Here’s the next instalment of the “Nuts and Bolts” series, in which I spell out some of the basic terms and concepts used in the various branches of philosophy and theology.
I’ve already written plenty of blog entries (and even a podcast series) on dualism, but a recent online conversation with a couple of Christian bloggers prompted me to write this, because it drove home the fact that plenty of Christians don’t know what the word means, to the point where they will even get into lengthy arguments about not being a dualist when they aren’t yet sure what a “dualist” even is (yes, this actually happened recently). In the interests of being part of the solution, I present: What is dualism?
The word dualism can be used in a number of different fields, as it just refers to two contrasting things or ideas. In philosophy of mind, however, it has a much more specific range of meanings, and that’s what I have in mind here. I am therefore describing what is often called “substance dualism.”
Dualism is without a doubt the most widely held philosophy of mind in Christianity.
By all odds the most influential mind-body theory in Western civilization has been mind-body dualism. Dualism was first developed as a philosophical theory by some of the Greek philosophers, notably Plato. It was adopted by most of the Christian thinkers of the first few centuries and subsequently came to share Christianity’s dominance of European civilization.
Hasker, Metaphysics: Constructing a Worldview, Contours of Christian Philosophy (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1983), 65.
Although plenty of differences exist between the overall theology/metaphysics of Plato and modern proponents of cartesian/platonic dualism, substance dualism is something that the two share. Whether or not dualism is really a biblical view, along with the question of whether or not the doctrine might have infiltrated post-biblical Christianity by way of the pagan and philosophical background of many of its converts is a matter of some contention, and I have no argument to make one way or the other about that in this post. The label “platonic” or “cartesian” applies because of the association of substance dualism with Plato as well as with Renee Descartes. The essential feature of substance dualism is, as the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy puts it: “In the philosophy of mind, dualism is the theory that the mental and the physical — or mind and body or mind and brain — are, in some sense, radically different kinds of thing.” According to substance dualism, “the mind is not just a collection of thoughts, but is that which thinks, an immaterial substance over and above its immaterial states.”
The crucial thing about the mind is that it is a concrete thing, but it is not physical at all: It is not extended in space (so-called “emergent dualism” is thus very different from substance dualism thus described, and I think it is not really dualism in any meaningful sense, being better described as “emergentism”). This raises a fairly interesting question of where the soul is, and what it is that associates the soul with any particular body (since it’s not clear that a non-physical thing can even be located in space), but I’m not interrogating dualism here, just describing it.
Some modern Christian dualists have reservations about the term dualism because some dualists of the past have not merely been dualists, they have also taken a rather disdainful view of the physical world. In Plato’s view, substance dualism was true but in addition, the immaterial is pure and good, while the material is inferior and corrupt. He likened the body to the “prison” or even the “tomb” of the soul, and the soul was really better off without the body. Similarly, the Gnostic movement that troubled the early church also (due in part to Plato’s influence) thought of matter has corrupt and of spirit as good. Not wanting to associate with the negative view of the material world, but still wanting to affirm mind-body dualism, a small number modern dualists have (following the lead of John Cooper) adopted the term “holistic dualism.” On a metaphysical level this might sound a little contradictory: Either the human person is a unified substance or it is more than one. It cannot be both! However, the term is meant to convey the combination of substance dualism with the view that the material world is not intrinsically bad, but can, like the soul, be viewed as part of God’s good creation and cherished as such.
The label “holistic dualism” may also be a way of offering a corrective to the platonic dualism that has been dominant in the history of the Christian faith. The late Philip Hughes draws our attention to such examples in Calvin:
Calvin also argued that in men’s fallen state “the light has not been so extinguished in the darkness that they remain untouched by a sense of their own immortality,” and, further, that the human conscience “is an undoubted sign of the immortal spirit,” indeed that “the very knowledge of God sufficiently proves that souls, which transcend the world, are immortal.’ There is, however, a strangely Platonic ring to assertions, both in the Psychopannychia and in the Institutes, about the soul being “freed from the body,” about the body “weighing down the soul” and being “the prison of the soul,” and about the soul being “set free from this prison” and “loosed from these fetters” when we “put off the load of the body”…
Philip Hughes, The True Image: The Nature and Destiny of Man in Christ (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989), 399.
Although many Christians today do not take the negative attitude to the body that is found in Plato (or even in Calvin), by virtue of their view that there exists a physical body and a non-physical mind or soul that can, in principle, survive the death of the physical body, the view that they hold is quite rightly called dualism. If you hold that view, then there’s no sense waging a war over the terminology. Christians in theology and philosophy (especially philosophy of mind) readily use the label “dualism” to describe their own view. If this is your view, then go ahead and defend dualism.
I haven’t said anything about Thomistic dualism here (the view of Thomas Aquinas, differing from cartesian substance dualism). That’s a whole other kettle of fish, if only for its level of difficulty to understand, let alone explain!