hat if the majority of society arrived at the belief that we are all just machines with no free will and an extremely slim chance of some Higher Being watching over us? Would a moral code still remain? How would our legal system change? Would the world be thrown into chaos? How different would a human being really be from the potential computers of tomorrow? These are just a few of the questions that scientists and philosophers alike must ask themselves when inquiring into the mind and body relationship and the true nature of the mind.
The mind-body topics that Hobbes and Descartes attempted to conquer in the 17th century remain extremely controversial today and our own ideas are still influenced by the work of these two great philosophers.
Hobbes’ extreme nominalism, led to a viewpoint that was anti-rationalist as well as materialist:
. . . according to Hobbes, there is no reason in the universe; there is only body in motion. Reasoning is merely the manipulation of ‘ marks’, that is, verbal symbols” (Jones 136).
He believed that we could only know about the world from our sense experience; we cannot use reasoning to acquire our knowledge. To learn about the world, we must observe the ‘bodies in motion’ around us, that is all the information we have available. Since there is only body in motion, there is no mind-body dichotomy problem because the mind is composed of nothing more than bodies in motion.
Hobbes thought that although there may be considerable variations in power, speed, and performance, all human bodies are engines of the same type:
“For what is the heart, but a spring; and the nerves, but so many strings; and the joints, but so many wheels, giving motion to the whole body, such as was intended by the artificer?” (qtd. in Watkins 72).
To Hobbes, it naturally followed that the mind, being an integral part of this engine, abided by the same rules of motion as the body. He ascertained that it is possible to use physical principles to derive psychological principles. He was a materialist. When he spoke of the activities of the mind — thinking, desiring, etc, — as a refined form of movement within the human body, as motions of the mind, he was not speaking metaphorically. His materialism interprets thinking and wanting, like blinking and walking, as bodily activities.
Hobbes expanded on his idea of ‘ bodies in motion’ in the context of endeavors. By ‘endeavor’ he was referring to the pressure or force behind movement, rather than the movement itself. He saw motion as being a result of several endeavors. Clothes moving around in the spin cycle of a washing machine have, among others, a centripetal endeavor accelerating them ultimately in a circle with the sides of the washing machine providing a normal endeavor. This idea
prepared the way for a physical world filled by an invisible system of endeavors, powers, pressures, and forces. Even the most dead-seeming chunk of inert matter is, one might almost say, brought to life by this idea, transformed into something humming silently with incipient motion (88).
The brain, far from being a ‘dead-seeming chunk of inert matter’, unquestionably falls into Hobbes’ theory of bodies in motion governed by a multitude of endeavors. The explanation given for our brain’s mechanism for experiencing the outside world’s ‘bodies in motion’ is through the use of phantasms. A phantasm is “a sensation; it is the way in which certain motions, occurring in the brain, are experienced” (Jones 128). Hobbes had suggested that it was possible that inanimate bodies have “momentary phantasms”, but, he continued, they have no memory, and memory is a prerequisite for experience as we perceive it (Watkins 91).
Hobbes’ philosophy of the mind leads directly to determinism and the denial of free-will: if every change is the result of another physical force, every change is externally caused; and if every change is externally caused, every act of will is also externally caused. There is no room available for the presence of free will with this inevitable conclusion if one is to remain consistent with Hobbes’ empirical method.
Both Hobbes and Descartes agreed on the time period’s application of physics’ laws of motion concerning bodies, including the human body. They differed though on whether this body included the mind. Hobbes said, yes, the mind’s mechanisms follow the rule of physics; like the body, it is simply another body in motion; Descartes said, no, the mind is not extended like the body; It is not governed by the laws of physics but rather by the nature of theology.
Both theories led to contradictions and emerged from self-interest of the two philosophers: Hobbes, who was not religious, concluded that physics can explain everything, it is all just bodies in motion; Descartes, who was religious, asserted that the mind is separate from the body (complicated by connection called ‘ideas’ to body) and is given its innate ideas from God.
During the time period that Hobbes and Descartes lived, a new science was emerging. Slowly, the purpose of religion’s presence was being questioned by more and more people. For the majority that still practiced, the issues raised by the new science caused concern. Descartes, a devout Catholic, felt that no problem existed since religion should not meddle with science and science had no need to meddle with religion. With his theory of a separate mind and body, he boldly attempted to also separate theology and physics.
Ultimately, Hobbes’ philosophy had left more to be desired, such as free will, morals, and for some — the option for a Higher Being. This is where Descartes’ philosophy begins.
For a dualist like Descartes, biological uniformity by no means implied a corresponding psychological uniformity. He held that roughly similar bodies might be controlled by souls, or minds, of essentially different types.
