Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Definition of Mind - Definition of Body: According to Descartes

I'm looking further into the mind and body problem for further study in portraiture after this year.  For my paper on visual perception I came to point where I had to read Descartes to make sure that what other theorists were saying about him were good readings of his work.  As a coincidence I'm working on a PhD proposal around the idea of mind and body so I decided to kill two birds with one stone.  I decided to go right back to the beginnings of the mind/body problem to Descartes' Second and Sixth Meditation, to get to the centre of how Descartes saw the relationship between mind and body.

Of Physical Bodies

it must be concluded that corporeal objects exist.  Nevertheless they are not perhaps exactly such as we perceive by the senses, for their comprehension of the senses is, in many instances, very obscure and confused (p134).

Descartes says here that there are definately physical things in the world, but that our senses might be inadequate to experience them completely.

To describe physical bodies (not to be confused with the body, physical bodies refer to material things) in the world, Descartes uses a metaphor of candle wax before and after it's been melted.  Despite the fact that all aspects of sensory interaction with wax changes after it has been melted and reshaped, it still appears to be the same wax (p91).  The mind alone perceives the wax by considering the waxes flexibility (p92) through an intuition within the mind  which is prone to error (ibid).

Descartes Conception of the body

By body I understand all that can be terminated by a certain figure; that can be comprised in a certain place, and so fill a certain space as therefrom to exclude every other body; that can be perceived either by touch, sight, hearing, taste or smell; that can be moved in different ways, not indeed of itself, but by something foreign to it by which it is touched [and from which it receives the impression]; for the power of self motivation, as likewise that of perceiving and thinking, I held as by no means pertaining to the nature of the body; on the contrary, I was somewhat astonished to find such faculties existing in some bodies.  - p87

We can see through the above quote that there is a complexity with how Descartes viewed the body.  In his clarification of the body he discusses a wholeness, a placeness, an ability to sense, the capacity for movement when there is an agent to move it.  Of particular interest is where Descartes says toward the end that self motivation, perceiving and thinking "existing in some bodies" (Ibid).  The body is thus capable of self motivation, perceiving and thinking.

The body according to Descartes consists of  “hands, arms, and all the fabric of members that appear in a corpse.” (p87).  It is mechanical and can malfunction or be formed incorrectly in the first place by its maker (p138).  Perception exists within both the body and the soul (p88).  Nothing can ever be perceived without passing through the body through the sense organs (p130).  It moves, senses, perceives and stores memories [imagines] (p89).

The Mind

When perceiving the world, one must not:

draw any conclusions respecting external objects without a previous [careful and mature] consideration of them by the mind: for it is, as appears to me, the office of mind alone, and not of the composite whole of mind and body, to discern the truth in those matters. - p136  

The mind is a thinking thing.  It “doubts, understands [conceives] affirms, denies, wills, refuses, that imagines also, and perceives.” (p89).  It makes judgements about what the body and soul perceive (p88).  The mind only receives input from the brain, no other part of the body (p139).  The mind can conceive of ideas but not necessarily imagine them.  This is because conceiving is a thinking action.  The mind thus consists of a smaller function than the body.  Compared to the complexity that Descartes has outlined of the body, the mind is specialised and narrower in its scope.

The Separation of Mind and Body

it is certain that I [that is, my mind, by which I am when I am] am entirely distinct from my body, and may exist without it.  - Descartes, p132-3.

Descartes point of the independence of mind from body must be qualified here.  Descartes talks elsewhere about the necessary unity of the body and mind such as when he states that nothing can be judged by the mind unless passed through the body's sense organs (p130).  Descartes'contradition here could be explained by a bias toward a transcendent model of self so as not to suggest that the self is comprised of worldly and not spiritual matter.  If he believes the self resides in the mind and is distinct from the body, he contradicts himself regularly in his meditations.  

To draw further distinction of the separation between mind and body he says:

there is a vast difference between mind and body, in respect that body from its nature is always divisible, and that mind is entirely indivisble...  although the whole mind seems to be united to the whole body, yet, when a foot, an arm, or any other part is cut off, I am conscious that nothing has been taken from my mind. - p139

Descartes point is valid in so far as the discussion is restricted to amputations of flesh, however these days it is commonly known that damage to brain regions by physical trauma and induced trauma such as a labotomy can result in the impairment of activities of mind.  Psychiatric medications can often work in similar ways, so it's important to consider Descartes statement within the the context of tissue and flesh.

Another distinction worth mentioning is the distinction between imagining and conceiving.  Things are imagined only through experience and memories which are processes of the body.  Conceiving is an activity of the mind, of intellect (p127-8).

The Body and Mind Together

My mind and body compose a certain unity. - p135

Descartes concedes that although the body and mind serve different functions and can be separated intellectually they are unified by their dependence on each other:   Material things exist because bodies exist because minds exist (p127).

Descartes conceptions of the mind and the body have been increasingly blurring, however.  Since he wrote about mind/body great leaps have occurred in theories of body and mind, particularly from scientific disciplines which unite the thinking mind, with the imagining, memorising, sensing and perceiving body.  Some examples of this blurring are illusions, theories of unconscious drives and neurobiology.

Descartes wrote:

And yet I have sometimes been informed by parties whose arm or leg had been amputated, and they still occasionally seemed to feel pain in that part of the body which they had lost, - a circumstance that led me to think that I could not be quite certain even that any of my members was affected when I felt pain in it.  - Descartes, p132.

This is probably also why Descartes believed that if you cut off part of the body it doesn't affect the mind. However Phantom Limb Pain has been  by V.S. Ramaschandran (p357) and others (Giummurra et al., p791), and it can be seen that current knowledge of phantom limb pain demystifies (ibid) this phenomena which led to his doubt because it occurs through rewired nerve circuitry in the brain.

There is a problem with Descartes conception of the mind and that is that it refers only to thinking and intellect as an overseer of the input from the body.  The mind for Descartes looks to truth despite the untruthful distortions provided by the body.  The mind weighs up the information based on all the information it has - doubting, conceiving etc, to arrive at what's true.  The main parallels between the mind and body Descartes articulates are through perception and imagination.  In some places Descartes calls perception an activity of the body (p88) and of the mind (p89) and as both (p133).  He calls imagination an activity of the body and the mind (p89).

Perception and imagination, however are not the same;  Imagination comes from memory and the body (p89) while perception comes from the sense organs (p130).  They are a bridge between Descartes theory of mind and body.

Descartes conception of the mind is of a conscious mind, of intention, and clear thought and that is the main difference between mind and body.  Mind for Descartes is consciousness and the body consists of everything else.  This is a necessary observation to make so that future investigations of Cartesian philosophy can be viewed in the tradition and with the terminology taken from Descartes Meditations.

Descartes, Rene.  "Of the Nature of the Human Mind; and that it is more easily known than the Body." in A Discourse on Method Translated by John Veitch.  London:  J.M.  Dent and Sons LTD.  85-94.

Descartes, Rene.  "Of the Existence of Material Things, and of the Real Distinction Between Mind and Body of Man" in A Discourse on Method Translated by John Veitch.  London:  J.M.  Dent and Sons LTD.  127-143.

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