5.3.1 Mind/Body Dualism


By the end of this section you will discover:

  • The major arguments for human mind/body dualism.
  • The chief problems with this view.


Much of what we discussed about Descartes’ metaphysical dualism in the previous section sets out the issues of mind/body dualism. Dualism seems the most natural expression of our own experience. It certainly seems like my body is a tangible, physical thing, while my mind is somehow “contained” inside my brain. Moreover, it seems that my mind can direct my body to act and that it has a causal impact on my voluntary motion. So too, it seems that things that happen to my body—accidents, illnesses, exposure to heat or cold—likewise influence my thoughts.

Moreover, it seems my mind, though it may wander, is largely tied to my body’s location in time and space. True, I can daydream about that vacation last year in Cancun, can remember the warmth of the sun and the water, but I retain the knowledge that “I” am not “there,” that I am in fact right here, today, in this body.

Also, it is worthwhile to point out that a dualistic account of our nature might be easiest to square with our beliefs about the afterlife (as immortal spirits/souls say) or with theories according to which we have free will. If we are purely corporeal, material beings, then we might have to abandon those theories. (We will investigate this claim about freedom in great detail below.)

Problems with Mind/Body Dualism

But, as we saw above, there are problems with this “dualistic” view. The most serious problem was the problem of interaction. How can a non-physical thing like a “mind” causally affect a physical thing like a “body”? Or vice versa? And if they do interact, where does that interaction occur? Descartes speculated that it might occur in the pineal gland, a small gland in the middle of the brain which scientists of his day did not understand. But this seems ridiculous. A non-physical mind can have no “where,” for only physical things occupy space.

Arguments Against Personal Identity: Crash Course Philosophy #20

Or watch the video here


Taking it to the Streets…

Try any of these conversations with some friends:
Ask a friend or two if they believe they are minds inside of bodies. If they believe so, ask them where in the body the mind resides. Most will point to their heads. Ask them why they point there. Can they be sure that is where the mind resides?
Ask a friend where “they” are when they are dreaming. If they say they are in their bodies in bed, then ask how it is they can experience all the things of the dream. If they say they are in the dream, then ask them whether they really need a body in order to have experiences.
Ask them to try to explain how the mind is different from the brain. Ask them to explain how the two can interact. As an example, set up an object at some distance from them. Ask them to use only their mind to move it, without walking over to it. When they cannot, ask them why their minds can interact with their brains but not with other physical objects.

As Paul Richard Blum has noted,

Even in the contemporary era, philosophers such as Gilbert Ryle (1900-1976) found worth in writing about and arguing against Descartes’ views to set up their own theories. Ryle questioned whether the mind and body are in fact distinct and argued that they would not communicate with each other if they were. Ryle states:

Body and mind are ordinarily harnessed together…. [T]he things and events which belong to the physical world…are external, while the workings of [a person’s] own mind are internal…. [This results in the] partly metaphorical representation of the bifurcation of a person’s two lives. (1945, 11-16)

As we mentioned earlier in this chapter, Ryle believed that, if Descartes’ theory were correct, the mind would be a mere “ghost in a machine,” inactive and unable to cause actions in the body (the machine). Ryle did not term Descartes’ theory “substance dualism” but “Descartes’ myth.”  (Blum, Introduction to Philosophy: Philosophy of Mind, Heather Salazar (Editor))



Works Cited

CrashCourse. Arguments Against Personal Identity: Crash Course Philosophy #20. YouTube, YouTube, 11 July 2016, https://youtu.be/17WiQ_tNld4. Accessed 12 Apr. 2022.



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PPSC PHI 1011: The Philosopher's Quest by Daniel G. Shaw, Ph.D. is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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