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Strawson's critique of Cartesian mind-body dualism


To: Simon Y.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Strawson's critique of Cartesian mind-body dualism
Date: 26 October 2007 12:15

Dear Simon,

Thank you for your email of 16 October, with your University of London Introduction to Philosophy essay in response to the question, 'Explain and assess Strawson’s reasons for thinking (i) that a Cartesian is committed to thinking that a dualist reduction or analysis of the idea of a person is possible; and (ii) that such a reduction or analysis is not possible.'

This is a good essay, which shows that you have thought hard about Strawson's argument against dualism and its implications. I was hoping that this would be the first (!) essay I have received on this topic to agree with Strawson's 'no entity without identity' argument. But we will come to that in due course.

You are right in what you say about the need to establish that Descartes is committed to dualism. It is a fair point to make that Descartes does not attempt to give an argument for dualism until the 6th Meditation. However, the question uses the wording, 'is committed to' which implies that according to Strawson what Descartes says about the self in Meditation 2 is sufficient to *commit* him to dualism.

In that case, what we are looking for is an argument which takes what Descartes says in the extract as a premise and has as its conclusion a theory which is clearly recognizable as dualism. You could say a bit more here (remember this is a two-part question) relating what Descartes says in the text to what any dualist is committed to.

It is a fair point that a sceptic (your spellchecker seems to have substituted 'scenic') might deny the existence of a material world, in which case we would have an alternative, non-Strawsonian way to be 'anti-dualist'. Actually, I think 'sceptic' is also wrong. You mean 'idealist'. A sceptic would say that we cannot prove the existence of material objects, but nevertheless allow it is possible that they exist. That possibility would be sufficient for dualism.

You give a good account of Strawson's first argument against Descartes. I agree with you that Strawson is doing little more than stating, without argument, that according to dualism, a reduction of statements about persons to statements about minds plus statements about bodies must be possible but cannot, in fact, be given. What Strawson is doing here is simply putting the onus of proof on the dualist rather than going for a knockout punch: 'OK, you think that the reduction can be done: show me how.'

Your explanation of Strawson's main argument is sufficiently clear to make the argument seem persuasive. However, you disagree. Let us look at the reasons for your disagreement.

You offer two arguments. The first argument is that if God made my soul, then he knows whether or not it is the same soul. The second argument is that even if God doesn't exist, 'subjectively it makes little difference' if I am one self or a bunch of selves, whether I have identity over time or am a succession of fleeting selves.

In response to the first argument, one would cite a principle to which Descartes must agree: that God can only do what is logically possible. If there is no criterion of identity for souls, then even God cannot count souls. What I think lends some seeming plausibility to your objection is the idea that, from God's point of view, the soul is more than just something subjective, a bearer of mental properties. God 'sees' the metaphysical substance of the soul. However, we still need an account of how this metaphysical substance is multiply instantiated. Souls are not located in space, so the possibility of using spatio-temporal position as a method of discrimination is ruled out. Unless you can provide an alternative way in which identity and difference could be explained, your objection reduces to a mere assertion, 'God could do it, we don't know how,' which is a nice prop to fall back on when all else fails.

It could be argued that your second objection concedes too much to the sceptic. Descartes believes that he is a thinking *thing*. Whereas, you are prepared to admit that the only thing that Descartes is aware of is the fleeting 'I-now'. However, the topic of this discussion is dualism and arguments against it, and someone who believed in the existence of a material world, plus a fleeting non-material series of 'I-now' moments which cannot be gathered together to form a 'substance' would count as a kind of dualist, albeit of a non-Cartesian variety.

One more point worth noting. Strawson's own position (as explained further in Ch. 3 of his book 'Individuals: an essay in descriptive metaphysics') is different from material monism. His view is that there are two kinds of spatio-temporal particulars, material objects and persons. A 'person' just is the kind of entity to which both material and psychological predicates apply. From the perspective of a diehard materialist, this could be seen as a sophisticated version of 'dualism'.

All the best,