Dualism and the Mind-Body ‘Problem’

Joanna Moncrieff, MD

The fourth in a series of blogs presenting a philosophical analysis of the modern mental health system.

The human body is a material object that is part of the natural world. It is a uniquely personal part of the natural world, but it is a physical substance nonetheless. How it functions internally and how it responds to external phenomena are governed by the principles of living matter, which are the subject of biology. The parts of the body fit together in regular and predictable ways, for example, and fulfill specific functions. All bodies need water, energy and oxygen. They have a limited life-span and they are subject to various infirmities.

As part of the natural world, the human body can be studied using the methods and techniques of natural science. Despite our intimate connection with our bodies, it is possible for us to discover and formulate general properties about how the human body works.

Now, many people are uncomfortable with the idea that there is a difference between the characteristics of the natural world and the human world, or between our relationship to one and to the other. The proposal that there are differences in the way we understand the human body and human activity seems to make people particularly uneasy. It is often misunderstood as illustrating the ‘mind-body problem,’ and held up as an example of the great crime of ‘dualism.’

Dualism is the name for the philosophical problem most often associated with the work of the 17th century French philosopher, René Descartes. Descartes was responding to the philosophical position known as scepticism; the claim that we cannot know anything. To find something he thought was absolutely certain and beyond doubt, Descartes turned to our inner experience (‘I think therefore I am’). But by establishing our inner experience as the benchmark of knowledge he thereby set up the problem of how we can have knowledge of anything else, including the external world and ‘other minds.’

Wittgenstein and Heidegger are both responding to the problems created by Descartes’ solution to scepticism. They both suggest that the problem is a false problem, created by the mistaken notion that knowledge is ‘inner.’ For Wittgenstein and Heidegger, we are inherently connected with the world and with other minds or people. The individual ‘mind’ is not an isolated substance or entity. The nature of our mental life, that is how we make sense of the world, is derived from the social world in which we are embedded. Hegel pointed this out, in fact, long before Wittgenstein and Heidegger. Our basic understanding of the things around us, even being able to pick out things like trees and flowers, depends on the concepts we inherit from the society we are born into.

On this view, knowledge is a function of human beings living together within the world. Knowledge is inherently public. Our individual, private experience is just that — it is experience, it is not knowledge. A single isolated individual might impose some order on their experience, but a mind in isolation from the world and other humans could not produce anything that we would think of as knowledge.

Many people’s objection to Descartes arises from discomfort with the postulation of a non-material type substance such as mind. Such a suggestion seems to hark back to the religious idea of a soul and sits uncomfortably with our modern materialist age. Indeed, as Szasz suggests, Descartes’ work can be read as an attempt to “impart scientific credibility to the theological concept of the soul.”1

What Wittgenstein and Heidegger show is that there is no need to postulate any non-material entity like mind or soul. Our subjective, individual perspective on the world is not some mysterious force or being. It is just what it is to be an individual organism. It is part of the structure of the experience of living. That individual organisms have their own unique point of view is built into the grammar of our understanding, as reflected in our language with the use of personal pronouns and conjugation of verbs.

The problem of dualism is not resolved by saying that all things are the same. It is not addressed by the proposal that human ideas and activities are the same sort of thing as mountains and minerals. The problem of dualism starts off with a wrong-headed view of knowledge. If knowledge is understood as a product of an interaction between human society and its world, then the problem of dualism melts away.

This solution emphasises rather than dissolves the difference between the human world and the natural world, especially in terms of how we relate to, or ‘know,’ these different spheres. It emphasises that human beings are knowing subjects, and that we gain knowledge of other things through our interaction with them. It also stresses that our ability to know anything depends on our membership of a historical human community. Our relationship to other members of this community and to the community as a whole is therefore necessarily different from our relationship with the non-human things around us. As argued in the last blog, we cannot know ourselves as human beings in the way we know the material world.


  1. Pro-psychiatry people and some skeptic movement fools keep (falsely) accusing critics of psychiatry as thinking in terms of “mind-body dualism”. They (fraudulently) accuse Szasz of the same. Such nonsense. We all know that there is no mind without a brain. So what? There is no mind without a liver either.

