By Natural Philosopher Mike Prestwood

Philosophy: Dualism and Nondualism

By Mike Prestwood

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Abstract: The relationship between the mind and body has long intrigued philosophers and religious scholars, sparking diverse perspectives and interpretations. This article delves into the concepts of dualism and nondualism within various religious and philosophical traditions, highlighting their contrasting views. Generally, dualism posits that the mind and body are distinct entities, while nondualism asserts that reality is a single, indivisible whole, with perceived divisions being illusory. By examining different traditions’ approaches to the mind-body relationship, this article provides insights into how humans have grappled with existence and the intricate interplay between mind and body.

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Dualism says you have a soul; nondualism says nature is just nature.

Everyone has a viewpoint. Me too. So let’s start there so you know my perspective and can integrate the information with your view. Dualism posits that the mind and body are distinct entities, whereas the concept of a single unified universe encompasses both views. In other words, I believe the universe is a cohesive system, within which the mind and body are either separate (dualism) or not (nondualism). Dualism and nondualism can both be effective frameworks for discussion. I welcome dialogues on both, although I lean toward a dualistic view and consider the possibility that the body is merely a machine running a program. If this is true, uploading the mind might be possible in the future.

First, let’s explore dualism before delving into nondualism. I’ll follow up with a discussion on Plato. And since we’re discussing Plato, it’s essential to talk about his student Aristotle as well.

Dualism and Its Many Facets

This section delves into the realm of dualism, exploring various belief systems that contain parallels and distinctions in their perspectives. We will uncover how these diverse ideologies relate to one another and connect to the overarching theme of nondualism.

Cartesian Dualism

René Descartes’ Cartesian Dualism focuses on the relationship between the mind and body, positing that they are fundamentally separate substances. The mind is an immaterial, thinking entity, while the body is a material, extended entity. Descartes believed that the mind and body interacted through the pineal gland, a small endocrine gland in the brain, which he considered the “seat of the soul.”

Gnosticism

Gnosticism embraces a form of dualism defined by the opposition between the spiritual world (the realm of light) and the material world (the realm of darkness). In this belief system, the material world is seen as a prison or illusion. The ultimate goal is to awaken to one’s true spiritual nature and escape the constraints of the material world, attaining knowledge (gnosis) of the divine.

Hinduism

Hinduism presents varied perspectives on dualism across its schools:

  • Advaita Vedanta perceives dualism as illusory, suggesting that the separation between mind and body is false. It teaches that the ultimate reality is nondual (Advaita), and any perceived duality is a result of ignorance (Avidya).
  • Dvaita Vedanta upholds a strict dualism between the individual soul (Atman) and the supreme being (Brahman), viewing them as eternally distinct.
  • Vishishtadvaita Vedanta offers a qualified non-dualism, asserting that the individual soul is part of the supreme being while retaining its uniqueness.
  • Samkhya proposes a dualistic worldview, where consciousness (Purusha) and matter (Prakriti) are distinct. Liberation is achieved through realizing the separateness of Purusha from Prakriti.
  • Nyaya and Vaisheshika schools advocate for the existence of numerous unique substances, both physical and non-physical. Although they don’t explicitly emphasize dualism between the mind and body, they maintain that the self or soul (Atman) is separate from the material world.

Judaism

Kabbalah, a form of Jewish mysticism, investigates the nature of God and the universe. The concept of Sefirot outlines ten ways God interacts with the world, incorporating dualistic aspects such as the divide between the divine and material realms or the interplay between masculine and feminine energies. The ultimate aim is to harmoniously integrate these dualities, revealing the inherent unity of all existence.

Sufism

Islamic Sufism, a mystical tradition, seeks a direct experience of God through practices like meditation, chanting, and contemplation. Some Sufi teachings emphasize the concept of unity or nondualism (referred to as “Unity of Being”), asserting that everything in existence is a manifestation of God. The ultimate goal in Sufism is to transcend dualistic perception and realize the underlying unity of all things.

Taoism

Taoism’s concepts of Yin and Yang are frequently associated with a dualistic view of the mind and body, symbolizing two opposing yet complementary forces within the universe. However, the relationship between these forces transcends a simplistic dualistic or nondualistic classification, as they are interdependent and interconnected, forming a harmonious whole. This intricate interplay between Yin and Yang emphasizes the importance of balance and unity in the ever-changing cosmos.

Nondualism or “Monism”

Nondualism asserts that reality is a singular, indivisible, and all-encompassing entity, suggesting that apparent divisions and distinctions, such as the separation between the mind and body, are merely illusory. Religions often strive to promote kindness, recognizing its inherent value. As such, their focus frequently lies on nondualism, the idea that everything is interconnected. Here are some thoughts on a few such belief systems.

