The concept of mind-body dualism emphasizes a profound division between the mental and physical dimensions of human existence, positing the body as physical and the mind as non-physical. With this understanding, one might wonder: does this characterization relegate the mind to the realm of the supernatural? Furthermore, does embracing mind-body dualism entail recognizing both a natural domain (the physical) and a supernatural domain (the non-physical)?

  • 5
    No. Substance dualism might lend itself to the supernatural, but the currently more popular property dualism is more or less naturalistic, see SEP, Varieties of Dualism. The claim is simply that objects have properties, like qualia, that cannot be studied by traditional methods of physics due to their non-relational nature, but there is nothing supernatural about them. Especially when they behave in predictable ways or are epiphenomenal.
    – Conifold
    Feb 22 at 20:45
  • @Conifold -- Thanks for pointing this out. Could you further clarify what "non-relational" means in this context? Feb 23 at 9:40
  • This kind of question is at the root of all Indian philosophy, which intensely questions what is meant by "mind". Indians conclude that mind is in the same domain as the body, but that there is an "experiencer" beyond that, which necessarily falls into a different domain - supernatural, if you will, but not in a western sense. This is intriguingly similar to western ideas about qualia or the observer in quantum mechanics. Eventually, this whole issue arises due to the axiom that there is a separation between subjects and objects.
    – Lars Hanke
    Feb 23 at 9:55
  • Which particular concept of mind-body dualism says anything about a division between mental and physical dimensions of human existence? Why might any characterization 'relegate' the mind to anywhere, let alone specifically the supernatural realm? Why might mind-body dualism entail recognizing both a natural domain (the physical) and a supernatural domain (the non-physical)? Feb 23 at 23:34
  • "Non-relational" means that qualia do not relate something to something else (red to other colors, say), which is what physics, and science generally, typically describe, they are just about "what it is like" as such. "Non-representational" is a closely related characterization, qualia do not represent something else, as theories do, see IEP, Qualia and Representationalism. Here is Block's vivid illustration of the difference:"“Orgasm is phenomenally impressive and there is nothing very impressive about the representational content that there is an orgasm."
    – Conifold
    Feb 24 at 0:58

5 Answers 5


Be careful not to conflate naturalism with physicalism. Physicalism is the doctrine that everything is reducible to physics: mass and energy, electric charge, gravitation, etc. Naturalism is the doctrine that there is nothing outside of nature, but does not presume what nature consists of. Physicalism can be construed as a subset of naturalism which maintains that nothing exists outside of nature, and all of nature is reducible to physics; however, the claim that all of nature is reducible to physics is something in addition to the claim that everything that exists is a part of nature.

Many westerners have an implicitly physicalist education, and have a hard time imagining anything of nature that is not physics, but this was once a very common view among naturalists. Vitalism--the doctrine that life is distinguished by non-life by a special "vital force"--existed among atheist biologists well into the 20th century, for example.

What after all, makes anyone think that mind is supernatural? It is an aspect of life that is experienced during the normal course of things, entirely independently of any gods or demons. Atheists have minds as surely as theists do, and except for a tiny subset of physicalist ideologues, none of them deny it. Other things exist but are not physical. For example, some people deny that numbers "exist", but if you think there exists an even number that is also prime, then you think that at least the number two exists, but the number two is not physical. Another example: there exist two distinct states for any machine: it might be functioning properly or it might be broken. Is the state of proper functioning a physical object? If so, why is it impossible to describe it in physical language? So numbers and states of repair are two things that are neither physical nor supernatural.

If numbers and states of repair can be neither physical nor supernatural, why not minds? What makes something supernatural anyway? If gods exist and they are super-advanced beings with super-advanced technology able to accomplish anything, they too are a part of nature, aren't they? What if there are gods who are disembodied minds capable of doing almost anything just by willing it so. Are they a part of nature? Well, it depends on whether they came into being through natural processes following the Big Bang (which was the beginning of nature) and whether there are any natural limits at all to their power. Are they constrained by distance? By the amount of energy they can apply? If so, then they are parts of nature too.

For a god to be outside of nature, he must exist on his own, not dependent on any natural processes, and he must have no natural limits on his powers. That certainly does not describe minds. Minds have a definite beginning as part of a biological process and have very limited powers to know nature through their senses and effect nature through their bodies.

