Physicalism vs Dualism? (A brief guide)

In this guide, we will discuss “Physicalism vs Dualism?”. We will talk about the differences in nature about physicalism and dualism, what philosophers say about each theory and we will talk about how we consider dualism to have more flaws than physicalism, without acknowledging that physicalism is not free of their own theoretical problems. 

Physicalism vs Dualism?

If you are wondering, ‘Physicalism vs Dualism?’ or what are the differences between physicalism and dualism philosophy then we need to start by mentioning that physicalism is a form of ontological monism which means it is a ‘one substance’ view of the nature of things instead of a ‘two-substance’ as dualism argues. They hold that the mind or soul is immaterial and is made of an immaterial substance while physicalists talk about material substances.

For some contemporary philosophers of the mind, the only two options are physicalism and dualism where mental states appear as either material or immaterial states. As indicated by David Ludwig in his essay titled ‘Beyond Physicalism and Dualism?’:

“While physicalism is usually taken as the default position, dualism looms in the background as the price philosophers have to pay if they abandon the goal of a naturalized mind. From a historical point of view, the almost exclusive opposition between physicalism and dualism is surprising as it ignores influential philosophical traditions such as idealism, neutral monism, and anti-metaphysical methodologies.”

However, we wonder if physicalism is better than dualism or vice versa. Let’s take a look at the concept of what physicalism is more in-depth and what dualism also means. In the end, we can decide which philosophical approach seems to align with our former point of view.

Physicalism vs Dualism? (A brief guide)

What is Physicalism?

As indicated by William Seager from The University of Toronto:

“Physicalism is a monistic metaphysics: it claims that there is only one basic kind of reality and it is physical in nature. The phrase ‘kind of reality’ is vague and ungainly; in the past materialist philosophers would have said there was only one kind of substance, or even more straightforwardly, only one substance: material, or physical, substance. But our grip on the idea that substance is the appropriate concept by which to describe basic reality has weakened. The rough idea remains clear enough: at the bottom, everything is physical.”

In other words, the main thesis here is that everything is physical, intended usually as a metaphysical thesis. The general premise is that the nature of the actual words conforms to the condition of being physical. However, physicalists don’t necessarily deny the existence of things that at first are not considered as physical such as items of biological, psychological or moral nature. But they insist that items are either physical or supervene on the physical.

Physicalism is sometimes known as materialism and both terms are used interchangeably but both have different histories. The term materialism was introduced long ago while the term physicalism was introduced into philosophy in the 1930s by Otto Neurath and Rudolph Carnap who were members of the Vienna Circle. Some philosophers argue how physicalism and materialism are distinct from one another since materialists argue that everything is matter and matter is conceived as an inert, senseless substance according to Berkley, while physics has shown how not everything is matter in the sense materialists see it.

Consequently, it is tempting and quite normal for some philosophers to try to distance themselves from the thesis of materialism emphasizing in the connection to physics. However, still, a few contemporary physicalists do use the word materialism to talk about their doctrine.

What is Dualism?

This is considered one of the most iconic philosophies of the mind where the term dualism has changed throughout history. For theologists, dualists are considered those who believe in Good and evil or God and the Devil, which are independent forces in the world. In the philosophy of the mind, dualists believe that the mental and the physical (mind and body or mind and brain) are in some sense different things. 

However, there has been a problem when looking at the relationship between mind and body or what seems to be the same as mental properties and physical properties. As human beings, we seem to have physical and mental properties. Some of the physical properties include weight, size or shape but the mental properties can’t be understood the same as physical objects. 

As indicated by the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, “These properties involve consciousness (including perceptual experience, emotional experience, and much else), intentionality (including beliefs, desires, and much else), and they are possessed by a subject or a self.”

What is interesting is how dualists argue that those physical properties we can observe are public but the same doesn’t apply to mental properties. Conscious mental events become private to the subject and are the only one who has direct access to them. The mind-body problem is very interesting since it contemplates a problem of consciousness, intentionality and of the self. But we won’t talk about them for the purpose of the article since it is very extensive.

Mind over matter

There is an ongoing debate on whether the mind can be considered as purely physical or immaterial. However, we will talk about how psychology and other forms of science seem to participate in such a debate, shedding some light into the problem.

