Rene Descartes Dualism

Subject: Philosophy
Type: Expository Essay
Pages: 6
Word count: 1702
Topics: Existentialism, Human Nature

Dualism is the term used to describe the notion that traditionally there exist two different kinds or categories of objects or phenomena in the world. In the philosophy of dualists, anything in existence in the universe, whether tangible or not, can only exist in either of the two categories. This implies that according to the proponents of dualism, there is nothing that exists that prevails outside of either of these two realities. The two modes of being are essentially characterized as different because in addition to being mutually exclusive of each other, they mimic opposite physiognomies in comparison with each other. Although these two realities of existence are fundamentally opposite of each other, both are required to conclusively and effectively give a complete depiction of reality (Berkeley 84). A dualist therefore denotes an individual that is predisposed to the idea that all entities that exist in the world fall under one of two categories, minds or bodies. Rene Descartes subscribed to this ideology and presented various arguments to assert the position currently held by many.

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Descartes categorized the realities into either mind or body. Those he deemed as afflicted by the mind persuasion he described as intangible, unexpended and metaphysically precedent to bodies. He posited that their nature is abstract in that they are merely thinking entities capable of abilities such as denying affirming or judging with sense perceptions among other intangible attributes (Descartes 17).  In the alternative, he characterized bodies as those physically tangible objects in existence that have a physical manifestation that can be perceived by either touch, sight or otherwise. The key difference here is that while the former have no discernable physical extension, the latter does. He averred that every phenomena that is in existence in the universe and beyond may be classified in either reality and that if something characterizes itself in minds, it cannot exist as a body. Everything either constitutes a mind or a body and there is no room for an overlap or derogation whatsoever (Georges 41).

The essential distinguishing features are amassed in the tangibility, physical manifestation and the diametrically opposed nature of the attributes. The proposition by dualists is realized when one attempts to describe anything in the universe, better still the universe itself. One cannot theoretically assume one class and focus on another. In order to describe anything in the world, both minds and bodies must be construed in totality. Science seems to agree with the averments of the dualist school of thought because like the dualist school of thought, modern science presupposes that everything in the universe is made up of essentially two particles; fermions and bosons. The scientific and the dualistic approaches however dissent with regards to the composition of these particles that make up matter occupying the universe. This confirms that indeed, the averment that there are only two aspects of reality does not in itself pose a challenge. The contentions arise when we invite ourselves to inquire the composition of the various aspects, and the physical properties of the particles hitherto. The problem arises as to how these particles interact with each other to form the universe as we know it (Georges 36).

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Science suggests that these particles that compose matter interact through the action of forces. Descartes on the other hand posits that a consequent reality would cease to exist if the two realities do not interact. He does not give explanation as to how or under what circumstances the interactions are plausible. The most apparent shortcoming in Descartes’ theory is its inability to explain the circumstances of interactions between mind and body realities and the consequences that will follow (Berkeley 62). He however conceded that reality is created when the mind category interacts with the body category. Descartes explained his proposition with the phenomenon of motion. He held that no objects are capable of motion or momentum unless the influence of a certain mind comes into play. Secondly, Descartes was a theist and held that all physical bodies obtain their reality from God, who cannot be seen yet presumed to be the fundamental thinking fraternity.

The nature of Human beings also aligns itself with the thinking of Descartes since they comprise of the body being the physical manifestation and a mind that cannot be perceived in a tangible sense. Cardinally, there are questions that arose with respect to Descartes explanation of the nature of reality, majority of which have never been answered in the Cartesian reality. First, how do the distinctly separate phenomena interact in basic ways like that? How are the motions of objects in everyday life evident in everyday and conceptually? How is it that the mind happens to support that prevalence of all material bodies? How are the physical interactions within the body communicated to the mind? These are some of the questions that proved disastrous to Descartes’ promotion of the existence or reality. Neo-dualists have however made significant strides in attempt to explicate Descartes (Berkeley 47).

