Sample Essay on Antonio Damasio and Cartesian Dualism

Antonio Damasio and Cartesian dualism

According to Antonio Damasio, the split that Cartesian dualism perceives between the mind and the brain has had at least 2 major negative effects on the worlds of science and medicine

António Damásio argument differed greatly with Rene Descartes argument about the relationship of mind and the body. Descartes thought that the body and the mind are two separate substances and not identical, in his concept of dualism (Goldberg, 2002).  Dualism, as conveyed by Descartes, is the argument that mental phenomena are non-physical in some respect, and that the mind and the body are separate and non identical (Buzan et al, 2014). The Dualism perspective portrays the mind as nonphysical, and as result, non spatial substance. Descartes related the mind with self awareness and consciousness and clearly distinguishes this from the ‘brain’ which he considers the base of intelligence (Lin, 2013). This argument signifies that human beings bear two unlike substances which cannot exist in unity. The mind is unextended, an immaterial but on the other hand thinking substance and the human body was an extended, material but thoughtless substance (Kirkebøen, 2001).

The philosophical idea of dualism has been a subject of contention in many medical and scientific studies. This is because the philosophical arguments on the nature of human beings have far reaching consequences on the understanding on various problems that face humanity (Holden, 1991). As Antonio Damasio perceives, the split brought by concept of dualism negatively affect the worlds of medicine and science in two major ways.  One significant impact is that it alters the knowledge of human body. Descartes view that human mind is distinct from the body is the basis of Cartesian metaphysics which divides the body into physical matter and the immaterial substance; the mind. The medical world relies of the available knowledge of human body to conduct its processes. Wrong knowledge about the state of humanity is likely to result to failed processes. Separating the mind from the body has significant implication in the manner in which the body functions.  Secondly, the concept of dualism introduces the existence of immaterial substance (Goldberg, 2002), which refute scientific foundation of substances. Medicine and science significantly borrows philosophical theories to build important theories that are applied in the major processes.

The concept of dualism features in medical field through the use of placebo. The concept of administering pill, potion or procedure to a patient, which lacks pharmacological effect defines the extent of dualism in the medical (Goldberg, 2002). Creation of such drugs that lacks pharmacological effect may in a way signify laxity in medical discovery. Despite the challenges of finding appropriate medication for certain health complications, there is need to seek appropriate solutions and appropriate medicine to every health complication. Dualism is the basis for positivism, which makes use of logical thought based upon empirical observation and measurement (Buzan et al, 2014). I firmly agree with Damasio’s claim that the distinction created between the disease of the “mind” and the disease of the “brain”, between “psychological” and “neurological” is unfortunate ideology that resulted from the concept of dualism.

The concept of dualism, as opposed to science, introduces the existence of immaterial substance. Science, on the other hand, objects the existence of nonmaterial and cordially thrives on materialistic theory. Scientific approach takes keen emphasis on identifiable particles which can be considered the basis of any existing phenomena. By neglecting the materialism approach in science, it would be difficult to defend theories such as evolution that are opposed to the principles of dualism (Kirkebøen, 2001). On the other hand, dualism seems to favor creation theory that bases creation from a nothing by a supernatural being. If empirical information was considered the ultimate source of validation, then, majority of scientific discoveries would be considered irrelevant (Kirkebøen, 2001). If dualism is the true foundation, then it means that men were created by God and microevolution theories are irrelevant. Such a dimension, on my view, would jeopardize the efforts of scientific discovery that are based on materialism.

According to Lin (2013), the body and mind argument was a sensitive conceptual leap that great thwarted the development of medical science. According to the dualism view, human beings were categorized as the spiritual being, a perspective that slowed scientific studies on human body. Diseases were to some extend attributed to non material forces such as collective or personal wrong doing (Goldberg, 2002).  Dualism brought about historical religious prohibitions on some scientific studies such as the study of human anatomy through dissection. By isolating the mind from the body, dualism denied the significance of mind in individual’s experience of health. Considering the current medical innovations, the work of mind is critical in administering certain therapeutic procedure that result to individuals well being.

The current medical procedures have a totally different view from dualism perspective.  The understanding of human beings has changed to “lived-body” notion that considers human beings as “living system” or “multiphase” rather than an object. Living system means that integral part of large system are in permanent interaction with the environment and likely to construct their personal subjective realities. Damasio condemned the application of Descartes notion in the scientific world, claiming that the “Cartesian based neglect” of the mind in the Western medicine and biology would retard the development of biological understanding of human mind (Kirkebøen, 2001).

