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On Dualism

by Thomas M. Miovas, Jr.


[Note: Modified 02/03/2014 due to a mis-remembering of what Dr. Peikoff had said in one of his podcasts, where he clearly states that Objectivism is NOT a type of dualism. My confusion came with the attempts to understand the Wikipedia presentation of the issue. While Objectivism does recognize the existence of both matter and consciousness, it is not dualism in the historically philosophical sense of stating that there is a world of matter and a separate world of consciousness, like say Plato's Forms, where Ideas exist apart from people having ideas. On the other hand, Objectivism rejects extreme Idealism (Hegel) of only consciousness exists and extreme materialism (Marx) where only matter exists. All of these positions are incorrect. Peikoff also states that Objectivism does not recognize the attempts to reduce matter to consciousness nor to reduce consciousness to matter, but rather we recognize that both matter and consciousness exist as an aspect of the total human being.]

Dualism, according to Wikipedia:

“In philosophy of mind, dualism is a view about the relationship between mind and matter which claims that mind and matter are two ontologically separate categories. Mind-body dualism claims that neither the mind nor matter can be reduced to each other in any way. Western dualist philosophical traditions (as exemplified by Descartes) equate mind with the conscious self and theorize on consciousness on the basis of mind/body dualism. By contrast, some Eastern philosophies draw a metaphysical line between consciousness and matter — where matter includes both body and mind.”

In Objectivism, Ayn Rand promotes the idea that we humans are an integrated being of both mind and body and Dr. Peikoff champions the idea that there is no mind without the awareness made possible by the body – i.e. that consciousness is conscious of something and by some means, and that the senses and the nervous system are indispensable for being aware of anything. So, while Objectivism recognizes the existence of both matter and consciousness, it is not a type of dualism as explained in my note above.

However, I certainly do not think that we have a metaphysically separable soul in the Christian contextual sense – we don't have a soul or a consciousness that can be removed from the human body and then put into some sort of container. One cannot have a bottle of consciousness or a bottle of awareness or a bottle of thinking. We have no evidence of this whatsoever. What we do have evidence of is that we are aware of existence by means of our senses and that we can think about this “awareness content” and even have free will to do something about that content, either mentally (like thinking about things) or acting in the world (doing something physical).

I'm beginning to think the idea of dualism is some sort of false alternative; that we are asked to choose one or the other or both, instead of a different approach. In the context in which Ayn Rand wrote her articles about mind and body, there was a very prevalent mind / body dichotomy, both historically and culturally, due to Christianity and a few other philosophers (Augustine, Aquinas, Descartes, Kant, Hegel, and Marx). But if we are an integrated being of both mind and body, then the two are only separable mentally – to be distinguished with an act of thought – and not two metaphysically different things melded together. Just as we can mentally isolate out our foot from the rest of our body, by identifying a particular part of the body; so too, we can mentally isolate out our thinking, our dreaming, our memory, and our imagination from our doing anything in the physical realm, like running, opening a door, driving a car, and lifting a bag. This does not imply that consciousness is something separable from the body, but only that we can mentally focus on the difference, say, between me considering this issue at hand in my head versus typing up an essay using a key board and a computer.

How the human mind comes about, and especially how free will comes about, is not known at this time; we don't know how consciousness comes to be. But it is clear that we must be an entity of a specific type in order to have consciousness and to have free will as we do have it. So, it has something to do with how we are made, even if we don't know the details at this time.

And, as a matter of fact, I'm even beginning to question the whole “we are made of matter and therefore cannot have free will” determinism in a different way, as I think this is based upon a rationalistic consideration. It is based on the syllogism: Matter is deterministic, man is made of matter, therefore man is deterministic; whereas, if we look at the facts, we know what we are, to a very high degree of certainty, and that we are made of matter, and yet, I can sit here and think on my own free will and type out an essay on that topic even though outside influences are not guiding my mind or my fingers. We are each one thing, one living being, and we have certain capabilities because we are that thing, that entity, in reality. And with our mind, we can mentally isolate out certain aspects of ourselves via a process of outward observation or inward introspection.

So, I think that if we consider these issues from the premises I propose here, then several philosophical issues can be resolved. There is no mind / body dichotomy existentially, but only mentally, if we have the wrong premises; and we are a living being that has certain capabilities due to the fact that we are what we are. Any contradictions arising from these considerations are only brought about because someone back in deep history mentally isolated out certain things and thought, falsely, that a mental or epistemological separating out made it a metaphysical separating out, which isn't the case. We are neither a spirit without a body nor a body without a mind; nor are we a ghost in a machine -- rather we are each one entity with certain abilities and capabilities due to the fact that we are what we are.


Added 02/04/2014:

A reader basically asked: Why is consciousness not reducible to matter or why can't consciousness emerge from matter?

That really depends on how you ask the question. Is it possible that life arose from inanimate matter, and eventually that life became aware of existence, and that life evolved to become self-aware, and then that life gained control of its material well-being by learning, and then that life gained control of its consciousness to finally arrive at free will capacities? All stemming from the laws of the physical universe? I think that is what you are asking. My only answer at this point is that we don't have the evidence for that type of chain of events yet. No one has actually taken inanimate matter, turned it into something living, and then added more matter in certain ways to make it self-aware and in control of itself. And I don't think anyone has even come up with a valid theory of that, taken everything into account, though the theory of evolution is a very good first step. In short, we don't have the evidence or the science of being able to do that yet.

But even if we did, there is still the philosophical issue that consciousness is not the same thing as matter. As Peikoff points on in his brief podcast, there are significant differences between consciousness as we experience that versus the material world as we experience that. He's right that consciousness doesn't seem to follow the laws of physics; our minds are not weighed down by gravity, and doesn't seem to float unconnected to anything in deep space free-fall conditions. In other words, we can think as clearly here on earth as we do at the space station; and presumably could operate our minds well on any planet or heavy gravity situation we encounter, so long as we get proper blood flow to our brains. Even under cases of great acceleration, as far as I know, those astronauts on take-off do not experience their minds being pushed to the back of their heads, do they? I've never heard that reported.

The bottom line is that awareness as such is not the same thing as the material senses that make it possible; seeing is not the same thing as the eyes. This is something Aristotle pointed out over two thousand years ago. So, in that sense, awareness is not reducible down to the motions of physical things; though it can be said that the motions of those material things (i.e. the sense of touch stemming from me typing on a key board) come about via the physical but are not the same thing as it. I can look at your reply and think about it and reply back to you, but that is certainly not efficient causation which seems to rule over the material world. (I actually have disagreements with efficient causation as being the final say in causation or even the most fundamental grasp of causation, but that is another issue).

[correction to an earlier mistake: I would like to clarify something, a mistake I made years ago. Perception (and even sensations) are the beginning point of knowledge; axioms are the first implicit concepts. So, to paraphrase Ayn Rand and Leonard Peikoff, that which we observe is a part of our knowledge base, and the two perception and axioms can be summed up in one paraphrase from OPAR (Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand): There is (existence) something there (identity) that I am aware of (consciousness). Since perception is our tie to existence, it has to be thought of as the root of knowledge. It is also the connection between mind and body.]