Driving Another Nail Into Dualism’s Coffin

Photo by Delano Balten on Unsplash

At least since the days of Aristotle and Plato there’s been a tension between two competing worldviews. These competing perspectives have since been formally labelled as monism and dualism. Over the past 1000 years or so, the struggle between these two visions has played out in dramatic fashion within the Christian world in particular.

In this article I will take the position that dualism in any form is logically inconsistent and does considerable harm to any paradigm attempting to incorporate it. However, monism, which is here defined as the position that nature is unified with all possible distinctions subsumed within it, is logically consistent and compatible with our latest scientific thinking about the cosmos.

Monism rejects sharp nature/culture distinctions. Nature is defined throughout this article simply as what is. All differences that we perceive, whether they are actual or culturally constructed, develop in this ultimate context. I will argue that culture, in all its complexity, can best be understood as a product of emergence, which is described by the Canadian philosopher William Seager and others roughly as the arising of an entity or quality that does not exist within any of its constituent parts.

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy defines monism as a view that attributes oneness. Ironically, however, “there are many monisms.” These monisms are distinguished by “what they target and how they count.” For our purposes here the target is nature and it is counted as indivisible. This does not mean that there can be no allowance for distinctions within nature, but it does exclude the possibility of any outside of it.

Dualism, in contrast, is defined as “the idea that, for some particular domain, there are two fundamental kinds or categories of things or principles.” Probably the most familiar and relevant dualisms are mind/body and nature/culture. These two related dualisms are frequently encountered together in arguments offered in dualism’s defense.

The seeds for these dualisms were planted no later than the 4th century BCE. Plato argued that the objects we perceive also exist as idealized forms beyond our perception. The immortal soul is, according to the Christian interpretation of Plato, one example of such an imperceptible idealized form.

Aristotle, on the other hand, broke with Plato, arguing for a physical world governed by cause and effect. This conception of reality did not require idealized forms like souls to operate, though Aristotle did not deny their possibility.

Once Christianity was established within the deteriorating Roman Empire nearly a millennium later, Plato’s view on the subject suited it quite well. Stephen Gaukroger (2006) states, “Christianity is conceived of as the final form of philosophy.” As such, Augustine used “the language of the classical philosophers to formulate his theology” and to “show that Christianity is able to answer all the questions of classical metaphysics.” Augustine’s Neo-Platonism, when combined with Christianity’s claim to be an ultimate and unifying truth, marked a significant turning point in Western history, one that would have global repercussions.

In addition to its conviction that it represented the apex of philosophy, Christianity saw humans as possessing an immortal soul and the rest of nature as something placed here for humanity. Debates regarding the presence of a soul in animals consistently reinforced dualism no matter which side of the matter theologians came down on. Those concluding animals did indeed possess a soul were merely extending their dualistic view of humans to the animal kingdom, while those arguing humans alone had souls reinforced the divide between humans and nature as well as minds and bodies.

None-the-less, debates over topics like the existence of an animal soul did open the door to using the study of nature as a means of better understanding the mind of God. This, in turn, eventually led to the rise of modern science. Initially as dualistic in its assumptions as the religious debates that played such a critical role in its birth, science is now moving increasingly further from this view of nature toward a more holistic ecological conception.

As mentioned in the introduction, emergence is the arising of an entity or quality that does not exist within any of its constituent parts. Fundamental to any understanding of emergence is a rejection of essentialism. By itself, emergence may seem to be lacking in any real explanatory power. However, evolution is the quintessence of emergence. It is now universally accepted within the scientific community as the only explanation for speciation that fits all the available evidence.

That evolution serves as an excellent example of emergence can be understood through Daniel Dennett’s retelling of what he refers to as the “prime mammal” problem. In his book Freedom Evolves, Dennett points out that logically mammals should not exist. All of the following premises are true when it comes to mammals: 1) There are mammals, and every mammal has a mother; 2) If there are and have been mammals there must have been a finite number of them; and 3) But if there has been even one mammal, then by (1), there have been an infinity of mammals, which contradicts (2), so there cannot be any mammals. “What should we do?” Dennett asks. “We should quell our desire to draw lines,” Dennett responds, because “every birth in every lineage is a potential speciation event. . .”

Emergence lacks strong predictive power, thus allowing for a sense of enchantment. However, it also recognizes that all that is, including the ineffable, arises out of necessary physical conditions. Like the letters of the alphabet or the four molecules that make up our DNA, the physical world is both constrained by natural laws and has nearly infinite combinatorial generative power.

