We are natural born dualists?

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What is dualism?

To speak for myself, when I was younger the word simply meant people’s tendency to be double- faced. This was dualism for me. That’s it!!

I think I was naïve. Not wrong. Just naïve because the literal meaning of the word ‘dualism’ is dichotomy or division of something into two opposing aspects. So, that should suffice for my naive understanding because technically I wasn’t wrong.

But what exactly is dualism? How deep can it be? Who coined the word ‘dualism’ after all? When it comes to dualism there is no other name than Rene Descartes that pops up. Rene Descartes was a French philosopher and a scientist. He had written many great works including “Discourse on the Method” which still survives today as one of the important works ever written. He is often regarded as the father of Western philosophy whose approach has changed the course of Western philosophy and set the basis for modernity.

Cogito, ergo sum”: Cartesian dualism

 “I think, therefore, I am.” This is what Descartes meant with “Cogito, ergo sum”. These are the most important words ever spoken by Descartes. He said, “How can one know that anything including oneself actually exists rather than being some sort of a dream or phantasm?” He believed human senses are completely unreliable. He said that he could not be trusted to know whether he was actually sitting in a room in his gown or merely dreaming about it. However, he was confident about one thing: that he was actually ‘thinking’. Descartes was a fierce rationalist and trusted in the power of human logic.

Body and soul

Mind-body dualism is closely associated with Rene Descartes. He had believed that ‘mind’ and ‘body’ are two separate things. Our bodies are physical while our minds or souls are immaterial. Since he had made a clear distinction between the mind and the body he concluded that there is definitely an interaction between the two but one of them can exist in the absence of another. The idea is debatable even today among the scholars. Whether Descartes was right or whether he made sense with this mind-body dualism is a matter of another day. What’s important here is that it is being proven through some studies that we are actually ‘pre-wired’ to believe that mind and body are entirely two different things.

Pre-wired for Dualism

Psychologists are now trying to find answer to a question: where does the distinction between mind and body actually comes from? Is it something that we learn as we interact with the external environment or we are pre-wired to believe in the duality of mind and body? Scientists believe the mind is what the brain does. I, personally, believe so. This is called “The Astonishing Hypothesis” which was first coined by Francis Crick who won a Nobel Prize. At the same time some significant studies say that we have an innate ability to distinguish between the mind and the body. Two psychologists- Jesse Bering from the University of Arkansas and David Bjorklund from Florida Atlantic University conducted a study with young children. In the experiment, they told children a story about an alligator and a mouse that actually had a tragic end. The story was told through a series of pictures shown to children. For an instance, children were shown a picture in which alligator was eating the mouse. “Uh, oh!! Mr Alligator sees Brown Mouse and is coming to get him!” This is how the experimenters interacted with children. “Well, it looks like Brown Mouse got eaten by Mr. Alligator. Brown Mouse is not alive anymore.”

Further in the experiment, researchers asked different questions from young children regarding the mental and biological functioning of the mouse. The questions related to mental functioning included, “Now that the mouse is no longer alive, is he still hungry? Is he thinking about the alligator? Does he still want to go home?” The questions related to biological functioning included, “Now that the mouse is no longer alive, will he ever need to go to the bathroom? Do his ears still work? Does his brain still work?”

It was found that children said that the mouse would not be hungry anymore, would not be able to go to the bathroom, ears won’t be working, etc. In other words, body is dead so there is no functioning. However, to questions related to mental functioning children said that the mental activities will remain intact. In other words, the soul will live. It will survive. Only the body will decay.

Encountering dualism at a personal level

After reading an article by Professor Paul Bloom from Yale University (whose work I follow and admire very much) titled “Is God an Accident?” I realized that yes, dualism does prevail in all of us. Although I am a believer of “The mind is what the brain does” I think I am skeptical when it comes to dualism. Probably because I still do not understand a lot of the things proposed by Rene Descartes. At the same time, I have come to realize that whenever I am talking to myself (self-talk) I often regard my own self as “YOU”. I am just one person. I know that. Still while having a conversation with myself regarding anything I am talking as if there is someone else in the room with me. I believe I can call this my predisposition for dualism.

I am no expert in dualism. I am still at a nascent stage when it comes to such complicated philosophical approaches. Also, there are no right or wrong answers. Presently, I do not believe in dualism. I definitely do not believe that ‘souls’ exist. When we die our bodies and brains die too.

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