    • I agree that there is no mind without a brain. However, remember that there are TWO levels of analyses. What Joanna has focused on is the third person level of analyses. The other level represents understanding the moment-by-moment manifestation of the mind-stream. Everyone experiences the mind-stream all the time. Even when someone is conducting third-person analyses on ANYTHING, their mind-stream is changing moment by moment. If you read my other comment here, you might understand this.

    • “We all know that there is no mind without a brain.”

      A highly questionable statement derived from philosophical materialism, which is contradicted by a lot empirical evidence and its own logical incoherence.

      Happily, the influx of non-materialist research in the mainstream is slowly but steadily growing:


      And just note that the authors are concentrating only on a small section of anomalous consciousness phenomena – ones that are strongly suggesting existence of mind outside of brain and body. They didn’t even count the research into not-afterlife-suggesting psychic phenomena.

      Nowadays, the social prestige and power are the only factors that provide materialist worldview its leading position. If one dares to look beyond “respectable” circles, one will soon found that the state of evidence and argumentation contradicting “mind as a (product of) brain” theory is already sufficient to refute it.

      P.S. Waiting for Seth Farber to come in. Seth, are you here? Your heretical perspective is needed!

      • There isn’t a mind. It’s an illusion. You speak of materialism, but really, you are depending on the mind having some form of material basis in order for it to manifest somewhere other than a brain.

        Last person I debated this with made a final appeal to “gut feelings” as evidence enough. Made me chuckle anyway.

      • I agree with you Vortex. The statement “there is no mind without a brain” is valid only at a very superficial level of analyses. Before improved standards of antenatal care were available, Lorber (1981) had studied hundreds of patients who displayed normal and above normal IQ’s in spite of having severely reduced brain tissue. [Reference: Lorber J. Is your brain really necessary? Nurs Mirror. 1981 Apr 30;152(18):29-30.]. This makes us wonder if the brain is even necessary! I have heard of such cases recently as well (e.g. Noah Wall).

        Also, studying information-processing receptors on nerve cell membranes has led to the discovery that the same “neural” receptors are present on most, if not all, of the body’s cells. That is, the “brain” is not focused in the head but is distributed via signal molecules to the whole body [Reference: Pert, Candace (1997). Molecules of Emotion: The Science Behind Mind-Body Medicine, New York, Scribner].

  2. As if psychiatric hegemony were not enough. Now psychiatrists are attempting to justify the coercive and abusive practices of psychiatry through false philosophy. Moncrieff’s erroneous application of Wittgenstein and Heidegger to Descartes is disastrous. Any epistemology that attempts to justify psychiatry, or the science of lies, is more than dangerous, it is immoral. Is the human body merely a material object? Is the human body merely the subject of biology? This is the kind of thinking that led millions to the gas chambers. How can we begin to talk about “natural science” and then make the giant leap to Wittgenstein and Heidegger? Descartes’ misunderstandings are exacerbated by those of Wittgenstein and Heidegger and can only be understood in light of the original natural scientists, the pre-Socratics, and Socrates before his second sailing. Modern materialism is not the only reason to object to Descartes’ reasoning. Hegel’s historicism is another can of worms. Besides, the notion that mind is a non-material substance is a blatant contradiction. What on earth is a non-material substance? It’s absurdity masquerading as philosophy. Psychiatry is already the most wrong-headed system of oppression that has ever been created. Why attempt to lend legitimacy to the science of lies with more lies? If we want to understand knowledge, we need to emerge from the cave beneath Plato’s cave, into the sunlight of truth. If human beings are knowing subjects who gain knowledge from interaction with each other, and if that interaction is different from interaction with inanimate objects, that still leaves us with the most important questions. To what end are human beings knowing subjects? Knowing of what? Why do they wish to know? For what purpose? If Wittgenstein, Heidegger, Hegel and Descartes were predecessors to the horrors of the Shoah and the atrocities of psychiatry, then perhaps we need to get back to sound reasoning, back to Aristotle, back to the good, the true, and the beautiful. In the sunlight of the good, the true and the beautiful, we will be able to see psychiatry for what it is, namely the science of lies, worse than the chains and the shadows on the wall of Plato’s cave.