What the logical “problem” of mammals presents us with is the same kind of dilemma we experience with dualism. Dualism is ultimately a philosophy that demands we draw lines, and often rather arbitrary ones at that. If, for example, culture and nature are seen as two distinct and autonomous phenomena, there must be a line between them somewhere and logically each of them should be able to exist without the other. The anthropologist Philippe Descola points out there isn’t “anything properly demonstrable about” the nature/culture divide, and few people doing science these days acknowledge one. Descola writes:

Distinguishing among the objects of the world those that are a matter of human intentionality and those that stem from the universal laws of matter and of life is an ontological operation, a hypothesis and a choice with regard to the relations that beings maintain with one another as a result of the qualities which are ascribed to them. Neither physics, nor chemistry, nor biology can provide proof of this, and it is furthermore extremely rare that the practitioner of these sciences, in their everyday use, actually refer to the abstraction that is nature as their domain of investigation.

Emergence is monist, erasing all lines in favor of gradation. If we literally start at the limits of human understanding with the singularity that we think initiated the Big Bang, we see that the history of the universe is one ongoing journey from simple to complex. As the word singularity implies, unity would have been the case from the start. There is nothing inherent about the move from extremely low entropy at the beginning of our universe to the state of relatively high entropy that exists today that requires us to abandon monism in favor of dualism.

As the graph above shows, at bottom are the fundamental elements. These do not change over time, but they do form new combinatorial patterns and begin to interact with each other in ways they hadn’t before. This process eventually leads to the formation of stars, planets, and, in at least one case, life. As life moves up the complexity ladder we eventually see the emergence of greater self-awareness and higher forms of intelligence. As intelligent organisms interact with one another in greater numbers we see cultures develop and grow. To the extent a term like metaphysics applies, it is an emergent (bottom up) rather than transcendent (top down) phenomenon. At no point must we separate humans or anything else from nature to make any of this work.

But for all its strengths, emergence is not a predictive tool. As is the case with evolution, a firm grasp of the concept of emergence will provide a clearer picture of where we’ve been and how we got here, but will only dimly illuminate the outlines of the near future.

If nature is what is, and culture emerges within it once a certain requisite degree of complexity has been achieved, what if any ethical implications arise from this understanding of reality? Philosophers often argue that we can’t logically reach moral conclusions based upon statements of fact. That is to say we can’t get an ought from an is. This is often described as “Hume’s Law” after David Hume, the philosopher widely credited with first articulating the is/ought problem.

If Hume was correct that we can’t get an ought from an is, then from what, if anything, can we derive our moral code? The only logical alternative to an is is an isn’t. If that’s the answer, we might just as well throw in the towel and embrace extreme relativism. Fortunately, deriving our oughts from a vacuum isn’t the solution.

In a clear nod to what would come to be known as emergence, Charles Darwin states in The Descent of Man that “any animal whatever, endowed with well-marked social instincts, the parental and filial affections being here included, would inevitably acquire a moral sense or conscience, as soon as its intellectual powers had become as well, or nearly as well developed, as in man.”

The philosopher Vincent di Norcia agrees, arguing that Darwin “presented an elegant naturalistic ethic” that was comparable to that of the radical enlightenment philosopher Spinoza. “His [Darwin’s] evolutionary understanding of human morality does not entail its reduction to anything simpler, living or inorganic. On the contrary,” di Norcia concludes, “human morality’s social and mental complexity implies an unpredictable emergence from earlier primate morality and intelligence.” (Emphasis added)

If only creatures of sufficient biological and social complexity exhibit degrees of what we refer to as moral (ought) behavior, and if ought questions only apply to the treatment of what is (nature), it’s hard to see upon what an argument for the autonomy of ought from is might rest. Both is and ought lean upon each other for support. As with a bridge arching over a river, the entire structure is held together through the tension meeting in the center.

However circular and self-serving critics may say this position is, at least those taking it can show how traits commonly associated with a “conscience” might arise and identify the physical entities to which our moral choices have thus far been applied and the consequences that follow. Those relying solely upon metaphysics for their justifications can’t produce anything beyond their own assertions. After all, if our oughts are not derived from an is (singular or set), the only place left to look for our oughts must be the mysterious and inaccessible realm often referred to as the divine or transcendent. This again leaves us ultimately with relativism since this primary source need not rest any moral assertions upon reasons. Any source so divorced from physical reality must, by definition, be arbitrary and capricious.

Ought questions arise in the first place precisely because there are real honest to goodness dilemmas embedded within our interactions with others and with the physical world. Philosophers frequently use thought experiments to describe these dilemmas. Among the most famous of these is the so called “trolly problem,” which asks that we imagine a runaway trolly that will kill five workers if it continues on its current path, but only one worker if we throw a switch to divert it down another. No matter what we choose, death is going to be the consequence. A fat man also typically gets tossed from a bridge at some point to make things more interesting, if not more realistic. What do we do?

