PL 120: Philosophy of Human Nature
I in the Mind
“I think, therefore I am” (Abel, 194). At first glance this statement
could be passed over; yet it is the idea that it poses that has led it to
be the most debated of Philosophy’s many questions. After much
deliberation, Rene Descartes came to the conclusion that “I am, I exist”
(Abel, 195). But what is this “I” that Descartes speaks of in his second
meditation? Descartes believed this “I” to be something non-extended, that
is to say it is nonphysical. I believe that parts of the “I” are
nonphysical, but since we are physical by nature not everything of the “I”
can be explained in a nonphysical way.
In Rene Descartes’ Meditations on First Philosophy he argues, as a
dualist, that there is both a mind and a body, but before he came to this
conclusion he first had to determine his own existence. This was achieved
in this second meditation by realizing that is possible he was deceived as
to having a mind and body. After he discovers his ability to doubt and to
understand, he is able to prove his required existence as a consequence.
What we doubt or understand may not ultimately correspond, but we can never
be uncertain that we are in the process of thought and therefore we prove
our existence as a “thinking thing” (Abel, 196).
In his fifth and sixth meditations, Descartes relies on the existence
of a non-deceiving God to show that the world exists. He uses a dream
argument, in which none of our ideas are caused by external objects and are
instead simply put there by God. And
since they are put there as such, it is possible the objects do not exist.
Or it is possible that a demon may be trying to deceive us and is simply
trying to get us to perceive things that are not really there. But because
God is all-perfect he would not deceive us in this way. “Since God is not a
deceiver, it is quite clear that he does not transmit the ideas to me
either directly from himself, or indirectly via some creature which
contains the objective reality of the ideas not formally but only
eminently,” therefore, that which we perceive in the physical world
actually exists (Abel, 201).
Descartes believed that if he could clearly understand one thing,
then it must be distinct from something else, there by making two things
distinct. He used this principle to show that the mind is distinct from the
body and that it can exist without it. Since he can conceive both the mind
and the body as distinct, means that they can exist independently of each
other; yet they are closely intermingled with each other, as seen with such
feelings as hunger or thirst. For if it was just the body perceiving the
hunger or thirst, “it should have an explicit understanding of the fact,
instead of having confused sensations of hunger and thirst. For these
sensations of hunger, thirst, pain, and so on are nothing but confused
modes of thinking which arise from the union and, as it were, intermingling
of the mind with the body” (Abel, 201).
The two greatest challenges to Descartes’ theory of the mind is how
the nonphysical “I”, can be related to the physical body. This challenge is
know as the mind-body problem and has plagued philosophers for centuries.
And the second challenge is
the materialist view that the “I” is simply part of the brain and that
there is no nonphysical mind.
Both challenges pose equally difficult problems to Descartes’ theory.
Descartes’ response to the mind-body problem was that the mind and body
were “closely joined” and interacted at the pituitary gland in the brain
(Abel, 200).This explanation does not make much sense, since it there is no
way for the nonphysical (mind) to interact with the physical (body/brain),
at least not as how Descartes explained it. Descartes’ response for the
materialist view was that the mind must be nonphysical because the only
thing you can be sure of is that you are able to use your mind to think and
you don’t need a body for that because they are independent of each other.
IV. Defense of Thesis
Parts of the views of a nonphysical mind and a physical mind seem
valid to me. While I see how Descartes came to the conclusion of a
completely nonphysical mind, I don’t fully agree with his view on it. Nor
do I fully agree that the mind is entirely physical. The problem with the
mind-body argument, at least to me, is that it leaves little room for the
soul. Yes, Descartes believed we have a soul that is nonphysical, but he
also believed the mind was nonphysical as well. The materialist view is
that there is no soul because everything is physical, which I do not agree
with at all. I believe that much of the mind and the soul are one in the
same. And what is not the same from the mind to the soul is physical in
nature. Because of this neither stance completely covers my view on the
I do not agree with Descartes’ theory of the pineal gland as the
interaction point between mind and body. I cannot explain how the mind/soul
interacts with the body because the only terms I know to use are limited to
a physical nature. I believe there are a great many things that are beyond
our ability to explain or even comprehend, because we as humans are not all-
perfect, and some things cannot be explained by mere human terms.
There is no easy answer in the case of the mind-body problem. While
much can be explained in a physical way, just as much can only be explained
in a nonphysical way. I believe that Descartes was more correct than
materialists in his views, but he still did not completely explain
everything. We have a physical form, but we also have a nonphysical soul.
The “I” that Descartes named is consciousness. “I” allows us to think,
reason, and choose. It allows us to interpret what our bodies perceive in
the world around us. The body, because of its physical nature, cannot exist
with out the mind/soul, but the mind/soul nonphysical nature allows it to
exist without the body. Descartes was on the right path in his explanation
of the mind, but he stopped short and thus missed was not able to complete
Descartes, Rene. Meditation on First Philosophy. In Fifty Readings in
Ed. Donald C. Abel, 2nd ed (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2004), pp. 194-
Donald C. Abel. Fifty Reading in Philosophy. 2nd ed. New York: McGraw-Hill,