  3. I don’t know where you’re going with this series. I’ve been very curious to see where it is headed. Some of the things you’ve suggested have already thrown up what amount to, for me, red flags. I find myself wary then as to what that destination might be. I guess I will have to wait until we get there before expressing a more complete opinion.

    I wouldn’t resolve any dualism that might be perceived between mind and body because I don’t think such a resolution called for. Although thinking is what the brain does, thinking is not what a brain is. If thought is anything it is much, much more than a mere firing of neurons within such a brain, and it cannot be thoroughly analyzed, nor understood, reduced to such narrow terms under any conditions.

    “On this view, knowledge is a function of human beings living together within the world. Knowledge is inherently public. Our individual, private experience is just that — it is experience, it is not knowledge. A single isolated individual might impose some order on their experience, but a mind in isolation from the world and other humans could not produce anything that we would think of as knowledge.”

    Not being one to equate reality with consensus reality, I’m certainly not one to equate knowledge with consensus reality. If, for example, everybody on earth except for one individual believed the earth to be flat, I don’t think such “knowledge” would make the earth “flat”. I think there is, actually, knowledge that is derived from personal experience, and knowledge on top of it that might prove essential to one’s survival. Saying anything beyond that would involve way too much speculation.

    I don’t think “our ability to know anything depends on our membership” in “a historical human community”. Nor do I think that people need be expelled from community, and punished (segregated from community and housed in psychiatric prisons) for thinking (&/or behaving) in any fashion that it, as a community, finds alien and threatening when that thinking (& behavior) is not necessarily so. I wouldn’t say, for example, that prehistoric societies were without knowledge because they didn’t keep records. I don’t find knowledge and public record keeping necessarily synonymous.

    My wariness concerns a subject that came up during the course of the previous post in the series when we were talking about ‘rule breaking’ and “lack of competency” rulings. I imagine it is a subject you are going to return to at some point in the series. I feel that there is a lot arbitrariness in many court decisions due to the client not having a caring family and friends to offer the kind of support that is needed. When caring family and friends are not present to defend the client, and the state thinks the client unable to defend him or herself, then the state appoints a guardian, a guardian who doesn’t always, or even often, have the client’s best interests at heart. A cruel, cold world can often be a cruel, cold world, and the road uphill, and back from such a development, if possible, is certainly not going to be the road of least resistance.

  4. It appears to me that knowledge is synthesized information that is useful for the purposes of solving a problem in survival. It does not appear to me that there is a requirement of social interaction to have knowledge – merely a sentient relationship to the environment. A hermit still has the knowledg of how to build a hut, set a trap, light a fire, etc.

    As for mind-body dualism, most definitely not required in the sense of body-spirit as separate entities (though I will note that no one has presented scientific evidence that eliminates that possibility – the requirement that all things reside in the physical universe is a philosophical one, not a scientific one.) It should be very clear that the brain runs the body, but that it is clearly and obviously “programmable” by experience and education. It is easy to observe that the “program” can be massively altered without any change to the “hardware” at all. So it is that some people speak Chinese from birth because that’s what they are taught, but they can learn English or Swahili by reprogramming. I would suggest that the MIND is the analogy for the program. This theory effectively explains all actions of the mind without resorting to mind-body dualism at all.

    The “mind-body dualism is wrong” argument is a bunch of hot air. Too bad so many folks confuse science with the philosophy of materialism. They are not even close to the same thing.

      • Steve McCrea: there is no programmer – just causes and conditions continuously leading to other causes and conditions. These follow natural ‘laws.’ For example, the moment-by-moment manifestation of the mind-stream (that I have mentioned in my other comments here) is described as being influenced by five causal factors – one of them is ‘biological factors.’

