Dismiss Notice
Join Physics Forums Today!
The friendliest, high quality science and math community on the planet! Everyone who loves science is here!

Materialist vs. Dualisms

  1. May 20, 2009 #1
    I understand before posting this that most people on this forum are materialist. I however am on the fence on which is true. I have come to an argument were I THINK I have a reason for the existence of a soul to be probably. The main difference from humans and other animals that are very close to humans such as other primates is that humans have a culture. Animals do not, I have figured that the soul may be a requirement for culture; I find it hard to believe that animals share the am level of consiness as I do. I was wondering if you guys could provide me with arguments for or against dualism so that I may make a better informed conclusion. (Also I could be completely wrong with my reasoning here, but if I am I would like to know why.However I do favor dualism, because if materialism is true it makes life meaning less and means that although I have a sense of self I would realy not exist. Materialist say that dualist are afraid of mortality but the materialist are afraid of the unknown.)
    Last edited: May 20, 2009
  2. jcsd
  3. May 20, 2009 #2


    User Avatar
    Gold Member

    A satisfactory materialist story on the animal/human difference can be found in Vygotskean psychology and social constructionism.

    Humans developed language. Language then scaffolds new mental possibilities like recollective memory, logical thought, self-regulation and self-awareness.
  4. May 20, 2009 #3

    Math Is Hard

    User Avatar
    Staff Emeritus
    Science Advisor
    Gold Member

    Hi Stratosphere,

    So is your definition of "soul" synonymous with "a certain level of consciousness"? If so, what special mental capacities does that "level of consciousness" entail? I think if you can unpack that, it might help you get what you are after.

    Also, what is your definition of culture? Mine is very simple - maybe too simple. I just see it as unique behaviors/practices or social rules of a group that are passed from one generation to the next (either offspring or neophytes coming into the group). It could be difficult to exclude some animals from this, particularly some non-human primates.

    p.s. I was just going through my bookshelf and thinking that a book that you might like that gets into some of your questions is "Introducing Persons" by Peter Carruthers.
  5. May 20, 2009 #4
    I would echo MIH. I have a similar definition of culture and believe that many species of animals possess a primitive or simple version of culture.

    I read an interesting paper a while back, I doubt I could find it again, that proposed "consciousness" is connected to self awareness and that animals in general are not self aware. The paper even went so far as to suggest that self awareness is a fairly recent development among humans citing a lack of self referencial words and phrases in early liturature. Words like "I" "Me" "My" ect. The author made alot of strange claims, which seems common among cognitive scientists, among them I believe was the idea that humans do not think. According to him we only act on preprogrammed sets of procedures. Something I disagreed with quite a bit.
  6. May 20, 2009 #5
    In philosophy materialism refers to the ontological stance on 'matter', or more simply the idea that physical things exist. Dualism doesn't refute materialism, but more accurately adds a separate category that describes the substance separate from matter, or the existense of consciousness as non-material.

    One of the big problems with dualism is that if these are truly separate things, how do they interact and affect each other?
    If the soul has no physical component, then how does it have any effect on the physical world?
    And this is a serious problem if you think culture is produced by the soul.
    How does it get from the soul to the material world?

    In fact, 'the soul', apart from its theological significance, is mainly just a placeholder for what we refer most often to, in a modern context, as the mind. Mind/body dualism is still a confounding problem to philosophers, neuroscientists, and psychologists.

    But its a problem because we don't know what consciousness is. It seems to have an essential difference in quality from physical bodies, but we don't really know what it is. So unless you are going to state what exactly the soul is, and then show how the soul creates culture, and how the body is not capable of this on its own, your argument amounts to:

    x must exist, because I can't explain y without it.

    Soul, by this definition has little if any meaning.
    Its just an unknown variable, used for what you don't know.

    Another point of view on this problem is that 'the mind' may not have actual substance in the same way physical things do, but is rather a process. This would be what I would call functional dualism, or the idea that soul/mind/consciousness is not a 'thing', but rather an activity.