Such lesser of two bad outcome problems arise in the real world all the time. Medicine is a field that is replete with ethical dilemmas. Trauma specialists, when confronted with a mass casualty event, must triage their patients in order to maximize the number of lives saved. Given limited staff and resources, these situations require doctors and nurses to evaluate not only a patient’s actual condition, but also the amount of time saving their life or limb would take and how the decision to treat one patient thoroughly might negatively affect the level of treatment others in need will receive. An emergency room facing a situation where the demand outstrips the supply of doctors is nothing if not a real world trolly problem.

Regardless what choices we make in response to a crisis such as a mass shooting or natural disaster, our decisions are not based upon moral principles dropped down to us from above or found floating unmoored in the universe somewhere. It is the actual physical conditions — the relationships, feelings, and consequences arising from the situation as well as the circumstance itself — that will ultimately dictate the moral conclusions we reach when trolly problems arise. In other words, our triage (ought) will be very much a product of our emergency room conditions (is). Even when we later find we got the ought wrong, the decisions made in that moment were still embedded in the physical circumstances we found ourselves in at the time. Is and ought aren’t two different things as dualism would have it. They are two sides of the very same coin that can no more be teased apart than light and shadow.

If ought is a by-product of a sufficiently biologically and socially complex being’s relationship to the world around it, then Hume’s Law isn’t a law at all. It’s an illusion. To the extent we perceive a gap between is and ought, the philosophical challenge is to bridge it rather than surrender ethics to dualism by assuming morality somehow magically transcends the physical world.

Closing this perceived gap will require us to consciously take certain steps to adjust our view of the world. Recognizing the unity of nature will help. However, it will also be necessary to go beyond understanding nature holistically to an identification with it that is more expansive and embodied than many of us are used to.

According to Jeremy Rifkin, what’s called for is an empathic consciousness. Likewise, Arne Naess, the philosopher behind the concept of Deep Ecology, believes a stronger empathic relationship with the earth is central to what he refers to as the “greening of the self.” Rifkin puts it as follows in his book The Empathic Civilization:

Empathic behavior is embodied, is filled with a sense of awe, and relies on both feelings and reason. Equally important, empathic consciousness is both descriptive and prescriptive at the same time. There is no dividing line between what one is and what one ought to be. They are one and the same. When one identifies with another’s struggle as if it were one’s own and celebrates their life by comforting and supporting their quest, one is living authentically and fully. One’s self is enlarged and expanded and spills over into broader, more inclusive communities of compassionate engagement. The process of being empathic extends the moral domain. (Emphasis added)

This approach places experience at the center of learning and understanding in a way that no dualistic philosophy can. If something is functioning independent of nature, like a ghost in either the cultural or bodily machine, it cannot be experienced. Experience is by definition a physical (i.e. natural) and embodied event. As Rifkin puts it, Descartes was only partially right. It would have been more accurate for him to say “I participate, therefore I am.”

Natural law is a concept with a rather shadowy history. But if in this context we assume it applies to things that nature does not allow us to do, then we haven’t yet and never will break it. Ought questions only apply to what is possible, and so there are no moral implications to the laws of physics as such.

However, natural law need not refer simply to the laws of physics. Ethical naturalism recognizes that there are also natural consequences that follow from the choices that the laws of physics allow us to make. Spraying pesticides over our crops isn’t unnatural in the sense that it violates any physical law. The ethical dilemmas arising from the use of such chemicals naturally follows from the death of the pests, the at least temporary increase in food production (lives saved), and the potential longer-term threats to the environment that may result from their use. These consequences must also be weighed against other facts about the world that inspired their development and deployment to begin with. Then, and only then, can we begin to reach any conclusions regarding either the efficacy or morality of spraying.

Dualism deletes the context our decisions are made in. By insisting the is and the ought are not connected, or at best connected only through some intermediate transcendent or indescribable essence, the reality of our situation is rendered moot. One can hardly argue in one breath that an ought cannot be derived from an is, and in the next oppose the use of chemical pesticides on the basis that the harm it causes the environment is greater than the benefit in higher food production that it provides to real hungry people. Sound ethical arguments can be made on either side of the question, but they will each necessarily be connected to physical reality all the way down.

As Steven Pinker puts it in Enlightenment Now, “A viable moral philosophy for a cosmopolitan world cannot be constructed from layers of intricate argumentation or rest on deep metaphysical or religious convictions. It must draw on simple, transparent principles that everyone can understand and agree upon. The idea of human flourishing — that it’s good for people to lead long, healthy, happy, rich, and stimulating lives — is just such a principle, since it is based on nothing more (and nothing less) than our common humanity.”

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US citizen residing in British Columbia, Canada. Degrees include anthropology and environmental studies. Activism, politics, science, nature.

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