This month, on 21st September, Cardiff Philosophy Cafe will be running a session led by J. J. Hodge entitled Materialism, the Mind and the Brain. Ahead of this Cafe, there will be three posts on the subject of mind and identity, of which this is the first, looking at the theory of mind held by Rene Descartes, and its relation to some of our everyday intuitions about what and who we are.

Understanding the relation between body and mind seems crucial for understanding what “selfhood” might mean. Selfhood seems to be an important concept, in which we invest a lot of emotion, energy and belief: if we all gave up believing in a “real you”, advertisers and composers of self-help quizzes might be in trouble. But if such a self exists, how can we know anything about it, and where is it? “Self” seems to denote something other than a body alone – after all, in ordinary language, if we say “there is John”, and “there is John’s body”, we seem to be referring to two different things (his corpse, in the latter). But does this mean if we see John’s corpse, John has gone elsewhere?

Separating Self and Body: The Cartesian Route

“While he was tied up, his mind was working furiously, planning his escape”

The foregoing sentence might be taken to express a common kind of mental intuition – that it makes sense to treat the mind and body as if they were (to some degree or other) separate, with the mind – and self – “hovering” alongside the body. One philosopher who defended a strong version of this idea was René Descartes (1596 – 1650). According to Descartes, the mind is a mental substance. What does this mean? A substance can be defined as whatever is permanent in any particular thing,

Portrait of René Descartes, dubbed the "F...
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and usually this implies that a substance is whatever can exist independently of any particular thing. For example, although individual physical bodies grow old, die and decay, physical substance (matter) itself does not.

If we want to define the concept of mental substance, then we can do so negatively in the first instance, that is, by contrasting it with what it is not, namely physical substance. Some properties or attributes of matter are that it is divisible, alterable in shape, mass and so on, and that the parts of which it is composed always occupy some location in space. Mental substance or mind, on the other hand, has none of these attributes – you cannot, for example, have half a mind (would this just be two minds?). One positive attribute it has is the quality of intention – that is, it can take things as its object, make them its “theme”: a mind, on this view, is at any moment, “all about” something (in a similar way to when we say of someone with narcissistic tendencies, “it’s all about him, isn’t it?”).

It makes no sense to impute to a mind any specific physical location place (does this fit with our common intuitions? For example, upon finding someone whilst playing hide-and-seek, would it be make any sense to say “There you are! And there is your mind too!”). So mind, in Descartes’ theory, appears to be the centre of experience. It’s a “place” where awareness happens, and knowledge of the world comes about – where we “make sense” of sense data. It has access to itself in a way which is characterised by transparency: although we may have lots of reasons to doubt the evidence of our senses, mental contents are not dubitable in the same way. It is also capable of controlling the body, of
directing its motions – and the body is quite capable of affecting the mind – through illness, drunkenness, but also through the sense organs more generally. As mental substance is indestructible, it makes sense to identify it with the soul. The body can be injured, can decompose upon death etc., but the mind can do none of these things. So the
mind is, in Descartes’ account, the foundation of identity – that which persists as the condition and support for all our experiences and does not pass away.

So there is an essential difference between physical and mental substance, between body and mind, even though they are somehow in partnership. However, although this helps preserve some intuitions about identity, and about the “special relationship” between mind and body, it creates some logical problems. For example, if this difference means
that neither has any properties in common with the other, then how they are “in partnership” is difficult to understand. If the mind is such that it is not subject to the physical laws which affect matter, then how can it either have causal influence on physical substance, or be affected by it? Descartes proposed that the joining of mind and body was made possible by the pineal gland in the centre of the brain – however, this just pushes the problem back one step, for if the pineal gland is itself part of the physical world, how can it be causally linked to the mind? The mind – and the self – appear to be nowhere and, what is more, to be incapable of making any difference to any physical system, let alone controlling one.

Also, there is a problem with the “centre of experience” idea. Daniel Dennett has labelled this idea the “Cartesian Theatre”, as it depicts the mind as a kind of “stage” where experience is finally brought together and made sense of by our mind as a kind of observer. Certainly this “centre of the mind” hypothesis reflects our habit of thinking of ourselves as possessing a single focus of awareness (we might imagine this as being located somewhere a couple of inches behind our lower forehead). But consider this: we, as minds, are depicted by Descartes as observers of sense data, who are responsible for making sense of it. This process of observation and making sense takes place “in” our
minds, and so we are “in attendance” at the place where it all happens. So, it appears as if, within an observing mind, there is

  1. the stage and
  2. an observer.

But this opens up an infinite regress of stages and observers, like Russian dolls nested within one another. If the mind is an observer (O) which watches within it a procession of sense data dancing meaningfully upon the “stage ” (S), then O surely contains within it another observer (O’), who presumably also has, within it, a stage (S’) where “everything happens ” for O’ and an observer (O”) who watches this stage – and so on. If there is an infinite progression of nested observers and stages, then there is in face nowhere where experience “happens”. What is more, the self – as observer – seems to be incapable of finding itself.

Descartes’ theory of substance dualism might seem attractive, if we hold certain intuitions about the relationship between mind (or self) and body. But it is also doesn’t seem able to lay out what these intuitions imply in any meaningful way, and certainly not in a way which gives us a coherent account of what the self is and how we might know ourselves.

In the next post, we look at an alternative account.

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