Is the mind distinct from the body?

In Descartes’ Myth, Gilbert Ryle states that the central principles of the doctrine from Descartes, which explain the relationship between the body and the mind, are unsound. According to Ryle, Descartes’ belief makes a “category mistake” by putting “the mind and body in the same logical type or category when they actually belong to another” (Ryle). Ryle believes that although the body exists in space and time, the mind only exists in time and not space. Therefore, there is a distinction between mind and body. Also, as a behaviorist, Ryle believed that the mind was not something behind the behavior of the body; the mind was part of that physical behavior.

The category mistake is when one incorrectly categorizes something as if it belonged to a different group. For example, if I go around the campus telling everyone that my pain is red, this idea is false because pain cannot have a color “blue.” Since the feeling of “pain” and the color “blue” does not belong to the same logical type, this can be seen as a category mistake.

Additionally, contrary to our classroom discussion of free will, Ryle is completely against the belief of Descartes’. He believes that the problem of free will was that the idea of “free will” was made as an excuse. In another words, free will was invented to answer the moral responsibility and ethical actions of what is right and wrong. He also states that since the mind is an entity outside and not related to the body, there cannot be free will. If the body is separate from the mind, then how can each and every human being think and act differently? Ryle’s view of free will gives a different view of the question asked in class: “if someone commits chains of murder, do we put the murderer into jail concluding that he or she is a maniac?” The answer will be no, since the mind is separate from the body.

There is another philosopher who agrees with Ryle’s beliefs. Arthur Koestler published a non-fiction book that discussed the view that the mind is not related to the body and is temporarily inhibiting in the body (NYTimes).  Koestler gives an example of the evolution of the human brain. As the brain evolved, they have improved upon earlier, primitive brain structures.

On the contrary, the identity theory discussed by Churchland rejects Ryle’s beliefs. Identity theorists believe that the “mental state” is the same as “brain states.” However, Ryle would accuse this belief as a “category mistake,” since the mind is abstract and information is not matter. This can be also known as the “Ghost in the Machine,” a term that Ryle uses to poke fun at identity theorists, which implies that physical body is like a machine that is controlled by a nonphysical, ghostly mind.

After reading from proponents of different spectrum, what do you think?



Fleck, Susan. “Behaviorism and Identity Theory.” Behaviourism & Identity Theory. N.p., n.d. Web. 10 Nov. 2014.

Lifton, Robert. “Man As Mistake.” The New York Times. The New York Times, n.d. Web.

7 thoughts on “Is the mind distinct from the body?

  1. Ryle’s argument for free will is interesting here. When I was reading, at first I wasn’t sure if I agreed with what he was asserting. Is free will just this concept that’s made up in order to evaluate our behavior in terms of morals and ethics? This question made me think about whether or not the idea of free will is applicable for other animals. Scientists have not discussed this to my knowledge in any literature I’ve come across in any discipline. Perhaps the reason for this is what Ryle argues. If free will is simply a tool to measure certain human responses, maybe it doesn’t exist. Maybe it is just a social construct.

    However, assuming that free will does exist, I’m not sure how the mind being separate from the body would constitute proof against this. If the fact that the mind and body are separate is evidence that free will does not exist, then that would mean that the two being connected would favor this premise. If the mind and the body were connected, they would be able to heavily influence each other. For instance, if my stomach begins sending messages to my brain that it is empty, I will feel a sense of hunger and a need to replenish my body. If the mind and body are not connected, my immediate reaction to this feeling would be to satiate any hunger I have, which means I would immediately drop what I was doing and pretty much involuntarily respond to this hunger urge. I feel that having the mind and body separate from one another allows me to exercise restraint and understand that sometimes I have to delay satiating my hunger because I’m currently busy doing something. In this sense, I am choosing when to satisfy hunger given other factors (e.g., I can’t get up in the middle of an exam because my stomach growls to get some food. I know I must wait until I’m done and am dismissed to take care of this need). This is free will. To me, the separation of the mind and body would be evidence of free will and the binding of the two would serve as evidence against this idea.

  2. I disagree with Malcolm. There is no way to know whether choosing when to satiate hunger is a “free” decision, or if it is a simulated decision, or one that is dictated by a demon with a controller. I don’t think there is any way to prove the existence of free will because it constitutes that the mind is not apart of the body – free will constitutes that the mind is its own entity capable of making its own decision separately from the body. While this is partly true, all the decisions and thoughts expressed in the brain are attributed to chemical messages and signals within the body. There is no proof that any decision in the brain is caused by anything else. Because this is the case, I have to say that free will does not exist and that we do the things we do because of the way chemicals flow through our bodies and brains.

  3. I both agree and disagree with Hilleary. I find truth in the fact that many things we do are biological reactions. For example, when you touch something that is so hot that it burns your finger, the nocireceptors, which are receptors in your skin that feel pain, send an electrical signal to your brain so that you perceive pain and thus stop touching the hot object. Such an occurrence is somewhat of an automatic or reflexive reaction, but that does not invalidate the existence of free will. Free will is the ability to make choices unimpeded by mental, social and physical constraints. If I wanted to continue touching the hot object and set my mind to letting my skin burn, I could do that. Even if my brain is telling me I’m in pain, I can overcome physical constraints to make a decision. I don’t think that human anatomy and biology of how our brains work can discount free will, but I do agree that many things we do are intertwined with our anatomy and biology.

    1. I really like what Morgan was saying about free will and how modern science can’t really prove that it doesn’t exist. As I have said on another blog post I personally believe that mind and body are somewhat different entities. I wouldn’t call myself a dualist exactly because I kind of consider the mind the spark that makes us conscious beings without having a real connection to neuroscience at all. Just like free will cannot be proven to not exist I think you can’t really prove that the mind doesn’t exist in a somewhat spiritual realm.

  4. I also agree with Morgan. I see where the other points made about free will are coming from; many of our actions are based off of our bodies. In the example given about hunger, I believe that someone’s decision to eat is sometimes to satisfy the hungry feeling that they have in their stomachs. However, this is not always the case. A person can decide to eat for various other reasons, and can also decide not to eat regardless of how hungry they feel. Yes, sometimes we choose to eat or not to eat something because of how hungry or full we feel. Yet, there are other times when we choose to eat even when we’re not hungry or not to eat even when we are hungry. Thus, one can have free will even if their mind and bodies are connected.

  5. The question posed in class, “if someone commits chains of murder, do we put the murderer into jail concluding that he or she is a maniac?” promotes different responses if you look answer it from Descartes’s or Ryle’s viewpoint. If you were to take Ryle’s stance on free will the answer would be no, because he believe the mind is an entity that is not related to the body and therefore there is no free will. Descartes’s viewpoint would however be entirely opposite because he is pro free will and would answer that the murder had a choice to kill or not to kill those people. On a separate note, Julie’s point on connecting the decision to eat to the idea of free will even if our bodies and minds are connected makes a lot of sense to me. A person’s decision to eat is often motivated by the feeling of hunger that comes from their stomachs, but it can also be promoted by external desires such as to gain or lose weight. These are various reason for a person deciding to eat other than that they are simply hungry. As mentioned in previous comments, this example shows how we can have free will even when our minds and bodies are connected.

  6. I have to agree with Morgan, Gordon, and Julie. I choose to believe that the mind and body are separate, but they definitely have a relationship. With a reflex like Morgan mentioned, my body touching a hot surface will send signals throughout my nervous system, ultimately resulting in me removing my hand from the hot surface (to not burn myself); however, for whatever reason, if I wanted to burn myself, I would keep touching the surface. Therefore, I have free will; I have choice in the situation.

Leave a Reply