to the Cartesian rationalism theory, the mind is the pinnacle of freedom, whereas the body is a constituent of mechanical systems that are responsible for facilitating the movements within the brain. Furthermore, this theory explains that the mind is responsible for activating the muscles, hence explaining the foundations of the reflexology theory of modern day physiology.

Cartesian rationalism and classical empiricism

Empiricists, unlike rationalists, believe that the accuracy of an argument should be ascertained, hence classifying themselves as skeptical about the uncertainty of things. The rationalists like Descartes, on the other hand, hold the belief that the absolute laws in the universe are significant in the predisposition of human understanding, albeit naturally. The classical version of empiricism is the foundation of empiricist ideologies, which states that knowledge is based on personal experiences, more so the sensory experiences.

The classical version of empiricism is widely attributed to John Locke, who discredits the argument of in-born knowledge as presented by the rationalists. According to Locke, a person is born with a blank mind, and the environment in which the person grows shapes their experiences and subsequent knowledge (Kim, 2010). This is contrast to the argument in Cartesian rationalism approach to understanding the mind/body problem, which explained that the understanding of a person is shaped by the internal interactions between the physical and mental substances.

Descartes, in his Cartesian rationalism theory, makes a significant distinction between the thinking substance and the extended substance. He harbors the belief that the link between the body and the mind is relayed in the sensations that enable a person to consider a body as their own. Just like Descartes, the classical empiricist view by Locke recognizes the distinction between the body and the mind. According to the latter, the body is an extended solid substance, while the mind is a substance that thinks (Mackenzie, 2011). Therefore, the similarity between these two philosophical viewpoints lies in the explanation that distinguishes the body from the mind, but guarantees a relationship between these two distinct entities.

How empiricists approach the relationship between mind and body

Like rationalists, empiricists distinguish the body from the mind. Empiricists define the personal identity in terms of thinking, with more emphasis on persistent thought. According to empiricists, the self is a constituent of both the mind and the body (Kim, 2010). In several ways, the view of the body and mind problem as considered by the empiricists is a reflection of that of the rationalists, as is displayed in the explanation of the identity that acknowledges the distinction between the body and the mind.

Alternatives to Cartesian rationalism and empiricism

Baruch Spinoza

Baruch Spinoza is a post Cartesian philosopher whose philosophical standpoint was mainly shaped by the rationalist approaches (Taylor, 2010). In as much Spinoza’s works spun across different philosophies, his devaluation of sense perception as the cardinal way of knowledge acquisition, coupled with the description he gives for the intellectual form of cognition characterizes him as a rationalist. However, the striking originality of his argument in relation to the mind/body problem distinguishes his argument as an alternative of understanding the Cartesian rationalism and empiricism.

Spinoza introduced the subjective idealism, also referred to as phenomenalism, which explains that events and physical objects are reducible to mental events, properties, and objects. In his argument, Spinoza explains that only mental objects, such as the brain exist. He reflects on this position by claiming that human bodies are a mere perception of the mind.

The explanation put forward by Spinoza, therefore, is that the mind is the idea of the body. To expound further in a bid to strengthen his position, Spinoza argues that every simple body has a simple idea that corresponds to it, which does not guarantee any distinction (Mackenzie, 2011). Similarly, there is a composite idea that corresponds to every composite body, hence making the composite body not distinct from the composite idea.

From the above argument, Spinoza deviates from the Cartesian rationalist and classical empiricist theories that set to settle the mind/body problem. In Spinoza’s view, the mind and body are not distinct, but only separated. The notion of Spinoza portrays the composite and simple ideas as minds. With respect to this viewpoint, Spinoza does not consider the human mind to be as unique as portrayed by both Descartes and Locke. In simpler terms, the mind is an idea that corresponds to the human body.

One might argue, however, that the viewpoint by Spinoza equates all the minds. Being weary of such implications, Spinoza crystallized his explanation to vindicate the position that all minds are alike as per the explanations in his arguments. The domain of thought ranges from simple to composite, and the minds are a mere expression of the exact position that the body falls between these ranges. Therefore, within this range, Spinoza accepts the fact that some minds have abilities that others do not. This discredits the empiricist standpoint that each mind can have abilities depending on the environment to which a person is subjected.

To explain further, Spinoza introduces the perceptual ability of imagination. This explains the ability of the mind to control the body, as it depicts the general capacity of representing external bodies as present, regardless of their presence or otherwise. In his explanation, Spinoza argues that imagination encompasses more than the ability to create mental constructs that we consider imaginative (Taylor, 2010). This stretches to include the sense perceptions as well as the memory. He accepts that it is impossible for the human body to get around the concept of imagination without the mind, hence leading his conclusion that the mind is a significant controller of the body. To crown his argument, Spinoza opposes imagination to intellect, thereby including the body as a recipe for complete adequacy of imagination.

Spinoza illustrates that the mind shapes the ideas of the body, and that the body has no ability of shaping the ideas of the mind. He throws support to the classical empiricist theory by narrating how the availability of adequate ideas is dependent on the regular exposure of the body to certain environments. With these deliberations, it is evident that the mind/body problem is compounded into the link between the two entities, with selective common notions that shape the concept of self as a constituent of both the mind and the body as explained by Locke and Descartes.

Philosophical response to the mind/body problem

Having considered the above arguments and counter-arguments, I would agree with the arguments by Descartes and Spinoza that the mind controls the body. In more than one situation, my senses have been manipulated by what I see, only for them to be shaped by the reasoning I have once I interact with the thing I have seen. Besides, I have a memory that shapes my interaction with my environment, and my experiences are dependent not on the environment but on what my mind is determined to do. In conclusion, it is true that the mind and body are distinct entities, and that the relationship between these two entities is responsible for making a person complete.

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  1. Barry, G. (2014). Cartesian Modes and the Simplicity of Mind. Pacific Philosophical Quarterly96(1), 54-76.
  2. Humphrey, N. (2012). How to solve the mind– body problem (4th ed.). Thorverton, UK: Imprint Academic.
  3. Kim, H. (2010). WHAT KIND OF PHILOSOPHER WAS LOCKE ON MIND AND BODY?. Pacific Philosophical Quarterly91(2), 180-207.
  4. Mackenzie, P. (2011). Mind, body, and freedom (3rd ed.). Amherst, N.Y.: Humanity Books.
  5. Taylor, J. (2010). Mind-body problem: New approaches. Scholarpedia5(10), 1580.
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