Hobbes, Churchland, and Descartes: An Intro to the Mind/Body Problem Pt. 1

One of the central debates in philosophy is the relationship between matter and consciousness. While there are a wide range of options in this dispute, the two most commonly adopted positions are substance dualism and reductionism aka philosophical materialism. In this blog, these views will be described and explained according to three of philosophy’s greatest thinkers, both old-school and contemporary, on the subject: Rene Descartes, Thomas Hobbes and Paul Churchland. After I provide an objective description of their views, I will offer an opinion as to which worldview best explicates reality, and why. Remember that this is just an intro. It’s not in any way exhaustive. I’m going to lay out the ideas of some of these prominent figures in the debate, then, in another blog, offer more options. As any of my readers know, I’m not a materialist and it will show towards the end. But I’ll lay down some of their thoughts and tell you why I think they fail. But, anyways, here we go!

Rene Descartes was undoubtedly one of history’s greatest thinkers and profoundly influenced our understanding of philosophy. One of his most influential ideas was substance dualism, which is the belief that the world is made up of two things: the physical and the mental. In order to better understand this assessment, it is essential to understand how he came to hold this view. In his monumental philosophical work, “Meditations on First Philosophy”, he approached his own properly basic beliefs utilizing a state of doubt, a method he presumed would be simple but was actually quite arduous. This technique is called methodological skepticism. Imagine that our reality is a table and our beliefs about reality are plates, dining utensils and so on that are placed upon the table. Descartes took everything off of the table. He did this in order to find beliefs that he could know with total certainty were true. In his first meditation, he wrote, “…I am forced to admit that there is nothing among the things I once believed to be true which it is not permissible to doubt… Thus I must be no less careful to withhold assent henceforth even from these beliefs than I would from those that are patently false, if I wish to find anything certain.”[1]

He imagined the physical world and its contents as illusions. This method brought forth one certainty: at least he existed. If he did not exist, he could not doubt his own existence. This revelation opened the door for him to reflect upon the material world he perceived. In his second meditation he stated, “Am I so tied to a body and to the senses that I cannot exist without them? . . . For since I now know that even our bodies are not, properly speaking, perceived by the senses or by the faculty of imagination, but by the intellect alone, and that they are not perceived by being touched or seen, but by being understood…”.[2]

It is important to note that Descartes did not reject the view that the physical existed, but embraced the notion that the mind is a separate substance that cannot simply be reduced to what is physical. In his sixth meditation he designated the distinction and their relationship to one another. He wrote “…when we need something to drink, a certain dryness arises in the throat that moves the nerves in the throat, and, by means of them, the inner parts of the brain. And this motion affects the mind with the sensation of thirst…”.[3] Descartes recognized that brain states exist (thirsty), but that those states are not in and of themselves aware of any specific thing (“I’m thirsty”). This, in Descartes view, required a mind that is not identical to the body.

The next position in the mind and body debate comes from a materialist worldview. Materialism asserts that all that exists is matter and energy and varying combinations of the two. It is also commonly called reductionism because it holds that the mind can be reduced to brain states. One philosopher to hold this view was Thomas Hobbes. Hobbes saw the world as a colossal collection of bodies that were ruled by constant motion, which, in turn, were made up of brains that were ruled by this motion. This view reduced minds to corporeal mechanisms we call brains, meaning actions and the minds from which thoughts originate are solely based upon previous material causes. In Hobbes view, “the mind” and “will” are simply desires (what we want) and aversions (what we do not want) based upon endeavors (the actions we take to obtain or avoid these objects). In “Leviathan” he wrote, “This endeavour, when it is toward something which causes it, is called APPETITE or DESIRE . . . And when the endeavour is forward something, it is generally called AVERSION . . . As in sense that is within us is . . . only motion caused by the action of external objects . . . so when the action of the same object is continued from the eyes, ears, and other organs to the heart, the real effect there is nothing but motion and endeavor, which consisteth in appetite or aversion…But the appearance, or sense of that motion, is that we either call delight, or trouble of mind.”[4] This left little room for the mind as a soul, but instead, reduced cognition to natural processes.

