Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Physical monism vs. substance dualism - arguments

In the last post we’ve been dealing generally with the differences between the two major schools which are monism and dualism. It’s time we take a closer look to one of the most popular branches of the dualism – substance dualism. It states that there are two completely different substances (entities) – mental and material. This used to be one of the most popular theories in the times of Descartes – nowadays, however, as the science progresses it seems that it's becoming more and more difficult to defend such a controversial view. Why is it so?

Perception of world by substance dualists
To my mind, the biggest problem in understanding the concept of the theory is the definition of substances which turns out to be quite misleading. While we’re usually sure what the physical substance is, many of us get lost when it comes to explaining the non-physical entity. The word “substance” means that something must be physical, whereas substance dualists argue that the world we live in consists of physical substance (which could be actually regarded as a pleonasm) and non-physical substance (which seems to be a paradox). Such a great confusion in the very definition of the philosophical theory may cause the whole theory to be unclear and tricky. Some dualists compare non-physical substance to wind, music, or energy; however, these comparisons are the source of even greater confusion. All of these examples are strictly physical – wind and music consist of waves which can be heard, felt, and with the use of scientific apparatus you’re even able to see them. Personally, I believe that a much better term would be simply a form, which does not suggest that it needs to be physical.

Physical monists argue that substance dualists actually confuse physical and non-physical substances (entities, forms, or whatever you want to call them) with the point of view. While reading this blog, you’re probably sitting on the chair (or lying in the bed) – if you’re a healthy person you will, sooner or later, stand up. You’ll think that you want to stand up, you’ll make your decision, and as you’ll be standing up, you’ll feel how it is like to stand up. That’s at least your perspective. Now imagine you’re a scientist with all the advanced apparatus which enables you to see the inside of a body. What would you observe? You would probably see that there is a brain activity in the part of the brain which is responsible for decision making. Then you would observe a nerve activity, and subsequently a muscle activity causing the reader of this blog to stand up. You as a scientist would not be able to observe the feeling of how it is like to stand up, and you would not be able to observe the cause of such a brain activity. But does it really mean that if these aspects of standing up can’t be observed they don’t exist? This is a monist point of view; I think that since, according to the substance dualism, world is built of physical and non-physical entities there is in fact no way of directly observing the non-physical entities. They are manifested in  physical entities but as such can’t be observed. I believe that this is why one’s personality often changes when the brain is damaged. Non-physical part of your body cannot manifest through the damaged physical body. It doesn’t mean, however, that a damaged body kills the non-physical entity.

Brief summary of arguments
If the non-physical part of the body can’t be observed directly how can it be observed at all? The only possible way of proving the existence of the non-physical entity is to show the independence of the two body parts. I think that the only way to show this independence is to find a situation in which mind exists independently outside the body. Obviously, there are not many opportunities (if any) to prove the mind-body independence. Maybe with one exception only – death and near-death experiences. There are numerous cases of patients who were clinically dead; and despite being clinically dead they were able to hear and see outside their bodies (this is called an out-of-body-experience - OBE). Many patients who were successfully brought back to life were able to precisely describe what doctors did, said, and so on (one of the well known cases is the one of Pam Reynolds who precisely described the drill which the doctor used to open her skull even though she hadn’t seen it before). If you’re interested in death and near-death experiences I recommend you a wonderful book I read many years ago – “Back and Beyond” by R. Wilkerson. From these near-death experiences you can deduce that there are both physical and non-physical side of the human being and that the latter can exist without its physical part. I think these experiences can’t be explained by hallucinations if they actually reflect the reality (as in the case of the drill seen by Pam Reynolds).

I believe that there are some flaws in the substance dualism (the main one is the definition of substances) but all in all science (especially near-death experiences) can help to prove the theory right. The biggest mistake of many monists is that they in fact want a physical proof for non-physical substance which is as self-contradictory as the misleading use of the word substance in the substance dualism theory (this type of misleading use of words is called equivocation). That’s how I see it – I’d love to hear your opinions and arguments too, so please do take time to leave a comment!


  1. This is stunning how you have contrived to totally uncover the subject that you have picked for this precise entry. By the way did you use any similar posts as a source of ideas to complete the whole picture that you have provided in this blog article?

  2. Hi, Ashley! Thank you so much for your comment, I am really glad you have liked my entry. Though very much interested in philosophy, I do not follow other philosophy blogs so the article presents my point of view on the issue. Actually, after writing the entry I tried to look up some articles on the same topic to see what others think - but was not able to find any. Anyway, I'm very glad you enjoy the blog and hope you'll come here again!

  3. Excellent analysis. You make some really good points. I ended up here looking for philosophical arguments for and against monism. When I use this word, however, I think I'm using it to describe something else. In some eastern religions, there is talk of monism and dualism. This varies from the Western philosophical idea you treat so well in this article. As I understand it, the idea of monism and dualism is not a question so much of the separation of physical self and nonphysical self, as a separation of self and nonself. Of course, the eastern monist I describe would be a monist after the Cartesian fashion too, as this is a necessary conclusion if the premise of there being no separation between self and nonself or anything for that matter, is true. The practical difference between these view points is that with eastern monism, the claim that physical self and non physical self are the same is based on the premise that all things, be they conditional phenomena or otherwise, are actually the same. The idea is that a separation of nonphysical and physical reality is a false dichotomy. Rather than say the non physical is non existent, we say that the distinction is only in the mind, a trick of the nervous system so we can get by day to day. They are one and the same, though both are thought to exist in the phenomenological realm of experience as separate.

  4. hi there, I was wondering if you can write something about the difference between Property and substance dualism


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...