  • Excellent answer, but I offer an expansion. One can apply methodological naturalism to studies of God, ghosts, and souls as well as minds. And if the Big Bang was caused by a spiritual trigger OR a physical trigger then exploring what that could have been, is also part of naturalism. Our physical universe is not a limit point for naturalist methodology.
    – Dcleve
    Feb 23 at 17:23

Not really. I can see where you are coming from, but few people would equate the mind with the supernatural. Minds seem to be natural phenomena, and we encounter the apparent effects of the existence of minds every day. Supernatural is a term usually employed to denote something that is outside the realm of our everyday experience of nature, such as ghosts, gods, etc.

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    What if a person has experiences with ghosts, God, etc., rather frequently? Would that make them natural? Is the natural/supernatural distinction relative to the statistics of the experiences of a given person? What about winning the lottery? Is a very unusual occurrence supernatural?
    – Mark
    Feb 23 at 16:51
  • No. Someone winning the lottery is an everyday occurrence. The statistics of an individual person are irrelevant. I have never listed to grunge music, but if I were to hear it some day, I would not consider the experience to be a supernatural one. Feb 23 at 19:53
  • Then you need to make your understanding of the distinction between 'natural' and 'supernatural' clearer.
    – Mark
    Feb 25 at 13:45
  • Doesn't my final sentence make it clear? Feb 25 at 13:58
  • Nope, because you didn't define nature in the first place. You stressed the point of "every day", which sounds like you are appealing to statistics, but then I offered the counterexample of someone frequently experiencing ghosts, deities, etc., and you responded that statistics are irrelevant. Please clarify.
    – Mark
    Feb 25 at 14:25

It is a bit outdated and misleading to contrast the bodily and the mental aspect of a person as the dichotomy "body - mind".

“Body” versus ”mind” creates the impression that both are distinct substances. But the mental aspect is better understood as a set of dynamic processes than as a static substance. The mental aspect is the information processing of the person - cognitive, affectional, and behavioural.

  • These two aspects – bodily and mental - have a certain use for a scientific anthropology. Notably in the context of psychology, medicine and neuroscience.
  • The distinction “natural - supernatural” is a discrimination from theology. It does not have any value within science. I also doubt that it is useful at all to delimit science from philosophy. Supernatural is the antonym to natural, it is the domain of miracles.
  • The distinction “physical – non-physical” has a certain value to establish a border between physics and disciplines like information theory or certain humanities.
  • I wonder, would you describe the difference between computer hardware and its software as physical–non-physical distinction? Feb 23 at 9:44
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    @YuriZavorotny Yes, I consider software under the heading non-physical, or better and self-contained under the heading “information”.
    – Jo Wehler
    Feb 23 at 9:54
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    Does "car and steering wheel" imply that they are two distinct substances? How about "computer and program" or "heat pump and cooling function"? I'm sorry, but giving names to things does not imply that they are "distinct substances". One could be part of the other, one could be an aspect of the other, one could be a function of the other, etc. Nothing at all can be inferred from the fact that two different names are used, not even that they are distinct things. The distinction is not at all outdated. It is, in fact, essential for clear communication. Feb 23 at 16:07
  • @DavidGudeman Please note: What I characterize as “outdated and a bit misleading” is the use of the key words “body” and “mind” to denote the distinction between the bodily and the mental aspect in anthropology. Because opposing these two buzzwords creates the wrong conception, that both live on the same level and that both denote static substances. More useful is to consider the mental aspect as a dynamic entity, i.e. as a process.
    – Jo Wehler
    Feb 23 at 16:41
  • There are still plenty of people who view the mind as an object, not a process, and an object that is at least conceptually distinct from any physical body. There is nothing outmoded about that concept. Feb 23 at 17:01

No, you are conflating two different definitions of supernatural.

One definition is ontologic. It is that things that are spiritual, or mental, are in some non-physical category. Many physicalists use this meaning of the word, but when doing so, often get tangled up is questions of whether abstract objects, information, etc. are "supernatural" or not. This is a side effect of trying to equate physics with materialism. Physics is not actually capable of being an ontic category, and materialism has also been refuted by physics with Einstein's E=mc^2. Note, spiritual dualism IS explicitly supernatural per this definition. It is just not a very useful definition to use.

The more useful definition is epistemologic. Per the epistemologic definition, natural things or subjects can be investigated with reasoning and empiricism, but supernatural things cannot be so investigated. Whether spirits or Gods can be investigated by reason or empiricism would be an open question.