    Dualism and materialism are descriptive in an ontological sense, neither implies meaning or meaninglessness.

    Actually most of the materialists I know, are fascinated by the unknown and actively pursue investigations of the unknown. People who claim to believe in souls, in my experience, don't know much if anything about what a soul actually is, and don't much care to investigate them. Soul for them is 'the answer' they are looking for. Its where they stop. I can't imagine being satisfied with such a empty and ill defined idea.
  7. May 21, 2009 #6
    Agree with what JoeDawg has already pointed out.
    However I just wanted to point out that even though dualism doesn't refute materialism/physicalism. Vice versa doesn't hold true. So you can't be a physicalist and believe in dualism. However if you are a dualist you can and probably do follow materialist/physicalist philosophies.

    I was going to say something about that comment the OP made. But again joe beat me to it lol. I myself would consider myself a physicalist and I investigate a lot deeper into any subject area than anyone I know who I would consider a dualist (they posit the existence of a soul).

    A simple way to decide which you can believe in is by using inferrence to the best solution.

    Something that I have noticed among dualist is this:
    They claim soul exist because it can explain x-occurence and physicalists have no explaination.
    If however you question them how the SOUL does through us ANYWAYS they just DONT know.
    To them saying that the soul does it seems to be a satisfactory answer. This however is not inferrence to the best solution. Both are merely holding promises for an answer. So in these cases I consider it a tie so to speak. Most of these have to do with the mind and emotional experiences. Like tasting apples or getting punched in the head. I think though that in the dualist view it would ALWAYS be held as a 'promised' answer. I dont see how someone can ever go about proving how something 'immaterial' effects us and the way it does effect us... Good luck.
    Last edited: May 21, 2009
  8. May 21, 2009 #7


    User Avatar
    Homework Helper
    Gold Member

    Animals are surely conscious, they just do not much formulate or conceptualize their consciousness as we do. I think it has been shown that some intelligent animals like dolphins and monkeys do practically realise that they are individuals and that others of their own species are individuals like them with their own consciousness.

    (Whether this has anything to do with a 'soul' seems to me a different matter.)
  9. May 21, 2009 #8
    Even if the soul doesn't exist, it doesn't render existence pointless. Sure, there was no real purpose for the genesis of life, but the meaning in life comes from the beauty of discovering the world around us and gaining an understanding of ourselves.

    I fail to see how a soul would add anymore meaning to life anyway. The existence of a soul would certainy imply the existence of a god and an afterlife of some sort, but being here because an egostatistical god created us for the sole purpose of worshiping and serving him/her/it, doesn't seem like much of a purpose to me.

    I would suggest reading Unweaving the Rainbow by Richard Dawkins. It's a beautiful book written from an atheist's point of view about the beauty of life and the natural world as revealed through scientific discovery.

    To conclude, your comment about you not really existing if you do not have a soul troubles me. I'm not quite sure how you came to that conclusion.
  10. May 21, 2009 #9
    I don't get how anyone can deny the existence of mind. You can start from "I think therefore I am" and then decide whether or not you believe that an objective material world exists. But how can you start from an objective material world exists and then deduce that your mind doesn't exist? I can't see consciousness as being explained in an entirely materialistic framework.
  11. May 21, 2009 #10
    First things first I would like to point out that to me soul = immaterial and the mind = unknown functions of our body.

    This is the problem with dualist. How does the soul explain the mind? 'It just does,' well how about instead of positing the soul, which is currently unnecessary, we just leave it as it is? Having a soul does not explain off us having a mind, or being concious, or self-aware, or anything at all. It's just a placeholder, a promise, of an explaination. One in my opinion that will never come.


    I will explain the physicalist view here I guess. So bodies exist in this material world. All bodies are different and have different functions. For instance a chair has the function of sitting on it, you can paint it, you can break it apart etc etc. Thats a very simple body.

