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The Mind-Body Problem and The Dualism vs Monism Debate: An Intro to Philosophy and Cognitive Psychology

Updated on September 18, 2012

Introduction: Cognitive Psychology and Philosophy Are Related

Cognition is the scientific study of how the human mind processes information. Many fields study cognition – chemistry and biology and neuroscience try to discover how neurons connect electrically to form our thoughts and memories, while economics studies the decisions we make and how they affect our usage of limited resources. But no field studies cognition as specifically as cognitive psychology, which is the branch of psychology studying the mental systems within an individual’s brain. Cognitive psychology can be thought of as a more scientific application of philosophy: an empirical philosophy of sorts, which seeks to answer questions like “what is thought?” and “how can we be certain of knowledge?”

One of the primary questions in modern cognitive psychology and philosophy is the mind-body problem. The definition of the mind-body problem: how are physical events related to mental events?

The mind-body problem presents one of our most fundamental philosophical beliefs about the way the world works. At its core is the concept of dualism: the concept that the “mind” and the “body” are separate entities that are obviously related but still functionally distinct. One of the important philosophers in the development of the modern theory of dualism was Frenchman Rene Descartes – for this reason, classical dualism is often referred to as Cartesian dualism. This treatment of dualism holds that the mind and body are two separate substances – or more appropriately, the “mental world” and “physical world” operate in different ways.


Explanation of Dualism: Mental States vs Physical Events

For example, an apple has certain physical properties that are chemically describable. It absorbs certain wavelengths of light and reflects others, which causes it to appear red (or green, if it’s a Granny Smith). It is usually firm, unless it’s overripe, in which case it might be slightly squishy. These properties are all empirical – measurable by scientific instruments and quantifiable by formulae and equations. We can feel the apple, see the apple, smell the apple, taste the apple, and hear the apple (if we throw it against something). But our mental perception of what happens is not of exactly the same nature as the actual physical event or property. The apple’s qualities and movements are well-defined. We know where they are, and we know that they don’t change. But our memories, perceptions, experiences, thoughts – anything that takes place in our “mind” – are not quite as easily quantifiable and measurable, even though the physical events in our brain are. Substance dualists believe that mental states – an umbrella term for our hopes, dreams, aspirations, perceptions, thoughts, feelings, emotions, and everything else that goes on in our mind – are not and cannot be defined in terms of physical characteristics like location and weight. Mental states do not have the same properties as physical objects.

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Delving into Dualism: Subjective vs Objective Phenomena, Intentionality, and Emergent Properties

There are a few ways to differentiate subjective phenomena like mental states from objective phenomena like an apple falling from a tree. Mental states have intentionality – they refer to things other than themselves. Think of an apple. Your mental image is “about” an apple – whereas the actual apple itself isn’t “about” anything. It has no intentions. It simply is. Your thoughts, however, must always be “about” something and are thus intentional. Intentionality is one of the key differences between consciousness and the physical world.

The dimensions of the mind that are not found in physical world are referred to as emergent properties – properties that do not emerge in objects beyond a certain level of complexity (namely, the complexity of the human mind). The state of living – being alive – is one of the most easily recognizable emergent properties.

(Of note is the concept of property dualism. Property dualists hold that the mind has nonphysical properties, but is still physical in nature.)

Interactions between the Brain and the Mind: Interactionism vs Epiphenomenalism

Even once dualism is accepted, there is significant debate among philosophers as to how the causation flow works. Does the brain cause things to occur in the mind, or does the mind cause things to occur in the brain? Many philosophers, Descartes included, took a hedged viewpoint called interactionism, claiming that causation can flow in both directions. This viewpoint takes into account the fact that physical events in the brain can cause mental states (for example, the binding of certain chemicals to neuron receptors can cause hallucinations – an altered mental state) and the fact that mental events can cause the brain to respond physically (for example, thinking about picking up a glass of water and drinking from it causes me to pick up the glass of water and drink from it, although I can still think about the action without choosing to engage in it).

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Other philosophers reject the two-way street of interactionism, arguing for a different interpretation of dualism known as epiphenomenalism. This philosophy states that mental entities exist, but only as inconsequential consequences (no pun intended) of physical phenomena. That is, the causality flows in only one direction – mental states exist as a result of the firing of neurons in the brain, but are only transient phenomena that have no real power to cause anything. An example is a sports car accelerating very quickly. The wheels squeal, but only because the car is accelerating – the actual noise of the wheels squealing is unable to do anything in and of itself. Apply this analogy to the brain, and you have the philosophy of epiphenomenalism.

The Other Side Of The Coin: Monism and its Tenets

Some philosophers aren’t dualists at all, believing in monism – the idea that the brain and the mind are constructed of the same material, whatever that material may be. This philosophy has been less popular than dualism historically, for the simple reason that most people don’t like believing that we’re just a collection of well-organized chemicals. We want our lives to have “meaning,” though we differ on how we define meaning – and “meaning” is hard to accomplish if we believe that our minds aren’t actually something special that’s unconnected from the real world.

One of the two subfields of monism is idealism – the idea that there isn’t actually a physical world, and everything is actually in our head. As you might imagine, this isn’t a very popular viewpoint among modern philosophers. It was historically promoted primarily by a British philosopher named Bishop Berkeley, who believed that all of our perceptions were essentially a coordinated mass hallucination directed by God.

The second and far more common view of monism is materialism, the idea that the mind is really just part of the physical world (in this case, the brain). Some materialists believe in reductive materialism, the idea that mental events can be scientifically reduced to physical events – neurons firing in a certain way leads to a certain mental state. (Also known as mind-brain identity theory.)

Conclusion: When It Comes To The Mind, There Is No Simple Answer!

There's no easy way to say that any one viewpoint on the mind-body problem is "correct" or "incorrect," and everyone has to make their own judgment after analyzing and weighing all the arguments for and against each theory. Hopefully, this discussion has been helpful in giving you and introduction to the mind-body problem and some of the key viewpoints held by modern and classical philosophers.

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Comments on Philosophy of the Mind: Do you believe in Dualism or Monism?

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    • mattgproctor profile image

      Matt 4 years ago from Virginia

      Great article there, good sir. I actually studied the monism versus dualism debate as a philosophy major. It's an area where psychology and philosophy overlap, and those specializing in either absolutely must understand and know the principles of both. I'm curious though, as a cognitive scientist, did you ever learn the argument for dualism "What Mary Didn't Know," defending dualism by an interesting argument that if a person had been isolated from the world (generally Mary, hence the title) in a way so that they had never seen color and spent all that time coming to understand the brain perfectly, when they left the room and saw color for the first time the experience of said color would be new knowledge, and thus mental states contain a type of knowledge that cannot be acquired from a full and perfect understanding of the brain. I'd be really interested in hearing your opinion on it.

    • skylergreene profile image
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      skylergreene 5 years ago

      Glad you liked it! Concepts like epiphenomenalism can be a little difficult to understand, but I do my best to reduce them to a comprehensible level.

    • Behcets and Me profile image

      Behcets and Me 5 years ago from Kent, UK

      Interesting and well written so that a mere mortal such as myself could understand, thank you.

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