Dualism – Philosophy of Religion essay


“Dualism…is the most common theory of mind in the public at large, it is deeply entrenched in most of the world’s popular religions, and has been the dominant theory of mind for most of Western history”

What is dualism in the philosophy of mind? What forms does dualism take? Two of the most significant problems with dualism are (i) the problem of brain functioning and (ii) the problem of causal efficacy. Explain what these problems are. Can any form of dualism overcome these problems?   


The enigma of existence and mankind’s place in the world has raised a number of  interesting and highly mysterious questions concerning the nature of the human  mind. Since the time of ancient Greece, one of the principle problems for  philosophers has been trying to reconcile the ambiguous nature of the human  mind  with the physical world[1]. While a variety of different theories exist, the  most prevalent one throughout civilisation has probably been dualism, which was  first formally postulated by Rene Descartes in the 17th century, although it no  doubt  existed subconsciously for many generations before that. This essay  attempts to take a critical look at dualism and then enumerate some of the  arguments for and against it. It will, finally, through a process of research-based  extrapolation, suggest that a firm rejection of dualism is the only viable option to  ensure the further development of the philosophy of mind.

What is dualism:

Before we look at the different strands of dualist theory, it is useful to begin with a generalised dualist model. The word ‘dual’ is fairly explicit; essentially the dualist philosopher believes that there are two kinds of properties in the world; physical and non-physical.  The physical world is everything that we can see, touch and hear, or as Descartes, a pioneering substance dualist put it, anything that is extended in space, with length, breadth or height as an indicating factor.[2] Conversely, the non-physical is a ‘second and radically different kind of substance’[3] that has no spatial extension or position. It is this, according to the dualists that makes up the mind and provides us, as human beings, with the ability to reason, calculate and be emotional or introspective. It is important to note at this point the spiritual factor of dualism, as it will come up later in the discussion as an important point of contention.

With this definition in mind, we can briefly look at the various strands of dualism. They have been broken into two broad categories: substance dualism and property dualism. Descartes was a proponent of Cartesian dualism, and as he saw it, the mind is not your material body but instead a non-spatial substance all of its own, devoted purely to thinking.[4] The crux here is that this mind is distinct from the body, and the two separate entities are in constant causal interaction with each other in order to make your body ‘behave in purposeful ways.’[5] Descartes termed the mechanism of this causal interaction ‘animal spirits,’ which he defined as a very ‘subtle’ material substance. [6] The other form of substance dualism is one that philosopher Paul Churchland describes as popular dualism. This theory holds that the mind is like a ‘ghost in a machine,’ operating in or very near to the body, generally with a strong interaction with the brain. [7]

The other main variant of dualism is known as property dualism. It essentially holds that there is no substance beyond the human brain, but that the brain has special emergent properties that are both non-physical and irreducible.[8] These properties can be thoughts, or emotions, or desires, or feelings of pain, and they cannot be explained in terms of the physical sciences. One strand, called epiphenomenalism, goes so far to suggest that these emergent properties are merely by-products of preconceived actions of our brains. In effect, they are ‘impotent’[9] recordings of the actions of our brain rather than the stimulus for actions. According to this view, freewill is essentially negated. Another position holds that these emergent properties are actually in constant interaction and have causal effects on one another. This position is called interactionist property dualism. [10]

The dualist dilemma- brain functioning and causal efficacy


However, these dualist positions suffer from the same problems; they either negate the link between the brain and the mind, or fail to explain how the mind (which they hold to be made of a non-physical substance) has any impact on the brain and the body.

As demonstrated by Churchland, substance dualism can be easily defeated by the problem of brain functioning. To paraphrase his argument, if the mind really is distinct from the brain, then it follows that impairments to the brain from outside influences like alcohol, drugs, senility, or damage should have no effect on the mind. However, it is a truism to say that this is not the case.[11] Alcohol severely impairs judgment and rational thought, while a knock to the head can destroy the power of the mind instantly. The property dualist can to a certain extent counter this argument by claiming that as the ‘emergent properties’ are inextricably linked to the brain, they will inevitably be impaired by brain damage.[12] However, without stipulating how this damage occurs or how these apparently irreducible properties can be damaged, they are still not satisfactorily defending the theory.