In the face of critiques of religion, theists often invoke "faith" or "untestability" or other features of the spiritual to avoid contrary test cases. "Supernaturality" is therefore often adopted as a tactic to evade critique. As anti-theists often encounter this evasion, in recent decades they have extrapolated and many now argue that religion cannot be natural, that it must in principle be epistemologically supernatural.

However, most theists generally base their religion on reasoning and evidence. Religions doctrine is not arrived at by intuitive inspiration. And anti-theists point to logical fallacies or contradictions in religious doctrine, falsified historical narrative claims, or immoral dogmas as counter-evidence against a religion. All citations of supporting evidence or refutations, reasoning or contradictions, are an explicit application of naturalism to the spiritual. In practice, virtually all theists and anti-theists treat Gods, spirits, and religion as natural, not epistemically supernatural.

The assertion that spiritual dualism is epistemologically supernatural is often tied to the Logical Positivist "verification Principle" premise that if a claim cannot be verified naturally it is nonsense. The Verification Principle famously fails its own test. Hence the question of whether naturalism can be our sole valid source of knowledge -- has an answer -- no it cannot. What the valid alternatives are -- is not well settled though.

Note also that it is not just spiritual dualists, theists, or anti-theists who assert epistemic supernaturalism. There is a movement among secular philosophers, called the New Mysterians, who hold that consciousness is simply beyond our understanding. IE it is epistemically supernatural.

  • "In the face of critiques of religion, theists often invoke "faith" or "untestability" or other features of the spiritual to avoid contrary test cases." Do you have any examples of this? I don't believe it occurs in academic arguments. Feb 23 at 9:45
  • @DavidGudeman My understanding and personal reading strongly suggest that arguments against falsifications based on the Ineffability of God became standard in "progressive" Protestant circles in the 1950s, which led to the "incoherence" argument against theism by Flew. Conservative Protestants today are naturalist among themselves, but adopt protective Ineffability in the face of anti-theist critiques. Catholic theology is so diverse, it is not really characterizable.
    – Dcleve
    Feb 23 at 14:07
  • That's too generic to count as an answer. Ineffability is not the same as untestability. In order for untestability to be used as a defense, someone would have to propose a testable critique of God, and I can't think of one. Feb 23 at 14:16
  • @DavidGudeman If a concept or thing is ineffable, then it cannot be understood well enough to articulate clear claims about it, and therefore it is untestable in principle. It is also un confirmable, which is why ineffability is only selectively invoked, to dismiss falsifications, while confirmations are embraced.
    – Dcleve
    Mar 1 at 4:51
  • You are still avoiding specifics. I really have no idea what you are getting at here, unless you are referring to atheist arguments of the form, "If God exists, then why would this be true?" Those are not falsifications of God, and the response "We don't know why God does things" is a reasonable response. If you have some other argument in mind, please say what it is. I also can't think of any "confirmation" of God that is embraced by theists academically. Do you have an example of that? Mar 1 at 7:10

This is an old debate, and one without a settled answer, despite what many may claim. To start with, we need to know what we mean by naturalism:

naturalism, in philosophy, a theory that relates scientific method to philosophy by affirming that all beings and events in the universe (whatever their inherent character may be) are natural. Consequently, all knowledge of the universe falls within the pale of scientific investigation. Although naturalism denies the existence of truly supernatural realities, it makes allowance for the supernatural, provided that knowledge of it can be had indirectly—that is, that natural objects be influenced by the so-called supernatural entities in a detectable way.
Naturalism presumes that nature is in principle completely knowable. There is in nature a regularity, unity, and wholeness that implies objective laws, without which the pursuit of scientific knowledge would be absurd.

Many people in the modern world believe in a naturalistic universe, and many of those people believe that universe to be a physical monist one, or in other words, that all things in the world--including minds--are made of physical materials. However, many other people still find the physical reduction of mind to material to be unconvincing.

Mind-body dualism posits a universe where there are two wholly different fundamental substances, one physical and one mental. In principal, both could be fully naturalistic according to the above definition. However, that is not a necessary assumption. The form of mind-body dualism we are most familiar with was formulated by Descartes, who believed that the mental realm operated in rational ways that would make it knowable in the same way as the physical realm, and hence naturalistic. But there have certainly been other thinkers who have denied this. Plato's vision of the "ideal realm," was non-naturalistic in as much as he denied it was wholly knowable from within the natural realm (and certainly not through scientific inquiry). More recently, the (large, influential) spiritualist movement of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was founded on a mind/body::natural/supernatural dualism. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spiritualism

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