I’ve always had a deep interest in the nature of the human mind, but I have never been able to comfortably assert a philosophical stance on the subject, i.e. am I a dualist, monist, or something else entirely. This winter break I read The Mysterious Flame by McGinn and found myself less certain than ever. Rather than turn this post into a discussion of McGinn’s work, I would like it to become a sort of informal poll of our readers and commentators: which view do you assert? Feel free to add more discourse to the post as well as asserting your position, or reasons for not having one!
I myself am undecided on the issue, but find as I gain more information and am afforded more time for reflection that I lean towards monism as a way of understanding the nature of the human mind and its relationship with the body.
I think it is a safe claim to say that dualism is the prevailing system for understanding the human mind, insofar as it relates to the body, but I find that dualism encounters far too many problems when viewed through the lens of modern physics and medical study. Aside from the commonly made arguments focused on immaterial and material substances interacting, there are also many questions that arise from studies on brain damage, impairment and aging. The common line of questioning might be this: if the mind and body are truly separable, then why is there such a profound effect on the mind when certain physical issues arise with the brain?
In some ways monism escapes these questions unscathed. In my reflection the biggest hitch for dualism is the interaction of the mind with the body. Perhaps it is my current understanding of causation that leaves me perplexed. I think that most accounts of dualism leave us to rely on miracles or otherwise mysterious methods of communication. It isn’t that monism necessarily excludes these mystery explanations, but I find that it needs them in less critical areas. If the mind and body are two expressions of the same thing then there is no need for a complex means of communication. I somehow come to a model much like the system of matter and energy that we observe in the universe. If the mind is like energy, and the body matter, then the system functions in relatively analogous ways. My limited understanding of modern physics and relativity might mean this is a crude and ineffective construction.
I often times think, like McGinn, that the answers may be unavailable to our understanding. It may simply be the case that our minds are not wired to understand the apparently complex relationship between mind and body. Obviously this is not the most satisfactory place to leave the conversation and so various theories are available and attempt to make the relationship a matter of human understanding. I look forward to hearing your opinions and welcome any added discourse!
- Quincy Faircloth