Am I more than my body? The error of Descartes

Was Descartes wrong? Giving a more holism account of human personhood

The body of Rene Descartes was found in the Chicago river yesterday.  The body of Aristotle is in room 343.  Why do we not say, Aristotle is in room 343? Or that Descartes was found in the river?  Unless they are more than their bodies. Maybe our use of this language is a clue to our nature.

Without much objection from their peers, the scholastics before Descartes’ time, like Plato, Aristotle and Aquinas all held that intellect or mind was a part from the body and was immortal. Still, they believed that the soul was an incomplete person without its body.  Descartes, and modern thinkers like Swinburne and Moreland on the other hand believed the soul was the person—in fact the soul or mind was the essence of the person.[1]

Descartes wrote:

“The Human body can easily perish, but the mind, or the soul of man (I do not distinguish between them), is immortal by its very nature.  … At last I have discovered [what is the essence of what I am]—thought; this alone is inseparable from me.  I am, I exist—that is certain.  But for how long? For as long as I am thinking.  For it could be that were I totally to cease from thinking, I should totally cease to exist. . . . What then am I? A thing that thinks.  What is that? A thing that doubts, understands, affirms, denies, is willing, is unwilling, and also imagines and has sensory perceptions.[2]

Descartes’s theory of the immortality of the soul was not new, but what was new is that he took the entire soul to be that which is the mind or intellect and related the body to a machine like substance.  Descartes did not hold that the soul is the life or form of the body but the principle of thought and consciousness.  The scholastics held that life: growth, reproduction, nutrition etc., were from the soul whereas Descartes held that this biological life can be explained mechanistically.  Descartes argued that he had a clear and distinct idea of himself as a thinking thing and argued that since he is a thinking thing he must be non-extended.[3]  Descartes argued that he is a mental substance, a spiritual substance, or an immaterial substance (all these terms are used interchangeably in the majority of the literature) and not identical to his body.[4]

For Descartes, the body is a machine or automata, along with all other physical animals, but the mind is of a different category—different substance.  Since he is a thinking thing and is thus not extended, and his body is an extended thing and therefore not a thinking thing, he thus must be distinct from his body.

Consequently, the mind (which is man at his essence) is a concrete substance distinct from the body, a substance whose essence is thought.

Descartes departed from the Aristotelian tradition where the body is composed of matter and form: a statue, a marble, and a candlestick are all composed of matter and form.  Plants, animals and humans in addition also had souls.  Descartes held that the mind is not just connected with the account of life as the Aristotelian tradition held; rather, it is the rational part of the person. It is the person’s essence, and with God’s assistance, the soul can survive the death of its body.[5]


Although I sympathize with the Cartesian account of taking seriously the mind of the person as a concrete entity, I must part ways with it for a number of reasons.

One of the main problems many find with the Cartesian system is its lack of attention to the importance of the human body as a necessary element in what a person is.

We err when we choose any one part of us; whether it is our mind, brain, or heart and conclude, or in modern terms, our sexuality, that it is the essential part.  This is like choosing an element out of the earth to claim it is the essential part of the earth.  Without the whole it is not truly itself.  It is the same as taking a quote from a novel out of context.

Similarly, when we choose only one part of what makes us human, the mind in Descartes’ case, we take it out of its context.  I think that the role of the body in making a person is only to be ignored with the consequences of over-spiritualizing the embodied human being.

A human person is necessarily one who is born with a body.  Although Descartes claimed that the connection of the body and the person is more than that of a mere pilot in a ship, his view seems to reach such a conclusion: a pilot in a ship.

Dr. C. Ben Mitchell is astute in his assessment that

“Cartesian dualism, despite Descartes’s own disavowals, amounts to a ‘ghost in the machine’ where the mind drives the body as a captain pilots a ship. Augustine’s view of personhood, indebted as it was to neo-Platonism, does not fare much better . . .”[6]

Moreover, if a person only resides in a body, even if it is connected to him, when it breaks down, the person should not be affected, although her ability to express herself may be affected.  But the evidence from medical science conflicts with this notion.

The person is a psychosomatic unity.

For example, a person whose body suffers from severe neurological disorders and disabilities such as Downs syndrome, would then result in that person (not just their functional ability) not being able think complex thoughts and understand.  Traumatic brain injuries (TBI) can even contribute to drastic changes in personalities or in the development of the person, according to the Brain Injury Association of America:[7]

There are many cases where the human person is not able to fully express their personhood—where this psychosomatic unity becomes very evident, such as but not limited to  people with severe mental diseases that damage the cerebral hemispheres of the brain or the frontal lobes, people in comas and persistent vegetative states (PVS).

One real examples is the famous Phineas Gage.

phineas gageIt is a documented case reported in 1848, of Gage who had suffered a critical brain wound which should have killed any adult man.  However, Gage survived.  It is told that during his work on the construction of the Rutland & Burlington Railroad, an unplanned explosion pushed a rod that was reported to be about a three feet long and three cm in diameter through his skull. The rod went into his right cheek and exited in the midline near the intersection of the sagittal and coronal sutures.  Against expectation, Gage survived and his entire personality changed after the event making his friends say “it was no longer Cage.”

The actual Phineas Gage’s skull and life mask are held at the Warren Anatomical Museum, Harvard Medical School, Boston.

This man’s entire inner life was drastically changed by this neurological damage to his brains.  Oliver Sacks retells stories of such catastrophic cases in his The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat: and Other Clinical Tales.[8]

These and other examples, make me doubt the Cartestian system.

