Dualism is the philosophical concept stating that the soul and the body are separate, and therefore after death the soul lives on. Plato (a 4th century ancient Greek philosopher) and René Descartes (a 16th century French Philosopher and mathematician) proposed the concept of an immortal soul (psyche), with Descartes in particular stating the distinction between the body and the thinking mind (soul). Criticisms from the scholars Edwin Boring, Bernard Williams, Richard Dawkins, and Gilbert Ryle question the coherency of a dual nature in humans.
René Descartes proposed the theory of substance dualism – that the mind and physical body are separate – to suggest that human consciousness in the mind defines who we are and our reality. This is supported by ‘I think therefore I am’ (cognito ergo sum) – presenting our mind as the only reality, as it cannot be doubted. The concept of a personal identity – your ‘I’ – provides his philosophy with the strength of humans being provided with free will and the comfort of choice in life.
In contrast, the philosophy of reductive materialism states that all matter is physical, refuting Descartes’ concept of the mind as a metaphysical substance. Edwin Boring opposes Descartes’ belief that or identity lies in the substance of our mind as we are our physical selves. The suggestion that the mind is distinct from the physical body can be further challenged through examples of physical damage to the brain affecting the ability to utilise the mind, rendering our identity changed and therefore no longer a reliable reality. This suggests that the mind is linked to the body, rather than separate.
Plato – similarly to Descartes -suggested that the soul could be separated from the body at death, to return to the perfect reality it originated from (The World of Forms). Plato theorised that he human soul consisted of three parts (tripartite) reason, spirit and appetite, with the thinking mind being predominantly controlled through our reason. Magee provides a strength of Plato’s philosophy of the soul originating from an eternal reality, the theory that there’s another world…gives value and meaning to our present world’, stating that the existence of The World of Forms provides comfort to the widely held fear of the unknown and a legacy of our identity beyond the physical world. Therefore, the theory of a soul separate from the body provides some explanation to our time on earth – which can further satisfy the growing secular society due to a lack of religion within Plato’s philosophy, making it a more coherent argument on the nature of the human soul.
On the other hand, the separation of the thinking mind (or soul) from the body opposes modern scientific discoveries linking the mind and body together – for example antidepressants treating mental illnesses through effects on the body. Bernard Williams gives the example of smoking; the action on the body affects the mind, through addiction and infection. This contradicts Descartes’ philosophy of a separate mind from the physical brain.
Descartes’ background as a mathematician and former materialist supported his investigation in the whereabouts of the soul (through his dissections of corpses) that were revolutionary for a time of limited science and appropriate for the growing atheist society in the 21st century.
However, he himself doubted his conclusion that the pineal gland was ’the seat of the soul’, where the brain is linked to the spine. Richard Dawkins – further opposes Descartes’ hypothesis, due to a lack of empirical evidence for the soul residing in the pineal gland, or even existing as a metaphysical substance. This incoherency of René Descartes’ theory of the soul in the pineal gland refutes any truth in the separation of the soul (or thinking mind) from the physical body. Plato’s theory of an immortal soul is similarly rejected, due a lack of empirical evidence to justify his World of Forms, and the claim of a metaphysical and separable soul contradicts the materialist outlook of our identity being purely physical.
Contrastingly, in the 16th century Descartes’ philosophy supported both scientific outlooks on the soul, and traditional religious belief of life after death. This would have provided a widely supported theory of the mind as a substance of consciousness which still proves a worthwhile philosophical theory in the modern day.
Gilbert Ryle rejects Descartes’ substance dualism, believing that to claim there’s ‘a ghost in the machine’ (a separate soul as a reality) was a category error – a misuse of language. Ryle believed that instead, the soul was a collective, metaphorical aspect of ourselves, and as an eliminative materialist he believed our identity lies in our physical self, as a personality. Ryle used the example of a colleges collectively making up a university, in a similar way to how different physical aspects of our selves make up our soul, as opposed to a single college representing the university – or a separate substance from our body representing the thinking mind.
To conclude, Descartes’ theory of the mind possessing the essence of the human soul provides enough scientific similarity to have a strong basis for a separate thinking mind from our physical body, whereas Plato’s theory of the tripartite soul makes no effort to relate the existence of the soul to modern science.
Despite these relevant criticisms from Boring, Williams, Dawkins and Ryle that undermine the coherency of a thinking mind existing separate from our physical body, our physical world can only provide empirical evidence in attempts to validate the existence of a metaphysical thinking mind separate from the physical body; Descartes’ and Plato’s philosophies may be entirely plausible.
Author – Year 12 Student – SR