My essay on the Mind-Body question in relation to Descartes

This is an essay I wrote aged about 20 when studying Philosophy and Literature at Warwick University.

I am not lodged in my body merely as a pilot in a ship.

In rejecting the traditional scholastic model for describing Plato’s notion of the relationship between the mind or soul and the body – that of a sailor in a boat – Descartes hopes to prove that the connection is far more intense and complex than previously thought. Indeed, as C A Van Peursen explains in Body, Soul, Spirit: A Survey of the Body-Mind Problem, it seems strange that a man who is so renowned as a dualist should so seek to emphasize the cohesion between two substances, so that

“he never taught a thoroughgoing dualism; he reflected too deeply – and was too sensitive a thinker – for that.”(CA Van Peursen, p 32)

However, inevitably perhaps, he could never totally rid himself of such notions as he is here attempting to reject, so that certain presuppositions influence and undermine his thinking. As a result, some aspects of his theory, and the ideas of some of his followers, have conveyed the impression of “a ghost in the machine”(G Ryle, The Concept of Mind), an image that seems not far removed from the pilot in a ship analogy.

Nevertheless, there is no doubt that Descartes theory, as explained in his Meditations, is far subtler than this, so that not only is the mind more than a mere pilot of the body, but it is

“very closely united to it, and so to speak, so intermingled with it that I seem to compose with it one whole”.(Descartes, Meditation 6, p 192)

The intensity with which mind and body are bound together is apparent, Descartes believes, in everyday experience, from which

“I remarked that a certain feeling of pleasure accompanied those (ways of being affected) that were beneficial, and pain those that were harmful”,(Ibid, p 187)

so that he is led to conclude

“I could never be separated from it as from other bodies; I experienced in it and on account of it all my appetites and affections”.(Ibid, p 188)

It appears, therefore, that Descartes is almost approaching a monist position as the mind is ‘in’ the body (and surely, therefore, corporeal), and it perhaps is only a small step now to suggest a kind of identity theory, because, given their inseparability, the pleasure or pain of the mind, and the beneficial or harmful effects on the body, could be seen as different ways of speaking of the same experience.

However, before he goes this far, Descartes lapses back into traditional dualist thinking, which allows for the existence of an immortal soul, because this

“is entirely and absolutely distinct from my body and can exist without it”.(Ibid, p 190)

Although Descartes argues in his Meditations that the mind and body are distinct, the fact that the cognito is the only thing which indubitably can be said to exist while all else is disputable, and the idea that it is different – in being indivisible, unextended and capable of thought – from the body, both fail to prove that the cognito can exist on it’s own. It is likely, therefore, that Descartes is influenced by the widespread and natural belief that man has a mental or spiritual self, endowing him with the special qualities of

“The Soul that arises within us, our life’s star,

Hath Elsewhere its setting

And cometh from afar,”(Wordsworth, Ode on the Intimations of immortality)

as Wordsworth expressed it. Indeed, as Kneale indicates in his article On Mind, it is difficult to escape such ideas because of our linguistic tradition, as the ancient greek word for ‘alive’ literally translated means ‘be-souled’, and in everyday speech, he writes,

“we find men drawing a distinction between a man’s body and something else which is commonly described in English as his soul or spirit”.(Kneale, On Mind)

Hence, because such intuitive notions of an immortal soul demand that it is self-sufficient, while pleasure, pain, hunger and thirst are ordinary reminders of the mind’s intense and dependent link with the body, Descartes appears to contradict himself when trying to establish the causal relation between mind and body.

This difficulty is partly resolved in his attempts to define the functions of the mind and body in terms of imagining objects, which is achieved by the mind in conjunction with the body, and understanding them in a purely intellectual manner, which can be achieved by the mind alone. Thus, at the beginning of the sixth Meditation, Descartes uses the example of the chiliagon, as

“I certainly conceive truly that it is a figure composed of a thousand sides, but I cannot in any way imagine the thousand sides of a chiliagon (as I do three sides of a triangle), nor do I, so to speak, regard them as present (with the eyes of the mind)”.(Descartes, Meditation 6, p 185-6)

We can also, he says, have the same pure knowledge of a simpler shape, such as a pentagon, but it is also possible, by applying the mind to the brain, to summon up a visual image of such a shape. However, the particular effort necessary for this process indicates that it is a different function from pure intellection, which can occur on it’s own. Thus, it can be said that while the mind is dependent on the store of information in the brain for many functions, it can also operate independently of it, as when contemplating notions of pure maths, or God, or its own nature, without the use of images. In this sense, perhaps, it can be said to exist on its own, although the fact that the “eyes of the mind” are used when imagining, and the fact that it can sometimes detach itself from the body both seem to undermine the idea of cohesive unity and reinforce the image of a pilot in a ship.

Hence, this supposed clarification of the mind/body distinction also creates new problems. In Descartes’ Philosophical Writings, he attempts to describe the process of remembering as involving both the mind and the brain;

“Thus, when the soul wills to recall something, this volition, by causing the gland to bend successively now to one side, and now to another, impels the spirits towards this and that region of the brain until they come upon that part where the traces left by the object we will to recall are found”. (quoted by Norman Kemp Smith, p 153)

The idea of the pineal gland as the place where the mind can contact the body seems to indicate that Descartes is unconsciously affected by the ship analogy, because although theoretically the mind is not corporeal, he still finds it necessary to discover a place, a ‘helm’, from which the mind can control the body, like a sailor, from inside. Indeed, it is questionable anyway how something immaterial can impinge on a material body, how the gland can be caused to bend and, to take the earlier example, how it is possible to imagine a pentagon

“by applying the attention of the mind to each of its five sides, and to the space which they enclose”,(Descartes, Meditation 6, p 186)

the figure of which is summoned by the mind onto the pineal gland. In fact, because energy would have to be created from nothing in order for the mind to influence the brain, or would have to disappear for the opposite to occur, it would seem that the Law of the Conservation of Energy would be at stake.