The experiments of the 70’s and 80’s, concerning the cleaving of the corpus callosum, went a long way in disrupting the dualist argument and reaffirming materialism. Essentially, the procedure was designed to reduce the severity of epileptic seizures from particularly affected sufferers, and involved separating the brains two hemispheres at their communication point, in effect preventing communication between the two. Principally of interest here, were the experiments done on patients who had received the operation.[13] These displayed a tendency for the different hemispheres to have difficulty forming unified actions and recollections for the single mind, and displayed very powerfully the relationship between the mind and the state of the brain.[14] The conclusion that can logically be drawn here is that the mind is a product of the structure of   the   brain.

The linking factor here is the problem of causal efficacy, or in other words, the way in which the dualist claims the physical body and the non-physical mind interact. How indeed does a non-physical substance affect the workings of the brain? If it indeed has no spatial extension or position, how does it transcend the physical world to cause actions, and conversely, how does it receive stimuli (such as pain, for example) that would by most accounts seem purely physical?[15] If the dualist wishes to infuse his argument with credibility, he must answer this question adequately. Unfortunately for the dualist, at this point in time, his answer is purely speculative. Descartes depended upon ‘animal spirits’ to explain causal efficacy, but surely this is as unsupported and imaginative as any other dualist claim.[16] Other theories have also been postulated, but all rely on the initial premise of the non-physical mind and consequently they also fall short of being credible or scientifically acceptable. Whereas the materialist can speak with passion about the complex workings of neurones and cells and electricity working between the spinal cord and the brain, the dualist has no established basis for his explanations of causal efficacy, and instead has to exercise a deifying belief in a purely speculative non-physical substance.[17]

The Dead-ends of Dualism

It is with this last point that we enter the crux of this debate; namely dualism’s open relation to the concept of ‘faith’ and religion. The reason that the progress of the philosophy of mind has been so inextricably bogged down for hundreds of years is that the stakes are simply too high. The classical dualist (and forgive the generalisation) is not arguing for the sake of intellectual stimulation; he is arguing to preserve the very foundation of his lifestyle; he is arguing to uphold one of the key aspects of his religion and thus arguing to preserve the status quo. If he is defeated by the arguments of the materialist, he must sacrifice an aspect of his religion and most probably far more as well. For the implications of dualism go far beyond the petty confines of the nature of human intelligence. Rather, they touch upon the fundamental issues of religion, such as the ‘soul’ and life after death. The tragedy for dualists is: how can there be life after death if the mind has no ethereal non-physical qualities?[18]

It is this, in this writer’s opinion, which is the reason for the stagnation of philosophy of mind. Right now, materialism faces the same opposition as evolution. Both are far more potent as theories in terms of scientific support and logical coherency than their religiously based alternatives, and yet both face savage opposition from people who are arguing for more than just philosophical progress. The materialist is charged with an impossible duty, and unfortunately, no amount of scientific evidence or logical arguing, such as the Ockham’s Razor hypothesis of rational methodology[19], will solidly end the debate, because dualism’s main premise is our inability to prove it. Thus, dualism is a dead-end, or as philosopher Daniel Dennett put it: “accepting dualism is giving up.”[20]


Dualism’s Defence

With all these criticisms in mind, one must wonder why anyone would feel compelled to believe in dualism, let alone the majority of the human race. The dualist appeal lies in its universality.[21] Apart from the obvious religious connection, its arguments touch upon the fundamental mysteries of human life, such as the power of human introspection and the irreducibility of thoughts and emotions.

The argument for introspection is an interesting and undeniably compelling one. Essentially, our mind is so unbelievably complex and layered that it feels genuinely impossible to factor it all down to biology and structure. When we look in on ourselves, we do not see neurones or frontal lobes or surging electricity; instead we feel thoughts and desires, impulses and emotions.[22] In short, the consequences of introspection seem completely alien to the field of science and biology. Camus eloquently phrases the dilemma of mans alienation from science and logic in his essay ‘The Myth of Sisyphus,’

That universal reason, practical or ethical, that determinism, those categories that determine everything are enough to make a decent man laugh. They have nothing to do with the mind.  They negate its profound truth…[23]

