‘Philosophy’ has always been bunk, 13: Descartes’ dualism – his one sane theory

In his ‘Ontological Dualism’, Descartes proposed that some things such as the brain are material, and others such as the human mind and God are spiritual.

So what’s wrong with that? Isn’t it just obvious, unproblematical and commonsensical, almost by definition of the words used?  But it was the one fraction of his thought that later philosophers weren’t impressed by.  I cudgel my brain to understand why. 

For me, if I am correct in this philosophical term, it has always been a gigantic Category Mistake to think that verbal logicking can solve the conundrum of the relationship between brain and mind.  It is part of the wrong-headeness of the verbal nitpicking of Philosophers to think that they can.

Anyway, ‘Cartesian Dualism’ became the basis for ‘The Mind-Body Problem’, an issue for subsequent philosophers (from here).  Didn’t they think it ‘clear and distinct’ that the brain is material and resides in the skull, and that the mind (consisting as it does of feelings, thoughts, dreams, nostalgias, behaviours, desires, cultures, civilizations, tastes in reading, tastes in carpets, ironies and responsibilities) isn’t material.  Yes, it resides in the brain, develops from it in the course of evolution, is damaged if the brain is damaged; but is itself a great ethereal bubble of non-materiality.  Did they seriously believe that everything is material, and that the mind or ‘self’  is just the brain?  (Were these only the grim materialists of modern times but earlier philosophers too?  Have philosophers got an impoverished self-experience of Mind and Self’? To me, the idea that all these constituents of the mind or self will one day be explained as electrical impulses in nerve cells is the product of minds with an impoverished inner life of mind and self.)

I met a boy at college long ago, who expressed the thought that one day all thought, feelings etc. would be analysed down to electrical impulses in nerve cells.  My mind boggled that anyone so benighted and insensitive to human life could get into college.  But I was wrong: this was exactly the kind of mind that academia valued.

Some thinkers however –for example Paul Dean on Leavis — think that “the mistaken equation of ‘brain’ with ‘mind’ is one of the most insidiously misleading examples of modern sophistry”.   That he thought it worthwhile to say so, makes me think that modern minds do on the whole think that the mind is just the brain that scientists study.  My mind boggles. 

It seems that ontological dualism wasn’t something already accepted as obvious in Descartes’ time.  It was a revolutionary idea!  Descartes hoped that his dualism of material things and spiritual things would satisfy the men of the Church that they could continue to act in the spiritual world of Mind and God, and leave scientists to do empirical investigation in the material and mechanistic world (from here).

Some moderns think that Artificial Intelligence is like the human mind!   Perhaps it is because so many modern humans have a mechanical intelligence and have banal ideas of human life (from here).

Yet the legal systems of countries still assume the self to be independent of physical and biological causes in most of its activity, and to be responsible for most of what it does, and therefore can be found guilty and sent to jail.

To continue with Descartes: Because he was so materialistic and mechanistic, he needed to find an exact spot where material brain and spiritual mind interacted.  He picked on the pineal gland (a small comma hanging off the floor of the brain) as that spot where intentions from the mind crossed into the brain to initiate muscular movements, and where pain sensations from the nerves and brain crossed into the mind.

To me, why is there a necessity to postulate exactly where they interact? – just leave it at the everyday experience that there is thinking mind and a material brain and that the exact nature of their interaction is unfathomable.  To pick on the pineal gland or anywhere else is the sort of thing a rationalistic mind would do to satisfy its need for an answer to something unfathomable. 

For me, if I am correct in this philosophical term (and to repeat myself), it has always been a gigantic ‘Category Mistake’ to think that verbal logicking can solve the conundrum of the relationship between brain and mind.  To think that it can is part of the wrong-headeness of the verbal nitpicking of Philosophers.

And why on earth ‘solve’ it?  One has to have a simplistic understanding of the misty universe of ‘mind’ to think one can ‘solve’ it.  Philosophers use logic to try to solve what are imponderables to logic, but these imponderables remain imponderables by the very nature of imponderables and of logic (as I’ve already said here).    

Descartes, very wisely for a change, wrote late in his life (from here), that ‘the union of mind and body is best understood by not thinking about it, and that it is just one of those mysteries that has to be accepted without being comprehended’.  Exactly!  But moderns think that neuro-science will one day solve it. 


Later philosophers didn’t think much of the pineal gland as where Brain and Mind  interacted, and thought up other theories such as Materialism, Idealism, Behaviourism, Occasionalism, Epiphenomenalism,  Pre-Established Harmony, Double Aspect Theory, etc.  Look these up; they are amazing.

It seems that Descartes believed that our minds carry on after our brains have died.  Modern scientists don’t, which is another reason they believe that brain is  mind. 


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