Dualism Explained

by on November 7th, 2010
Share Button


Dualism is a way of describing how the mind and body exist and interact. Dualism itself simply means that there is a cognizant mind, and a physical body. Different types of dualism include interactionism, emergentism, psychophysical parallelism, and double aspectism. The opposing viewpoint of dualism is the materialist perspective. Materialists think that everything in the universe is made up of physical materials. Science rejects dualism as well, and for several reasons. First, dualists believe in a cognitive mind. The problem with that is science cannot test this properly; introspection is too biased, and mathematical formulas cannot be used. Second, scientists argue that there are strong correlations between activities in the brain and neural activity. Finally, scientists reject dualist ideas because dualists assume if something cannot be observed physically, it must then exist in a non-physical world.

How are your body and your mind related? Well, psychology offers several perspectives that can describe this relationship. One of the most controversial is the dualist perspective. From this viewpoint there exists both a mind and a body, as opposed to others that believe there is just one physical body. Many psychologists and philosophers like Rene Descartes argue in favor of dualism, but several others reject it. The materialistic perspective is in complete contrast with the dualist. Science does not favor dualism either because it is difficult to test; introspection is unreliable, and there are not mathematical equations to use like traditional sciences have. Dualism can also be rejected because of the obvious strong correlations between the mind and the nerves. The mind is reliant on the nervous system. Dualism also assumes that because something is not physically observed, it must exist in the non-physical; this assumption does not allow for scientific investigation of the topic. Overall, dualism, or the belief that there is a cognitive mind and a physical body, tends to be rejected by science because the conscious mind is hard to test and does not allow for use of mathematical formulas, the mind has a strong correlation with the nerves which suggests it is physical, and because cognitions are not physically observable dualists assume they exist in the non-physical world without evidence.

What is dualism? In studying how the mind and body interact there are several beliefs; dualism simply means that there are both physical and mental events. There are several types of dualism which include interactionism, emergentism, psychophysical parallelism, and double aspectism. Interactionists believe that the mind and body interact with each other. “The mind influences the body, and the body influences the mind” (Hergenhahn, 2008). From this perspective the mind is capable of establishing behavior. Emergentism claims that mental status comes from the state of the brain. Psychological parallelism is a different type of dualism; it says that mental events and bodily responses are independent of each other, and happen concurrently. According to the double aspectism approach mind and body do not interact, but they are both part of one whole and cannot be separated. They are like “two sides of a coin” (Hergenhahn , 2008). Overall, dualists share a belief in a physical body and a cognitive mind.

The alternative to the dualist idea is the materialist perspective. Materialism says that “everything in our universe is made from physical materials including the human mind or brain, and that spiritual attributes do not exist in the universe” (AllAboutPhilosophy.org, 2002). Assuming the materialistic perspective the mind is limited to the physical brain however, could leave us without things like consciousness, thoughts, emotions, desires, beliefs, and free choice according to dualists. Some scientists even admit that with the information we have now, neither chemistry nor physics can explain our consciousness (AllAboutPhilosophy.org, 2002). Materialists have been in opposition to the dualist perspective for many years.

Rene Descartes was one of the most important people in the history of the dualist perspective. In his writing he states that his conscious mind and body are separate substances. He calls his statements in favor of dualism the doubt argument, the conceivability argument, and the divisibility argument. In the doubt argument he states that “I can doubt that my body exists,” then “I cannot doubt that I exist as a thinking thing,” and finally “I, a thinking thing, am not identical with my body.” His conceivability argument says that “I can conceive that I, a thinking thing, exist without my extended body existing,” second, ” anything that I can conceive is logically possible,” and finally, “if it is logically possible that X exists without Y, then X is not identical with Y.” The divisibility argument says “all extended things are divisible,” then, “no minds are divisible,” and finally, “no minds are extended things” (Purdue.edu, 2011). This basically means that because he can think, he is not just a physical body. He has both a cognitive mind and a physical being. This is the basis of dualism.

Though there are parts of the mind that are hard to explain, some scientists argue against dualism. One author states that “it is clear that some mental and behavioral processes will always be especially intransigent to inference from material remains” (Uttal, 2004,). He uses speech as an example; though speech is existent both physically and mentally, it leaves no evidence. He says that speech “might as well have occurred in a community without vocal speech or even a manual sign language available to it” (Uttal, 2004,). This leaves open the possibility that speech or other coordinated activity may have formed unintentionally. If unintentional, then is it really a cognitive experience, or rather something that came from physical needs?

