Re: Descartes and the Mind

From: Harnad, Stevan (
Date: Thu Oct 19 1995 - 23:16:15 BST

> From: "Lucas, Melody" <>
> Date: Thu, 19 Oct 1995 15:37:48 GMT
> Can we doubt other people's experiences? If we can, then surely that
> annuls any possibility of psychological study.

Yes we can doubt other people's experiences (and even their existence).
But the fact that something is uncertain does not mean it is not true:
It just means you can't be sure. And Descartes, before he started doing
anything positive (and he did plenty that was positive) first wanted to
sort out what he could and could not be SURE about.

Psychology comes later. What the Cogito shows is that what psychology is
going to be ABOUT (or looks as if it's going to be about), namely, the
mind, i.e., the experiences going on in the head, is about something
whose reality we cannot doubt! That sounds like good news for psychology
so far, doesn't it?

> The thing is, we've got
> to assume some things are true, or at least possible, if we want to
> tackle the problems which arose during the seminar. If we manage to
> measure experience, surely we are using tools to do so (which we can
> doubt). Fair enough, we can doubt everything except experience and
> mathematics but the argument appears so exhaustive that we end up with
> very little to work with.

Patience! We're only starting out. But I think it's good to keep these
things in mind. Remember that the reason I introduced Descartes was to
introduce dualism and the mind/body problem. It's quite natural to
suppose that psychology is going to be the science of the mind. But to
make sense of that, we have to settle on what the mind is (and it turns
out to be experience), and why it is so hard to make a science of it
(because it is so hard to see how experience could be physical stuff:
that's the mind-body problem).

> As for the mind/body dualism argument; dunno! For years I've been
> hoping that everything that goes on in that (what I've always seen as)
> annoyingly abstract concept of 'mind' will finally be traced back to
> electrical impulses. If only things were that simple! I reckon
> comparative psychology could help us with this one.

It would be nice if it could all boil down to electrical impulses.
(Maybe it does.) We'll get to that. But let's first see why it may not
be as simple as that.

I'm not sure what you mean by "comparative psychology," by the way.
That field is the comparative study of human and nonhuman behaviour.

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