I'm currently studying philosophy and I'm struggling with the concept of Cartesian dualism, particularly in relation to other theories about the mind-body relationship. I'm wondering if anyone here thinks that Cartesian dualism is a tenable position given all the other theories out there.

From what I understand, Cartesian dualism asserts that the mind and body are two separate substances that interact with each other. This seems to conflict with other theories, such as materialism, which holds that the mind is just a product of physical processes in the brain.

I've read up on some criticisms of Cartesian dualism, but I'm still having a hard time reconciling it with other views about the mind-body relationship. Does anyone have any insights or suggestions for further reading that could help me better understand this concept?

Thanks in advance for any help you can provide!

  • i remember first encountering it in undergraduate and just being amazed by how stupid the idea was, the idea of a pineal gland etc.. you could actually read descartes. i'm sure he's not that bad!
    – user65174
    Mar 18 at 21:19
  • 2
    You can read IEP article on Cartesian (or substance) dualism that summarizes arguments for it and gives references to further reading. Cartesian dualism is considered the "intuitive" position of naive common sense, so it is hard to understand why exactly you have difficulties. There is a body and there is a soul, they are different in nature (one is extended, tangible, etc., the other not), but closely interact: soul guides body's actions. There is no reconciling it with materialism, it is opposed to it.
    – Conifold
    Mar 18 at 21:26
  • And they lived happily ever after. Mar 23 at 13:24

4 Answers 4


From what I understand, Cartesian dualism asserts that the mind and body are two separate substances that interact with each other

Be mindful that the term 'substance' in philosophy means something different to its everyday use as 'a material with uniform properties'. The philosophical term was derived from the Latin 'substantia' which was used to translate Aristotle's 'ousia'. But that is actually derived from the verb 'to be'. So a philosophical 'substance' is nearer in meaning to a kind of 'subject' or 'being'. That helps insofar as translating of 'res cogitans' as 'thinking being' conveys the meaning a little better - whereas the concept of a 'thinking substance' sounds, and is, a little oxymoronic.

A related point is that Descartes' philosophy is a conceptual model, perhaps somewhat more like an economic model than an empirical theory. Understanding how substance, modes and ideas are related takes some reading. Try this encyclopedia article 17th Century Theories of Substance which goes into this background.


See this question and answers for a variety of contemporary resources: Contemporary proponents of Cartesian dualism

Additionally, since that answer, I have encountered Graham Martin, who wrote two books defending dualism: https://galileocommission.org/does-it-matter-the-unsustainable-world-of-the-materialists/ https://www.amazon.com/Living-Purpose-Meaning-Intention-Value/dp/0863156320

Also of interest is Karl Popper's The Self and its Brain, which argued for an emergent psycho-physical dualism.

Note that we appear to be evolutionarily programmed to think in spiritual dualist terms https://www2.psych.ubc.ca/~henrich/pdfs/ChudekEtAl_InutiveDualism_WorkingPaper_June2014.pdf. Additionally, the basic method of science -- that of indirect realism, is intrinsically dualist. These two points provide a credible case that dualism should be the initial default view of mind-body, and the burden of proof is on other views to displace it.

Note the recent focus on consciousness as identical to an executive manager/decider/CEO of a large organization, which is the direction much neurologic and algorithmic thinking is going today, IS to argue for exactly the relationship of mind to brain that spiritual dualism postulates.

  • "we appear to be evolutionarily programmed to think in spiritual dualist terms" That is highly suspect. It didn't occur in most cultures, for instance Chinese or Indian thought. How do you explain that? The cognitive bias to believe in a 'cognitive homunculus' en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Homunculus_argument is an error of reasoning, that relies on unexamined intuitions. Substrate independence, can relate to dualism. But you have not made the case decision making supports it, nor do I think there is such a case.
    – CriglCragl
    Mar 19 at 23:11
  • @CriglCragl -- There is no "recursion" in dualism, your wiki link is irrelevant. There is significant cross-cultural data on the near universal belief in souls from babyhood, but you are right I did not provide a link. That is now corrected. Souls in Subcontinent thinking are different from Greek/ME thought, as they are emanations of a greater soul, but this is still a form of spiritual dualism. Chinese heritage thought holds souls are composed of 5 sub-parts, and are not immortal, but the parts are. This is still a form of spiritual dualism, and is very similar to Navajo spiritual belief.
    – Dcleve
    Mar 23 at 14:46

I would argue that it's about the status of mathematics, and that Mathematical Platonists are necessarily substance dualists - so include modern thinkers like say Max Tegmark (eg his book The Mathematical Universe). Popper with his Triplism is basically a Dualist also.

Logical form, including mathematical form, involves abstraction: that is identifying a type of similarity that has substrate independence. That's like how a piece of computer code can run on more than one computer. Is the abstraction, the code, then independent of material instantiation? No, it absolutely isn't. But you can see why people get caught up with the idea it is.

