Mind, body and soul A* grade summary notes


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Plato’s dualism. The argument from recollection

  • Plato is a dualist – the view that the mind/soul and the body are different types of thing/existence.
  • Plato thinks the world of forms is the real world and this physical world, including our body, is not the real world.
  • So, really we are a soul, not a body.
  • Charioteer analogy
  • Plato’s argument from recollection – we have ideas of perfect things – like a perfect circle or perfect justice – but we have never seen a perfect circle or perfect goodness.
  • So, we must have got these ideas from the world of forms – where there are perfect forms of circles and goodness.
  • So, there must be a part of us – our soul – which was in the world of forms before we were born.


  • Arguably there is no such thing as perfect goodness or justice – what someone thinks is good depends on their culture.
  • Perfect goodness will mean different things to different people.
  • So, there cannot be a perfect form of goodness – so his argument for the soul fails. 

Further evaluation

  • However, this critique cannot apply to Plato’s points about maths. There’s no way we could have gotten our idea of a perfect circle from experience.

Final evaluation

  • Hume argues, however, that we can gain the concept of perfection merely from observing imperfect things and imagining what they would be like without imperfection.
  • So, even though we never experience perfection, our reason is still capable of figuring it out as a concept. There’s no need to suppose it was innate and no need for the explanation of a soul. So, Plato’s argument for the soul fails.

Aristotle’s view of the soul

  • Aristotle is a materialist – thinks only one type of thing exists – material/physical things. 
  • But he still believes in a soul as part of our material body – the soul is the ‘form’ of the body.
  • The soul is what gives our body rational thought.
  • It’s not a separate thing to our body – it is the form of our physical body.
  • Stamp in wax analogy – the body is like wax and the soul is like the imprint in wax left by the stamp. 
  • The imprint is not a separate unique thing itself – it is just the form the wax has. Same goes for the soul.
  • Plants have a vegetative soul which enables nutrition and growth. Animals have this plus the ability to move and experience the world, giving them a ‘sensitive’ soul. Humans have all those abilities plus reason, so they have a rational soul.


  • Francis Bacon, the father of empiricism, argued that ‘form’ was not a scientific matter. 
  • Modern scientists would go even further in rejecting Aristotle’s theory. 
  • They would say the body is just material structure – there is no ‘form’ or ‘essence’ of it. Rational thought is just caused by brain processes, we don’t need the idea of a soul.
  • Brain processes involve material and efficient causation, but no formal or final causation. Those concepts are now considered unscientific because there is no need for them to explain the world.

Descartes’ indivisibility and conceivability arguments

  • Descartes is a substance dualist. A substance is a type of existence that cannot be broken down into anything else.
  • He thinks the soul is our conscious mind. The mind (mental substance) is a different type of substance to the body (physical substance).
  • His arguments for this claim that the mind does not seem like a physical thing.
  • Physical things are extended, meaning they take up physical space. The mind doesn’t seem to be extended, however. 
  • This means that physical things have a location and thus can be divided, but the mind isn’t located and cannot be divided. 
  • Leibniz law is that for two things to be identical, their properties must be identical. The mind and body must therefore be separate things, otherwise we would have the absurd outcome that we would be both divisible and indivisible.
  • So, the mind cannot be a physical thing.
  • Descartes further adds the conceivability argument. The mind being non-extended and body being extended allows us to imagine them as separate things.
  • Truly identical things, like a triangle and three sides, cannot be imagined separate.
  • So, the mind and body cannot be identical, because they are conceivably separate.


  • It seems the mind can be divided, however, into feelings, perceptions and memories.

Descartes’ counter

  • Descartes responds that by the mind he means consciousness. These are not divisions of consciousness, but different modes or operations (different things consciousness can ‘do’.
  • I.e., it is the one same undivided consciousness that feels, perceives and remembers.

Optional final counter to Descartes

  • We have evidence from modern psychology that division of consciousness could be possible. As a treatment for epilepsy, sometimes the connection between the brain hemispheres is cut. The right hemisphere controls the left arm, and vice versa.
  • In such patients, they might pick up food with one hand and the other hand might smack it out of that hand. One patient reached out to hug his wife with one hand and the other hand tried to push her away. 
  • This is good evidence that consciousness is divisible and thus could be a physical thing, so Descartes seems wrong.
  • Furthermore, it ultimately shows a deeper problem in Descartes’ whole approach. The mind is clearly much more complicated than we can understand merely through self-awareness. 
  • Science is showing us that we can’t tell what the mind actually is merely from how it seems to itself. Descartes, as a rationalist, would not have accepted that, but the scientific evidence is stacking up against him.

