The notion of motion

Rene Descarte, in his “Meditations on First Philosophy,” intended to propose a position that he viewed would suffice as an explanation of how one can go on living after death. The way in which he did this was by using the mind synonymously with the soul and then creating an argument that concludes in the mind/soul (mind from here on) being distinct from the body. This position raised many questions the most pertinent of which is; just exactly how a mind interacts with a body, given they are distinct? Princess Elisabeth wrote to Descartes enquiring as much. Descartes’ response to her was, essentially, that in the case of primitive notions (which are distinct from one another), interactions occur in non-comparable ways (Understanding Interaction, pg39). Descartes never directly presents the exact mechanism of interaction between a body and a mind but the reader is able to infer that Descartes’s position is along the lines of ‘I have a clear and distinct mind and body, each of which can act on the other, and since they can act on each other there must therefore exist a mechanism which allows for such interaction.’ Descartes describes this mechanism of interaction between a body and a mind as being one primitive notion which is distinct from, and non-comparable with another primitive notion such as the interaction of a body with another body. (UI, pg39) To consider these mechanisms of interactions, I will focus specifically on what seems to me to be root from which the main area of concern is derived, motion.

Concerning motion, one major dispute of the debate between Garber and Brown is outlined by Brown when she makes the claim “Garber assumes that because bodies are inertial, they cannot be causes of change.” (Understanding Interaction Revisited, pg60) I will provide reasonable evidence to the contrary of this claim, and I will argue that Brown’s claim is based on a garbled idea of causation and faulty logic that does not culminate in a defensible position.

Daniel Garber’s framework for understanding the dispute is composed of “three basic ideas, that of mind, that of body, and that of their union. Each is separate, each is distinct, and each has its own domain of application; each is per se intelligible, and cannot be explained in terms of other primitive notions.” (UI, pg39) This is a clear position which can be derived from at least two sources. One is Descartes’s letters to Elisabeth and the other, which precedes the letter, is in his meditations when Descartes writes “..there is a great difference between a mind and a body, in that a body, by its very nature, is always divisible.. mind is utterly indivisible.. I understand myself to be manifestly one complete thing. Although the entire mind seems to be united to the entire body.. were a foot or arm or any other bodily part to be amputated, I know that nothing has been taken away from the mind on that account.” (Modern Philosophy, pg67Left) Garber suggests that Descartes view is; mind, body, and union are essentially a universal principle through which God sustains creation. Almost as if to imply; God is the mind of the body that is the universe. Later philosophers suggested this might be something akin to extension of the mind to all parts of the body, but I would argue; it does not follow that from seemingly infinite nature of creation that God must therefore be finite (to be extended requires a finite existence, God is infinite).

Additionally, Garber further illuminates Descartes’s view on God,  that God is the prime-mover and all other causes are particular causes, or secondary causes which are derived from God who is unchangeable. Meaning that since the time of creation, the amount of motion set forth has been sustained. According to Descartes, these particular causes or secondary causes are how God sustains creation. (UI, pg47) I give an entertaining example of this later. I think it is also vitally important to note, in defense of this position, that Descartes does provides distinction between motion and the force causing motion. Descartes says “The translation which I call motion is a thing of no less entity than shape: it is a mode in body. The force causing motion may be that of God Himself.. or it may be that of a created substance, like our mind; or of any other thing to which He gave the force to move a body.” (UI pg,45) What I think Descartes is implying here is that while a body can be in motion, that motion is the result of an extended body (without mind), only created substances (substances with mind) can force a body to move.

Deborah Brown does outline a question worth considering; in labelling God as the prime-mover and sustainer of creation, how can evil exist? (UIR, pg61) The reason this question is worth considering is that if God is perfect and the prime-mover of causation then God allows evil to exist. Since this seems to be a contradiction to the nature of something perfect, a thing from which evil may be derived (which is not perfect) is necessary on the basis that evil does exist. I quite like this approach, it lets me call God evil! That is to say, evil may very well exist in God, but God does so possess a nature of goodness that he does not exercise evil. From there, unbeknownst to our finite minds, God may deem, at one point in time or another, evil to be necessary and then exercised through particular causes or secondary causes since His nature does not allow for evil.

Another of Brown’s defense’s is that “a Cartesian body at rest will not begin to move unless it is impelled by another body in motion–but it does not follow that a body does not have the power to act.” Brown then immediately defers to an implication that Descartes has come to this conclusion and explored the need for a solution to this problem with the notion of “striving” in his works on physics. (UIR, pg61) I think this is a diversion meant to defer the reader from asking a very important question; what is meant by body? The Cartesian body that is being described here is a body without a mind. If we undertake this assumption, then, in light of Descartes philosophy, it does logically follow that a body (without a mind) does not possess the power to act (rocks never caused evil).

The final point I will make on Brown’s argument is far more interesting if somewhat complex. To do this, in what I hope is a clear manner, requires a distinction be made between cause of motion from cause and cause of motion from effect. Descartes uses motion as being a notion of extension, which is a property of a body. (UI, pg38) Interestingly, while he provides a body as an extension for motion from another body (body A at rest can be affected by another body B in motion, and a body B in motion can affect another body A at rest), Descartes, as mentioned, does not allow for bodies to be the cause of motion from cause. This seems to align fairly consistently with what Descartes might view as distinct primitive notions. One primitive notion that a body acting on another body is limited to the cause of motion from effect and the second that the mind when acting on a body is limited to the cause of motion from cause. From this, we can at least understand why the two primitive notions are non-comparable. Namely, one is cause and one is effect. Trying to explain cause in terms of effect is, as Descartes puts it, “the main cause of our errors..” (UI, pg39)

In summary, I believe that Daniel Garber’s position is far more consistent with the entirety of Descartes’s philosophy; how the mind, body, and union are distinct, how this is a principle by which creation is sustained, and how extended substances can be in motion but only created substances can cause motion. Deborah Brown’s argument seemed fairly elusive to my finite mind. I never did find a hard-line position that strongly opposed Garber’s position. Instead, I elaborated on what seemed to be the strongest position in opposition, the question of evil causation, but even that was no match for three-hundred and sixty year old philosophy. Additionally, I revealed how a simple understanding of a Cartesian body directly and logically, by virtue of Descartes’s philosophy, does conclude that a body (without mind) has not the power to act. Lastly, when I provided additional distinction for types of causation, (cause of motion from cause, and cause of motion from effect) Descartes’s philosophy seemed more comprehensible and Garber’s position, further reinforced.


(The sources I had where the actual articles. I tried to find the articles on the internet. These citations just point you in the direction of what I covered for this paper.)

Ariew, Roger, and Eric Watkins. Modern Philosophy: An Anthology of Primary Sources. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Pub., 2009. Print.

Garber, D. (1983), UNDERSTANDING INTERACTION: WHAT DESCARTES SHOULD HAVE TOLD ELISABETH. The Southern Journal of Philosophy, 21: 15–32

 Brown, Deborah (2013). Understanding interaction revisited. In Stewart Duncan and Antonia LoLordo (Ed.), Debates in modern philosophy: essential readings and contemporary responses (pp. 54-63) New York, NY, United States: Routledge

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