Does dualism make a difference?

On my long, long list of “Things I Don’t Really Have Time to Think About But Wish I Did” is the following simple question:

Does dualism make a difference to one’s overall view of the mind?

Since some might assume that the obvious answer to the question is an
obvious “yes”–and in fact that answer is a part of the kind of
folklore of cognitive science–let me explain why I think things are
not so straight forward.  If you look at the history of modern
philosophy, the bulk of the thinkers we continue to read today were
dualists.  But they nearly all have some quite elaborate story to
tell about how the mind works, and that story is quite often pretty
mechanistic.  You might think that if you’re a dualist work your
salt, then you’d just throw up your hands and say “Sorry, no story to
be told about how the mind works BECAUSE IT IS IMMATERIAL”.  But
although all classic dualists end up in something like this position,
they rarely start there, and on the way manage to provide accounts of
lots and lot of phenomena that at least we think of as mental or
mindful.  The same seems to me true in the contemporary
literature: self-professed dualists, while still grasping for some kind
of mysterian view about some particular aspect of the mind (e.g,.
consciousness and the hard problem), still manage to act pretty much
like the most die-hard physicalists and naturalists about most of the
mind.  But one might expect a seemingly gaping divide, that
between dualism and physicalism as fundamental views of the mind, to
make itself more manifest in the more mundane, day-to-day philosophical
work of those who fall on one or the other side of it.  My
impression is that it doesn’t.  So maybe we should take the
negative answer to the question of whether dualism makes a difference
more seriously, both in how we think about the history of psychology /
phil of mind, and in what we think matters in contemporary discussions.


  1. gualtiero piccinini

    I think this is a great question, and I agree with Rob that dualism seems to make much less difference than a physicalist might expect. I think the main reason is that a non-physical mind, working according to non-physical (non-natural) principles, is hard to study and even harder to understand (to say the least).

    But there is at least one area where dualism does tend to make a difference: the study of phenomenal consciousness.

    According to physicalism, consciousness is physical, hence it can be studied by ordinary, third-person means. Introspection might help but it’s only one phyisical process among others. (See my paper in JCS on introspective reports as evidence:

    According to dualism, however, this phsyicalist position is nonsense. If consciousness is non-physical, then it cannot be physically detected. Hence, studying consciousness requires non-physical means. The only way to study phenomenal consciousness is through introspection understood as a way to access non-physical states. This is what, e.g., Chalmers seems to think.

    I still would like to hear a story about how this access to the non-physical by the physical is supposed to work. (A new version of the mind-body problem?)

  2. Charles

    Well, the actual “everyday workings” of the mind presumably do have a lot to do with the story a physicalist would tell. What the dualism story (supposedly) buys you is metaphysical mileage. That is, how to make sense in the first place of things like: individuating subjects/minds (a la Unger’s new book); making sense of there being a subject of experience in the first place; making sense of there being an agent who chooses among alternatives in the first place; and so forth. My experience is limited, but these topics don’t seem as ‘hot’ as others nowadays.

    There’s also the sociological point that a dualist has little to gain and a lot to lose by submitting a paper to the effect that the mental causation debate as it currently exists, for example, is ill-founded (because dualism is true, etc). A fair number of the skirmishes in the philosophy of mind more or less take physicalism in some form for granted. So of course there’s not going to be much difference between a dualist and someone else, given that the dualist has even entered into the debate in the first place.

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