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Descartes clever attempt to feed our mental substance (2005)

The philosophy of mind goes beyond the eagerness to solve the puzzle of the mind. However, any endeavor is inevitably linked to the earliest significant attempt, Descartes’s Substance Dualism. Due to the controversy that this theory created, new theories in the philosophy of mind arose. Thus, to truly understand this philosophy it is essential to evaluate the strength of both pro and con arguments.

One of the strongest point of Descartes’s theory is that it follows intuition. We are all aware that the qualities of our mental experiences differ broadly from those of material origin (Heil, 22). This is exactly the pillar of the theory, the insight that the world is divided into the mental substance, which is directly linked to the mind, and the non-mental substance, which relates to the spatial, physical world. These substances are intuitively recognizable as they possess unique and inherent characteristics. Descartes adds that the properties and the substances are inseparable, which could imply that the substances are not made of smaller substances.

Another strong point of this theory is that it can be applied to several scopes of knowledge. It accounts for events such as death (Heil, 21), and the existence of a


, which could help to explain religious inquiries. It also explores the intimate relation between the ego and a specific body (Heil, 20), which explains sensory experiences, but also complex ideas such as the will of each individual, its extent of mental influence, and psychological concepts.

Many believe that the main weakness of this theory lies in its simplicity. Several philosophers are dissatisfied with Descartes shallow exploration of the interaction of mind and body after he described the big metaphysical distance that separates them. Descartes cleverly limited his argument by stating that they casually interact through the senses and the pineal gland, and that the mind is capable of initiating events in the material world (Heil, 23). An aspect that Descartes didn’t emphasize it the bi-directionality of the interaction as the non-mental substance can affect the mental.

Another apparent weakness of Substance Dualism is that it seems to contradict modern thought, which approaches this topic from a scientific viewpoint. In our society, the material world is viewed as a closed system in which each event is caused by some other material event (Heil, 23). However, Descartes states this is might not always be the case, thus raising the possibility of challenging natural laws. As Heil explains, the fact that the mind affects the physical does not necessarily mean that it goes against natural laws, or statistical predispositions (Heil, 24). In fact, I believe that Descartes points at the inability to understand the mind completely using science, which has no principles to interpret empirical finding in this areas (Heil, 16). Even if scientist could understand the patterns of your brain waves and decipher your thoughts, the understanding of the mental substance goes beyond the physical realm.

Descartes argues that the mind is transparent (its current state is evident) and incorrigible (the belief of being in a certain state goes with reality). This may seem counter-intuitive, and even a weakness in the theory, as the observation of the mental substance is private due to the non-spatial characteristic of the mind. How can something that has troubled philosophers for decades end up being so transparent? This argument seems to be strong, but I believe it is based on the understanding of the mind using a scientific approach.

Descartes set up a maze through which philosophers have traveled for decades, even after the evolution of the sciences, as well as human thought. As Heil partially states, the difficulties in the theory were understood keenly by Descartes (Heil, 22). The theory is simply and therefore easy to understand. It is broad, but also left gaps for future philosophers to discuss (which he definitely accomplished). Consequently, the weakest points of Cartesian Dualism, become its strongest points, making both amateur and experienced philosophers ponder about the nature of the substances.


Heil, John. Philosophy of Mind. New York: Routledge 2004. 15-26.