What Is Dualism?

Post Author: Bill Pratt

In the previous post, philosopher J. P. Moreland explained what physicalists believe, particularly with respect to human beings.  Physicalism holds that humans are composed of nothing but matter.

Now we will see what dualists believe.  Again, we are quoting from Moreland and Habermas’s Beyond Death: Exploring the Evidence for Immortality.  Dualists disagree with physicalists that matter is all there is.  For dualists, there also exist mental entities.  Moreland gives three examples of mental entities:

1.  Sensations: These would include “experiences of colors, sounds, smells, tastes, textures, pains, and itches.  Sensations are individual things that occur at particular times.  I can have a sensation of red after looking in a certain direction or by closing my eyes and daydreaming.  An experience of pain will arise at a certain time, say, after I am stuck with a pin.”

Moreland continues his description of sensations:

Further, sensations are natural kinds of things that have, as their very essence, the felt quality or sensory property that makes them what they are.  Part of the very essence of a pain is the felt quality it has; part of the very essence of a red sensation is the presentation of a particular shade of color to my consciousness.  Sensations are not identical to things outside a person’s body – for instance, a feeling of pain is not the same thing as being stuck with a pin and shouting, “Ouch!”  Sensations are essentially characterized by a certain conscious feel, and thus, they presuppose consciousness for their existence and description.  If there were no conscious beings, there would be no sensations.

2. Propositional attitudes: A propositional attitude is having “a certain mental attitude toward a proposition that is part of a that-clause.  For example, one can hope, desire, fear, dread, wish, think, believe that P where P may be the proposition: ‘The Royals are a great baseball team.'”

There are at least two components to propositional attitudes:

First, there is the attitude itself.  Hopes, fears, dreads, wishes, thoughts, etc. are all different attitudes, different states of consciousness, and they are all different from each other based on their conscious feel.  A hope is a different form of consciousness from an episode of fear.  A hope that it will rain is different from a fear that it will rain.  What’s the difference?  A hope has a very different conscious feel from a fear.

Second, they all have a content or a meaning embedded in the propositional attitude – namely the propositional content of my consciousness while I am having the propositional attitude.  My hope that P differs from my hope that Q, because P and Q are different propositions or meanings in my consciousness.  If there were no conscious selves, there would be no propositional attitudes.  My hope that it will rain is different from my hope that taxes will be cut.  The contents of these hopes have quite different meanings.

3. Acts of will or purposings: “What is a purposing?  If, unknown to me, my arm is tied down and I still try to raise it, then the purposing is the “trying to bring about” the event of raising my arm.  Intentional actions are episodes of volition by conscious selves wherein and whereby they do various actions.  They are acts of will performed by conscious selves.”

So that is dualism in brief.  Our next task is to defend dualism against physicalism, and we will start that process next week by examining the nature of identity.

  • Norm Doidge describes some fascinating examples of what you call ‘mental entities’ in his book The Brain That Changes Itself, which shows that these ‘entities’ are no such thing. They are the brain’s interpretation of sensory data. What’s fascinating is how the brain’s interpretation can be intentionally altered. For example, the blind (born without optic nerves) can still be taught to ‘see’ – meaning to activate the visual areas of the brain – through stimulating the skin… as can rerouting balance, after the destruction of the inner ear, by means of skin stimulation.

    What’s so interesting here is that the ancient Greek notion of objects attributed with properties for agency is clearly wrong. For example, it’s not the eye that possesses the property of seeing or the ear that possesses the property of hearing as has long been presumed; it is – shown over and over again – the brain.

    When you can wrap your head around this notion, you can strip away the ancient Greek notion of mind/body dualism that attributes properties to the mind and start to understand why the mind is what the brain does. And the evidence for this growing daily. Ramachandran’s simple mirror box therapy for phantom pain from amputated nerves (explained here) shows the power of the brain’s visual cortex to alter chronic pain… once again putting Moreland’s ‘entity’ assertion to reality’s test and revealing why it is wrong; pain is not an entity whatsoever but the result of the brain’s interpretation of the body’s environment.

    Bill, I have little doubt that you will read this and then continue to go on your merry way assuming that dualism is still a valid concept. It isn’t. It’s thoroughly discredited (and has been for nearly 500 years). There is no evidence for any ghost in the machinery of your brain. But I understand why you need to continue to believe in this false mind/body model. After all, much of christianity depends on the incorrect notion that free will is real and that it links our brains to some divine law giver while allowing us choice to believe (and be ‘saved’) or not (and be damned). The only problem here is that your model is not supported by evidence from reality.


    I hope this at least gives you pause… but I suspect it won’t even slow you down, so assured are you in your faith that what’s true in reality MUST be explainable within the construct of your belief model. That you don’t understand why this assumption of faith-must-be-true causes so much trouble for honest inquiry into reality is one of the central reasons why the West is fast losing its position of prominence in the world of cutting edge science and technology. You’ve confused – and continue to support the confusion – that your faith is an equivalent, rather than an incompatible, model to knowledge.

  • Thank you, tildeb for that fascinating video. Not only did I learn, it emphasized once more how little we have unwrapped regarding the brain.

  • You’re welcome. These are such exciting times in neuroscience! And we have so much to learn because our ignorance is so vast. What we do know is that presuming an explanation about some divine but invisible component that operates the machinery of the brain has yielded no knowledge for the past millennium and a half. Now imagine substituting honest inquiry for certainty of faith and how much that will change our knowledge of the brain over the next millennium and a half and we’ll be able to fairly compare and contrast the results of these supposedly different ways of knowing.

  • All three of these “mental entities” clearly require a physical brain and nervous system to occur. They are creating a false category of things that are more wishy-washy than, for example, vision which is obviously connected to a physical eye.

    I agree that all of these entities exist. But why is this significant? As we learn more about the brain, we become more and more educated on exactly how it works, especially in relation to sensory experiences, emotions, feelings, etc. What reason do we have to think that these “mental entities” are in a separate realm and not grounded in physical processes?

  • What reason do we have to think that these “mental entities” are in a separate realm and not grounded in physical processes?

    Just so. All evidential indications are towards physical processes. In response, metaphysics is being used (again) as the primary ‘source’ for fighting a rear guard action against advancing knowledge. And with this metaphysics comes an agenda not to answer the tough questions with compelling reasons and good evidence but to avoid them with, as you say, smoke and mirrors.

  • Cristero

    Thats science of the gaps. You also styed by ancient Greeks: but these were matherialists.

  • Cristero

    “we learn more about the brain, we become more and more educated” – scence of the gaps?

  • Donny

    Duality is what occurred with the myth of Adam & Eve who could not live happily in the Garden (Paradise).
    In the Garden there were no opposites. Everything was just there, with everything they needed provided for them, with nothing good or bad, right or wrong. And so they were bored.
    So when Eve yielded to temptation, and ate from the Tree of Knowledge of Good & Evil, what she, later Adam, woke up to was the world of opposites. The dual world of right/wrong…good/bad…up/down…in/out, etc., etc., the world we live in today.
    Of course none of this ever really happened, but the story is a most wonderful (full-of-wonder) metaphor for how we live our lives today…still trying to get back in the Garden.
    So we have a paradox…we humans are trying to get back in the one dimensional Garden where we can never be happy.
    Ain’t life grand? (Big smile)