    A cell phone on the other hand is still just a body but has many more, and sufficiently complex, functions. Such as making phone calls to people overseas via satellites, going on the internet, taking pictures, etc. Would you posit the existence of a soul to explain this?
    No because all these functions can be explained by the components of the body that holds the functions.

    The mind is the same thing, it is just the 'placeholder' for unknown functions of our body. Such as thinking, conciousness, etc. They don't say that it doesn't exist. Merely that we don't know why these functions occur just yet.
  12. May 21, 2009 #11
    Saying that minds have a physical basis is not the same as saying minds don't exist.
  13. May 21, 2009 #12
    If animals did have a conscious mind would they not want to have a culture such as humans? Why would they want to live like that when they could live in a better way? Why are humans the only organism on earth to evolve to use language?
  14. May 21, 2009 #13
    There are other animals, such as dolphins, that have vocal communication skills.

    What characteristics exactly would you attribute to your definition of culture? Note that most animals are physically incapable of things that are generally considered primary parts of human culture so if they do possess culture it can not be held to quite the same standards as human culture.

    Edit: Also that paper I mentioned may be by Daniel Dennet who actually does not believe in "consciousness" apparently. Unfortunately I have not been able to find the paper yet though.
  15. May 21, 2009 #14
    By culture I mean the beliefs, customs, practices, and social behavior of something. Although some animals have devolped communication skills like you pointed out, none actualy have a very structured and expansive way of communicating. Animals (although I cannot prove this) dont seem to transfer ideas of growth that hums HAD to in order to get were we are today.

    P.S Although this is sort of off topic, I was wondering what humans actualy evolved from, we share a common ansester with other primates (such as apes) but humans didn't evolve from the apes right?
  16. May 21, 2009 #15


    User Avatar
    Science Advisor
    Gold Member

    Well, we share a common ancestor with the other apes. Although that ancestor looked (and probably behaved) more like our cousins than us (it had fur etc).

    Also, there are examples of quite large -what can be considered cultural- differences between e.g. primates living in different areas. I saw an article a while back that dealt with wars between chimps, it is apparently quite common in some areas in Africa while being virtually unknown in others. The reason for this difference is not clear, but it quite a striking demonstration of differences in organized (and chimps going to war ARE organized, there is nothing random about it) collective behaviour between different groups of the same species.

    Another nice demonstration is a flock of wild baboons living in Texas (they live in a very large enclosure) which over the years have adapted to their new environment by developing new behaviours; one example being that they now have warning sound for dangers that did not exist in their original environment (rattlesnakes etc)
  17. May 21, 2009 #16
    Animals have practices and social behavior. You might even consider some of their social interactions as customs. Really if you look at humans as animals you are much more likely to see a resemblence than if you are to hold other animals to an anthropomorphic standard. In this way human activity starts to look like a more complex version of animal behavior. "Beliefs" is where we really start to diverge though. Animals tend to think in a more utilitarian sense, as far as I know. Apes have shown the ability to learn our language (sign language). I am uncertain if they have ever shown much ability to understand concepts that are "higher" than utility and emotion. The ability to develop advanced culture would be dependant upon "higher" cognitive function. To be more like humans animals would have to evolve more, they can not necessarily choose to evolve. If we were to teach several apes how to speak sign language and reintroduce them to the general population of apes then they may begin to learn from one another and sexual selection may begin to favour "speaking" apes over "nonspeaking" apes. Whether or not they would be more likely to survive is another matter.

