Pragmatic mind-body dualism

brain in a vatAs a Stoic, am I committed to some kind of fundamental mind-body dualism? And if so, how on earth can I reconcile that with my understanding, as a scientist, that dualism has become untenable at the least since the second part of the early 20th century, particularly with the publication of Jacques Loeb “The Mechanistic Conception of Life”? (Not to mention earlier sharp criticism by Thomas Henry Huxley, the famous “Darwin’s bulldog.”)

Let me be crystal clear here, vitalism is dead in biology, buried by the same arguments deployed by Loeb a century ago (and a complete dearth of empirical evidence in its favor). As he put it: “It is, therefore, unwarranted to continue the statement that in addition to the acceleration of oxidations the beginning of individual life is determined by the entrance of a metaphysical ‘life principle’ into the egg; and that death is determined, aside from the cessation of oxidations, by the departure of this ‘principle’ from the body. In the case of the evaporation of water we are satisfied with the explanation given by the kinetic theory of gases and do not demand that, to repeat a well-known jest of Huxley, the disappearance of the ‘aquosity’ be also taken into consideration.”

Vitalism is not likely to come back. Indeed, nowadays it is a pseudo-metaphysical position that in turn is invoked in one form or another to support pseudo-scientific notions, such as therapeutic touch, chiropractic (the so-called the Palmers’ Innate), spiritual healing, acupuncture, and a host of others.

Why should a Stoic care? Because at the least superficially, Stoic metaphysics is dualistic. The Stoics believed that there are two organizing principles in the universe: passive matter and active intelligence, which is how they distinguished biological organisms from inanimate objects, and moreover human beings from other animals. Inanimate objects are infused only with the passive principle, while living organisms also carry the active one, and human beings have enough of it to actually acquire the ability to reason.

The Stoics referred to the two principles as theos (=God, Nature, fate, causality, reason) and hylê, which just meant matter. According to Anthony Long, in his essay “Stoicism and the philosophical tradition: Spinoza, Lipsius, Butler” (on which I have already commented), the Stoics reserved the word “substance” for the passive principle and used the word “cause” for the active one.

This seems pretty straightforwardly dualistic, doesn’t it? And therefore, based on what I wrote above, not at all in line with modern science. What is a modern Stoic to do? There are three, not mutually incompatible, ways out of this:

i) Long’s further explanation of what the Stoics, exactly, thought.

ii) Lawrence Becker’s modern interpretation of the Stoic dictum to “follow nature.”

iii) My proposal for a pragmatic dualism.

Beginning with Long, then, after his initial explanation of the standard Stoic “dualistic” view he qualifies: “the Stoic principles, notwithstanding their duality, are completely inseparable and correlative; hence, the world that they constitute is unitary rather than dualistic. Its unity is evident in the Stoic claim that, sub specie aeternitatis, the world (kosmos) is ‘God himself, who is the individual quality consisting of all substance’ (DL VII 137).” (DL refers to Diogenes Laertius, Lives of the Eminent Philosophers) Moreover: “the Stoics’ God [again = Nature, fate, causality, reason] is an extended thing; there is no part of matter in which he is not physically present.” Which means that the Stoics were not really vitalists after all, since the élan vital is assumed to enter and exit bodies (which causes life and death).

In fact, it looks like the Stoics thought in terms of quantities, not qualities. Again from Diogenes Laertius: “The divine mind or thought pervades every part of the world, just like the soul in us. But it pervades some parts to a greater extent and others to a lesser degree. Through some parts it passes as ‘coherence,’ as through our bones and sinews, and through other parts as ‘intellect,’ as through our mind” (DL VII 138– 9).

Seen in this light, then, Stoic metaphysics is only superficially dualistic, and its purpose was to provide a kind of quantitative account for the differences among inanimate objects, vegetative organisms, animals, and humans. That is why Stoicism is, in my mind, better interpreted as pantheistic than panentheistic. (As an aside note, Long remarks that one of the comparatively few differences between the Stoics and Spinoza is that the latter, but not the former, saw God as infinite in extension. Spinoza, then, was a panentheist, contra the linked Wiki entry.)

Becker’s take on the issue, I suspect, would be different. In chapter 5 of his A New Stoicism, he re-interprets the famous Stoic dictum, “follow nature,” as “follow the facts”: “Following nature means following the facts. It means getting the facts about the physical and social world we inhabit, and the facts about our situation in it — our own powers, relationships, limitations, possibilities, motives, intentions, and endeavors — before we deliberate about normative matters.”

