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Change the Venue - Spinoza's Solution to the Mind/body Problem

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Change the Venue:

Spinoza's Solution to the Mind/Body Problem

In what way is our mind different from our body? What relationships exist between the physical world and the mental? These are questions that philosophers have struggled to answer since the time of the ancient Greeks. In his work Meditations on First Philosophy, Descartes directly addresses these issues by claiming that the mind and body are distinct from one another. Descartes articulation of the dualist position gave rise to the way philosophers have approached these questions ever since.

The most challenging difficulty facing the dualist is finding an answer to the mind/body problem. In other words, the duelist's dilemma is explaining the connection between the mental and the physical if these two are assumed to be distinct. One solution is offered by Spinoza in IIP7 of his work The Ethics. Since much of Spinoza's work stems straight from Descartes it is difficult to understand on its own. To fully grasp Spinoza's proposal it is helpful to understand the difference between Descartes and Spinoza. In this paper I will explain Descartes' dualism and his attempt to answer the mind/body problem. Then by comparison I will be able to more clearly explicate how Spinoza' Ethics IIP7 essentially amounts to a response to the mind/body problem.

Descartes derives dualism from the premise that if he can "clearly and distinctly understand one thing apart from another (54)," then it is sufficient evidence that the two are distinct. He applies this rule to the separation of mind and body in his sixth meditation. Descartes writes, "I have a clear and distinct idea of myself, in so far as I am simply a thinking, non-extended thing; and on the other hand I have a distinct idea of body, in so far as this is simply an extended, non-thinking thing. And accordingly, it is certain that I am really distinct from my body, and can exist without it (54)." The division between mind and body is unique from that between two physical things. Descartes describes the complexity, "I am not merely present in my body as a sailor is present in a ship, but that I am very closely joined and, as it were, intermingled with it, so that I and the body form a unit (56)." This is where the mind/body problem raises its head. What relationship exists between physical things (such as a foot) and mental things (such as pain felt in a foot), such that they seemly co-exist while still maintaining distinctness?

Descartes believes the junction between mind and body is in the brain; he says "the mind is not immediately affected by all parts of the body, but only by the brain, or perhaps just by one small part (59)." He calls this small part of the brain the Pineal Gland and it is here where the mind and body interact. For Descartes a perception is a body to mind experience and an action is a mind to body experience. This is the Causal Reality Principle. A rudimentary example would be the incident of stepping on a nail. When the point of the nail and my foot collide, the nerves in my foot fire a message to the brain. The message is received in the brain by the Pineal Gland; this gland would create a certain "brain state." My mind has learned through experience that this particular brain state is the perception of pain. When my mind experiences the sensation of pain in the foot, it motivates the mind to action to alleviate the source of the pain. I move my foot away from the nail. For Descartes the causal connection between mind and body is "conducive to the preservation of the healthy man (60)."

The problem with Descartes argument is that does not solve the mind/body interaction problem, but rather raises different questions about it. Without any biological evidence supporting a Pineal Gland, should we depend on it to answer the mind/body problem? And even if we accept the proposal, we are not any closer to understanding how mind and body interact. All we have is created a name for what it is we do not know. Descartes is not at fault, for if the answer were easy, this problem would not have haunted philosopher for hundreds of years. Rather than attack Descartes' solution to the mind/body problem, Spinoza uses Cartesian resources to arrive at a very different conclusion about the nature of substances and the meaning of dualism, thus he articulates a different solution.

Spinoza holds a parallel dualist position. He offers his reaction to the mind/body problem in IIP7 of The Ethics. He says, "The order and connection of ideas is the same as the order and connection of things (119)." Essentially, for every event in body there is a corresponding event in mind. Unlike Descartes' Causal Reality Principle, Spinoza's Causal Likeness Principle, means that in a chain of events each link would be physical or mental, but not both. In other words, ideas do not and can not cause body motion and vice versa. Parallelism does not provide an explanation for how mind and body interact, because it assumes there is no interaction between the two. Changing the venue of dualism allows Spinoza to solve Descartes' body/mind problem because the critical issue Descartes faces is not longer relevant. A broader mind/body question applies to Spinoza: If not a causal interaction, then what kind of relationship exists between physical and mental?

Ethics IIP7



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