Descartes was a substance-dualist. He believed in two seperate realms or modes of being, the extensible physical world, and the 'inextensible' world of ideas and logical forms. In his own lifetime, Elizabeth of Bohemia basically devastated this argument in her letters to him, and is widely credited with demoralising him into an early death. Her points on the problems of substance-dualism stand, see the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on her here.

I would argue modern science is property-dualist, believing in one substance that has two -so far- unreconciled faces: mass-energy, and entropy/information. It was widely expected the latter was just arrangements of the former, and so emergent from 'material' reality but work in quantum-gravity, like Loop Quantum Gravity and Universal Constructor Theory seem to point to information or arrangements as being fundamental, with mass-energy as emergent from it.

To understand substance-dualism, look to the status and origin of mathematics. I argue it's a viewpoint that implicitly 'haunts' modern science and obscures the distinction between property- and substance-dualism, because of Plato; who founded The Academy and so Academia, by blending Socratic Dialogue with the math-mysticism of Pythagoras. The special status of math is still widely held by serious people, and I would argue continues to rely on Pythagoras-like mysticism that cannot hold up to close scrutiny.

My views on the origin, status and reasons for utility of mathematics, as arising from intersubjectivity and shared experiences of the geometry of solid bodies, here: https://philosophy.stackexchange.com/a/92064/30474

  • More likely that Descartes died of the pnuemonia he caught when attending to Her Highness' early morning lecture requirements. And there are numerous contemporary philosophers and mathematicians who still hold to mathematical Platonism, including Sir Roger Penrose and Kurt Godel.
    – Wayfarer
    Mar 19 at 23:56
  • 1
    Agreed that mathematical Platonism, provided one holds by material reality, is therefore a form of dualism. Same with moral realism. Jaegwon Kim considers Functionalism to likewise be based on a dualist Platonism. Popper and Frege of course agree, which is why they call themselves triplest, based on their holding by psycho-physical dualism as well.
    – Dcleve
    Mar 20 at 3:01
  • However, it is simply false that Princess Elizabeth's objections to dualism remain unrefuted. They were refuted almost immediately, by Newton rejecting the constraints to causation referenced in your link: "existing accounts tie causal efficacy to extension". Elizabeth considered causation to require contact between non-interpenetrating objects with extension. The postulation of causation by fields, waves, superposition, etc. in physics from Newton on -- entirely destroys Elizabeth's argument. Causation is not constrained by her assumptions.
    – Dcleve
    Mar 20 at 3:06

The most difficult problem for any substance dualism is causal closure. That is, if physical reality is truly distinct from mental reality, then it seems like the physical and the mental can’t interact, even though they clearly do. Physical causal closure is the principle that every physical event has a physical cause, which means that mental reality cannot influence physical reality if they’re totally distinct.

I think that a distinction between substance and form is more fitting than one between the material and the mental.

  • Causal closure of the physical faces multiple refutations. Hempel's Dilemma. The abandonment of scientific reductionism and embrace of a plurality of co-equal sciences. Physics being underdetermined. No actual examples of a closed case even in physics (all volumes less than the universe have gravity and entanglement cross their walls, and the universe as a whole is treated as not closed in cosmology). These are four different refutations of causal closure. Asserting a refuted claim as dogma, is not a "difficult problem" for substance dualists. ;->
    – Dcleve
    Mar 23 at 14:38
  • Hempel’s “dilemma” is no such thing unless words don’t have meaning. The embrace of co-equal sciences and under determination are epistemic matters, not purely metaphysical ones. I don’t see how your last example is a defeater to physical causal closure. Further, what it takes to reasonably doubt physical causal closure is enough to discount such doubts. You can’t hypothesize things without consequences.
    – PW_246
    Mar 23 at 18:30
  • If you cannot define "physical" such that it excludes causal mind with a definition that is not demonstrably false, which is what Hempel's Dilemma is, then you can't assert causal closure of physics against mind. That would force labeling spirit "physical" as the only means to assure maintaining causal closure. If sciences are co-equal, then we are in a case of multiple valid reference frames, and have no possibility of causal coherence. Without causal coherence, causal closure claims are nonsense.
    – Dcleve
    Mar 23 at 19:24
  • Here is a discussion of how physics is not deterministic. philosophy.stackexchange.com/questions/68224/… If physics is not determined, then the method that selects between stochastic outcomes could in principle be a cause outside physics, and causal closure is explicitly not true for physics. And if actual physics problems cannot be closed at any scale, then claims physics in general are closed but this can't be exemplified, makes it an untestable claim -- I.E. Not Even Wrong.
    – Dcleve
    Mar 23 at 19:47
  • That is fleshing out the four refutations. For your claim that the consequences are unmanageable, see this Physics SE question and answer: physics.stackexchange.com/questions/494408/…
    – Dcleve
    Mar 23 at 19:49

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