We also learn from Merleau Ponty that we are our bodies in the same way, I argue; we are our mental self.  Our body is not just another experience of the world; rather, it is the vehicle through which we experience everything else.

Moreover, we have proprioception, which is the unconscious perception of movement and spatial orientation arising from stimuli within the body itself.  We are aware of our body without necessarily perceiving it as with other objects. Our bodies have spatiality coincident perceptions; our orientation of space is from our bodies and where our eyes are located.  This is what Merleau Pony called the lived body.[9] This is much different than modern materialistic views of the body and Cartesian views. [10]  Cartesian and materialistic views of the body are mechanistic: Things that either work or do not.  There is a missing element that Merleau Ponty reminds us of: we are our bodies and we are living beings not things.[11]

The impact that we are more than pilots in a ship but that we are our bodies comes out very clearly in pain.  We not only have pain, but we are in the pain.  If we do have a breakdown in our brain’s neuron structure, we will experience laps in memory etc.

Even our emotional lives have connections to the states of our brains, for example, depression.[12] Current research on the prefrontal cortex, anterior cingulate, hippocampus, and amygdala show profound physical factors that change not only the function but the person’s view of life.[13]  Martha J. Farah, and Paul Root Wolpe have noted that

the brain imaging and brain-based enhancements are forcing people to “confront the fact that we are physical systems. If specific abilities, personality traits, and dispositions are manifest in characteristic patterns of brain activation and can be manipulated by specific neurochemical interventions, then they must be part of the physical world.”

This of course can be accounted for via causal correlations with the soul. It does not require identity.  Farah and Wolpe go on: “Our intuitions about personhood do not mesh easily with this realization. At the very least, the realization calls for a considerably more nuanced idea of personal responsibility in law and morality. More generally, it will prove challenging to traditional ideas regarding the soul, or the non-material component of the human mind.”[14]  We don’t have to embrace the conclusion but their ideas require a model in which the brain and the soul mutually affect each other.

Charles Taliaferro notes that, “I think it is important to emphasize that in a fully functioning, embodied life, the person and this chunk of matter are functionally indistinguishable.  To touch someone’s body is not to touch something they are tied to, but, in a perfectly common sense, ordinary sense of the terms, to touch them.”[15]

We are embodied minds and we are also

emminded bodies

We are born, live, drink, eat, get married, and die with our flesh and blood body.  The immaterialists are wrong for assuming that we are only a mental substance, and equally wrong are the materialistic naturalist who think we are only material substances. We need a balanced view.

The soul and body  are critical to the nature of what it means to be human, let alone a human person.

What do you think?


[1] R. Descartes, Author’s Replies to the Second Set of Objections, 162 in The Philosophical Writings of Descartes trans. J. Cottingham, R. Stoothoff, and D. Murdoch, Vol. II (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984) 18-19 [2] R. Descartes, Second Meditation: 27-28 in The Philosophical Writings of Descartes trans. J. Cottingham, R. Stoothoff, and D. Murdoch, Vol. II (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984), 18-19. [3] R. Descartes, Principles of Philosophy, I: 51-55. [4]  However it should be noted that something can be immaterial (mathematical numbers or the concept of justice) and not be spiritual (angels, God, persons).  Angels would have spatial location because they are individual beings in time and space.  The human soul is located in or by or near his or her body.  The reason we do not locate the human person elsewhere is that she does not do anything anywhere else. (This is Robert Pasnau’s, Professor of philosophy at The University of Colorado, Boulder, point, see R. Pasnau, “Mind and Extension (Descartes, Hobbes, More)” available at; last accessed 11 May 2016.) [5] D. Garber, (1998, 2003) “Descartes, René” in E. Craig (Ed.), Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy. (London: Routledge).. [6] Original manuscript of C. B. Mitchell’s “Persons Beyond Roe v. Wade: The Post-Human Age?” The Southern Baptist Theological Journal, Vol. 7, No. 2 (Summer 2003). [7] Brain Injury Association of America [8] (City unknown; Touchston edition, 1998). [9] Notes M. Merleau Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception [10] Descartes. F. Ablondi, “Automata, Living and Non-Living: Descartes’ Mechanical Biology and His Criteria for Life,” Biology and Philosophy 13: 179–186, 1998. [11] Although there is much to learn from Merleau Ponty, he was not right about everything.  For example, he appeared to deny that there was a mental nature to humans distinct from the body:  “The body itself, precisely as body, is an existence and therefore of a subjective nature. The body itself is a subject and therefore does not derive its subjective character from a principle distinct from itself.” R. C. Kwant, The Phenomenological Philosophy of Merleau-Ponty (Pittsburg: Duquesne University Press, 1963), 15. [12] See the work of. Joseph E. Ledoux, “Emotion: Clues from the Brain,” Annual Review of Psychology 46 (1995). [13] R.J. Davidson and others, “Depression: Perspectives from Affective Neuroscience,” Annual Review of Psychology (2002) and 1. R. S. J. Frackowiak, “The Functional Architecture of the Brain,” Daedalus, 127, no. 2 (1998). [14] M. J. Farah, and P. R. Wolpe, “Monitoring and Manipulating Brain Function: New Neuroscience Technologies and Their Ethical Implications,” The Hastings Center Report 34, no. 3 (2004). [15] C. Taliaferro, “Naturalism and the Mind,” in Naturalism A Critical Analysis, ed. W. L. Craig and J. P. Moreland (New York: Routledge, 2000), 153.