Theories on Dualism in Philosophy

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22nd May 2017 Philosophy Reference this


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Dualism in Philosophy is a theory which, at its basis, holds two radically distinct principles or concepts. One of the most commonly held interpretations of dualism is the concept of the existence of two distinct human entities, that of body and that of soul. It is this interpretation of dualism that the following explication will predominantly address. Dualists believe that the mind determines our personality and the body is a container, or vessel for this ‘self’ (REFERENCE).

Widely considered as the two vanguards of modern dualism are substance dualism and property dualism. Substance dualism holds that the mind or soul is a separate, non-physical entity from the human form, whilst property dualism maintains that there is no soul distinct from the body but only one entity (the person) which has two irreducibly different types of properties, mental and physical (REFERENCE). Substance dualism leaves some room open for the stance that the soul could possibly exist separately from the body, either before birth or after death. Property dualism does not allow for this notion although does permit that both the mental and physical relationship of cause and effect to work in harmony together. The cause of one event may be described as a physical event in the brain and under another event, as a desire, emotion or thought. Substance dualism however, has become increasingly omitted from the majority of contemporary discussions. It could now be considered that few philosophers currently find the idea of the soul coherent or productive.

Although the first use of the term ‘dualism’ was cited in the 14th century to describe the Islamic faith (REFERENCE), the Western philosopher who spoke most about dualism was RenĂ© Descartes. Descartes believed that everything non-physical; all feelings and sensations that can be described but cannot be located physically become part of your mind or soul. Descartes’ dualism, (known as Cartesian Dualism) rested on very certain and definite ideas. He stated that the mind and body were two very different things and that all substances have a property of a special nature. To offer an example, the property of the mind is consciousness, an entity whose entire essence is to think (and therefore takes up no space), whereas the properties of bodily or material substances are length, breath or depth (and therefore their essence is to take up space). The mind has been widely considered as an intangible entity and non-physical in contrast to the body, which is extended and can take many material forms which can be described by their size, shape, position or movement (REFERENCE). Descartes considered that that the mind is the place in which a person’s feelings, sensations and thoughts are known only to themselves, whilst all of the functions that the body performs are observable to all. His theory also asserted the idea that both the body and mind interact with each other, the mind having an effect on the body and the body having an effect on the mind, although the body and mind remain separate. He maintained that our identity comes from the ability to think and reason and it is therefore conceivable that we could survive without our bodies (as the soul/mind is separate from the body) and still remain the same person. Descartes was convinced that that we didn’t need our bodies to live an intellectually aware and active life and consequently the mind could escape death. He felt that even if we drastically changed or altered our appearance, then it would not affect our personalities and upon observation it would still be possible to recognise someone by reference to his or her character (REFERENCE). As Descartes asserted:

‘Our soul is of a nature entirely independent of the body, and consequently… it is not bound to die with it. And since we cannot see any other cause which destroys the soul, we are naturally led to conclude that it is immortal’ RenĂ© Descartes, Discourse on the Method, 1637 (REFERENCE)

Dualism has received a lot of attention in the past and Descartes has not been the only philosopher who has written on the concept. Great thinkers such as Plato, Aristotle and Aquinas have all put forward their ideas on the subject each one differing slightly. Plato believed that the soul belonged to a level of reality that was higher than that of the body. He stated that the soul was immortal and this derived from his theory of ideas, which he called forms. Plato asserted that for every existence there is a perfect form of said existence. For example for every chair there is an ideal, perfect form of that chair, as with every dog there is a perfect dog (REFERENCE). Plato’s form theory maintained that the physical world is where the body exists for the subject in order to receive sense impressions, whilst the soul is immaterial and is capable of knowing eternal truths beyond the material world. All knowledge that we have acquired is from the acquaintance we have had with the forms before our immortal souls became imprisoned in our body. Thus, the ultimate aim of the soul is to break free of the chains of the body and flee to the realm of ideas. There it will be able to spend eternity in contemplation of the true, beautiful and the good (REFERENCE).

Aristotle was another philosopher who tried to explain the idea of the body and mind. Even though Aristotle was a pupil of Plato, his thoughts on dualism were very different form that of Plato although he still believed that the soul was the part of the body that gives it life and that the soul turned all physical form into a living organism of its particular type (REFERENCE). Whilst Aristotle believed that the body and soul were inseparable he asserted that the soul still develops people’s skills, character and temper, but it can’t survive death. Once the body dies then the soul inevitably dies with it, and this provides an example of early monistic theory. Monism is the theory that the mind and body are inseparable, and monists do not accept that an individual’s characteristics are anything more than physical ones (any ideas of consciousness are nothing more than electrical brain activity). This is where Aristotle’s principles differ from monism. He believed that a human is not just a living, physical body and nothing more. He thought that the body and soul were different, and because humans have a soul they are capable of having an intellectual life (REFERENCE).