Buddhism

Buddhism does not advocate for a strict separation between the mind and body, maintaining that any perceived separation is illusory. In Mahayana Buddhism, the concept of “emptiness” is emphasized, suggesting that all phenomena lack inherent existence or self-nature, and that the dualistic perception of the world stems from ignorance. Theravada Buddhism, on the other hand, revolves around the notion of “not-self,” which posits that there is no permanent, unchanging self or soul within a person, and that clinging to the belief in a separate self results in suffering.

Imagined image: Buddhist concepts of Atman and Anatman. The idea of the eternal soul and the doctrine of non-self, showing the transition from a continuous, unified self to the interconnected and ever-changing elements that constitute existence.

Zen Buddhism

Mahayana Buddhism, particularly in the Zen and Madhyamaka schools, also embraces nondualism. They characterize this concept as “emptiness,” emphasizing the absence of inherent existence or self-nature in all things. This perspective highlights the importance of transcending dualistic perception and recognizing the interconnectedness of all phenomena.

Hinduism

Hinduism’s take on nondualism can be found within the Advaita Vedanta school of thought. Advaita, meaning “not two” or “non-dual” in Sanskrit, is a philosophical perspective that asserts reality as a single, unified whole, and that any perceived separation or dualism is illusory.

Monism

Spinoza’s Monism is a view that resonates deeply with my perspective. Monism proclaims the existence of a singular, infinite substance called nature that encompasses everything—you can use the word God if you prefer. The mind and body are merely differing facets of this all-encompassing substance. While some argue this stance challenges dualism by negating the separate existence of mind and body, it can also be seen as supporting dualism, suggesting that the body is simply a mechanical vessel executing a program. A dualistic system where the machine runs a program and the program is the mind, while the machine is the body. Yes, this tends to sound a bit like nondualism, but, to me, it sounds more like dualism; again, these terms are great for centering any discussion on these concepts.

Imagined image: The concept of non-self, emphasizing the idea that nothing lasts forever and the notion that the “self” does not exist. It captures the transient nature of existence and the dissolution of the perceived self into the natural world.

Plato, OOP, and Me

As a computer programmer, Plato holds a special place in my heart. I’ve written extensively on Object-Oriented Programming (OOP), and OOP correlates very well with Plato’s Forms.

In OOP, we design classes with attributes and methods. For example, a person class might have attributes like sex, hair color, and height, as well as methods such as speak, run, and drive. Once the class is created, we create objects from it. So, we can take a person class and create Mike and Melissa objects and then use them in a program and direct Melissa to speak with Mike, and Mike will listen. These concepts work well because this is how people think.

Plato’s Forms can be thought of as the ideal blueprint or template from which the material world draws its inspiration, much like classes in OOP. In the world of Forms, there exists a perfect representation of every object, concept, or quality we encounter in our daily lives. These Forms, as unchanging and eternal entities, provide a consistent structure for the material world, which is in constant flux. This notion of organizing reality into distinct categories and structures resonates with the way we approach programming and problem-solving in general. By applying Plato’s concept of Forms to OOP, we can appreciate the underlying philosophical foundations that enable us to develop organized, efficient, and logical software systems that mirror the way we intuitively perceive and interact with the world around us.

You can quite literally think of your DNA as the blueprint of life, as a class in OOP terms, which was used to create you, the object in OOP terms. When two people make a baby, they design a new human. Through the process of evolution, the blueprint of life, the classes in OOP, gets upgrades.

I’m not sure if Plato’s Forms are a reflection of the true reality or simply represent how the human mind thinks. We think in terms of objects. When we use a battery, we don’t worry about what’s inside; we just want to know about its interface, the positive and negative terminals. That’s how people think. We think in terms of objects and how they interact. The question, does Plato’s Forms match reality or how humans think, is like the which came first, the chicken or egg question.

Now, let’s discuss Plato’s original Platonism and the much later Neoplatonism.

Platonism, Neoplatonism, and Dualism

Platonism and Neoplatonism are both philosophical systems that emerged from the teachings of Plato. While they share some foundational concepts, they differ in their development and focus. Both systems can be related to the dualism-nondualism subject, as they address the relationship between the material and immaterial realms.

Platonism

Platonism revolves around the idea of the existence of eternal, immaterial “Forms” or “Ideas” that represent the perfect, unchanging essence of all things in the material world. According to Plato, the material world is imperfect and constantly changing, and the Forms serve as the ideal blueprint from which all material things derive. This philosophical system introduces a form of dualism, as it distinguishes between the immaterial realm of Forms and the material world we experience.

In Plato’s view, the human soul is also an immaterial entity that is separate from the body. The soul is eternal and pre-exists before it inhabits the body, and it retains knowledge of the Forms, which it has encountered before birth. The goal of philosophy, in Platonism, is to recollect the knowledge of the Forms and achieve a higher understanding of reality.

