Mind-Body Philosophy: Part 6—How Descartes Divided Mental from Physical

By Frank Simons

The Meditation Center will host the sixth installment in this series, a lecture on the development of thought, from the Middle Ages through the Renaissance to the Enlightenment, making the case that the mind-body problem, as we moderns know it, first appeared in full force in the 17th and 18th century.

Video Presentation
Mind-Body Philosophy: Part 6-How Descartes Divided Mental from Physical
Thu, Feb 15, 5:30pm
Meditation Center
Callejón Blanco 4
Free, donations accepted

If the mental and the physical are two such different realms, how could one arise from the other? This question presupposes that there are two radically different realms and that one arises from the other. Half of the question implies an unbridgeable gap, the other half asks how it is bridged. A crucial figure here is the 17th century mathematician-philospher, Rene Descartes. Descartes is responsible for the sharp dichotomy that forms the first presupposition in our question. In Descartes, the mental and physical are two radically different realms. A second big split arises as a reaction to Descartes. If the mental and the physical are two such different realms, how could one arise from the other? There are two radically different ways to answer that part of the question. Those very different reactions to Descartes echo through the Enlightenment and continue today.

In his Discourse on Method, Descartes argues, “I think, therefore I am.” He is quite explicit about identifying the mind with the thinking soul, and that the pineal gland, unique to humans, was the interaction point of mind and body. As a piece of science, this hypothesis turned out a complete failure. Moreover, as a piece of philosophy, the hypothesis was doomed from the start. The question isn’t where the mind and body interact; it is how they possibly can.

One possible reaction to Descartes is to see the interaction between mind and body as so obvious it cannot be denied. Dualism, in turn, must be wrong. This thinking is exemplified by the work of Baruch Spinoza and Thomas Hobbes. Spinoza attempted to prove the universe is composed of only one thing, God or Nature. All individual things are aspects of that. Spinoza’s monism, pantheism, is probably the high point of rationalism: the view that the key to knowledge is not experience-based, but pure reason-based, on the model of mathematics.

The speaker, Patrick Grim, as Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, has provided his students with invaluable insights into issues of philosophy, artificial intelligence, theoretical biology, and other fields. Professor Grim was awarded the university’s Presidential and Chancellor’s Awards for teaching excellence and was elected to the Academy of Teachers and Scholars.

There will be an opportunity for discussion following the video. Presentations of the Center are offered without charge. Donations are gratefully accepted.


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