A philosophical archive for the constructive study of substance dualism: www.newdualism.org.

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Unified Theories

In this scientific age, we have been lead to believe of the virtues of unified theories,  in which all observed things in the world follow from one set of scientific laws of nature. This virtue would be clearly obtained if all the world, and all of everything in it, were composed of one kind of substance, since there should then be a unified set of laws for the behaviour of this thing. This is monism, in which there are no two different kinds of existing things.

If this one existing substance is material, we have materialism.

If this one existing substance is mental, we have idealism,

If this one existing substance is divine, we have pantheism.

If this one existing substance has material and mental properties, we have panpsychism.


Is it TRUE that there is just one existing substance?

Many philosophers, and many scientists in the philosophy of their everyday life, do not believe that there is just one existing substance.

So we ask the obvious question: is dualism true: that there are are two (or more) existing substances?
Or is it true that there is just one existing substance?

DesCartes' Dualism

Rene Descartes, in Meditations, is the best known exponent of the theory of dualism:
        that material and mental substances are distinct entities.

From his own speculation, he developed what is now called Cartesian Dualism. This is explained separately, but the basic idea is that mental substances were not extended in space, and that material substances were composed of pure extension in space. Minds, though unextended, were thought to exist at specific places, namely, Descartes thought, in the human pineal gland.

Physicists now longer believe that substances in nature are so simply characterised as this, but Cartesian Dualism has become the most widely known formulation of dualism. Widely known, and these days, widely despised!

Robert Bolton points out:

The philosophy of this century has been dominated by a reaction against Descartes, which has meant a reaction against Dualism in general, so that it has ended by becoming almost a term of abuse, after having been taken for a reality since very early times.

The first question to be considered is: How far is this reaction justified? Indications that it may not be appear, for example, in the way that materialistic and monistic thought enjoy a willing suspension of disbelief that is not afforded to other philosophies; this would imply motives more social political than philosophical. There is a tacit conviction that the truth must be simple, despite the fact that this belief is not supported either by logical reasoning or by experience. Where this is expressed in anti-Cartesianism, a certain irrationality also appears in the fact that when we attribute the influence of Dualism to Descartes, we are implicitly attributing to him the power of imposing his own peculiar way of thinking on a whole civilisation for three centuries together. In reality, this kind of power is so rare that it is usually considered an attribute of the founders of religions, not of philosophers.

Conversely, a more rational line of criticism would suggest that what Descartes really did was to identify a certain element in the way in which human minds have always worked, and create a system around it. Being founded on a universal tendency of human mind, it would then be sure of acceptance for perfectly natural reasons. This explanation, however, would take away our right to reproach Descartes with the problems raised by Dualism as such. The fault, if fault it was, would have to be with us all. That, however, would be more rational than to attribute supernormal powers to a secular thinker who is believed to be discredited.

Because of a widespread desire for unification and thereby simplification, anti-dualist philosophies have become so prevalent that anyone could be forgiven for thinking these philosophies have proved their point and are able to provide a complete and satisfactory account of reality. But this is only an appearance.


'Cartesianism' as a doctrine has taken on a life of its own as a position that few people want to defend.

John Paley, in a recent editorial, explores some of the paradoxes in the modern acceptances and rejections of Cartesian dualism. As does a book by Baker and Morris reviewed here.

Very often it is misrepresented. For example, very many ills of modern thought and practice are attributed to the separation of body and mind that resulted from this particular conception. Animals, for example, were not thought to have mentality, but to be like machines. Affections in the body, for another example, were not allowed to be related to mentality as such. However, Descartes believed that 'affections in the body' were just that: in the body and not in the mind.

More discussion on the Descartes legend, and what he actually said.

Non-Cartesian Dualism: the challenge here!

The challenge discussed at this website is to develop a  Non-Cartesian Dualism.

We can begin by acknowledging that  complete theory of dualism should show how dual substances may be intertwined and contiguous at many levels and at many scales. Just by analogy with the blue and green in the logo above, which are intertwined and contiguous at all scales. What makes this a dualism is the the blue and green are not continuous with other, but contiguous.  We surely know, for example, that the mental processes are related to more activities in the human body than just in the pineal gland.

How is dualism possible?

Our challenge requires us to show how dualism is possible. What coherent theory of dualism & interactions can be formulated? Only then can we discuss which theory is compatible with empirical evidence and other constraints! 

As well as imagining how dualism is possible, we really need to know when, where, and why too. A good theory should have the potential of answering all these questions.

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I.J. Thompson, 10 Jan 04

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