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Pedagogical tools to explore Cartesian mind-body dualism in the classroom: philosophical arguments and neuroscience illusions

Faculty Advisor




Descartes, Cartesian dualism, Heidegger, rubber hand illusion, Pinocchio Illusion

Abstract (summary)

A fundamental discussion in lower-level undergraduate neuroscience and psychology courses is Descartes’s “radical” or “mind-body” dualism. According to Descartes, our thinking mind, the res cogitans, is separate from the body as physical matter or substance, the res extensa. Since the transmission of sensory stimuli from the body to the mind is a physical capacity shared with animals, it can be confused, misled, or uncertain (e.g., bodily senses imply that ice and water are different substances). True certainty thus arises from within the mind and its capacity to doubt physical stimuli. Since this doubting mind is a thinking thing that is distinct from bodily stimuli, truth and certainty are reached through the doubting mind as cogito ergo sum, or the certainty of itself as it thinks: hence Descartes’s famous maxim, I think, therefore I am. However, in the last century of Western philosophy, with nervous system investigation, and with recent advances in neuroscience, the potential avenues to explore student’s understanding of the epistemology and effects of Cartesian mind-body dualism has expanded. This article further explores this expansion, highlighting pedagogical practices and tools instructors can use to enhance a psychology student’s understanding of Cartesian dualistic epistemology, in order to think more critically about its implicit assumptions and effects on learning. It does so in two ways: first, by offering instructors an alternative philosophical perspective to dualistic thinking: a mind-body holism that is antithetical to the assumed binaries of dualistic epistemology. Second, it supplements this philosophical argument with a practical component: simple mind-body illusions that instructors may use to demonstrate contrary epistemologies to students. Combining these short philosophical and neuroscience arguments thereby acts as a pedagogical tool to open new conceptual spaces within which learning may occur.

Publication Information

Hamilton, S., & Hamilton, T. (2015). Pedagogical tools to explore Cartesian mind-body dualism in the classroom: Philosophical arguments and neuroscience illusions. Frontiers in Psychology. 6:1155. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2015.01155


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Attribution (CC BY)