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Descartes' Theory Of Substance Dualism
Descartes’ Theory of Substance Dualism
Throughout the history of man, philosophers have tried to come up with an
explanation of where our minds, or consciousness, came from and how we are able to
have a nonphysical characteristic of ourselves. Does our physical brain automatically
give us nonphysical characteristics like feelings, thoughts, and desires or is there
something else there, the mind, that interacts with our bodies and makes us feel, think,
and desire? Also, is the mind the only nonphysical entity in our universe or do other
entities exist such as ghosts or souls? One man came up with a theory to explain the two
different properties in our universe in which he called Dualism. Hopefully with his
theory of Substance Dualism, we can come up with some sort of answer to these
French philosopher Rene Descartes (1596-1650) believed two such properties
existed in life, the physical and the nonphysical. He broke his theory of Dualism into two
forms: Substance Dualism and Property Dualism. He explained that Substance Dualism
is the claim that nonphysical substances exist, and Property Dualism is the claim that
there are mental properties that are different from physical properties (Barcalow, pg. 70).
To put it another way, properties are what make up an object, and substance is what the
properties attach to in making that object. Many philosophers agree that substance is a
mysterious entity that is hard to explain. It’s like a kind of flypaper to which properties
adhere, but flypaper that has no properties of its own, not even the property of being
sticky (Barcalow, pg. 71). Without substance, there are only properties of an object, not
the object as a whole.
Descartes went on to believe that there are two types of substance: physical and
mental. A human is composed of many physical properties such as skin, bones, muscles,
and organs, but also have nonphysical properties such as thoughts and feelings.
Therefore, humans are composed of two types of substance: physical and nonphysical.
According to Descartes, our minds and bodies causally interact with one another almost
all of the time. Meaning that events and states in our mind can cause physical events in
our bodies and vice versa. For example, a tack puncturing your foot (a physical event)
causes you to feel pain (a mental event) and causes you to say “ouch,” (a physical event)
(Barcalow, pg. 72). As a result, the term Interactionism was used to explain the relation
between the physical and mental. Descartes’ theory of Substance Dualism was his best
way of explaining human life and how our minds are able to interact with our bodies.
Of course, not everyone is going to agree with Descartes theory. There are many
objections one can make about Substance Dualism, but mainly there are three. First of
all, some believe causal interaction between the body and mind is a physical
phenomenon. For example, throwing a baseball is the result of one’s arm being swung
back in a smooth motion and using force to release the ball (science has proven that force
is physical). What caused the arm to throw the baseball? The muscles in the arm
contracted, thus the arm raised. The electrical impulses that originated in the brain told
the arm to throw the ball. Some people find it impossible that something nonphysical can
create energy or force.
Another objection is that we as people cannot observe the mind. The phrase
“seeing is believing” automatically comes to mind here. If we can’t actually see and
measure our thoughts and feelings, how do we know they exist? Do ghosts exist? How
do we know? We don’t. We can’t physically see or feel them just like the interaction
between our body and mind. We have yet to find a way to physically observe the
The third main objection is the problem of evolutionary development of all
species, including humans. According to science, all living organisms evolved from
one-celled, self-replicating molecules (Barcalow, pg. 76). So at what point in time did
the nonphysical mind and consciousness exist? Did the dinosaurs have minds, or as
Descartes believed, did the mind only exist with human evolution? This we cannot
answer. We have yet to find out when in fetal development the nonphysical mind exists.
Answering these objections is a tough task. For the first one, we can say that the
mind is the only nonphysical entity that can create energy and force. There doesn’t seem
to be anything else that is nonphysical that can create energy, except the mind. The
second objection is somewhat easier to answer. Just because we can’t see it, doesn’t
mean it doesn’t exist. A majority of the population of the world believes in some sort of
God or higher power, but we scientifically can’t prove that one exists. There might be a
God, but we really don’t know for sure. So why can’t we believe in Descartes’ theory of
Substance Dualism? The third objection is the toughest to answer. We as people just
have to assume that at some point in fetal development, our brain grows to become so
complex, that the mind and consciousness become one with our brain.
I, myself, believe in Substance Dualism and Interactionism. I don’t think there is
really any other way to explain the relationship between our physical body and
nonphysical mind. Descartes makes sense in his theory and the objections Barcalow
came up with can be answered. Unless someone comes up with a theory that is better and
can disprove Descartes, I’m sticking with Descartes. I mean, something told my hands
what to type.
Overall, the mind and body relationship is a tricky subject. We as humans don’t
fully know where the nonphysical properties of our mind came from nor do we know if
one exists. So far, Descartes came up with the best theory to explain it, but not everyone
believes it. There are also a few objections to his theory that raise questions as to if it can
be believed. I believe Descartes was a man truly ahead of his time and helped in the
process of explaining the entities of human life no matter if anyone believes him or not.
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