Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Mind as extended: Descartes' response to Arnaud

To: Christian M.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Mind as extended: Descartes' response to Arnaud
Date: 11 June 2007 11:14

Dear Christian,

Thank you for your email of 3 June with your University of London BA essay in response to the question, ''Although I clearly and distinctly know my nature to be something that thinks, may I not perhaps be wrong in thinking that nothing else belongs to my nature apart from the fact that I am a thinking thing? Perhaps the fact that I am an extended thing may also belong to my nature' (Arnaud). Does Descartes have a satisfactory response to Arnaud's objection?'

Thanks also for the second version of the same essay done under exam conditions. I will confine my criticisms to the main essay, you can apply these as appropriate to the exam version.

The main thing to point out here is that Arnaud is reacting, as you do, to the statement of Descartes proof of mind-body dualism in Meditation 6, where all the emphasis is on 'what I can clearly and distinctly perceive'. Descartes thinks he can clearly and distinctly perceive his mind as something which can (if only by the power of God) be logically separated from body. While Arnaud, effectively, counters that he doesn't share this perception. Maybe Descartes is wrong, has failed to 'perceive' that being extended is, in fact, part of the essence of mind.

In your exam essay, you come up with something approaching a clear formulation of the argument that Descartes is in fact relying on, even though this is not stated explicitly: 'He implies that... if I logically can imagine two things as contingent (mind and body) then they are contingent and hence necessar[ily] they are ontologically different.'

Now, Descartes repeatedly makes the point that imagination and conception are not the same thing. The ability to imagine is associated with our capacity for sensory experience and the ability to make pictures to ourselves of possible states of affairs.

Here is an example of an attempt to argue for mind-body dualism via the imagination: 'I can imagine looking in a mirror and watching my various bodily parts go out of existence until there is nothing of my physical body that remains, while my mind remains unaffected. Therefore, the fact that I can imagine a state of disembodiment proves that my mind can exist apart from my body.'

This doesn't prove anything. It would be perfectly consistent with materialism that a person underwent such an experience: there are various possible explanations which do not require the hypothesis of mind-body dualism.

Descartes' actual argument is based in the evil demon scenario. If I am the kind of thing that can be deceived into thinking that space and physical objects exist in a world where there are no objects and no space, then what 'I' refers to cannot be anything physical.

This can be and has been criticised. But Arnaud's criticism here doesn't pick up any of the essential points that one would have to make in order to make the criticism stick. He merely responds to the argument as given in Meditation 6, saying, in effect, 'In talking about what you clearly and distinctly perceive, you are expressing your intuition. I have a contrary intuition.' That is a perfectly valid criticism - if Descartes had not been thinking of the much more powerful argument which backs up the summary statement in Meditation 6.

I don't think that the Cartesian Circle is relevant to this question. This is not the objection which we are considering, and it applies equally to all of the things that Descartes sets out to prove in the Meditations.

You might think that if we concentrate solely on the argument in Meditation 6, and ignore the claim that it is backed up by a stronger argument based on the evil demon thought experiment, then it looks as if Descartes is placing very great weight on his ability to clearly and distinctly perceive, and this is undermined by the Cartesian Circle. However, this gets the logic of the argument wrong. Even if no-one had ever raised the problem of the Cartesian Circle (or, better, even if - counternecessaryfactually - it wasn't a problem) the assertion by Descartes that he can 'clearly and distinctly perceive XYZ' is not a convincing argument. It immediately invites the objection, 'I clearly and distinctly perceive UVW!'

The assertion is not convincing because it lacks the intuitive certainty that Descartes claims for the claim 'I exist'. It would be absurd to object to the Cogito, 'I am not certain that I exist!' (although one can of course take issue with Descartes assumption that 'I' necessarily refers to an entity with an identity over time).

You will lose marks - as well as valuable time - in an examination if you bring up issues or arguments which the examiner regards as not relevant to the question that you are answering. The same also holds, to some extent, to giving background information to a particular issue or argument. Thus, the discussion of Descartes method of 'hyperbolic doubt' can be shown to be relevant (as I have done above), but you need to make the case that this is so. It is better to jump right in and answer the question, with a suitable nod to the context, as required.

All the best,

Geoffrey