For instance, let’s consider Biopsychology which gives more credibility to physicalism. If we think about a person who takes a drug like cocaine or Ritalin, as indicated in cosmictempest.wordpress.com, both drugs will be chemically identical in the brain affecting neurotransmitters in neurons. Which makes individuals feel better and boost their mood (i.e. feeling happier). 

The effects of the drugs can be considered physical in nature since a drug is a chemical compound (molecules) that affects the neurotransmitters in the brain (chemicals+atoms) and while it can be considered a purely physical process, it finally affects the mind/soul. If as described by dualists, the mind/soul is immaterial, how come that it can be affected by physical processes such as the ones we have talked about?

Moreover, let’s talk about something that is also quite interesting such as physical damage to the brain. Consider someone who has been lobotomized which involved the damage to the frontal lobe of the brain. We know that the frontal lobe has many important functions such as inhibiting our responses in a social context, the perception of good and bad and our ability to make decisions, to name a few. 

Subsequently, in our lobotomized subject, those functions and tasks will no longer be present. Once again the damage to the brain is considered as purely physical which involves the destruction of neurons when using a blunt instrument. If the mind and/or personality of an individual can change by damaging the brain, how can the mind not to be a physical phenomenon?

We seem to have more questions than answers when supporting how the mind/soul can be considered as natural and physical phenomena in nature but this is all we have to say for now in supporting physicalism and rejecting the ideas proposed by dualism.

Physicalism vs Dualism? (A brief guide)

Why is this blog about ‘Physicalism vs Dualism’ important?

As we have discussed, physicalism and dualism are two separate philosophical points of view about the nature of what exists in and what it doesn’t in the world. For physicalists, as they claim, there is only one basic kind of reality and it is physical in nature and in other words, the general premise is that the nature of the actual words conforms to the condition of being physical. 

On the other hand, we have dualists that in terms of the philosophy of the mind believe that the mental and the physical (mind and body or mind and brain) are in some sense different things. As human beings, we are composed of physical and mental properties where the first are public to anyone while the second is private and subject to the individual. For the purpose of this article, we have seen how physicalism could be true when compared to dualism but if we were to do the same exercise with dualism, we may also say physicalism is not true at all since it is a matter of perspective and arguments. 

Please feel free to leave any comments or thoughts about the content of this article!

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about Physicalism vs Dualism?

What is the difference between dualism and Physicalism?

The difference between dualism and physicalism relies on the concept of the soul being perceived. For instance, dualists suggest that the mind or soul is immaterial or made of an immaterial substance while physicalists suggest that the mind is not an immaterial substance but it is considered as physical.

What is dualism philosophy?

Dualism in philosophy uses two irreducible concepts or principles that sometimes are in conflict and sometimes are complementary such as good and evil, matter and spirit, mind and body or the mental and the physical are two different entities but they do interact.  Dualism is different from monism, which acknowledges only one principle and it also differs from pluralism, which invokes more than two principles.

What does Cartesian dualism mean?

Cartesian dualism (in honour of Descartes), claims that the immaterial mind and the material body are ontologically distinct but they tend to interact. Matter or the body would be the physical part, the ones that walk, talks, etc and the mind would be the nonphysical substance (or the soul) that can think, feel, remember, etc.

What is an example of dualism?

Examples of dualism are subject and object, mind and body, god and the world, being and thought, sense-datum and thing, matter and spirit, good and evil, etc. there are endless examples that you can think of or find in the real world.

What is dualism in Christianity?

Dualism in Christianity indicates that God and his creation are different but interrelated while sharing an indivisible bond. For instance, we could also talk about the Christian dualism and what they propose when they talk about two distinct entities such as good and evil (and how they are not compatible). 

References

  • David Ludwig, « Beyond Physicalism and Dualism? », European Journal of Pragmatism and American Philosophy [Online], III-2 | 2011, Online since 29 December 2011, connection on 15 September 2020. URL: http://journals.openedition.org/ejpap/847; DOI: https://doi.org/10.4000/ejpap.847
  • Plato.stanford.edu: “Physicalism”
  • Cosmictempest.wordpress.com: “Reflections – Mind over Matter: Dualism vs Physicalism”
  • Plato.stanford.edu: “Dualism”

Physicalism vs Dualism? (A brief guide)

Juanita Agboola

Juanita Agboola is the editor in chief of HFNE and an expert in mental health online. She has been writing about online behavior, mental health and psychology issues since 2012. All Guides are reviewed by our editorial team which constitutes various clinical psychologists, PhD and PsyD colleagues.