Two years after Descartes published his meditations on first philosophy, Princess Elisabeth of Bohemia wrote with questions concerning the relationship between the immaterial soul and the corporeal body- specifically how anything immaterial could produce physical effects. She was neither the first nor the last to question this practical application of Descartes’ dualism, but her questions elicited the most comprehensive attempt to answer the question. In this paper I will examine Descartes’ arguments for the existence of body as distinct from the mind; outline Elisabeth’s objections and proposed solutions, and argue that Descartes’ responses to Elisabeth are inadequate to address the problem of mind-body interaction without resulting in contradiction.
Descartes sets out in meditation six to determine what justification there might be for the existence of external bodies and whether bodies are distinct from his mind. Not only does he conclude they are distinct, they are distinct kinds of things (with different primary attributes). (Ariew, 2009, p 62) Mind is a thinking substance, and Body is extended.
In discussing the existence of external bodies he begins with an explanation of the way the imagination differs from the intellect. The imagination depends upon something distinct from him, memories of sensations or something else that seems focused outward toward a physical world perceived through bodily senses (p. 62). This alone makes it seem probable to him that the body does exist. However, he is not so quick to conclude an external world based on that alone, nor is he so quick to doubt its existence just because it’s possible there is some faculty in himself that produces these perceptions that he isn’t aware of (p. 63). Instead he attempts to ground his belief in one of the few things he can clearly and distinctly perceive: God. (p. 64)
Descartes argues for the separation of body and mind, suggesting that: God can make everything he clearly and distinctly understands, as he understands it. He clearly and distinctly understands his essence to be that of a thinking thing. Therefore, he is distinct from his body and can exist without it, if God wills (p. 64). He also observes differences between the mind and body that suggest their separateness. The body appears utterly divisible, the mind utterly indivisible- as he has an understanding of himself as a complete entity (p.67).
He determines that imagination and sensation are modes of thought, and so require a mind to exist (p. 67). However, he can imagine existing without being able to sense or imagine, so those abilities are not required for him to exist. He cannot imagine existing without being able to think or understand, so the former must depend on something outside of him, while the latter is essential to him (p. 67). Therefore, he concludes: “The only alternative is that it is in some substance different from me, containing either formally or eminently all...