Camus expresses here the doubts and anxieties of Everyman.[24] To us, a mere scientific explanation seems flimsy compared to the power of introspection. But as Churchland argues, the serious use of this argument for the sake of dualism is ‘deeply suspect.’[25] If our abilities are constant, then introspection should have the same fallibility (if not far more) as vision, hearing or touch. The assumption that we have the ability to analyse our own minds is unsound scientifically because there can be no qualitative verification or consistency.[26]

Irreducibility is essentially a collection of arguments similar to the arguments from introspection, basically appealing to human beings to assess their own feelings and thoughts as being irreducible. Descartes was one of the first to suggest this argument. He believed that the human ability to reason, particularly in the field of mathematics, could not be reduced to the physical nature of our biology, and thus must have a special non-physical quality.[27] In this day and age however, this argument becomes deeply problematic due to the advent of the calculator and the computer, machines that are far more capable of mathematical skills like addition, subtraction or calculus than the average human mind.[28] Others have cited emotions as an irreducible property that confirms dualism, and certainly to anyone who has ever been in love or mourned the passing of a family member, this argument seems convincing. However, yet again science has developed significantly to discover the inexplicable relationship between emotions and chemicals in the brain.[29] The materialist has no choice but to mercilessly state that we can trace our complex faculties to biological roots each and every time.


Conclusion: Where do we go from here?

Until they can provide physical evidence of the non-physical (which seems highly unlikely, and furthermore, obscenely paradoxical), the duellist’s argument must be rejected. Philosophy of mind depends upon logical arguing, scientific support and furthermore, upon the potential for development. Dualism offers none of these. Philosophy of mind should now be devoted to the physical properties of the brain and how its structure provides us with such a rich and introspectively-troubled existence.



Camus, Albert The Myth of Sisyphus, (Penguin: France, 1942)

Churchland, Paul, Matter and Consciousness, (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1988),

Dennett, Daniel Explaining Consciousness entry in Consciousness Explained (Boston: Little, Brown, 1991,

Devlin, Keith Goodbye, Descartes: The end of logic and the search for a new cosmology of the mind, (John Wiley & Sons, Inc: Canada, 1997)

Gallois, Andre The world without, the mind within: An essay on first-person authority , (Cambridge University Press: Great Britain, 1996

Glover, Jonathan I: The Philosophy and Psychology of Personal Identity (London: Penguin, 1988)

Putnam, Hilary Representation and Reality (Bradford, MIT Press: Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1988)

[1] Often referred to as the mind-body problem or the ontological problem.

[2] Churchland, Paul, Matter and Consciousness, (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1988), pp 8

[3] Ibid, pp 8

[4] Ibid, pp 8

[5] Ibid, pp 8

[6] Ibid, pp 9

[7] Ibid, pp 9

[8] Ibid, pp 10

[9] Churchland, Paul, Matter and Consciousness, (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1988), pp 11

[10] Ibid, pp 12

[11] Ibid, pp 20

[12] Ibid, pp 20

[13] Glover, Jonathan I: The Philosophy and Psychology of Personal Identity (London: Penguin, 1988), pp 33-35

[14] Ibid, pp 38-46

[15] Churchland, Paul, Matter and Consciousness, (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1988), pp 20

[16] Ibid, pp 9

[17] [17] Ibid, pp 19-20

[18] Churchland, Paul, Matter and Consciousness, (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1988),, pp 13

[19] Ibid, pp 18

[20] Dennett, Daniel Explaining Consciousness entry in Consciousness Explained (Boston: Little, Brown, 1991, pp 37

[21] [21] Churchland, Paul, Matter and Consciousness, (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1988), pp 13-14

[22] Ibid, pp 14

[23] Camus, Albert The Myth of Sisyphus, (Penguin: France, 1942), pp 26

[24] It is important not to misinterpret Camus here. He is by no means a dualist, and here he is simply expressing the universal problems of mankind. The essay actually goes on to suggest how man can live in an overwhelmingly materialist universe.

[25] Churchland, Paul, Matter and Consciousness, (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1988), pp 15

[26] Ibid, pp 15

[27] Churchland, Paul, Matter and Consciousness, (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1988), pp15-16

[28] Ibid, pp 16

[29] Dennett, Daniel Explaining Consciousness entry in Consciousness Explained (Boston: Little, Brown, 1991, pp 24

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