What theory of the mind-body relationship does Damasio propose instead of Cartesian dualism, and to what extent do you find it attractive and plausible?

I find the theory by Antonio rather appropriate compared to the concept of dualism. Damasio took time to create, develop, and test his theory of embodied cognition, which currently has great impact in behavioral economics, psychology and neuroscience. Antonio used the Somatic-Maker Hypothesis to explain his concept. The term somatic originates from Greek word, “soma”, which simply means, “body”. Antonio argues that the feelings that allow human beings to engage in decision making are bodily. The importance of reasoning is making decisions based on several alternatives (Goldberg, 2002). In order to figure out a particular choice, the brain collects knowledge, some hypothetical and some actual. These include all the factual knowledge concerning the world, beyond the brain, current state of the body, and past experiences. It is from such process that the brain considers one option among several. This means that the brain ranks or orders possibilities through some criteria, factoring in consciousness of several alternatives (Kirkebøen, 2001). This type of reasoning may actually occur entirely outside of awareness, resulting to what Antonio refers to as “gut feeling”, that ought to prefer as specific choice. Though this kind of reasoning occurs at the background, it is always essential to normal human functioning.

Antonio Damasio arguments are based on research with patients, such as Gage and Elliot, having prefrontal cortex damage.  The case of Phineas Gage is one the case that Damasio used to demonstrate “error” in Descartes argument. Gage was an influential employee who was managing a group of men in the railway construction in the Vermount Countryside. According to his boss, Gage was smart, shrewd, temperate, efficient and capable employee (Damasio, 1994). These traits of Gage were evident before the accident took place. He was a specialist in handling explosives which were needed in the railway construction to pave way through hard rocks. However, one mistake resulted to an accident that damaged portions of Gage’s brain.  Through Gage seemed to have recovered from the accident, the affected part of the brain prompted his reactions, which brought out a totally different personality (Damasio, 1994). He seemed to be so different from his former self. He acted weird, fitful, profane, impatient, stubborn, and irrelevant and could not manage his emotions. His new nature denied him employment opportunities and rendered him dependant to his mother and sister.

Computer simulations done on Gage’s skull in 1990 revealed that the accident had damaged the prefrontal cortex (Goldberg, 2002).  The experiment revealed that the damage had brutally impaired his ability to make decisions and plan. In order to test whether prefrontal cortex damage could damage the ability to plan and make decision, another experiment similar to Gage case was conducted on one patient called “Elliote”.  Elliot had a brain tumor that led to the removal of prefrontal cortex. Before the surgery, he was describe as; charming, intelligent with excellent memory, informed about current events, strong business skill and a good sense of humor (Damasio, 1994). Afterward, Elliot could not function as normal. He was unable to prepare for work, and could not manage his schedules. Like Gage, Elliot could not sustain job because he seemed irrelevant and insensitive to people’s counsel. He ended up divorcing leading reckless life, unable to make simple personal decisions.

Damasio presented a vital neuro-scientific research that disputed the notion by Descartes on the mind-body relationship. The experiment were able to prove that reason, like other mental processes, is “embodied” or “coupled” in the physical, that is, based in the physical self of the human beings (Goldberg, 2002). Emotions and other states that are founded in physicality significantly influence not only what individual’s reason, but also how they reason as well. The significance of such emotions cannot be overlooked, because without them, people cannot make decisions or they are compelled to make self-defeating decisions.

Prefrontal cortex is a small strip; several millimeters thick situated in front of the brain and above the eye orbits. This part plays a huge role in coordinating several brain activities, including signals from sensory zone that monitors past and present state of the human body (Damasio, 1994). The prefrontal cortex receives signals from many bio-regulatory areas, such as the areas that sustain regulation of serotonin, dopamine and neurotransmitters. It classifies human experiences as either  “bad” or “good”, and because of this, the prefrontal cortex is purposely made for reasoning about personal situation, precisely the kind of role that were problems for Elliot and Gage (Damasio, 1994). It is quite evident that patients with damaged prefrontal cortex are not able to engage in this kind of reasoning because one aspect of the connecting system is missing. In Antonio’s view, Gage and Elliot lacked significant physical component, “somatic maker” that would allow them feel the best alternative that they could choose. Therefore, considering the evident reality about the vital connection between the human mind and the body, I support Antonio’s argument without any reservation


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