There is plenty of textual evidence to support Becker’s interpretation, which he goes into in detail in the commentary to the same chapter. The idea, then, would be that even if the ancient Stoics actually adopted a dualist view of the cosmos and of human nature, they would have adjusted their metaphysics to keep them in synch with the findings of science. Seneca expressly said that doctrines need to be constantly revised because human nature keeps progressing: “Let us be satisfied with what we have discovered, and leave a little truth for our descendants to find out” (Seneca, Natural Questions VII.16).

Finally, my proposal, what I call pragmatic dualism. Here is what I mean. Whenever we say something like “I’ll need all my physical and mental strength to deal with this,” we don’t need to posit that our body and our minds are, in fact, distinct entities or substances. I’m sure some, maybe even many, people really do subscribe to this sort of “folk theory,” as philosophers refer to them, of the mind. But I certainly don’t. I know perfectly well that my mind is not an object, but rather the activities resulting from the interactions among my brain (which is a physical part of my body), the rest of my body, and the outside world — both in terms of physical circumstances and socio-cultural ones. Indeed, I prefer to refer to “minding,” a verb, rather than to the “mind,” implying an object. Minding is what the brain does when it processes internal and external stimuli, like breathing is what the lungs do under the proper physiological conditions.

Nonetheless, it makes perfect sense for me to “separate” my mind from my body for practical reasons. If I have a problem with the first I go to the psychologist, while for the second I visit my general practitioner and whatever specialist she recommends (then there is psychiatry, somewhere in between). In other words, psychological descriptions of human reality are perfectly valid and useful, without having to somehow imply a different ontology of mental objects and processes from physical ones.

This is also how I make sense of mind-body interactions: I recently got food poisoning and was sick for a night. The following day my “mind” wasn’t right either. It’s not like my brain processed the toxin, it’s that when one is tired and physically weak one has a hard time concentrating on stuff, like writing blog posts. It works the other way around as well: as I’m writing this I found out that my electronic payment to the tax office didn’t go through because of a mistake, and taxes are due tomorrow! Even though I know I can deal with the problem, I’m having trouble focusing on my work (which might explain the quality of this essay), and I feel vaguely sick to my stomach. My digestive system doesn’t really have anything to do with money and electronic bank transfers, and yet.

What I’m getting at is that talking “as if” our minds and bodies were two different things interacting with each other, rather than the manifestation of a uniform underlying reality, as they are according to modern science, is not only permissible, but very useful, and indeed pretty much impossible to avoid. Just try doing away with psychological vocabulary, to do what “eliminativists” in philosophy of mind, like Paul and Patricia Churchland, have been counseling us to do for decades: instead of “I feel pain,” get used to say “my C-fibers fired,” and do that for every mental process or psychological state. You end up looking really silly really soon.

So, modern Stoics reading Marcus Aurelius and his repeated counsel of ignoring the problems of the body and exercise instead our “ruling faculty” have at the least three options to deal with the charge of unscientific dualism. Personally, I’ll take all three.


14 thoughts on “Pragmatic mind-body dualism

  1. Daniel Cirignani

    Massimo, as an undergraduate I studied physiological psychology, neuropsychology and the biological basis of behavior.
    “Mind/body” dualism was basically … all over … the scientific lit. I could go get several volumes off my bookshelf right now.
    At least one of the books we used made a point to contrast the use of mind/body dualism with philosophical monism and it took strides to make clear that science operates in a monistic fashion, so to speak of “mind/body” dualism is a different use of the term.
    As a colloquial matter I’ve absorbed this pretty thoroughly. It is conventionally useful when speaking of psychological praxis to talk of mind/body dualism, because we do have a mind – even if it is philosophically monistically one-in-one with the physical brain and central nervous systems, and we do have a body.

    Saying something like this doesn’t do violence to scientific monism or one’s empirical credentials.
    Philosophical dualism, and dualism versus monism is another matter.
    I don’t think there is any more problem for psychological, practical mind/body dualism in Stoicism, as there is in conventional psychology.
    I also disagree that Stoicism, per se, is really dualistic on a philosophical level. It’s only dualistic in a similar sense to Plato, but Plato’s dualism gives way to a deeper monism on closer study.
    Lastly – you might just be trying to rush past the point, but I don’t think you are servicing the student with your treatment of mechanistics here. Or: to put it a different way: vitalism is such ancient history, why even bring it up?
    To get a sense of the state of the art I would point students to David Chalmers and John Searle, and the yearly “The Science of Consciousness” conference where they will get ample and obligatory helpings of Dennett, Dyson, Hardcastle, etc, but where they also won’t be misled that the book is closed on what they’re allowed to think.


  2. Massimo Post author


    thanks for your comments, but I’m curious why you think mentioning vitalism does a disservice to readers. It is the modern doctrine that is most likely to be confused with the not-quite-dualism of the Stoics, as I explained.

    As for Chalmers, I’m afraid I never had much patience for his approach, which I take as very distinct from that of Searle (toward which I am, instead, more sympathetic).