The dualism propounded by Descartes is deeply rooted in his defiance of the sensory concept. In his meditations, he submits that senses are not to be trusted since they are flawed and have deceived him before. His position is that something that deceives once should never be trusted again hence his alienation of sensory conception from factual reality. For instance he says that we perceive distant objects as small or loud voices as soft when they hail from a distance. Circular buildings will for instance appear rectangular and so forth. The main argument here is that every once in a while our senses will portray things in a manner that they are not in reality. Until the perceptions merited by sensory measures are rendered devoid of certainty, one cannot truly perceive something as entirely unquestionable or certain. At this point, one may correctly infer that their existence both as a thinking thing and a physical manifestation are definite. There however arises a contention in that if the thinker is right, then indeed they exist. If not, they are being deceived into thinking that they exist in which case they still exist because otherwise, they would not be deceived. The latter instance demonstrates what Descartes describes as a narrower conception of himself since it is only conclusive that he exists as the thinking phenomenon (Descartes 183).

This argument cannot add any definitive information as to the existence of a body to commemorate the thinking thing. This demonstrates the duality that Descartes propounds as it establishes that the mind exists dispersed from the body. In fact, his mind is even able to consider the possibility that the body may not be. As soon as radical doubt is implemented, objects in the domain become polarized into one of the two groupings, with dualism appearing as an inevitable side effect. Rather than implore our notoriously deceptive sensory aspects of perception, Descartes suggests that we give that credence to science, geometry and truth. There are varieties of dualism including but not limited to predicate dualism, property dualism and substance dualism (Descartes 174). Predicate dualism is the supposition psychological predicates are essential for a full description of the world and that they are not reducible to physical predicates.

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Epiphenomenalism is a strain of interactive variety of dualism that seems to answer the question of how the Cartesian philosophy understood the interaction of the two realities. The contention that arises from duality as presupposed by epiphenomenalism is that although it does not expressly deny duality as a characteristic in all that exists, it does not exactly explain how body interacts with mind to create realities (Feig, 370). This kind of dualism insists that events and realities are created by physical events without an actual perceivable impact on the same. Epiphenomenalism in itself poses significant problems; first, it is observed to be extremely counterintuitive meaning it places too much strain on instinctive reaction. It is however a fallback position because all the other arguments presented are mostly deemed unacceptable. Secondly, if the mental status of existence does nothing as earlier on inferred, then there is no reason that they should have evolved alongside what exists physically. For instance how would the thinking thing instinctively cause one to evade danger? Another scholar Frank Jackson responds to this and says that the instinct to evade danger is the part of the brain that associates danger with certain degree of pain (Chalmers 220).

Finally, the notion of epiphenomenalistic dualism is also affected by the idea of trust which also bears significant incidence to sensory concepts. Trust in epiphenomenalism is considered the outcome or consequence of other minds. One would primarily concede to having mental status because such mental status is perceived by them on a regular basis. Indeed as Descartes supposed, considering that one must not trust their sensory perceptions, then how can one be certain that indeed they are perceiving their own minds is that their sensory organs are deceiving them? It is also not possible to justify the concept of the perceptions other people bear of oneself. The most natural cause is for one to infer from their personal case. Dualism contends that mental statuses are closely linked to certain behaviors because of the mental disposition (Chalmers 219). Some may say that this is not a strong argument and thus should be dismissed accordingly, this situation is reversed when certain variables are varied to a certain degree or if in the Cartesian duality, one rids themselves of deceptions of the senses.

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Descartes opined that occurrences of certain events within the mind of an individual can explain the behaviors. He assessed himself in the confines of his own mind and then attempted to postulate the same for everyone by linking behavior or conduct to the state of mind. Ordinarily it would appear redundant to use the same argument for every status of mind but the argument has never been conclusively contested. Generally, dualism is perhaps the least opposed school of thought that does not mean that the propositions are any less intuitive, just that there are not that many objections to this position. In fact modern science has in some ways reaffirmed the position with the bi-particle explanation it gives of the composition of matter.

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  1. Berkeley, George. “A Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge, Part I.” Wherein the chief causes of error and difficulty in the sciences, with the grounds of scepticism, atheism, and irreligion, are inquir’d into. By George Berkeley(1710).
  2. Chalmers, David. “Philosophy of mind: Classical and contemporary readings.” (2002).
  3. Descartes, René, Elizabeth Sanderson Haldane, and George Robert Thomson Ross. Meditations on first philosophy. New York: Macmillan, 1951.
  4.  Feigl, Herbert. “The ‘mental’and the ‘physical’.” Minnesota studies in the philosophy of science 2.2 (1958): 370-497.
  5. Rey, Georges. “Contemporary philosophy of mind: A contentiously classical approach.” (1997).
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