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The Escape From Dualism

Steve Holloway 

What is Dualism?

If you see me you will see a male human consisting of a torso with a head, two arms and two legs. Like other humans I have a number of systems inside; skeleton, muscular, digestive, circulatory etc. On the outside I have a layer of skin over most of me. You could consider all that is inside this skin is me - Steve. Anything outside this skin is not me – not Steve. (We won’t worry about hair and nails.)

This body is physical, built of the same stuff as other physical things in the world. But I am more than just a physical entity. There is a whole other aspect to me. I can tell you that I have thoughts, rememberings, visions, the occasional tune, ideas about all sorts of things, imaginary events, plans for the future… an endless list. These take place in my mind.

Where is this mind? It is my mind, part of Steve, and if it is part of me it must be inside my skin as is all the rest of me. And we usually place the mind in the head.

This, then, is dualism. I am made up of two parts; the physical and the mental. And Steve, the very essence of Steve, my identity, my self, seems to be a part of my mind. If you live in the West, this is probably how you see yourself also. Western culture very strongly promotes this view and it is built into our languages and almost all of our cultural creations. You may at this point be wondering why I would want to question it. Why have I called this essay “The Escape From Dualism” when it just IS the way things are?


Dualism has a number of problems. I will start with some of the personal difficulties it causes. If I (Steve) want to communicate with another person then I (Steve) have to find a way to get messages from the self inside my head to the self inside the other person’s head, not a very simple process and prone to error and misunderstandings.

Another personal difficulty is that connecting with the world does not naturally happen. After all it is outside me, something separate. So I have to make a real effort to make that connection, to feel part of the world and the universe.

When I was in my teens I had a strong feeling that something was wrong, probably with me. Everyone else looked as though they fitted into the world but I felt I had to make a real effort to fit in, to say and do the right things. Other people have different experiences, for example feeling that something is missing and they spend a lot of time hunting for this absent thing.

Other problems need a bit more explanation. The two parts I am made of are very, very different. The physical world is (apparently) shared. If we are together we can agree that a flower is a certain colour, that grass is green, the sky blue (today), a cathedral tower is very tall, a bicycle wheel is round, fur feels furry, water feels wet and mint smells minty. Things in the world (almost all of them) seem the same for everyone. We also connect different senses. So a candle looks like a cylinder and, if we close our eyes and pick it up, it feels like a cylinder.

Physical things have an existence in space and time. My mug of tea takes up space on my desk. If I go away and return, my mug of tea is still there, if perhaps a little cooler than it was. So still occupying the space and persisting over time. When I finish my tea I can take the mug to the kitchen and wash it.

The mind is not shared, it is entirely private. Thoughts (and all other mental events) do not have an existence in space and time. I cannot say with certainty where a thought is and anyway it has just passed and here is a new one. I can’t take a thought or imaginary tune and move it to another place.

If I have a thought about what I want to write, my fingers press the keys on this keyboard, and now words appear on the screen, here. So a thought in my mind has become something physical. How does that work? How does mind affect things in the physical world? And physical things in the world affect mental events like the creation of ideas. How?

Most neuroscientists assume the mind is produced by the brain but offer no explanation about how it does it. (They will often switch between the words “mind” and “brain” without any qualification.) Some thinkers have made attempts at explanations; for example that quantum effects in the brain produce mind (Roger Penrose), and the mind is merely a bi-product of the brains activity, like the noise an engine makes (Daniel Dennett). These explanations somehow do not convince.

There are other problems that I would call philosophical. I am aware of my mental life but I am also aware of the physical world. The scientific view is that events in the physical world are sensed by me and are turned into nervous impulses. These are processed by my brain and I become aware of them, they become part of my mind, my consciousness. So between me and the world is the processing that has been done by my brain. And if I take this to its conclusion, all we know about the physical world is what we sense and what we have deduced about it, perhaps using a biased view.

Earlier I said “The physical world is (apparently) shared” but if we agree that a flower we both see is “red”, I do not know if your experience of “red” is the same as my experience of “red”. And there is no way that I can know your experience of “red” because it is in the same category as your experience of a thought, entirely private to you. Unfortunately this can lead one to asking the question “So what is the physical world really like?” And then one wonders, is this a sensible question to be asking?

Thinking about Dualism leads us into very muddy waters. The questions I have mentioned cannot be answered by scientists, as science is always attempting to remain “objective” whereas the mind is only known “subjectively”. And philosophy seems only to make matters worse.

So it seems we are stuck with mind versus body, subjective versus objective and with questions that have no sensible answers (if you feel like it, web search for the “hard problem of consciousness”).

The Escape

I am sure you noticed that I started this essay by saying how I would look to you, a human. If I accept that I am what I look like from your point of view, from a distance, then I am stuck in the Dualist position, a mind (and a self) in a body. But I do not have to accept that is all that I am. I can look and see what I am to me, here and now, without holding onto the idea of how anyone else might see me. You may find this is not particularly easy as the cultural pressure to be a person is very strong and you may have lived with thinking of yourself with this Dualist view for a long time.

So please do the experiments on this website to find what you really are, and look for yourself. I hope you find that you are not what you look like to others, but something very different!


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