    Humans are evolved apes. Modern humans and modern apes likely have a common ancestor that was part of the ape family.
  18. May 21, 2009 #17
    I can see that there is a correspondence between brain functions and mental experiences. I wouldn't necessarily say that the brain causes the mental experience any more than I would say an electron "causes" its charge. What I don't understand is how someone can believe that the mind is no more than the brain. My experience exists whether or not my brain does (coming from the "I think, therefore I am" starting point), hence my experience is not my brain. So if a physicalist simply means that there is a correspondence between brain activity and subjective experience then I agree. However if they mean to say that subjective experience actually is brain activity then I cannot understand their viewpoint.
  19. May 21, 2009 #18
    Causation can be a tricky thing. But applying it to attributes doesn't really make sense because there is no linear progression. Charge is an attribute of an electron, not an effect.

    Mental experience is somewhat different, but even more complex. With fMRIs we can observe brain function that leads to sensation and decision making. So yes, Neurons firing do cause mental experience. The big controversy these days is, does it work the other way. Can a mental event cause neurons to fire, or is the mental event simply neurons firing?

    When you get into complex systems like the brain, simple formulations of causation tend to fall apart.

    You're misusing Descartes. "I think therefore I am" says nothing about what exists. It was designed to deal with the certainty of knowing something. Descartes believed in dualism for other reasons. He thought that the mind was distinct enough from the body that it represented a different kind of substance, and he was in agreement with the idea of soul, which is an ancient idea. Now, to be fair, he would have also been burned at the stake if he denied the soul existing....

    The reason people will equivocate brain/mind is by basing this on the modern computational model. The 'mind' is not a 'thing', we can describe it as such, because language is flexible, but the mind is no more a thing than a baseball game is a thing. You can reduce a baseball game to individual human action and its just a bunch of guys standing around on a field, watching one guy throw a ball. The baseball game only occurs when you take into account all of the action of the game as a whole. The pitch doesn't determine the game, the statistics of many pitches and runs.... plus the rules etc... add up to a game.

    We don't say the game doesn't exist, simply because its not a physical thing. Its a series of actions held together by a conceptual framework.

    In this sense the mind is simply a concept that describes the action of the brain. Its giving action a distinct 'thingness'. Quite a lot of philosophy is word problems, incidence where our use of language which works well in some cases gets overused or used in contexts which create confusion or paradox.

    The important part is that no one is saying that 'the mind doesn't exist', they are just conceptualizing and describing it differently. And this is important because when people use language they can turn nouns into verbs and back again, with ease. But this can cause huge problems with definitions.
    Last edited: May 21, 2009
  20. May 21, 2009 #19


    User Avatar
    Gold Member

    Not quite. In our modelling, we dichotomise towards two different and complementary kinds of "thing" - substance and form.

    So this is a legitimate duality! They are two extreme vantage points from which to model. Though the world in itself would always be composed of both form and substance of course (as we are only modelling, and modelling also handles the Cartesian doubt issue).

    So when people talk about mind, they are emphasising the organisation form they want to describe - the game being played.

    Then you have category mistakes that follow. Strong AI proponents for example would argue that a mind should be implementable with any kind of material/substance. Which is dualistic in spirit.

    But substance and form are two complementary/asymmetric aspects of reality. We can treat them both as fundamental essences or "things".
  21. May 21, 2009 #20
    I agree, but thats just the way we categorize. Classic dualism, however, implies that you are dealing with two entirely different substances.
    This is what I would call functional dualism, since it doesn't involve different substances, but rather different ways of categorizing. When Descartes talked about mind, he was talking about mind being entirely separate from body. So I don't think he would agree with what you are saying.
    Thats an ongoing argument. We won't really know until we build it, and even then we might not be able to tell.... P-zombies, chinese room... etc...
    We can, language permits all kinds of things, but we have just as much reason to believe they are not so distinct in any ontological way. We have no real reason to think that consciousness is anything more than an emergent property of brain matter. That is, the result of a complex system. We just don't know.
    Last edited: May 22, 2009
  22. May 22, 2009 #21


    User Avatar
    Gold Member

    That is certainly the error in most of modern dualism. The really classical dualism of ancient Greece did recognise substance vs form as ontic categories. And even Plato had his chora as well as his forms.