Another materialist theory of mind is called identity theory, as made popular by contemporary philosopher of mind Paul Churchland. In its most simple form, it is the view that minds are identical to a particular brain state. Under identity theory, our mind and individuality is based upon unique neurological assemblies of one type of brain function. Churchland defended his theory, “Our behavior appears to have its basic cause in neural activity. The identity theorist finds further support in the argument . . . from the neural dependence of all known phenomena. This is exactly what one should expect if identity theory is true.”[5] While identity theory has largely been abandoned in favor of functionalism, it is still worth noting due to its past popularity in the philosophy of mind.

Although I agree with Churchland’s treatment of dualism and Leibniz’s Law, I do not feel that the correlation between neural activity and the “self” is sufficient for showing that they are ontologically identical to one another. There is a gap between the statements “I am Mason” and “there are certain fibers and synapses firing in a brain”. Something beyond the process, namely secondary awareness, or the “I”, is what we must address. Therefore, Churchland’s reduction of our “inner sense”[6] to a uniqueness in brain pattern is inept in solving the problem of introspection. Churchland’s assertion that identity theory finds support from the “neural dependence of all known phenomena” is question begging and has also been repeatedly falsified by scientific research.

In one of these experiments, UCLA neuroscientist, Jeffrey Schwartz, studied neuroplasticity in the brains of obsessive-compulsive disordered patients. William Dembski of Baylor University paraphrases his research, reporting, “From brain scans, Schwartz found that certain activity regions of the brain of OCD patients (the caudate nucleus, in particular) exhibited abnormal patterns of activity. By itself this finding is consistent with a materialist view of mind (if, as materialism requires, the brain enables the mind, then abnormal patterns of brain activity are likely to be correlated with a dysfunctional brain state). Nonetheless, having found abnormal brain activity, Schwartz then had OCD patients engage in intensive mental effort called relabeling, reattributing, refocusing and revaluing . . . Schwartz documents that not only that patients who undertook this therapy experienced considerable relief from OCD symptoms, but also that their brain scans indicated a lasting realignment of brain activity patterns.”[7] This is damning to reductionism and stands firm against the external passive stimulation objection because external stimuli, in these cases, were insufficient for alteration in typical brain patterns. In other words, attention from the subject was required for the physical change. While this also creates objections to dualism (in that if the mind can change the brain or vice versa, then they share common properties and might not be separate substances), it is still more likely that dualism is true because common properties do not necessarily equal identical substances as described by Hobbes and Churchland.

Another obstruction for reductionism is the “Visual Binding Problem” as identified by University of California at Berkeley computer scientist, Jerome Feldman. The “Visual Binding Problem” arises from the brain’s inability to combine information to form a unified perception, such as a subjective experience in reality. He writes, “There are intractable problems in all branches of science; for Neuroscience a major one is the mystery of subjective personal experience. This is one instance of the famous mind–body problem (Chalmers 1996) concerning the relation of our subjective experience (aka qualia) to neural function. Different visual features (color, size, shape, motion, etc.) are computed by largely distinct neural circuits, but we experience an integrated whole. There is now overwhelming biological and behavioral evidence that the brain contains no stable, high-resolution, full field representation of a visual scene, even though that is what we subjectively experience (Martinez-Conde et al. 2008). The structure of the primate visual system has been mapped in detail (Kaas and Collins 2003) and there is no area that could encode this detailed information. The subjective experience is thus inconsistent with the neural circuitry.”[8] While this is not necessarily a positive argument for dualism, it is surely a negative argument against philosophical materialism.