        • So are you suggesting that I can’t decide to teach myself to dance or to pitch a base ball or to memorize a list of spelling words? Are you saying that something “leads me” to decide to learn to pitch and that I have no choice about it? Again, determinism is a PHILOSOPHICAL viewpoint, not a scientific one. I’d suggest that it is apparent that humans do, in fact, intentionally reprogram their brains based on their personal intent. This is a free-will argument, and I don’t see you have said anything that suggests it is not true, other than that you don’t believe in that concept personally.

          • Causes and conditions lead you. If your friends engage in some activity and encourage you to do those activities as well, then these are causes and conditions that motivate you to engage in those things. In other words, we do things the way we are conditioned. This is not determinism. “Free will” is valid at a conventional level (we say we can do anything), but when considering the moment-by-moment manifestation of the mind-stream, it is causes and conditions that lead to other causes and conditions.

            Remember that there is a widely prevalent assumption that people are consciously processing incoming information in order to construe and interpret their world and to plan and engage in courses of action. However, scientific research has shown that all our experiences are automatic [check out the article: Bargh, JA., and Chartrand, TL (1999). The unbearable automaticity of being. American psychologist 54.7: 462. – I can provide additional references if you want, and also you may have heard of Libet’s experiments as well]. Also check the other articles I suggested in other comments (especially the one published in ‘current psychology’ and the one in ‘SAGE Open’) – both those articles address this issue.

          • Sorry, I see absolutely no way that scientific research could possibly determine that all our experiences are automatic. And people do things for their own reasons, not always due to social pressures. In fact, some times people choose to go against advice, suggestion, social convention because of some value-based decision regarding higher priorities. It seems likely to me that you and the other scientists are simply assuming materialism to draw your conclusions. If you can provide me a live link, I could analyze it further, but on the face of it, I see no way that anyone could conclude anything about how decisions are made simply by studying brain scans and the like. Perhaps you could explain how this conclusion is drawn. I am not saying that the belief in independent will power is any more or less scientifically supported. I’m saying that science has nothing to say about it, as the human mind is the most complex and mysterious phenomenon in the world, and I doubt that it will ever be explained by science.

          • By the way, I understand what you’re saying about the mind stream, and it is arguable that the decisions a person makes are inevitable, since all events and input led them to that decision at that time. But that seems to be freezing time and the moment of decision, and time is not frozen. A person has a decision to make, and they make a decision. Perhaps it is true that they are inevitably going to make that decision under the exact same circumstances, but of course, that premise is completely untestable, since we can’t go back in time. For this reason, I contend that there is no way to “prove” that a decision could or could not be made another way than it is. It is pure philosophical speculation, not science.

          • Understanding consciousness is said to be the hardest problem ever, and yet as I mentioned earlier it was solved 2600 years ago. Yes, there can be other causal conditions that affect the mind-stream (it is not just social influences). In order to understand this further, I suggest reading the article I mentioned earlier – here it is again: “Theoretical Foundations to Guide Mindfulness Meditation: A Path to Wisdom,” published in ‘Current psychology’ – free link (legal): https://mindrxiv.org/mfs63/
            You need to read it very carefully – then you will see that it is possible to systematically understand the mind. It is not mere philosophical speculation.

          • Hey, I am all about mindfulness and meditation and Buddhism. But it’s still not science. It’s philosophy, which I consider VERY important, but it’s not science. My contention is that science has nothing to say about free will, determinism, or mind streams, and my objection was to the statement that “scientific research has shown that all our experiences are automatic.” My philosophical assertion is that this is impossible to prove by any scientific means. Science has no clue what the mind is, and as long as psychiatry or any other discipline insists on studying only the body, it will never have any clue. I agree that Buddhism does the best of any discipline in defining and understanding the mind. But again, Buddhism is not science.

          • What is science? It is: systematic knowledge of the physical or material world gained through observation and experimentation. It is a good system to understand the material world and has enormously increased the quality of life in all people.

            However, science is struggling with the riddle of consciousness (i.e., still unable to understand or define what the “mind” or “consciousness” is). One reason for this is: the mind is not material although there is a relationship between the mind and the material world. Also, when science studies consciousness (i.e., by studying the brain), it forgets that the inquirer is interlocked within the item under inquiry (i.e., consciousness).