Aquinas (REFERENCE) agreed with Aristotle in the sense that he thought that the soul animated the body and gave it life and he called the soul the ‘anima’. Aquinas believed that that the soul operated independently of the body and that things that are divisible into parts, are destined to decay. As the soul isn’t divisible it is able to survive death. However because of the link with a particular human body, each soul becomes individual so even when the body does die, the soul once departed still retains the individual identity of the body it once occupied (REFERENCE).

The separation of the mind, or soul, and the physical body seems to be a concept which holds little weight under scrutiny. As Ryle (REFERENCE) asserted, ‘to think of the body and soul as two separate entities is to make a category mistake’ and refers to what he considers the erroneous notion that the soul is something identifiably extra within a person, or to quote directly; a ‘ghost in a machine’. Ryle famously illustrated his hypothesis with the example of the university: A foreigner, having visited the colleges, libraries, sports facilities etc. asks to see the university: Ryle’s intention was to emphasize the requirement of the various constituent parts to form a whole. However, in order to facilitate a conclusive analysis, a clear definition of the concepts discussed is essential. Thus, a soul may be defined as that which thinks, feels and desires; a non-spatiotemporal essence that encapsulates the personal identity of an individual. The body may be identified as the frame in which the soul is contained.

Ryle, in advocating the unity of body and soul, assumes a Materialist stance and would thus contend that those features generally attributed to the soul are all explainable in terms of neurophysiological reactions. In “Confessions of a Philosopher”, Brian Magee supported this view, claiming: “The human body is a single entity, one subject of behaviour and experience with a single history. We are not two entities mysteriously laced together.” Yet, there has been an enduring allegiance to the inverse; that we are composite beings of both corporeal matter and incorporeal soul, thus subscribing to Dualism. Plato, a principal proponent, asserted in his “Republic” that at death the immortal soul, temporarily imprisoned within the contingent, perishable body, rejoins the realm of eternal truths. In his 2nd Meditation, Descartes reinterpreted Plato’s arguments, concluding that as our identity ensues from non-physical processes, such as the ability to reason, it is conceivable that we could survive a posthumous existence: “Our soul is of a nature entirely independent of the body and consequently…it is not bound to die with it. And since we cannot see any other causes which destroy the soul, we are naturally led to conclude that it is immortal.”

The Materialist contention that the soul cannot exist without the body would ostensibly appear the more rational position. Some elucidation is, therefore, required to account for the otherwise unprecedented attention Dualism has received over the centuries and, accordingly, Ryle’s alleged ‘category mistake’. As may be inferred, the concept of a non-contingent soul affords the possibility of survival beyond physical death. In allowing for the fulfilment of a moral equilibrium; the realization of human potential; a validation of existence; the remuneration of the pious; and a basis for rejecting the alternative, the abrupt termination of individual consciousness, life after death may be considered a desirable objective. However, not one supposition of a seemingly inexhaustible list renders the proposition necessarily true. Is it even coherent to postulate the existence of a non-empirical, unverifiable entity?

There are four kinds of argument that may be raised in defence of the notion. First, we each have a unique consciousness, impenetrable to the outside world. Our thoughts, beliefs etc. may be inferred by others, but never directly experienced. Nevertheless, our body and its processes remain outwardly perceptible. The existence of a soul resolves the seemingly irreconcilable conflict between the public and the private.

Second, the fact that we are held morally accountable for our deeds presupposes that we have complete freedom of choice. However, the premise appears unsubstantiated when countered by the fact that our every thought may be described in terms of the physiological processes occurring in the brain and central nervous system. These processes are accounted for by causal conditions extending beyond a person, prior even to their existence. If we are bound by such conditions that remain beyond our control, how may we be considered free, and, thus, held morally accountable? The postulation of some essence, independent of the deterministic causal chain, and with the capacity to influence moral choices provides a potential solution.

Third, the quandary of multiple personality disorder must be remedied. If a body can house several personalities, each with its own distinct self-concept and set of behavioural patterns, the body is clearly not central to personal identity. How may this be accounted for? It is evident that we each possess a number of different, yet un-fragmented perspectives. In a pathological condition, however, what holds these perspectives together is lost. Does this suggest the existence of some ethereal glue, cementing the various facets of a self as one?