Indeed, although Descartes’ theories may appeal intuitively to our sense of our own nature, if scientific principles are applied, they seem impossible to comprehend. Margaret D Wilson emphasizes this fact by showing how ideas, such as the proposition that “the brain is not at all used in pure understanding” and the view that we have an intellectual memory apart from a corporeal one may seem unacceptable to us, but she also explains that

“ ‘the cerebral basis of human intelligence’ is little enough understood in the twentieth century; it seems no wonder that a seventeenth century figure should refuse to credit such a notion at all”.(Margaret D Wilson, p 202)

Indeed, some of Descartes descriptions of ‘animal spirits’ (nerve impulses?) and ‘canals’ (nerves?), seem remarkably advanced, even if the idea of the mind activating such phenomena remains obscure. Even over three hundred years later, in criticizing the materialist position, dualists still ask how neurones can “be” mind, or, more specifically, how electrical impulses carrying the information that the colour red (for example) is being seen, can be identical to our experience of seeing red because, they ask, how can such a signal become vision on reaching the brain? However, this type of question ironically exposes defects in Descartes’ position, because if a ghostly replica of a colour or shape appears on the pineal gland, we would have to assume that the mind, like a separate sailor inside a ship, could then view this image, as he would a radar screen, for example. This situation clearly raises even more problems and, indeed, in the materialist’s view, it is precisely because the mind is the brain that such difficulties do not arise.

Nevertheless, it is clear that Descartes’ impression of a mind deduced from the facts that

“I was nourished, that I walked, that I felt, and that I thought, and I referred all these actions to the soul”,(Descartes, Meditation 2, p 151)

is both rational and understandable in the context of his age, when it was believed that gravitation was a compelling force which existed in all objects, so that it could easily be believed that mind, similarly, is a compelling force with a close, reciprocal relationship to our bodies. It is important, however, that Descartes writes that he is taught this by nature, with the presupposition that

“there is no doubt that in all things which nature teaches me there is some truth contained”.(Descartes, Meditation 6, p 192)

However, our ‘natural’ beliefs that cause us to speak in terms of the mind as a spiritual entity, are not always the best indication of the ‘truth’, as language can be prescriptive, not merely descriptive, of concepts, so such beliefs can often be based on prejudice and ignorance. Thus, it is notable in primitive civilizations spirits and gods were often ascribed to aspects of people’s lives that they could not understand. Hence, there were fertility gods, gods who controlled the weather and gods who provided good crops, for example. These deities become obsolete when people discovered the ‘secrets’ of nature, and it is possible that God Himself is worshipped even now simply because we do not understand why and how the universe and ourselves exist. In the same way, because we find the mind/brain controversy inexplicable, we refer to the mind as something mysterious and spiritual, and thus the idea reflects our ignorance rather than any intuitive knowledge (similarly, the electro-chemical impulses in the brain provide a more satisfactory replacement for Descartes “animal spirits”). In addition, such self-spiritualization is attractive because it helps to fulfil man’s fiction of himself as superior to other creatures, a being capable of experiencing events of a special kind.

Nevertheless, a purely monist explanation also seems unsatisfactory – Gilbert Ryle admitted the shortcomings of his behaviourist theory in The Concept of Mind because it failed to explain mental events – and purely scientific theories even now seem inadequate as Gordon Rattray Taylor predicts in The Natural History of the Mind,

“while mind will be fitted into the scientific system, the system will have to be dramatically enlarged to accommodate it”. (GR Taylor, p 305)

It is therefore clear that if over three hundred years after Descartes we still have no definitive solution, Descartes himself had no real possibility of providing a convincing scientific basis for his theory. In fact, it is perhaps a tribute to him that he was aware of this limitation, as Van Peursen explains, he realized

“that which relates to the cohesion of soul and body is to be perceived only vaguely by the intellect, but very clearly through sensory experience.”(Van Peursen, p 24)

Hence, he does not attempt to analyse the exact process of interchange between mind and body in his Meditations, but only provides the non-philosophical sensory proof that “I am not lodged in my body as a pilot in a ship”, because when he vaguely tries to explain it intellectually, he tends only to reinforce the very simile he wishes to discard.


  1. Descartes The Philosophical Works Volume 1 (Cambridge University Press, 1973)

  2. Hook Dimensions of Mind (ed. Sidney hook)(Collier-MacMillan Ltd,1966)

  3. Hooker Descartes – Critical and Interpretive Essays (ed. Michael Hooker)(John Hopkins University Press,1978)

  4. Norman Kemp-Smith New Studies in the Philosophy of Descartes Chapter 6 – “Descartes’ teaching in regard to the embodied self” p.139-63 (MacMillan & Co Ltd, 1963)

  5. C A Van Peursen Body, Soul, Spirit: A Survey of the Body-Mind Problem Chapter 2 “The Dualism of Soul and Body: Descartes”(Oxford university Press, 1966)

  6. Gordon Rattray Taylor The Natural History of the Mind (Secker and Warburg Ltd, 1979)

  7. Margaret D Wilson Descartes – Critical and Interpretive Essays “Cartesian Dualism” chapter See 3 above)