Descartes' argument for mind-body dualism

Philosophical Forum 1 (3):259-273 (1969)
After claiming on the basis of the Cogito argument that he can assert with certainty that he exists, Descartes turns to an examination of his nature. He concludes that he is a nonmaterial, nonextended entity whose essence is to be conscious. Critics have insisted that this con¬clusion is not justified by the arguments he offers in its support. They object in particular to his attempt to justify the claim that he is a nonmaterial entity merely on the grounds that he can doubt the existence of a material world but cannot doubt his own existence. In my paper I explain how, by the introduction of certain reasonable premises, Descartes's arguments may be made to appear much less implausible and his mistakes much more interesting than his critics have acknowledged. I argue that, given the premise that he can conceive of himself as existing without a body, he can conclude not only that he is not essentially a material being but that his essence excludes his being a material entity. Descartes' error lies not so much in the movement from his premises to his conclusion as in his failure to clarify sufficiently his premise that he can doubt the existence of matter without having to concede his own nonexistence. In asserting that premise some criterion of his identity is presupposed. I discuss two which are compatible with his claim that he is a soul. Using one of those criteria, a psychological one, he can justify his premise, but he cannot use the argument I have proposed in his defense to reach the desired conclusion. That argument requires that he conceive of himself as a substance and employ a criterion of substantial identity as the criterion of his identity. Yet if he adopts this criterion he can assert his premise only if he is a nonmaterial substance. Thus, asserting it begs the point at issue. It is only by confusing two possible conceptions of "himself" that he seems to be able both to assert a priori that he could exist as a soul and infer from this that he is a soul
Keywords Mind-body  Modern  Descartes
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