Cartesian dualism and consciousness

Tung asked:

Can Cartesian Dualism successfully account for the existence of consciousness?

Answer by Danny Krämer

I think, Cartesian Dualism makes consciousness even more mysterious than materialism. As you know, Descartes postulates two different substances. The res extensa is the substance of all extended bodies. The res cogitans is the substance of the thinking beings. This substance is not in space because it is not extended. The biggest problems are: First, how is it that a special (bit of) res cogitans (me) is bound to a specific piece of res extensa (my body)? You can only explain this by some supernatural story. Second, how can these two substances interact? When I think that I want to raise my arm (something the res cogitans that is me does) then I can ‘command’ my body to raise the arm. But how is that even possible if the res cogitans has no spacial extension? The res extensa is a closed system, as we know from physics. You can not get any energy in that was not there before. Descartes said, the soul steers the direction of the pineal gland and so the direction of the spirits. But that is also impossible as Leibniz pointed out. Not only the energy of a physical system is constant but also the impulse. There is in principle no way to understand how to make dualism a working hypothesis.

On the other hand it is very plausible that materialism in some form could be true. We see that our brain has a deep connection to our consciousness. We can do experiments to get a better understanding of the connection between brain and mind. Something that is just impossible in a cartesian picture. Even so we do not understand the complexities yet, it is at least imaginable that a materialist view of the mind could be well established some day.

9 thoughts on “Cartesian dualism and consciousness

  1. Excellent thoughts on Cartesian Dualism. I’ve been considering if there could be another understanding beyond dualism? –without giving up materialism? Where should I begin researching?

    1. I don’t quite understand your question. Are you asking for a understanding of cartesian dualism that is “beyond dualism […] without giving up materialism”? Or are you asking for a understanding of the relationship between body and mind?

      For the first question: I don’t think there is any way to rescue cartesian dualism.

      For the second: I think the most promising way to understand the mind is a nonreductive physicalism. But get the theory running you need to explain how the whole (mind) could be more than its parts (the physical matter it is composed of). There are two options: 1. Emergence: I think that this concept has a troublesome history, therefore we should avoid it. 2. Hylemorphism: A aristotelian idea which tries to explain why matter can show up in different forms of organization.

      Maybe you can formulate your question more precise, so I can give you a more precise answer.


      1. Yes, “Or are you asking for a understanding of the relationship between body and mind?”… like what comes next after dualism? What is a contemporary philosophy on the relation of mind-body? Much of what I read depends on “transcending” but not in the physical world.

        1. I am a naturalist. Therefore, I cannot even understand what it should mean to “trascend” the physical world. The physical world that our physics describes is crazy enough. Everything else sounds for me like esoteric or magic stuff I do not understand. What is a contemporary philosophy of mind? Just a kind of physicalism.

        2. Thank you. I am not interested in “transcending” either. I think much can be done in the here and now. I will research “naturalism” and “recent scholars” and see what I can find. Thank you for your time and comments.

        3. If you want to find good books on the thematic of the mind body problem in a naturalistic vein then look for books from Daniel Dennett. I don’t know if you are an academic philosopher or how wide your knowledge of philosophy is. But Dennett has some great books for the general public.

          If you have any more questions feel free to ask.


        4. Thanks, I will review Dennett’s texts. I am a novice scholar, just graduated with my MA in Humanities. I enjoy studying the Great Minds. Currently, Nietzsche is my favored thinker because of his attention to the individual. I just read Behrend’s “Your Invisible Power” but notice much self-help “get rich quick” schemes online attached to the Law of Attraction. This feels “off” to me, so I am researching Troward for his theories on mental-science. Paired with positivism, the Law of Attraction feels like it could reorder the individual’s consciousness – or, how they think of the self. I can see how this would be helpful.

        5. Actually, I think, if you want to read something about the mind try some more recent stuff from Dennett, Fodor, the Churchlands, or some cognitive science. “Simple Minds” is an excellent book. Cognitive Science just changed the debate so trastically lately.

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