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Humanities LibreTexts

7: Philosophy of Mind

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  • Some of the main questions for the philosophy of mind are metaphysical questions about the nature of minds and mental states. “What is the mind?” quickly proves to be too big a question. We might say that for a being to have a mind is just for it to have mental states like beliefs, desires, perceptions, memories, emotions, and so forth. And this leads us towards somewhat more tractable questions like “What is a belief (desire, memory, perception...)?” Thephilosophy of mind has seen tremendous progress since Descartes proposed his dualist view of mind and body. Contemporary philosophical analyses of mental states and processes are among the key components of a rapidly emerging new science of mind. Philosophers of mind, along with cognitive psychologists, information scientists, and neuro-scientists have begun to work out detailed explanations of how our physical brains realize and carry out the functions of many mental states. In this chapter we will cover some of the progress philosophy of mind has contributed over the past century. As we will see by the end, some hard philosophical questions about the nature of mind persist.

    Descartes’ Dualism

    As with many topics, modern philosophy of mind begins with Descartes and soon moves on. Descartes’ dualism holds that the mind is composed of a fundamentally different kind of substance than the body. Bodies are composed of matter that exists in space and time, and behaves in accordance with laws of nature. Minds, however, are spiritual in nature according to Descartes. Their existence is not spatio-temporally bound, and unlike physical stuff, minds have free will. The critical faults in Descartes’ view were quickly spotted by Princess Elisabeth of Bohemia. The central problem lies in accounting for how the mind and the body can have any influence on each other. Clearly the physical world has effects on the mind, as when I perceive things. And it seems equally obvious that the mind has effects in the physical world, as when I act on my will. But if mind and body are so completely different, it is hard to see how this can happen at all. How does something that exists outside of space and time have any influence over the body that exists in space and time? How can the behavior of my causally determined body be influenced by a freely willing mind? The problem of mind/body interaction is a major stumbling block for Cartesian dualism about the mind and the body.

    Descartes’ correspondence with Princess Elisabeth can be found in a heavily edited form here: The full original text of Descartes’correspondence with Elisabeth includes some ornate literary flirtation in the first couple letters. By today’s standards, Descartes could be accused of sexual harassment for much of his flattery of Elisabeth. But the patronizing flattery pretty much disappears in later letters as Descartes comes to appreciate the seriousness of the Elisabeth’s incisively argued challenge. Elisabeth provides a brilliant illustration of how to deal most effectively with patronizing behavior whether it is of sexist variety or some other kind: just be competent and this will show that you deserve to be taken seriously. Here is helpful summary of the debate between Descartes and Elisabeth:


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