Neoplatonism

Neoplatonism is a philosophical system that emerged several centuries after Plato’s death, primarily developed by the philosopher Plotinus. It builds upon and extends Platonism, incorporating additional elements from various philosophical traditions, including Aristotelianism and Stoicism. Neoplatonism introduces the concept of the One, an ultimate, transcendent, and ineffable source from which all existence emanates.

Neoplatonism doesn’t explicitly focus on the dualism between mind and body; instead, it strives for the reconciliation of the soul with its divine “Form” through contemplation and intellectual pursuits. According to Neoplatonism, the human soul emanates from the One, yet becomes divided and entwined with the material world.

In Neoplatonism, the One is the highest reality, beyond even the realm of the Forms. The Forms are still considered to be immaterial, perfect entities that govern the material world, but they are now seen as emanations from the One. The human soul is also considered an emanation from the One and is distinct from the material body. The ultimate goal of Neoplatonic philosophy is to achieve unity with the One through intellectual and spiritual practices, such as contemplation and meditation.

Neoplatonism can be interpreted as presenting a form of qualified nondualism, as it emphasizes the unity of all existence emanating from the One, while still acknowledging the distinctness of different levels of reality (the One, the Forms, and the material world).

Plato and Aristotle

Aristotle was a student of Plato and, like a rebellious teenager, frequently came up with opposing, or counter ideas, or ideas that changed what Plato did. I know, not a fair way to say it but it’s just a fun way for me to think of their relationship. Their two competing schools existed for 850 years in the same city of Athens Greece just one mile apart until they were shutdown by religious fanatics who favored the teaching of religious dogma and the destruction of anything that countered their narrative leading into the dark Middle Ages. Harsh words I know, but accurate. Much harm has been done in history in the name dogmatic beliefs.

So, Aristotle had a twist and I think I agree with two aspects. Aristotle acknowledged the existence of immaterial entities, but he did not accept the notion of a separate realm of Forms. (That’s the first thing I think I agree with.) Instead, he believed that these entities were intrinsically connected to the material world. (That’s the second thing I think I agree with–think about it, DNA exists in each person, not in heaven.)

In terms of dualism and nondualism, Aristotle’s position is closer to a type of “moderate dualism”–it was later called hylomorphism. Hylomorphism posits that every material object is a composite of two inseparable aspects: matter (hyle) and form (morphe). According to this view, a material object’s form is not an independent, eternal entity like Plato’s Forms, but rather an intrinsic aspect of the object itself.

For example, Aristotle believed that a wooden chair’s form (its structure and function) is not separate from its matter (the wood from which it is made). The chair’s form is realized only in the particular arrangement of its material components. This perspective contrasts with Plato’s view, in which the chair’s form would exist independently of the material chair and all other material objects that instantiate the form of a chair.

Aristotle’s hylomorphic view does not support a strict dualism like Descartes’ mind-body dualism, but it also does not align with a complete nondualism. In the case of the human soul, Aristotle believed that the soul is the form of the body – its organizing principle and the source of its functions. However, he also maintained that the soul cannot exist independently of the body. This perspective is more nuanced than either strict dualism or strict nondualism, as it emphasizes the intimate connection between the material and the immaterial while still recognizing their distinct roles.

Conclusion

The exploration of dualism and nondualism is an intriguing way to explore human thought. The various religious and philosophical traditions reveal a rich tapestry of human thought on the nature of existence and the relationship between the mind and body. While some belief systems emphasize the separation and distinctness of these aspects, others focus on their interconnectedness and the illusory nature of perceived divisions. By engaging with these diverse perspectives, we gain a deeper understanding of the myriad ways humans have sought to make sense of the world and our place within it. Humanity has been thinking about variations of the themes in this article for many millennia, at least the past ten millennia, and likely much longer. Not necessarily in these terms, but in their own ways. Moreover, it is possible that some individuals, perhaps most of us in one way or another, have contemplated these concepts without the constraints of language, relying on raw, prelinguistic thoughts. Perhaps, before our ancestors developed sophisticated communication skills, they primarily experienced these concepts through feelings and mental imagery.

By Mike Prestwood
Natural Philosopher

Mike’s throwback title simply means he writes about philosophy, science and history with a focus on exploring boundaries and intersections. While his focus is on our rational ideas about empirical observations, he does enjoy dabbling in the irrational. His exploration of the empirical led him to develop his Idea of Ideas which allows him to understand what is empirical, rational, and irrational as well as to easily understand what is empirically true, rational true, and irrationally false.

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June 16, 2024 Edition
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Wisdom emerges from the consistent exploration of the intersections of philosophy, science, critical thinking, and history.

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