Cartesian Dualism


Cartesian dualism is a philosophical concept that asserts mind and body are different entities in a person but they interact intricately for the proper functioning of a human being. Rene Descartes came up with the philosophical concept after establishing that, both material and immaterial worlds exist in a person. The mind constitutes the immaterial world while the body constitutes the material world and effective interaction of the two results into a rational being.

According to dualism, the mind directs the body’s actions ; actually, Descartes observes that “sensation and perception involve states of the world affecting states of sense organs, which in turn affect the brain, which causes the mind to be in certain states” (Baker 6). Thus, the interaction of the mind and the body constitutes Cartesian dualism, which is a landmark in philosophy. This essay examines the constituents of Cartesian Dualism before exploring arguments for and against the same.

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Dualism is the interaction of the mind and body as immaterial and material substances respectively. Descartes believes in the existence of both immaterial and material worlds that interact effectively in nature. As an illustration of the existence of immaterial and material substances in nature, Descartes uses human beings to explain the nature of mind and body. Descartes is concerned about “how the immaterial could interact with the material, and how the ‘extended’ substance of body could house the ‘unextended’ spirit called soul, resolved the problem of the incompatibility of the two entities by his dualism” (Baker 7). Prior to the Cartesian dualism, Greek philosophers held that, the mind and the body are unique and distinct entities that are incompatible.

However, through his method of systemic doubt, Descartes argues that since his mind can doubt the existence of bodies in nature, it clearly proves that there is a link between the mind and material world. In sixth meditation, Descartes argues that understanding and imaginations emanate from the sensual perception of the material world, hence proves that there is distinction and connection of the mind and body. He holds that “the two components which constitute man had an independent origin and are of a fundamentally different nature … the body could be divided up by the removal of a leg or an arm, but the soul was indivisible” (Hawthorn 88). The different attributes of the mind and body make the two different entities while their concerted functions make them complementary in defining the nature of human beings.

Thus, dualism explains the interaction of the mind and body while acknowledging the fact that they are different entities in human being. In his attempts to define his identity, Descartes realizes that there is complex association of mind and body that enables him to achieve reality on top of understanding his environment. He argues that since he has the capacity to think and doubt his existence, it obviously follows that he exists as a mind trying to comprehend the body. In order to ascertain his existence, Descartes came up with method of systemic doubt where according to Russell, “whatever he could bring himself to doubt, he would doubt, until he saw reason for not doubting it…by applying this method he gradually became convinced that the only existence of which he could be quite certain was his own” (11). Since he was certain of his existence because he had ability to think and doubt, Descartes discovered philosophical concept of dualism in human nature in that, the mind and body are two components that coexist in a human being.

According to Cartesian dualism, the mind and the body interact at the point of pineal body because it is the only gland in the brain that is not duplicate, which connects the body and the brain. Nagel argues that, “the body is extended matter: the soul is unextended spirit; when, however, the extended is acted upon by the unextended, some definite point of interaction is required and it is to be found in the pineal gland” (8). Descartes believes in mechanistic interaction of the mind and the body bringing about physical movement of the body and dictates the actions that human beings perform. Without the mind or ineffective interaction of the mind and body result into haphazard actions, hence proves that the mechanistic interaction is critical in defining the human nature.

Out of all creatures in the universe, human being is a dualistic creature with ability to think and act accordingly unlike animals that act according to their instincts and stimuli of nature. Therefore, the dualistic nature of human beings enables them to coordinate their mind and actions appropriately.


Although Cartesian dualism supports that the mind and the body are different entities, none can exist without the other. The mind and the body are critical and complementary components that constitute human being and therefore, it is quite impossible to separate the two.” Whether one believes that the mind is a substance or just a bundle of properties, the same challenge arises, which is to explain the nature of the unity of the immaterial mind” (Russell 26). It is practically impossible to combine or separate material substance and immaterial substance in nature. Separation or combination of material and immaterial substances is quite perplexing as they are incompatible.

If the mind and the body are separate and independent entities, why should they interact in the human being? They should have separate and distinct entities that do not need to interact for them to sustain their existence. In Cartesian dualism, the mind exists because of the body and the body exists because of the mind. Critics of Cartesian dualism further argue that interaction of the mind and body is not testable in the laboratory; hence, they introduced theological concept asserting that divine power is responsible for the interaction. Baker argues that, “critics of dualism objected that if soul and body were substances of entirely different natures, interaction between them was in fact impossible” (12). The assumption that the mind and the body interact at the point of pineal gland is a mere coincidence as there are other unduplicated organs in the body or brain. Furthermore, there is no empirical evidence to prove that pineal body is the point that connects the mind and the body. The nature of the mind is very complex and mysterious for one to comprehend; it is incomprehensible for immaterial and material substance to interact at pineal gland. The problem of dualism lies in the assumption that the immaterial mind and material body can interact effectively at the point of pineal body.

The assumption does not make scientific sense as no one can test immaterial substances in the laboratory because they are incompatible with material substances that human beings can perceive. Critics question therefore remains how can one perceive and measure immaterial substances. For causal relationships between the mind and the body to exist, dualists should demonstrate empirical and convincing experiment that ascertains the relationship. “It is not clear in what sense such stuff is immaterial, except in the sense that it cannot be integrated into the normal scientific account of the physical world …it is just an aberrant kind of physical stuff” (Hawthorn 93). Therefore, due to lack of empirical evidences and parameters that can measure immaterial substances, many critics of dualism have attributed dualism to the efforts of divine power that control the universe.


Critical analysis of opposing arguments of dualism and anti-dualism shows that Descartes wins as he argues that thoughts and doubts concerning certain things in nature are sure proof of their existence. Since critics of dualism doubt the existence of immaterial mind, it definitely follows they doubt reality and existence of immaterial substances. Attributing dualism to influence of divine power by Descartes’ critics is not satisfactory because like immaterial substances, divine forces are not testable in the laboratory.

Therefore, Cartesian dualism gives probable explanation of the distinction between human beings and animals. According to Cartesian dualism, human beings are dualistic creatures with the ability to think and act according to their thoughts, hence reaffirming their rational capacity. The critics of Cartesian dualism do have sufficient evidence to disapprove effective interaction between the mind and the body; therefore, Descartes’ argument that anything doubted is real for it elicits doubts in the first instance stands. Therefore, anyone who doubts Cartesian dualism doubts reality.

Works Cited

Baker, Gordon. “Cartesian Dualism: Mind Brain Interactions.” Philosophical Review Journal 4.

2 (1997): 1-34 Hawthorn, John. “Cartesian Dualism.” Australian Journal of Philosophy 63.

7 (2006): 87-98. Nagel, Thomas. “Mind and Body Cartesian Dualism.

” Philosophy, 2001: 1-11. Russell, Bertrand. Problems of Philosophy.

New York: Feedbooks Publisher, 1970.


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