            In other words, studying the material world represents one level of analyses. Studying the mind represents a different level of analyses. Remember it is the mind that knows about the existence of the whole material world and about the existence of the organ brain and as well as the mind. The following article differentiates these two levels of analyses: “The Five-Aggregate Model of the Mind,” published in ‘SAGE Open’ – link: http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1177/2158244015583860
            I hope you will take a look at it especially because it also addresses your question regarding people’s experiences being automatic.

            All this also boils down to a great deal of deep rooted conditioning that happen in schools and in medical schools that make the upcoming generation to unquestioningly believe that materialism is an “absolute reality.” Rupert Sheldrake explains this issue well in his banned TED talk – he talks about the difference between “science as a method of inquiry based on reason, evidence, hypothesis and collective investigation vs. science as a belief system or a world view” he says that “the latter has started to inhibit and constrict free inquiry, which is the life blood of the scientific endeavor.”
            Here’s the link to his talk: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JKHUaNAxsTg

            As I see it, if you remove the “-ism” in Buddhism, then you are left with the ultimate science of consciousness.

          • You’re actually saying the same thing I am – science is not able to study the mind because the mind transcends the physical plane of existence. Studying the brain will never lead to understanding of the mind. Materialism is a school of philosophy, not a requirement for being “scientific.” I do believe that science can study the manifestations of the mind IN the physical universe, but there is no way science can determine that the actions of the mind ” are all automatic.”

            It seems we agree on almost all points.

  5. Boy, aren’t we intellectual today. 🙂

    I would postulate that the body is the manifestation of mind/soul at a material level of focus or vibration. There may be an endless spectrum of foci and dimensions via which consciousness “simultaneously” manifests, our “material” level being just one.

  6. Leave what does not bear good fruit . Investigate something productive that is real and bears good fruit.
    Spiritual , Physical, Mental , Emotional , Psychological , Psychic .
    Each one of the above can influence the other 5 .
    Furthermore if you learn how to access your own subconscious which knows everything about yourself , and while you are in a neutral state , you can find the cause or causes for any issue of concern within you on any of the above 6 levels. You can strengthen yourself learning to focus your own intention . Even children of grammar school age can learn to do this even easier than an adult who has more preconceptions and more trouble approaching things from a neutral state . A neutral state is sort of like ” Ok , let’s see what happens”. The proof is in the pudding and this pudding is at the cutting edge of science which leaves a whole lot of futile pseudo science behind. Investigate and you will be glad you did. https://YuenMethod.com

    • I agree epilepsy, TBI, Alzheimers, tumors, etc. have physical origins. Some “schizophrenia” has been cured with mega-doses of nutritional supplements.

      But destroying healthy brain tissue when there is no discernible bio-marker is the height of folly.

      If I went to a doctor with a sharp pain in my belly and he had me anesthetized so he could randomly remove organs in the hopes something beautiful would happen you would call him a quack. Or if he had me ingest half a bottle of tums every day till I died that would also be quackery. Especially if he ran no tests of any kind but asked me a dozen questions about random digestive problems I had had in the past. If I got 6 out of 10 I have some exotic “disease” based on the constellation of symptoms rather than a real disease such as intolerance to gluten/lactose or a bleeding ulcer.

      If you don’t know what’s broken DON’T FIX IT!

  7. Joanna – But there is another way of looking at this whole issue. What you have written is not wrong, but there is ANOTHER WAY of looking at all this. You say things like “the natural world is physical” and “bodies need water, energy and oxygen” these statements are not wrong, but please pause for a moment and think who is saying all this?

    It is the mind (consciousness) that knows about the existence of the natural world and it is the mind (consciousness) that analyzes it. It is the mind that knows about various organs of the body including the organ brain – remember that brains do not talk. Also, it is the mind (consciousness) that knows about the mind itself. As I have stated before, ancient Buddhist teachings have comprehensively analyzed the mind (consciousness) where the mind is described as constantly changing sense impressions and mental phenomena.

