The strange case of René Descartes and Madame Guillotine (Pt I)5 min read

Part One:  Body and mind, divided

Many of us accept the idea that mind and body are separate things, and why wouldn’t we?  We see it in the Mind, Body and Spirit section at the local book store and at the alternative health centres that promise to rejuvenate us, body and soul.  Less obviously, it often appears in healthcare settings where mind and body remain curiously disconnected.  Mind-body dualism is everywhere – but what does it mean for the body to be disconnected from the mind, and vice versa?  As we’ll see, this metaphysical decapitation has created all sorts of problems around how we understand ourselves and the problems we live with – and that has a direct bearing on how we understand health and wellbeing.

This first of three articles provides a brief sketch of mind-body dualism, an overview so we know what we’re dealing with; in the second instalment, we’ll encounter some alternative approaches that bridge the gap between body and mind; and we’ll finish by exploring some of the problems mind-body dualism creates in the realm of health and wellbeing before offering up some alternatives in the third and concluding article.

The difference between ideas and truth

Ideas seem to float around us like tiny parachutes from a dandelion puffball, and they can have a huge influence on how we understand ourselves, other people, and the world we live in.  Some ideas are helpful, like the idea that justice is important, that women and men are equally capable, and that our planet is worth saving for other species and future generations.  Some ideas are simply irrational, like the idea that the Earth is flat or the NASA moon landings were faked.  Other ideas – like mind-body dualism – are simply old ideas that linger on, still in circulation despite being disproved by advances in our knowledge and understanding.  They’re still potent, despite being untrue – which just shows that ideas don’t have to be true to have an impact.

So, let’s take a closer look at this mind-body problem.

The dualist metaphysic

The mind-body problem is a central issue in the philosophy of mind, the branch of philosophy that questions the nature of the human mind.  Some approaches – including the Buddhist concept of advaya and more recent western theories of embodiment – see mind and body as an indivisible and integrated unity, but mind-body dualists see mind and body as entirely different kinds of things.

The dualist conception of reality imagines two wildly different planes of existence:  a changing, finite, decaying physical world linked with an unchanging, infinite and permanent spiritual realm.  In the Christian tradition, this appears in the distinction between heaven and Earth and the same division is replicated in mind-body dualism. 

Mind-body dualism

Mind-body dualists argue that our physical bodies, finite and subject to death and decay, are animated by an eternal soul, which goes on to heaven or some other spiritual afterlife when the body dies.  Over time, ideas about spirit and soul have become interchangeable with ideas about mind and self.

This kind of dualism has been around for millennia.  It first appeared in ancient Greek philosophy –  although not all ancient Greek philosophers accepted it – and mind-body dualism was later adopted and adapted by the Christian Church.  The injunction ‘beware the souls of the damned’ springs to mind.  But the person perhaps most closely associated with mind-body dualism is the seventeenth century French philosopher, mathematician, and scientist René Descartes.

The Cartesian project

Descartes was a polymath genius. While his greatest contributions were inventing analytical geometry and introducing skepticism into the scientific method, Descartes is best remembered for the pithy quote cogito ergo sum:  I think, therefore I am!  But what did he actually mean?

Descartes, a skeptic, had been trying to answer the question:  what can I know with any certainty?  A devout Christian, Descartes couldn’t trust information provided by his senses because Satan could be misleading him, he could be hallucinating or dreaming, or simply making perceptual errors – I see the face of Jesus in a cloud, but of course there’s no face; it’s just a cloud. 

From this, Descartes became skeptical of the existence of the external world.  If we can’t prove the world exists – after all we might all just be brains in a vat dreaming about an imaginary external world – then we must doubt the existence of the world and everything in it.  Including our bodies.  It all sounds a bit too much like The Matrix to me.

Descartes’ cogito

Descartes also realised his thoughts offered no certainty, because they could be based on false beliefs.  After a long period of reflection, Descartes concluded that the only thing he could know with any certainty was that he must exist – because here he was, pondering these difficult questions.  Because I’m here thinking, I must exist; ergo I think, therefore I am.

For Descartes, the thing that defines humans is the thinking soul, or what we’ve come to think of as the mind.  The body is subject to decay and is unreliable, and the external world could all just be a figment of our imagination anyway.  In contrast, the soul reigns eternal.   

Within months of Descartes publishing his Meditations on First Philosophy, other European philosophers took his arguments to task and his ideas were rapidly superseded by new ideas with better explanatory power.  However, the idea that humans are defined by our capacity to think has continued to persist, while our bodies have been curiously overlooked until relatively recently – with significant consequences in the fields of health and wellbeing.

Old ideas are like old gods – they don’t die, they just fade away

We’ll see in the next article that Descartes’ ideas, and mind-body dualism more broadly, have come under sustained criticism from the mid-twentieth century, particularly with the advent of cognitive science and neuroscience.  This isn’t to criticise Descartes, who remains one of the greatest early modern European thinkers.  But it does illustrate how progress in science can disprove old ideas and better inform our understanding of the world.  The question, of course, is whether we let go of old ideas and embrace the new, or continue to be ruled by superstition, dogma and the untrue.

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