How We Came to Know the Cosmos: Light & Matter

Discover How We Came to Know the Cosmos

Chapter 26. Mind-Body Dualism

26.1 Mind-body dualism and materialism

The mind is still one of the biggest mysteries in science. It appears to be so different from other physical substances that throughout most of history, people believed that it isn’t a physical substance at all. Many early philosophers believed in mind-body dualism. This means they thought that the mind is composed of a different substance to the brain, a substance that thinks.[1]

The argument that the mind is composed of the same substance as the brain, or at least made of a substance that does obey the laws of physics, is known as physicalism or materialism.

26.2 Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle

In the 5th century BCE, Socrates and Plato believed that the mind and body are made of different substances. Plato argued that the mind and body are fundamentally different because the mind is rational, which means that examining the mind can lead to truth. In contrast to this, we cannot believe anything we experience via the senses, which are part of the body, because they can be tricked.

Plato did not trust the senses because we can confuse reality with the imagination. The most extreme cases happen when we dream or hallucinate, but this also occurs when we confuse one object for another. Plato showed that we are often presented with illusions of this kind. A stick, for example, can appear bent in water, yet when we pick it up, we will find that it’s straight. Things are not always what they seem, and we are not always aware that we are making these mistakes. To find true knowledge, we need to examine our own minds in what's known as 'rational introspection'.

Plato praised mathematics as one of the only forms of true knowledge. He disliked art because he thought that we distort our perception even further when we attempt to copy an imperfect image.

In The Republic, Plato’s allegory of the cave describes how people that depend only on their senses are analogous to people who spend their lives in caves, only looking at shadows.[2] These people will come to believe that only shadows exist and when someone tells them of the world of light above they do not believe them. This is analogous to a philosopher who is not believed when they claim to see the world as it truly is.

Plato thought that the things we perceive on Earth are really composed of ideas or forms. A form is an eternal and perfect concept, something that is strived for but never actualised on Earth. All horses, for example, are united by the concept of ‘horse’, an ideal that all horses on Earth were built to resemble. But it’s not just objects and individuals that have forms. Forms also apply to abstract concepts like beauty.

Plato used the forms to explain how the mind interprets the continuous stream of sensory data it’s exposed to by recognising certain eternal concepts. He claimed that all of the forms exist outside of the realm of regular perception, in the 'realm of the forms'.

Plato set up an academy for philosophy, and one of its pupils was Aristotle, who was born in 384 BCE. Aristotle rejected Plato’s realm of the forms, arguing that the forms are concepts devised by people to categorise things.

26.3 Hobbes’ theory of the mind

In the 17th century, Thomas Hobbes argued that we can only form ideas of physical things. This means that if we do have a soul, we cannot become aware of its presence. Hobbes claimed that,

the soul is something of which we have no idea at all. We rationally infer that there is something within the human body which gives it the animal motion by means of which it has sensations and moves; and we call this ‘something’ a soul, with out having any idea of it.[3]

26.4 Descartes’ theory of the mind

Hobbes’ contemporary, Rene Descartes, took a different view. He suggested that the soul may be the only thing we can be aware of. Descartes was a rationalist like Plato. He argued that true knowledge is only gained through rational introspection and that the senses cannot be trusted. Descartes was also a mind-body dualist; because he could conceive of his mind existing without his body, he concluded that the mind must be made of an entirely different substance.

In Meditations on First Philosophy, first published in 1641, Descartes suggested that the mind differs from physical substances in three ways:

  • The mind experiences sensations that cannot be explained mechanically.
  • The mind does not exist in physical space like the brain does.
  • The mind is a necessary whole, it cannot be divided or replicated in the same way that a physical object can.

Descartes’ conception of the mind also differs from physical matter because there is currently no room for subjectivity in physics. Any physical theory of the mind will have to solve these four problems.

26.4.1 Problem 1: Explaining qualia

Descartes believed that phenomenal qualities, like colours and sounds, must be made of a different substance to physical matter because they do not exist within our scientific description of the world. We perceive different wavelengths of light as different colours, for example, but there’s nothing within physics that explains why interactions with light should result in the experience of a colour, or why we associate any particular colour with any particular wavelength.

A diagram showing that different wavelengths of light correspond to different colours.

Figure 26.1
Image credit

Wavelengths of light correspond to coloured qualia.

Colour could be replaced by any of our sensory experiences to illustrate this problem: sound is a physically indescribable representation of the vibrations of air molecules, touch and pain represent signals sent from nerve cells, and taste and smell represent the experiences of different chemical reactions. These sensory experiences, as well as other subjective internal experiences like emotions, are described as qualia.

Qualia are defined by the fact that you cannot know what they are like without experiencing them for yourself, and you cannot compare qualia with other people. This is evident from the fact that someone cannot imagine a colour they have never seen, even if they have a complete understanding of the physics of light:

  • If we take sensory, or phenomenal, experiences as our only guide to reality, then we will be led to the assumption that the physical world does not exist.
  • If, on the other hand, we take physical science as our guide to reality, then we will come to deny that phenomenal experiences exist.

Descartes chose the former and argued that common sense realism, the view that we are directly equated with physical objects, is false. We cannot directly perceive the external world because when we look at an object we are only aware of the phenomenal qualities that fill our sensory fields, and these can exist even when there’s no object present. This can happen when we dream or imagine, for example.

Descartes claimed that the same is true of emotional responses and even pain, using the phenomenon of phantom limbs as an example of pain that does not correspond to the physical body. Since we can experience qualia without the need for external objects, Descartes claimed that there’s no reason to believe that qualia correspond to external objects at all.