    Perhaps I will explain this in a different way. Many investigations in psychology and neuroscience have shown that we only have one thought moment at a time and this happens as a fast flowing stream. We generally refer to our moment-by-moment experience using the terms: past, present and the future. Buddhist teachings explain that the present moment is experienced either through the five senses or as thoughts, whereas the past and the future are experienced only as thoughts in the present moment. This mind-stream is also influenced by other factors such as attachments we develop through various conditioning influences. The mind-stream happens in everyone all the time whether one is reading this article, commenting on it, going for a walk, eating, playing, studying the brain, etc.

    None of the philosophers you have mentioned has described the mind (consciousness) the way the Buddha did some 2600 years ago. People appear to avoid studying what he taught simply because these teachings are considered to be “religion.” However, if one can go beyond this negativity, it is possible to understand how these teachings make total sense. As I see it, his teachings are the ultimate “science of consciousness.”

    Please read the following article and you will understand what I am talking about:
    “Theoretical Foundations to Guide Mindfulness Meditation: A Path to Wisdom,” published in the journal Current Psychology. (The article is available as a ‘MindRxiv archive’ at this link: https://mindrxiv.org/mfs63/ )

  8. Or even better — after discarding all mental detritus, all that is left is the ability to comprehend God, and therefore I am a living being and God is real. Or words to that effect.

    A lot of Descartes’ most important thinking work was conducted inside a large oven. He found it was the best method to block out all distractions. And perhaps why his conclusion is half-baked.

    Interestingly, Daniel Dennett achieved some of his own breakthroughs inside a large industrial microwave oven. These insights are shared in his seminal text, Consciousness Explained (which many canny folk add “Away” to at the end, as that is what he does, he explains consciousness away). Consciousness is an illusion. A kind of ongoing hallucination. I found, as many have and do and will, coming to terms with that idea as a bit of a blow to the ego (a conceptualisation of aspects of an illusory hallucination).

    The last person I tried as best I could to explain this to (admittedly from a half-arsed, clumsy personal grasp of the subject) complained that if they were an illusion and I was an illusion, exactly how did these illusions seemingly merge? Were we making another illusion?

    But perhaps, Dennett’s solution to the problem is merely an attempt to deny there is a problem, and hence the solution is a cop out. I don’t know. It all seems well cooked on the outside but colder and semi-frozen on the inside. Like it got cooked in a large industrial microwave oven.

  9. The history of Western Philosophy moves back and forth between Dualism and Monism, starting with the Dualist Plato and the Monist Aristotle.

    One important Monist is Baruch Spinoza, likely practitioner of Kabbalah too.

    Today we have Gilles Deleuze.

    As I reported on one of your earlier threads, Franz Brentano had two famous students, one was Sigmund Freud, the other was Edmund Husserl. It is from this second that we get Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty. Particularly with this latter, we get a much better way of looking at things than we ever did with Freud.

    The Deleuze and Guattari book which is more like Merleau-Ponty is their Logic of Sense.

    Psychotherapy and the Recovery Movement have been built on completely bogus philosophical premises, and this is only part of their problem.

    Some offer ‘Philosophical Counseling’ as the alternative to ‘Psychological Counseling’. It is an improvement. For one thing it can be whatever you want it to be.

    But still, what is better is not any kind of counseling, but rather the chance to educate oneself and to be active in political struggle. You learn, when you are actually trying to take action and hence are forced to make critical judgments, like for example about putting someone in prison. And you learn in that you are forced to find ways of communicating to ordinary people.

  10. Adding to what I wrote earlier: the TWO distinct levels of analyses was also mentioned by Aristotle – he referred to them as phronesis and sophia.
    The following article describes these two levels well:
    “ The Five-Aggregate Model of the Mind,” published in ‘SAGE Open’ – link: http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1177/2158244015583860

    Anyone interested can also check out the article: “Waiting for Sophia: 30 years of conceptualizing wisdom in empirical psychology,” published in ‘Research in Human Development’: http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/15427609.2011.568872