Dualism is debatable for many reasons, but science targets it most for the lack of ability to be tested experimentally. It is hard, if not impossible, to measure consciousness. Introspection is a method in which an individual observes and sometimes describes their cognitive experiences (Manne, 2010). The problem with this is that introspection can be biased; just the idea of studying yourself can change the natural outcome. There is not a set of rules that would make everyone’s introspective analysis comparable. Tests would be difficult to replicate. Each person would likely differ from one another. It is also possible an individual may not be aware of his or her own cognitive experiences (Manne, 2010). One could argue that if in a situation where many people shared their results of introspection they would likely be more accurate than an individual’s introspective analysis on its own. However, is there really a way to get the full truth? Probably not. According to Hume, introspection only “reveals the presence of various impressions and ideas, but does not reveal a subject in which those ideas adhere” (Calef, 2005). If observation is used to gain knowledge of the self, the self can only exist as a group of perceptions. This argument clearly undermines Descartes’ previous arguments. Because cognitions are not physical they also cannot be measured with mathematical formulas. If a person were to attempt this it would in all probability be inaccurate and biased. Physics can describe motion in terms of a formula, and chemistry can explain molecular composition and reactions in terms of a formula too, but cognitions lack this standard mathematical rule (Calef, 2005). Science rejects the dualist perspective because it is hard to measure with introspection, or with other means.

Another argument against dualism comes from the observation that mental events correlate with neural events. This suggests there is not a separate cognitive mind and physical body, but rather a physical mind. An example of this would be if an individual had head trauma, they would lose memory. Those that argue against dualism often say the mind and its capacities depend too much on neural function. If the body experiences a type of sensation such as pain, then the person can then be aware of it. If this person cannot sense this experience with his or her nerves, then they are not aware of it. This shows limitation on conscious experience dependant on physical elements. Descartes anticipated this type of objection, but his response was not strong, and does not prove otherwise (Calef, 2005). Psychology in the eyes of some can be more valid as a science when studied neurologically. Neurological responses can be measured and recorded. There is a possibility that mathematical formulas can be used. This neurological relationship is another reason why science rejects dualism.

A third argument against dualism exists when dualists assume that since an attribute is cannot be measured physically like privacy, cognitive thoughts, etc, it must exist in a non-physical state. This is clearly not true (Calef, 2005). There are many things in the world that some may consider “non-physical.” There is even the possibility that because we cannot physically observe things like emotions or cognitions, there are in fact physical causes we simply have not discovered. By ruling out the possibility there may be physical sources we simply cannot observe, dualists are not fully evaluating the evidence for their position. If people had assumed in the past that they already knew everything, we would not be as advanced as we are today. Being inquisitive is a part of science. Assuming that because something is not physically observable it must exist in the non-physical is part of the reason scientists reject dualism.

In the mind and body debate, dualism states there exists both a conscious mind and a physical body. Different types of dualism exist such as interactionism, emergentism, psychophysical parallelism, and double aspectism. Rene Descartes was one of the integral advocates for the dualist perspective. Opposing him were the materialists, among others. Science too rejects dualism for many reasons; Dualism believes in a cognitive mind, and this is rejected because it cannot be tested easily. It is also rejected because a strong correlation between the brain and neurological events suggests the brain is a physical part of the body. Finally, dualism is rejected by science because dualists believe that because they cannot physically observe something, it must exist in a non-physical form, despite not having evidence. Dualism is still a very interesting topic to this day; it leads individuals to many other questions about the self, free-will, and our cognitive existence as a whole.


All about Philosophy.org. (2002). Dualism- mind/brain. Retrieved from http://www.allaboutphilosophy.org/dualism.htm.

Calef, S. (2005, June 9). Dualism and the mind. Retrieved from


Purdue.edu. (n.d.). Descartes’ arguments for Dualism. Retrieved from http://web.ics.purdue.edu/~curd/110WK13.html.

Hergenhahn, Initials. (2008). Psych 381 History and Systems of Psychology. Mason, Ohio: Cengage Learning. Pages 18 and 631.

Manne, R. (2010, March 16). A problem in the philosophy of neuroscience: introspection. Retrieved from http://www.science20.com/florilegium/blog/problem_philosophy_neuroscience_introspection.

Uttal, W.R. (2004). Dualism: The Original Sin of Cognitivism . Mahwah, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc. Page 31.

Prev Article: »
Next Article: «

Related Articles