Descartes stated that “there is never any reliable way of distinguishing being awake from being asleep”.[4] This is known as the dream argument. Descartes claimed the dream argument shows that knowledge comes from rational introspection. He stated that,

when the mind understands, it somehow turns in on itself and inspects one of its own ideas; but when it imagines, it turns away from itself and looks at something in the body (something that conforms to an idea - either one understood by the mind or one perceived by the senses).[4]

Descartes illustrated the difference between introspection and the imagination with the following example,

When I imagine a triangle, for example, I don’t merely understand that it is a threesided figure, but I also see the three lines with my mind’s eye as if they were present to me; that is what imagining is. But if I think of a chiliagon, although I understand quite well that it is a figure with a thousand sides, I don’t imagine the thousand sides or see them as if they were present to me.[4]

Like Plato, Descartes believed that mathematical concepts contain an element of truth that goes beyond what we are capable of imagining. This led Descartes to claim that sciences like physics, astronomy, and medicine are “doubtful”, yet mathematics is “certain and indubitable”. Descartes stated that “whether I am awake or asleep, two plus three makes five, and a square has only four sides”.[4]

Despite the conclusions of the dream argument, Descartes went on to claim that rational introspection could also be flawed. To demonstrate this, he invoked the idea of an all-powerful God and asked,

How do I know that [God] hasn’t brought it about that there is no earth, no sky, nothing that takes up space, no shape, no size, no place, while making sure that all these things appear to me to exist?[4]

Descartes concluded that God could have the power to deceive us about mathematics and other rational knowledge, and so we can’t even be certain of this. Descartes supported the idea that God could not be deceptive with the argument that “if God’s goodness would stop [them] from letting me be deceived all the time, you would expect it to stop [them] from allowing me to be deceived even occasionally; yet clearly I sometimes am deceived”. For those who would not accept a deceiving God, Descartes extended the theory to include “some malicious, powerful, cunning demon”.[4] Atheists could consider an advanced intelligent life form instead.

Descartes realised that the only thing he could be certain of was his own existence. Although he could be tricked into thinking anything, he could not be tricked into doubting that he is thinking at all, and since there are thoughts, there must be existence.

Descartes concluded,

I shall consider myself as having no hands or eyes, or flesh, or blood or senses, but as having falsely believed that I had all these things. I shall stubbornly persist in this train of thought; and even if I can’t learn any truth, I shall at least do what I can do, which is to be on my guard against accepting any falsehoods so that the deceiver - however powerful and cunning [they] may be - will be unable to affect me in the slightest. This will be hard work, though, and a kind of laziness pulls me back into my old ways. Like a prisoner who dreams that [they are] free, starts to suspect that it is merely a dream, and wants to go on dreaming rather than waking up.[4]

26.4.2 Problem 2: Where is my mind?

Descartes used the problem of qualia to show that the mind must be composed of a different substance to physical matter. He also claimed that the mind differs from physical substances because it does not exist in space. He believed this to be evident from the fact that he could imagine his mind existing without the need for a body.

Descartes stated,

I have a vivid and clear idea of myself as something that thinks and isn’t extended, and one of body as something that is extended and does not think. So it is certain that I am really distinct from my body and can exist without it.[4]

This argument could be contested by the fact that we have no proof that the mind can exist apart from the body. Even if we can imagine such a thing, it does not make it true since Descartes showed that we can be tricked into these beliefs. However, the problem becomes more difficult when we try to give a location to the qualia we experience in our imaginations.

We can relate different experiences to different locations within the brain, but we cannot show that qualia reside there without first assuming that they do. We have yet to find a part of the brain that is coloured red, that sounds high-pitched, or smells of cinnamon, for example.

26.4.3 Problem 3: The unity of consciousness

Descartes extended the idea that the mind does not exist in space to show that the mind cannot be divided into parts. Descartes claimed that it’s impossible to conceive of our mind being halved or duplicated. We can imagine losing all sensation in half of our physical body, losing half of our memories, or half of our brain functions. But we cannot imagine seeing half a colour or seeing two different colours in the same space at the same time.

Descartes argued that as long as it is thinking, the mind is always experienced as being a single and complete entity. He stated that,

the mind can’t be divided. When I consider the mind - i.e. consider myself purely as a thinking thing - I can’t detect any parts within myself; I understand myself to be something single and is one and the same mind that wills, understands and perceives.[4]

The unity of physical objects, on the other hand, always occurs as a matter of degree with a seemingly infinite amount of possible subdivisions. Descartes stated that,

any corporeal thing can easily be divided into parts in my thought; and this shows me that it is really divisible.[4]

26.4.4 Problem 4: Subjectivity

Finally, the nature of qualia reveals the inherent subjectivity of the mind. There’s no way to compare the qualia we experience with others, and so no way to know if others really experience the same sensations we do. This makes the mind different from the substances dealt with in the physical sciences because they only deal in facts that can be proven to be true or false, irrespective of human opinion.

This means that any physical theory of the mind will have to differ greatly from traditional science, not only will it have to reference subjective opinion, but it will have to explain why we have subjective experiences at all.

26.5 Problems with Descartes’ theory

Descartes showed that any physical theory of the mind will have to explain why we experience thoughts of any kind, including qualia and rational introspection. It will also have to explain why qualia cannot be communicated with others, where qualia reside within the brain, and why we cannot divide these thoughts into parts.

Descartes solved these problems with dualism, the idea that the mind is composed of an indivisible, thinking substance that does not exist in physical space. This solution is not without problems, however. The biggest problem is that Descartes did not explain how such distinct substances could interact.

The mind must have some control over the body; this is evident when we decide to move. The body, in turn, has some control over our mind; this is evident when we feel pain.

The problem of how the mind and body interact, despite obeying different physical laws, is known as the problem of causal interaction. This is analogous to the measurement problem in quantum mechanics (discussed in Chapter 19).

26.6 References

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