    Yes he did suggest an animating spirit acting through the pineal gland. And soul/spirit is substance ontology. And even the greeks felt the nous or rationality was a spirit substance, not a form or a matter of organisation.

    So while the substance/form dichotomy is ancient, the ancients did not have a sophisticated story on mind being a "form".

    But that applies to you and me anyway. So it does not specifically address the key question - is mind so purely a form that it could be implemented in any kind of substance?

    However that is not the useful point. The actual point is that framing the scientific task in this fashion - a theory of mind will capture its essential form: how exactly? - is a way to focus people.

    My own non-dualistic position is that substance and form are not going to be distinct. Rather, they are - as modelled concepts - the limits towards which we can dichotomise our descriptions.

    So not only am I making a modelling point - that monadism, dualism, triadicism are assumptions, free choices, to allow descriptive reduction - but I am arguing something specific about the nature of the modelling.

    To unpack: most people assume reality to be monadic - made of one kind of stuff. Yet look closely and every description is always a symmetry breaking, a dichotomy. You always have one extreme, and then its mutally exclusive opposite.

    So the greeks came up with chance and necessity, stasis and change, substance and form. And the definitions are mutually exclusive. Substance is chora, stuff without any trace of form. And form is shape or pattern or organisation - logical arranagements - without any shred of substance.

    The fake problem that was created out of this intelligent separation was the idea that reality was separated (actually dual) rather than one complex thing separated into two mutually exclusive modes of description.

    Christianity took this as its theological position which is why it has become so hard to shake. Why this embedded cultural "truth" is endlessly debated on forums like this.

    So something like dualism is true. But it is not about ontic separations just the epistemic act of separating. Two very different things!
  23. May 22, 2009 #22
    Not sure about some of the things you said, but if this is the gist of it, then we agree.
  24. May 22, 2009 #23
    This is where I disagree. MRIs show that something is happening in the brain while a subjective experience occurs, this does not imply a causation but a correspondence. You misunderstand my point about Descartes, "I think, therefore I am" does assert something about what exists. It asserts that my subjective experiences and thoughts exist. They are the only thing that I know exists, and from them I can choose to infer the existence of an external physical world. Otherwise, I could choose to believe that the world does not exist independently of my senses. Either way, my subjective experiences exist fundamentally, and cannot be explained away as neural processes. I can see a conceptual difference between me with all my thoughts and experiences, and a person who appears exactly the same from the outside, but has no self awareness or inner experience.

    I'd like to add that I am not referring to any "soul". I'm simply arguing that subjective experience is not explained fully in terms of physical interactions, even if a correspondence (or even causation) can be observed.
  25. May 22, 2009 #24


    User Avatar
    Gold Member

    That's not too consistent a position as the same doubt would apply to anything outside your subjective awareness. So you have to take the next step to talk about modelling. You've restated epistemology 101, first term, now move on.

    Or if you are saying it can be explained partially, just not fully, this is then a different position and you now have to justify why that almost, but not quite, quibble is valid. Why should I believe that you can have partial yet not full? I don't follow any logic there.

    The hard problem or ontic dualism is easy to assert, easy to believe. But is not actually a robust story. You will have to work harder on the supporting argument.
  26. May 22, 2009 #25
    I don't get your point about the same doubt applying to everything. Physical phenomena are explained in terms of physical interactions. But even if I had a full explanation of what happens in the brain when I am perceiving the colour red, I would not find the experience of redness (qualia) anywhere in that explanation.
    I am saying that the physical aspects can in principle be explained fully, but that the mental aspects remain unexplained. I'm not trying to reduce everything to solipsism (restate epistemology 101 as you say). I used this as an argument that I would sooner doubt the existence of material phenomena than I would doubt the existence of mental phenomena. This is why I can't subscribe to a fully materialist (or physicalist) view.
Share this great discussion with others via Reddit, Google+, Twitter, or Facebook