Finally, there exist a number of people claiming to be in possession of paranormal powers such as telepathy, clairvoyance, psychokinesis etc. In assuming these accounts to be accurate, the Materialist notion that the mind remains entirely dependant on intermediate physical agencies is negated.

In sum, if undisputed, the implication of the evidence given is that humans may comprise partly of some imperceptible essence, independent of physical processes. Furthermore, if death remains no exception to the rule, it is plausible that, in a limited capacity, the soul may be preserved, and with it our self identity. However, are there sufficient grounds for refuting the evidence? In truth, convincing though the Dualist arguments may appear, not one case made remains entirely exempt from Materialist criticism. Recently, there has been increasing support for an anthropological view. In attempting an analysis of the brain, in “The Mind’s I”, Douglas Hofstadter offered the analogy of an ant colony: “A colony has different levels: the colony itself, groups of ants such as workers, teams of ants, and individual ants themselves. We assign meaning to the higher levels (for example that a group of worker ants is removing the carcass of a fly) and hold that these higher levels encode information for the colony. But these higher-level patterns of behaviour are ultimately mere products of the random motions of individual, unintelligent ants.” Thus, according to Hofstadter, our every thought, belief or idea is merely a product of random neural firings. It consequently follows that we need not appeal ultimately to meaning to account for reality; we do so purely for the sake of convenience.

How well, therefore, do the four lines of argument raised stand up in light of this? The first may be immediately dismissed: The fact that one individual organism may not experience the neural firings of another is unexceptional. In the case of the second: If, on every occasion, what we formerly considered to be higher ideals and beliefs in truth function as labels, then moral law exists as little more that a highly complex system of control. The requirement to apportion a soul is, thus, mooted. Further more, the condition of multiple personalities may be explained by some form of repression, whilst numerous reports of paranormal incidents have proved fairly dubious. To this the following must be added:

First, functions such as conceptualisation and memory recall are generally considered to be requisites of self-identity. The implication is that these processes are independent of the mind and could, thus, be sustained by our immaterial souls. The dilemma arises when faced with apparently irrefutable evidence of the inverse. It is widely accepted that, not only are certain mental abilities inherited, but that diseases affecting the mind, such as Down’s syndrome, are genetically based. It may be, therefore, surmised that mental ability and function is significantly dependent on the hereditary process.

Second, damage to the brain directly affects cognitive functions. For example, were a person’s brain spheres to be severed, when presented with an object on the left, the right hemisphere of the brain would recognise it. However, the left hemisphere, the main area for speech and communication, would receive no information via the corpus callosum. Thus whilst the person could point at the object, he could not recount what he sees.

Third, certain psychological processes, such as memory, may be discerned as patterns of energy events within the brain. Although, as yet, direct correlation with individual energy transfers has not been possible, the localisation is sufficient to facilitate neurological research. Furthermore, various types of intelligence are associated with specific cerebral hemispheres, for example, the right hemisphere controls artistic and intuitive mental processes.

On evaluation, evidence would appear to suggest that those features generally identified within a soul, could equally be explainable in terms of physiological processes. That is not to say the Dualist has not attempted to evade the predicament. In fact, two schemas have been devised. Those subscribing to the first have postulated the immediate replacement of the body at death. For Buddhists the body is physical, for Christians; spiritual. Although, with the reincarnate generally lacking any awareness of a previous existence and ethereal bodies widely acknowledged to exist on a different spatiotemporal plane, verification remains difficult. Advocates of the second schema have suggested that the soul could exist disembodied, in a very limited capacity. For Catholics this may be temporally (Purgatory) until united with a body (Beatific Vision), or permanently (Hell).

But what of Ryle and his ghost? The situation must be readdressed. It is clear that in attempting to rationalize the theory of the soul, one invariably returns to the starting point; that, whilst the notion cannot be dismissed entirely, it does appear physiologically unlikely. Ryle’s statement, however, was more than just a hypothesis; it was a definitive claim. Thus, though empirical evidence seems to lean in favour of the Materialist, whilst Dualism continues as a legitimate possibility, Ryle’s contention will remain unsubstantiated.

Ultimately, the concept of a soul depends on the equally unverifiable existence of some divine entity to effectuate this recondite posthumous transition. Here lies the significance; although those Dualists subscribing to theism tend to recognise that the confirmation of their faith will be fulfilled by eschatological verification, the concept of some spiritual self within plays a fundamental role in their lives, not only in the provision of an intangible channel through which they might commune with God, but also in apportioning a sense of order, clarity and purpose to their existence.

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