In summation, materialism has not kept up with modern science in any meaningful way. Both Hobbes and Churchland fail to elucidate how matter can be intentional or “about” something else in a cohesive manner. Whether desire and aversion are true or false, Hobbes only describes certain influences that press upon the human experience; however, it is not inferable that we are simple matter that are just the product of those influences. Furthermore, both substance dualism and materialism are substantially deficient in explanatory power of the hard problem of consciousness and I personally do not subscribe to either view; however, for the sake of this blog, I would say substance dualism, Descartes’ view, has the best arguments in its favor because it does not take the thought-directedness of minds and intentionality for granted. Next, we will jump into how this evidence might better support (or hurt) another major, yet not as popular view: idealism.

[1] Descartes, Rene. “Meditations on First Philosophy: Meditation One: Concerning Those Things That Can Be Called Into Doubt..” Classics of Western Philosophy, 8th Edition. Ed. Steven M Cahn. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 2012. Pg. 534. Print.

[2]Descartes, Rene. “Meditations on First Philosophy: Meditation Two: Concerning the Nature of the Human Mind: That It Is Better Known Than the Body.” Classics of Western Philosophy, 8th Edition. Ed. Steven M Cahn. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 2012. Pg. 535. Print.

[3] Descartes, Rene. “Meditations on First Philosophy: Meditation Six: Concerning the Existence of Material Things, and the Real Distinction between Mind and Body.” Classics of Western Philosophy, 8th Edition. Ed. Steven M Cahn. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 2012. Pg. 558-559. Print.

[4] Hobbes, Thomas. “Leviathan.” Classics of Western Philosophy, 8th Edition. Ed. Steven M Cahn. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 2012. Pg. 572-573. Print.

[5] Churchland, Paul. “Matter and Consciousness: A Contemporary Introduction to the Philosophy of Mind”. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 1998. Pg. 28. Print.

[6] Churchland, Paul. “Matter and Consciousness: A Contemporary Introduction to the Philosophy of Mind”. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 1998. Pg. 29. Print.

[7] Dembski, William. “What Thinking Means”. First Things: A Monthly Journal Of Religion & Public Life [serial online]. May 2003;(133):58. Available from: Academic Search Complete, Ipswich, MA. Accessed November 10, 2015. Web.

[8] Feldman, Jerome. “The Neural Binding Problem(s).” Cognitive Neurodynamics 7.1 (2013): 1–11. PMC. Web. 10 Nov. 2015.

13 thoughts on “Hobbes, Churchland, and Descartes: An Intro to the Mind/Body Problem Pt. 1

  1. materialism has indeed kept up. it turns out that in using the OCD example rather supports it too, for restructuring et. al. is to cope with a malody. before and after, it is the brain’s function which demonstrates a contingency dualism cannot explain. where it tries, it is tautology.

    on the philosophic side, explore pragmatism perhaps, such as peirce and “some for incompatibilities”, along with gettier, frege, russell, or rorty. we begin with bias and that we think we’re entitled to believe. it is not, then, a reductionism for anyone reject duelist notions or the gods or anything metaphysical. it’s to remain practical; that whether being asked to believe something new or doubt something already believed, there must be a justified reason to do so. and in the area of metaphysics, the problem is the worth of an idea, not the truth of such propositions; as dennett and ayer note, metaphysics are literally a game with no rules, and only ideological winners. and if then your desire is to say something actual rather than ideological or indeed merely theological about the brain out what the self is, metaphysics will interest you as much as patty churchland may abandon the science and join her husband full time.


    1. Hey Steven, thanks for your interest! I would definitely disagree with Dennett and Ayer that metaphysics is literally a battle of ideologies. It is made up of ideologies, but the discussion of being, substance, etc and all within the study must have appropriate evidence for appropriate inferences. Explanatory power of known phenomena is key. That helps us discover what metaphysical theories are distinct, more likely or less plausible. This weighing of evidence helps us form our ideologies. Biases should always be set aside, I agree. My theology is not in play here, hell, I could be a Christian materialist like Van Inwagen. Either way, it wouldn’t matter (pun intended). I’m not defending dualism in the sense that you might think I am, I explicitly said that… anyways, the reason why it is not a tautology is because it doesn’t say the same thing in another variation; it is a separate explanation of what we find in physical brain states that require intentionally and introspection and what we find in those specific cases. If materialism were true as proposed by the writers I mentioned, it should seem much less likely that we should find the evidence we have found, especially if the “mind” was identical to the brain. Then again, this can also be expected under idealistic metaphysics (except Solipsism, I suppose?), in particular those of a dual aspect variation. Each hold separate statements of actuality for various reasons; each have a criteria of warrant. Philosophical, not methodological, materialism creates more problems than it solves. We expect evidence, simplicity and also elegance in our views, as well. Also, with all else being equal, these two philosophies, bring me to Thomas Nagel’s view, when he said, “Without consciousness, the mind body problem would be much less interesting. With consciousness, it is hopeless.” Also, its just an intro. I will get into other materialists as well.
      Wait for Pt.2.