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Daniel Cirignani

    “As for Chalmers, I’m afraid I never had much patience for his approach, which I take as very distinct from that of Searle (toward which I am, instead, more sympathetic).”


    I’m not suggesting you agree with either. I’m reasonably sure in final conclusion I disagree with both.
    I’m talking pedagogy. Teachers tend to be proficient at teaching settled sciences, it’s a different thing to teach something that’s working itself out and is still very much in play.
    I don’t find that many people are actually familiar with vitalism, and as a current topic it basically isn’t.
    But consciousness is very much a current topic, and very much in play and unsettled. I notice that the Dennett’s and Hardcastle’s of the world, – seems to me – would be quite happy if they didn’t have to tell their students about Chalmers, Searle, Penrose or Hameroff. They’d be content to have them go away.
    But that’s not good pedagogy. To me – vitalism is like teaching about the 19th century Zionist movement when we are studying the modern Israel-Palestine conflict. Some teachers may choose to start there, but if they end there, they haven’t really gotten to the meat of the matter.


  4. Daniel Cirignani

    If you want to feel a lot better about the incredibly primitive state the we are – in a state of actuality – in, where it concerns our understanding of how science may (and yet, almost surely can’t) inform the question of monism and dualism – and how open the book is on what inquirers are allowed to think – I recommend this book – but I warn too that it’s almost surely the hardest read that’s come by anyone reading’s desk (and it’s expensive) – at least it was the hardest that’s come by mine:

    Superminds: People Harness Hypercomputation
    Selmer Bringsjord, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

    The Dennett’s of the world get apoplectic about the kind of content you find in this book because they really don’t want you to know – or at least they behave like they really don’t want you to know – just how little we understand, and possibly more importantly: they seem skittish about how dangerous is their hubris in claiming that these are settled questions.

    I think bottom line is: me personally, I’m not a dualist – but the book is wide open on ontological theories and empirical science is a long distance off from closing it. Someone suggesting otherwise either hasn’t delved too deeply, or is fretting what you might find.

    Beside’s Bringsjord’s text, more readable material from all kinds of points of view is able available in the Journal of Consciousness Studies. Anyone with a college education and enough determination should be able to read most articles published there. I strongly recommend it to all readers.
    I would advise Stoics to familiarize themselves with the latter to get the state of the art, then once up to date, speculate freely and don’t apologize.


  5. nannus

    As a computer scientist, I think one may compare this to the hardware-software distinction. “In reality” there are only electric charges moving arround, but it is possible to understand what a computer is doing (and to program it) without referring to electronics and without knowing anything about it, in an “as-if” way “in terms of” software concepts. The software of, say, wordpress, is “emulated” by some hardware, but you can understand and use and talk about the software without any knowledge of electronics, and you can understand yourself or somebody else without any knowledeg of neurology. The hardware can be changed (e.g. the wordpress site may be moved to a different hardware that is physically completely different, without us noticing it. In a similar way, there seems to be a “horizon of accessibility” in our own minding (nice word) beyond which we cannot look, so the neuronal “hardware” “underlying” our minding is imperceptible to us. For practical purposes then, in a pragmatic sense, it makes perfect sense to use a kind of dualism, in the sense of using different languages. You can talk about minds (just as you can talk about tables, instead of talking about atoms) and you do not have to talk about “C-fibers”. I am writing a comment on a blog post and I do not have to say that I am pressing buttons on a keyboard or that “actually” this or that transistor is switching.


  6. Marcus Holmes

    Now that we’ve put body-mind dualism to bed, what of the next conundrum/Copernican revolution? If minding is what the brain does (what about the so-called second brain/gut, incidentally?), does it do it independently of language, merely using language to communicate its ‘organic cogitations?’
    If so, how then does the brain think—the famous ‘thinking meat’—that is independently of language, prior to couching its ‘minding’ in verbal carriers?
    Even if we do ‘think’ independently of language, impossible to imagine, how do we preserve that clarity of thought once encoded not merely in language, but delimited to a ‘language game’ and presided omnisciently-over by the ‘symbolic order?’
    Language, ergo thought, is not in the nature of divine logos; it is itself the code of a kind of organic intertext, internecine and reliant on cooperative communication, whereby different interests ‘reach agreement’—as opposed to one falling to some fatal strain of logic.
    Reconciling ourselves to the humble station of ‘thinking meat’, still implies stubborn naivity/hubris in the notion that we somehow think independently and objectively within culture.


