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Essay on Descartes’ Arguments for Substance Dualism


Essay Questions for Intro on-line

Overall: Write an essay between 4 and 6 pages long, double-spaced, 12-point font.

Choose one topic only to write about.

More Important Instructions:

  • Long quotes do not count, so if a quote takes up a third of a page, that doesn’t count for the length requirement. More importantly all quotes must be explained in your own words.Advice: quote when (i) controversial things are said (ii) obscure things are said but seem important (iii) beautifully put points are made.
  • Your essay must have structure: there must be sections and the sections must have useful titles helping the reader follow the debate 
  • One section must be the Introduction….” An introduction must state your conclusion as a thesis statement
  • All references made in your essay must be read by you. You will be asked to prove it if there is a question about authorship. E.g., You wrote an essay and referred to a book by Smith. This means you actually read some of the book by Smith.  If you didn’t read anything in the book or source then you cannot use it as reference. The “use” of an unread source will be considered fraud.
  • Use whatever style manual you prefer best, but 4-7 pages, double-spaced, 12-point font.

Topic One. Descartes’ Arguments for Substance Dualism

According to Descartes he can find differences in essence between the mind and the brain/body which prove the mind and brain/body are not the same thing.  Minds are essentially thinking things and material things are essentially spatial (“extended”). He offers two discussions, one in meditation two and one in meditation six (he also summarizes meditation 2 in 6). The first concerned his famous search for absolute certainty and the second is this:

“…that there is a great difference between mind and body, inasmuch as body is by nature always divisible, and the mind is entirely indivisible. For, as a matter of fact, when I consider the mind, that is to say, myself inasmuch as I am only a thinking thing, I cannot distinguish in myself any parts…”

The focus of this essay is to explain Descartes’ discussions and to evaluate them: does he succeed in proving that we are not our brain but instead a nonmaterial substance? Discuss both arguments. Your essay should include, but isn’t limited to the following

  • Explain the method of doubt briefly and what Descartes thinks it reveals about our essential nature.
  • Evaluate this argument utilizing doubt for mind and brain being different (see slides).
  • Explain the “divisibility argument” in the quote above and
  • evaluate it, does it prove that minds are not same as brains? [Discussion of the problem of interaction is not the topic, so if you wish to mention it, give it only one paragraph.]

Topic Two: Jackson’s argument for Property Dualism and Epiphenomenalism

The aim of this essay is to explain and evaluate Jackson’s reasoning for thinking the brain has non-physical properties like the “hurtfulness of pain”, or the “quality of colour experience”.

According to Jackson the painfulness of pain is epiphenomenal.

  • Explain what that means and explain
  • why Jackson thinks the quality of pain is epiphenomenal.
  • Explain Jackson’s argument that the qualities of conscious states are not physical qualities of the mind by explaining his example of Fred and the red tomatoes.
  • Discuss, are the qualities of our experience physical and epiphenomenal?

Topic Three. Can the freewill defense solve the problem of evil?

  • State and explain the atheist’s argument from evil for the nonexistence of God.
  • State and explain the free will defense that allows for a perfect god and evil to exist
  • Reflect on yourself and others: why do people choose to do wrong acts? What might be the source of evil in humans?
  • Explain the point, and relevance to the debate, of the following quote from J.L. Mackie: “If there is no logical impossibility in a man’s freely choosing the good on one, or on several occasions, then there cannot be a logical impossibility in his freely choosing the good on every occasion.”
  • Adjudicate: Does the problem of evil prove there is no perfect god?

Topic Four: Harris Against free will

Harris writes:

“The popular conception of FW rests on 2 assumptions: [1] that each of us could have behaved differently than we did in the past, and [2] that we are the conscious source of most of our thoughts, [intentions] and actions in the present…both of these assumptions are false”.

(i) Explain what these two assumptions are and give examples of each, then

(ii) Explain his reasons for believing each is false

Harris believes we do not have free will and yet he seems to believe it is fair to hold people morally responsible anyhow. He writes:

“Judgments of responsibility depend on the overall complexion of one’s mind not on the metaphysics of mental cause and effect”

(iii) Explain what he means and give an example of “judging on the overall complexion of one’s mind” and how that might work.

(iv) Critically evaluate Harris’ views on free will and moral responsibility. Is he right? Why, why not?

Topic Five: Strawson and Ultimate Responsibility

According to Galen Strawson, no one is ultimately responsible for what they choose to do.

  • Explain what Strawson means by “moral responsibility”.                                                       
  • Explain Strawson’s “regress” argument and his basic argument regarding “self-creation” for the claim no one is responsible for what they choose to do. Be sure to tell a story of a person’s life (maybe two people is better, maybe your own life would be helpful) to illustrate his regress argument.                                                                                                                             
  • Explain Strawson’s response to the idea that if we weren’t determined we could be responsible.
  • Critically evaluate, is Strawson right? Is no one responsible? Or could we be if we weren’t determined?

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