Ryle’s ‘category error’ critique of Descartes

  • Ryle is a materialist who doesn’t believe a soul exists and thinks there isn’t anything non-physical about the mind.
  • Ryle criticises Descartes’ theory by calling it the theory of the ‘ghost in the machine’.
  • Descartes’ argument is: The mind is not extended, divisible, etc. This means the mind is not a physical thing, so it must be a non-physical thing.
  • However – Ryle says Descartes has not realised that there’s another option.
  • The mind might not be a thing at all…
  • Descartes has made a ‘category mistake’. He has put the mind in the category of ‘things’ when it might not be in that category.
  • Ryle illustrates this with someone being shown round a university who says they have seen the physics building and the biology building etc, but now they want to be shown the university! This person has made a category mistake – they haven’t realised that the term ‘university’ belongs to the category of ‘collection of buildings’ rather than ‘individual buildings’
  • Ryle is a behaviourist. He thinks the word ‘mind’ really refers to a set of behavioural dispositions. Claiming the mind a non-physical thing therefore commits a category error.
  • Ryle illustrates this with the ‘brittleness’ of glass – which is the disposition of glass to shatter upon impact. Dispositions are not things – the ‘brittleness’ of glass is not a thing – but nor is it divisible or extended. 
  • So, brittleness not a physical thing, but no one would imagine it was therefore a mental thing – because it’s not a thing at all! So too is it with the mind, Ryle argues.


  • Ryle is saying that the mind is not really a ‘thing’ – it’s not in the category of ‘things’ – but this doesn’t feel right, my mind does feel like a thing. 
  • Consciousness exists. It is certainly linked to behaviour and dispositions, but it’s more than that.
  • Ryle seems wrong to claim the mind is in the category of ‘sets of dispositions’. The mind is more than just behaviour. 
  • However, Ryle could still be right in pointing out that Descartes’ attempt to put the mind in the category of non-physical things was baseless. Ryle might not have a good alternative category for what the mind is, but he’s still right to point out that Descartes had no basis for his own categorization.
  • Dawkins’ approach seems better. The mind is in the category of physical things because it is reducible to the brain, as increasingly discovered by modern science.
  • Claiming that the mind is the brain is more credible than claiming it’s not a thing at all.

Dawkins’ scientific rejection of the soul and metaphorical view of it

  • Dawkins is a materialist and scientist 
  • He argues that our current scientific view of what we are is that we are merely material physical beings composed of DNA. That is there is scientific evidence for, so we shouldn’t believe in anything supernatural as a soul. 
  • He said that there are two types of soul – one is valid (metaphorical) and one is invalid (literal).
  • Soul 1 is the view that the soul is a real thing separate from our body, which Dawkins does not agree with due to lack of evidence. 
  • Soul 2 is a metaphorical idea of the soul, as a metaphor for the deep part of our mind and personally where the essence of our humanity is. 
  • For example, someone who doesn’t believe in a soul might say “I felt that in my soul” or “Hitler was a soulless person”. They are just using the term ‘soul’ metaphorically for our deep important human feelings, not for some non-physical part of soul 1. Dawkins thinks that everything about us, including our minds and consciousness, is nothing more than biological processes in our body and brain. 
  • It’s not valid to think the soul ‘literally’ exists, it’s only valid to use the word metaphorically to describe deep human feelings.

Chalmers as a response to Dawkins

  • David Chalmers distinguishes between ‘the easy problem of consciousness’ and ‘the hard problem of consciousness’ 
  • The ‘easy problem of consciousness’ means figuring out which brain process is responsible for which mental process such as memory, perception or emotion. 
  • The ‘hard problem of consciousness’ refers to what brain process is responsible for consciousness itself. 
  • Chalmers says that neuroscience has helped with solving the easy problem of consciousness but it hasn’t even begun to explain the hard problem of consciousness. 
  • So, scientists like Dawkins can’t claim to know that consciousness is just a physical bodily thing, since science doesn’t currently have a scientific explanation of consciousness.