  7. Robin Luethe

    neo-vitalism? free-will, consciousness, autonomy, morality, human experience of time and causality. perhaps emergent properties, perhaps just far less real than we think. temp 1 armed person


  8. Brxi (@Brxi)

    The following might sound very naive to all the well-read people here and I admit I have not read enough to be able to articulate it well, but I am quite interested in the topic so I’m going to ask anyway. I am always ready to be taught a lesson (or just a link).

    I of course agree with the modern science that there is no mind-body dualism in the sense of existence of some élan vital. Nevertheless, for a while I have held the opinion that there is a sort of essential(?) dualism between matter and (for lack of better word) information. This is probably also connected with what nannus was writing above. In that sense, the brain is made of matter, but it is also our central part (helped by the rest of our body) for information processing – including knowledge, memory, logical reasoning, etc. I know this is a very simplistic and perhaps not a very useful definition (and I guess on the level of physics, matter and information are just energy), but it appears to me that it might explain the strong preference we have for distinguishing between our minds (information processing part) and bodies (physical matter). It can even explain why eliminativists sound silly, as they give materialistic explanations for what is really “information”. And I think it could also fit well to the Stoic view, if one for example thinks of “divine mind or thought” in the cited Diogenes Laertius’ excerpt as “information”.

    Now if only one could have a good definition of information…


  9. jbonnicerenoreg

    The eye is to seeing as the brain is to thinking, would be my analogy for mind-brain except that thinking produces something that seems to have an independent value or exiarence–truth value.


  10. Massimo Post author


    “I think one may compare this to the hardware-software distinction”

    A lot of people make that analogy, but the mind-body relation is far more complicated than that, since the two very clearly influence and change each other.

    “The hardware can be changed (e.g. the wordpress site may be moved to a different hardware that is physically completely different, without us noticing it”

    Right, but that could never happen with the body. Change it and you also change whatever minding that organism is capable of doing. Biology is, foundationally, monistic.


    see my response to your comment over at the Stoicism Facebook page.


    “neo-vitalism? free-will, consciousness, autonomy, morality, human experience of time and causality. perhaps emergent properties, perhaps just far less real than we think”

    I’m not clear on the nature of your comment, but I’m definitely not proposing any sort of neo-vitalism, as I made clear in the OP. I tend to be skeptical of the “it’s all an illusion” type of claim that is very fashionable these days, like John Searle, I think that saying that things like consciousness, “free will” (properly understood) and so on are “illusions,” or “not real” is simply to deny the data rather than to provide an account of them.


    “for a while I have held the opinion that there is a sort of essential(?) dualism between matter and (for lack of better word) information”

    That’s an interesting idea, but since matter = energy, and there is no information without matter/energy, I’m not sure that’s a tenable position in light of modern physics.

    “Now if only one could have a good definition of information”

    Well, there are several, the most common one, of course, being Shannon’s: Would that fit your views?

    Liked by 1 person

  11. SocraticGadfly

    To riff on Massimo, I’m curious about Daniel’s mention of Dyson, if he means Freeman Dyson, since Dyson himself has indicated, at a minimum, a sympathy with the existence of psi phenomena, and a sympathy with the idea that they would exist because of some sort of dualism.


    Per Nannus and Massimo’s comment, right — Dennett and others claim that the biological intelligence equivalent of “hardware” is interchangeable.
    A. I disagree
    B. As with Dennett’s claim about the ultimate algorithmic nature of evolution, the proof’s on him, not the other way around.


  12. Brxi (@Brxi)

    “That’s an interesting idea, but since matter = energy, and there is no information without matter/energy, I’m not sure that’s a tenable position in light of modern physics.”

    Sure, my intuition is also that that is probably right. But even then I guess I can always play the same pragmatism card like you did in the article (what you called “minding” is probably the same as what I referred to as information processing) as long as I find the information/matter dualism concept to be useful on some level of thinking about things.


  13. PeterJ

    Dualism and monism can both be rejected if we endorse nondualism, the perennial elephant in the room.

    Otherwise we have to endorse Chalmers’ ‘naturalistic dualism’ or some other sort of ‘pragmatic’ view for which dualism is true and false at the same time, as here, leaving Stoicism floating free of any logical or metaphysical foundation. My belief is that Stoicism originates as nondualism but has lost contact with its roots. It is now left with an impossible choice between endorsing metaphysical monism or dualism, neither of which work. There must be a reason why they don’t work and being false seems a plausible explanation. This would give us a fourth option to consider.


  14. Massimo Post author


    I see nothing wrong, inconsistent or refutable in monism — either of the Stoic type or of the, very similar, Spinozean one (see my article on Spinoza and the Stoics on this blog).

    Nondualism is a bit too esoteric / spiritual for my taste, and I can’t make any sense of it other than as a fancy way tom say “monism,” but with the addition of some non-identified type of spiritual dimension. I see no need for that.

    And I certainly don’t endorse Chalmers:


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