Descartes began by asserting that we can assume to hold true
not to what others have thought, nor to what we ourselves conjecture, but to what we can clearly and perspicuously behold and with certainty deduce ( qtd. in Jones 157).
He felt that Scholasticism had taken the wrong path, thus, we must start at the very beginning assuming no certain truth to previously held knowledge. He based his method on mathematics, namely geometry. He looked for the simplest fact, or universal truth, in which a series of other facts could follow. Descartes began by suggesting that we are ignorant of the physical state that we are in, both bodily and environmentally, since we must allow for the possibility that we are all insane or dreaming. The assurance we actually do exist is that we think:
I think, therefore I exist.
Descartes’ ‘ science’ proceeded to provide a proof that God exists. This was based essentially on Descartes’ strongly held belief that he has (and is able to have) a true representation of infinite. God must exist since his idea of infinite must originate from an infinite thing which can only be God.
Descartes then had concluded from the only truth of which he could be absolutely sure — namely, that he thinks and therefore exists — that he is therefore a
thing which thinks, that is to say, a mind or soul, or an understanding, or a reason (qtd. in Watkins 25).
He declared the body to be extended in space, the mind to be unextended, and ‘ ideas’ to be the interacting connection between the two. Descartes’ conclusion that we have a mind (a substance) was brought forth naturally by his assumption
[t]hat each substance has a principle attribute, and that the attribute of the mind is thought (qtd. in Jones 175).
Unfortunately, this was so seemingly obvious to Descartes that he never thought to subject this notion of substance to his strict method of criticism. If such inferences were valid there would be as many substances as there are activities. (We should have to say that a dog that barks is a barking substance.)
His philosophy moved in and around his religious beliefs. Thus, in keeping with his beliefs, he would inevitably find a way for his philosophy to allow for his beliefs, whether or not this actually stayed consistent with his initial method. Descartes developed many paradoxes in his theories as he proceeded to draw together his idea of duality in the mind-body argument.
Taking Hobbes’ stance concerning endeavors or motivations, one can find a direct rebuttal against Descartes’ theory on the status of thoughts, desires, etc. Descartes was on the right path to insist that thoughts, desires, etc. are not extended, but that the body is extended. And it does follow logically that thoughts and desires are not material objects. But it does not follow that thoughts and desires are essentially immaterial, or non-physical. Descartes got into a hopeless difficulty by erroneously concluding that, since thoughts and desires are not extended, they must be modifications of some immaterial thinking substance.
According to Descartes, mind is utterly unlike body:
there is nothing included in the concept of body that belongs to the mind; and nothing in that of mind that belongs to the body (qtd. in Watkins 91 ).
A body is an extended (or three-dimensional) thing that does not think; a mind is a thinking thing that is not extended. Nevertheless, Descartes claimed that there is interaction of ‘ ideas· between mind and body: he rejected the strong argument that if the soul and the body are two substances of different natures, then that prevents them from having the capacity of acting on one another. So if, as Descartes insisted, a body ‘s state can be altered only by contact with other bodies, how can a person’s body be affected by mind?
When we look at the physical world and take it in through our senses — the sights, the smells, the sounds — it is registered in our cerebral cortex after passing through our physical and chemical environment through a series of signals. Are we to conclude that later, when we draw on our memories of the physical world, of what we have sensed around us, that suddenly these ideas that we experience have transformed themselves to become a part of our ‘soul’, an immaterial substance?
Duality would possibly be more plausible since it allows for free will, a moral soul, and a benevolent Higher Being, but this too remains insufficient; too many contradictions exist. There is a lack of reasonable explanations for humans to have a mind that is unextended in space yet still somehow acts upon our body. Descartes’ ‘ideas’ were not satisfactory. Parallelism between mind and body was introduced by his followers to compensate for this nagging weakness in Descartes’ philosophy but it ultimately created even more complications besides the fact that it was extremely far-fetched.
Is Hobbes’ answer to the mind-body question correct? This is also a ‘no’ since he too posed contradictions in his argument which necessitated further explanation, such as phantasms. Is the materialistic viewpoint possibly the favored direction to look for an answer? Strictly comparing Hobbes and Descartes, it seems to be so. It has fewer contradictions and questionable assumptions made with the philosophy of Hobbes.
There is a vital question that still needs answering though and has priority in terms of societal implications. Does our society have the capability to handle the truth, if it ever be found?
Jones, W. T. Hobbes to Hume: A History of Western Philosophy. Fort Worth: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1969.
Watkins, John. Hobbes’s System of Ideas. Newcastle: Athenaeum Press, 1989-