The modern idea of a dualism between the mind and the body has been around since the seventeenth century, when French philosopher René Descartes considered how distinct the mind is from the body. The idea that the mind can exist independently from the body is one that raises multiple questions. One of the most important ones would be “What happens when we die?” The mind body theory raises the mind-body problem – how can our mind control our body if the two are completely different? Today, we’re going to explore the mind body theory, look at what it entails, what problems it posits, and how it relates to death and dying.

The Mind Body Theory

The Mind and Body Philosophy

As we’ve already mentioned, one of Descartes’ main points is that the body and the mind are independent of each other. Thus, the two are able to exist separately. One might wonder what is the point of the insistence that our minds don’t need our bodies to exist. Of course, the most obvious answer is that it provides people with hope that there is life after death, that their soul is immortal. We mentioned soul here instead of mind because for Descartes, the mind and the soul are almost the exact same thing.

People who feel like they need proof to believe in the mind’s (and soul’s) immortality might find this mind body theory quite fascinating. Descartes believed that knowing there is an afterlife that will reward people for being virtuous and punish them for their vices will make individuals behave morally.

The problem is that Descartes never actually managed to prove that the soul is immortal. His claim was that the soul can exist without a body. So when our bodies stop functioning, from a logical and metaphysical point of view, our mind doesn’t have to as well. However, this is not the same as saying that after our bodies shut down, our mind prevails. Even so, for Descartes and many other people, this distinction between body and mind was enough to convince people that there is a possibility of an afterlife.

illustration of three human bodies on top of each other

Mind and Body Distinctions

Even though Descartes’ mind and body theory was entirely based on the idea that the mind and the body are completely different, he formulated different versions of this argument. In order to get a more in-depth view of the mind body theory, let us look at two of them.

In a first version, Descartes singles out the mind as a non-extended, thinking thing. On the other hand, the body is a non-thinking, extended thing. Thus, he concludes, the mind is distinct from the body and can also exist without it.

In a second version, even though he is expressing the same idea, Descartes talks about the mind as being indivisible because of its nature. In this case, the body is divisible, also because of its nature. Of course, this makes the mind different from the body. By nature, Descartes understands essence. So the mind’s essence makes it indivisible, while the body’s essence makes it divisible.

Descartes’ ideas are not difficult to understand. If we take any body, not necessarily a human body, but let’s say a piece of paper, it’s easy to divide it, to cut it apart. Thus, bodies are clearly divisible. If you cut a piece of paper in half, you will get two bodies. The reason why this doesn’t apply to the mind as well is because that would mean a person can have two minds. But since “I” is something only you identify yourself with, you cannot have two selves.

As we can notice, Descartes doesn’t take into account the existence of a brain when he talks about the indivisibility of the mind. This is one of the main things that questions Descartes’ mind body theory. In the end, he couldn’t prove that the mind and the body are distinct or different from one another. Moreover, his theory led to the mind body problem, and the question of how our bodies and minds interact.

illustration of a human brain with light inside of it

The Mind Body Problem

Our brain controls our bodily movements. Similarly, physical sensations can give birth to certain sensations in the brain as well. Which is why the idea of the body being completely different from the mind doesn’t seem to fit.

For instance, whenever someone raises their hand voluntarily, the mind must come into contact with the body. But if the mind is non-extended, as Descartes put it, it wouldn’t be able to contact the body. Philosophy understands contact as something that happens between two surfaces. If we can say that the body has a surface, we can’t say the same thing about the mind. So if we were to stick to Descartes’ mind body theory, there would be no explanation for the body movements that we make voluntarily.

When faced with this issue, Descartes related it to the false idea that two substances that are not of the same nature cannot leave a mark on each other. Both body and mind, Descartes points out, are finite substances. This means that they can both cause modes to exist in another finite substance. Thus, the mark the mind leaves on the body doesn’t necessarily involve contact. Furthermore, Descartes believes that there is a certain union of the mind (or the soul) and the body. In his opinion, this would explain their connection.

Closing Remarks

There are many approaches to the mind body theory. Some of them are dualist, such as Descartes’ one. Others are monist, and entail only one human essence in which both body and mind coexist. Each of them come with many distinct understandings of body and mind. A lot of philosophers completely reject the mind body dichotomy. The fact that there is no exact evidence of this dichotomy explains why so many of them believe that the mind and the body are not separate entities. Regardless of which of the two beliefs people most identify with, there’s no denying that the mind body theory posits a lot of questions regarding the faith of our mind (and soul) after death.

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