Nondualism in Western Philosophy: a Series of Pointers (3/11)

Photo by Christopher Dodds

This is a series of pointers to how the Western approach can assist with one’s self-inquiry. It is less a historical survey, and more a collection of Western views that might serve as tools for inquiry, along with suggestions on how these tools might be used. Every week we will publish one new article on this topic in a total of eleven articles.

The Nondualist Reaction to Descartes
Modern nondual metaphysics seek to ground our world and our experience in what reality truly is. These efforts historically began as a reaction to dualism, which is the view that reality consists of more than one kind of thing. The most prominent kind of dualism, inspired by Rene Descartes (1596-1650), holds that there are two kinds of existing things, physical and mental. Descartes’ monumental Discourse on Method (1637) is the classical statement of this kind of dualism. He begins with the mental side, whose reality he demonstrates by arguing that it is undeniable. He argues that “I think, therefore I am,” and proceeds as follows. Since I think, I cannot be mistaken about my existence. Even if I am being fooled by (what Descartes calls) an “evil genius,” I am nevertheless a conscious, thinking being. This establishes the mental side.

Descartes argues for the physical side of the dualism by invoking God’s existence, and God’s nature as non-deceitful. God has given us the faculties that seem to perceive external physical objects. Surely God would not deceive us about the existence of physical things! Therefore physical things exist in addition to mental things.

Most versions of Western monism that come after Descartes accede to his distinction between mental and physical. Some monisms come down on the materialist side, others on the nonmaterialist side. Among materialist monisms, some suggest particles as the ultimate constituent. Other materialist monisms decline to specify just what kind of material or particle is the ultimate one, leaving that detail to the discoveries of science. Nonmaterialist monisms tend to favor consciousness or idea or Being or even God as basic.

Materialism is the view that reality consists solely of things having a location in space. Most materialists proceed reductively, arguing that things we take to be non-material are actually material things. We are mistaken, they say, to take things like minds, thoughts, and free will as non-material things.

One prominent kind of materialism is atomism, which holds that the one kind of thing that exists is tiny particles of matter. The earliest atomists are Leucippus (c. 450 BCE), his student Democritus (c. 460-360 BCE), and Lucretius (99-55 BCE).3 As a theory, atomism has two objectives. One, identify the world’s ultimate ingredient by explaining the complex in terms of the simple, and two, allow for change and diversity. Atomism holds that what truly exists are tiny, solid, indivisible particles too small to be seen with the naked eye. The atoms exist within a limitless field of empty space and are compressed together in various degrees of density. The interplay of atoms and space leaves room for the atoms to move and touch each other. The world, the person and the eye itself are all made of these atoms. The eye cannot see the atoms themselves, but can see their effects as they move, collide and combine.

In his Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690), John Locke proposes an updated version of atomism called “corpuscularianism.” This is a claim that all matter is made of minute corpuscles which themselves have no observable properties or discernable causal relations to what we actually observe. Locke’s denial of observable properties to the corpuscles makes some sense – for if the corpuscles are too small to be seen, then how can they have observable properties? But this unobservability thesis gets Locke into trouble with George Berkeley (1685-1753), the most famous “idealist.” After Berkeley, philosophy took a turn towards the nonmaterial side, and corpuscularianism became more of an explanatory hypothesis than a metaphysical theory.

Modern philosophical materialism is not necessarily atomistic. It is largely an attempt to solve the puzzle as to why mental things such as thoughts and feelings seem so much different from physical things such as rocks and trees.

Psychologist B.F. Skinner (1904-1990) has been accused of materialism because of his denial of personal autonomy. In his shocking and popular Beyond Freedom and Dignity (1971), Skinner argues against the notions of a thinking, willing, choosing faculty in mankind. These notions lead to blame and punishment, which Skinner argues do not serve to improve society. Skinner suggests another way to understand human behavior and improve society. This is to think of behavior as completely determined by conditioning, which is made up of genetic background and life history. If we improve people’s physical and social environments, we will improve society. The arguments and emphasis are similar to the teachings of Ramesh Balsekar, Wayne Liquorman, Tony Parsons and others.

More recent philosophical materialisms are explicit attempts to account for mental phenomena in terms of physical phenomena. Psychologist U.T. Place asked, ‘Is Consciousness a Brain Process?’ in a 1956 article, and argued that mental states just are brain states. This is called the “identity theory.” But identity works both ways, and critics noted that mind/brain identity does not do what the materialist wants, which is to show how mental terms are empty and physical terms are not.

In other words, identity theorists wanted to favor the brain by saying, “the brain is what the mind is identical to; therefore the brain is basic and mental terms are empty.” But since identity is bilateral, it also allows the idealist to favor the mind by saying “the mind is what the brain is identical to; therefore the mind is basic and physical terms are empty.” This warranted inference from the materialists’ own premises did not sit well with them, so they sought other theories that allowed them to eliminate mental terms.



3.  On the ancient atomists, see Taylor, C.C.W. (1999).

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