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      1. interesting. nagel wasn’t a dualist and his “to be like a bat” was a counter commentary on such things, of i recall correctly, no?

        metaphysics isn’t ideology. ayer and dennett simply say it has no practical value and no way to affirm or deny any of it; ie game with no rules.

        the rest you’re talking about is abduction, peirce’s inference to the best explanation. there seems to be no mind/body problem at all, given what i read in neuroscience. but, this begs what we mean by “sufficient” in relation to changing minds i suppose.

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      2. Yeah it does. Have you read “Mind and Cosmos”? Looks like he’s taking the Spinozan high road to a sort of pansychic view. Sounds like where David Chalmers is at. Just for different reasons. Chalmers is convinced by QM evidence, while Nagel is more concerned with the good old fashioned problems, and, no, he is NOT a materialist anymore


      3. i wasn’t implying nagel was a materialist, mason. i way saying that as i recall, he does not hold a dualism about the mind or body … only that under a materialistic view, there’s no good way to say a thing is conscious since the claim entails a mere projection that “it is conscious” if and only if it has awareness of “what it is like to be [itself]”.


  2. Excellent, well researched introduction to the mind body problem in general and these philosopher’s specific views thereof. If I may ask, what exactly is your position concerning this issue? Personally I lean towards the hylomorphic dualism of the Aristotelian-Thomistic system.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for the compliment and follow!! Other than not being a materialist, I don’t have a concrete view quite yet and I don’t want to be a spolier for pt 2. BUT, I can tell you that I have particular leaning towards consciousness being fundamental. Berkeleyan idealism, perhaps.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yes. Aquinas held that all objections are composites of matter and form. Aquinas, and Aristotle, labeled human beings as “rational animals.” He thought that the human soul must have an immaterial element, because all material objects can only instantiate one form at a time, but when a human mind understands/knows/conceives of something, it “grasps” its form, and only immaterial beings can grasp more than one form at a time.

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  3. Ok, so let’s consider Plato then. It’s been a while since I’ve read Phaedo, but allow me to crudely paraphrase, please correct me if I am wrong. Socrates was going, from death, into his most pure form, right? The body’s a prison and such, but nothing is really keeping it there. They are still separate in a Cartesian sense. Then Aristotle is saying that the mind understands the forms, therefore, making the body a part of that form. So its all understood and processed by the intellect. That’s easy enough. I’m sorry to ramble, but I am just really struggling on which materialist, dualist and then, finally, an idealist to have in an introductory way, and I want to use Aquinas’ dualism because it seems to be one viable solution to the interaction problem. But I kind of wonder, if it is as you say, which is totally what I’m gathering from Summa Theologica (and I’ve been reading a lot of Edward Feser as well), why wouldn’t you just be a dual aspect idealist? Does that make sense?


  4. There’s too much labelling and sometimes I get confused. To me it’s a simple case of can anything be considered real if it cannot be objectively observed or measured. This might be the case if we believe we have the capability to detect everything in reality but I don’t think we do. Just because something is subjective I feel it unhelpful to discount it as an illusion. Qualia although subjective, is real. The self may be a product of nuero patterns, but it’s still real. Materialism needs to be revised because it seems that reality based on reductionism is proving that there is nothing physical just forces and information.


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