Dualism or Monism: Is There A Choice?

Dualism and monism are contradicting perspectives of human existence. Dualism suggests that there is a human body and there is a human mind. They are distinct, yet interacting. A body only exists through interpretation by a mind; a mind only exists through physical embodiment. However, the important detail of dualism is that the mind is immaterial, even though it is in a physical shell.

Monism suggests that the human mind and the human body are one; either they are both physical or they are both immaterial. A physical perspective allows for the mind to be studied scientifically, just as the body can be. Monism also emphasizes the interactional relationship between the mind and body. Of course, they must interact because they are one emergent entity. In the material view of monism, the mind itself is a result of the body and the external stimulus of the environment.

Determinism is the notion that all phenomena of reality have been caused by some previous phenomena. It is a cause and effect logic. Though it is not necessary, it may entail an obedience to the physical laws that exist – for whatever reason – in the universe in which this phenomena exists. Determinism is a foundation for scientific inquiry, which psychology as a science follows. Another possible suggestion of determinism is that the world is material and thus understandable through this cause and effect logic. To elucidate these concepts, I’ll use free-will as a nucleus of discussion.

Within determinism, there is no room for free-will in it’s absolute sense. If the universe really is deterministic then there are always causes for some effect, leading to other causes and effects, ad infinitum. By its definition, free-will can’t be caused in this context. So, free will implies that causes have not made an effect, but rather an immaterial mind has made an effect. In this sense, it seems that in a dualistic world free-will can flourish. However, the world appears to have organization and systems; and through a purely scientific paradigm it is purely material, and so monistic. Free-will and determinism are incompatible, just as dualism and monism are contradicting.

A person who believes in free-will must face the choice of believing that people can be good or evil, perhaps on a continuum; or at least believe in some sort of judgement or accountability for freely chosen behaviors. For the free-willer this may be so because in ourselves and others we can observe behaviors and results. Sometimes these are positive, neutral, or negative, and the agent is interpreted subjectively by these results. So, the free-will abider will see that person as fully culpable for what occurred. They had complete choice in action. In a lot of ways, it reminds me of the fundamental attribution error: a person’s personality – or in this case free will – is the primary reason for some behavior, rather than the situation – or in this case deterministic cause.

Someone who does not see free-will as part of reality will naturally view people much differently than the above. They will see a person’s behavior determined by preceding causes. The causes direct the person to effects. Essentially, disposition and situation are addressed causally to define a person’s actions. The person who is deterministic and abides not to free will may have a more scientific, objective type of perspective of society and individual intent and actions. So monistically, they would see a person as “forced” to do everything they do moreso than acting upon their own personal volition.

So a person who believes in free-will should analyze for how they want to interpret free-will, whether dualistically as an immaterial, non-deterministic source of freedom of choice; or monistically as the illusion of freedom of choice embedded in an inherently cause and effect bound world. In this latter case, free-will is more of a convenient concept to explain the complex emergence of human behavior without having to account for causes of effect down to burdensomely fine detail. So as an interpretive concept, free-will can be applied by a monist or dualist as they see fit or per contextual usefulness.

In this light, everyone is caused to do something for some reason, whether it be from their spirit or from fundamental laws of physics. I personally submit to a monistic perspective. So, for me free-will is seen in this way: A person who submits to free will is caused to do so and is caused to view others relative to that submission, making free-will – ironically – a deterministically manifested concept. A person who does not accept free will is caused to do so and is caused to see cause. In justice, either type of person will be caused to react in some way. A free will subscriber will see a murderer as responsible for their choice and so should be sentenced to death. On the other hand, if a murder is understood to have determined causes for their crime, it may not matter. In a causal mind-set, the murderer’s murder has caused someone to sentence them to death, regardless of whether the murder was freely chosen by the murderer or under the effect of cause determined by greater forces of nature.

With all that in mind, what do you choose, or what has been chosen for you?

12 Comments

  1. What a challenging idea to wrap one’s mind around! The relation of free will to determinism and the separate consideration of monism versus dualism was fascinating. You always hear about the free will of human beings, but I never thought about how free free will actually is.
    I want to make sure I understand your argument: Your proposition is that under a monistic worldview, individual actions deemed free will do not, in fact, exhibit free will because ultimately all decisions tie back to an initial cause. From a dualistic perspective, however, free will in its true sense can exist, because this worldview perceives one’s physical self and one’s mental self as separate, so that they work independent of one another. One’s circumstances have no hand in choice; one’s thoughts alone, isolated from environment or other outside influence, drive action. Is that right?
    You focused on the mind and the body. Where would the soul fall in this discussion, assuming that one believes in the existence of a spiritual soul?

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  2. Well this is a real Friday the Thirteenth question to ponder. I believe in free will and my choices may well be “determinded” by initial causes and the events of the body’s life and existence may form the causes of the choices of the free will of the mental self. Does that make any sense? That may mean I do not belive in the concept of a separate mental and physical state. Ok…I don’t. I do think they are conected and influenced one by the other. I will continue with this rambling on my own over the weekend. Thanks for this thought provoking post.

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    1. Yeah it makes sense. It goes with the idea “free-will” has an absolute and a colloquial definition. For the sake of convenience it’s useful to say we have free-will even though we may think everything is deterministic cuz the underlying cause and effect may be confounding or irrelevant. For a neuroscientific physicists that is accounting for every cause-effect element free-will is out of the question, but for your everyday observer it’s just a side-issue you can take or leave.

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  3. Interesting you ask “what has been chosen for you”. My parents used their “freewill” to heavily indoctrinate me in the ways of religion. From the time I was born it was talks, music, stories, tapes, and church activities several days a week. I hardly had a choice in the matter. Somehow I maintained an inquisitive nature. When I couldn’t solve the fallacies and excuses I left it behind. It is against my nature to live in a way I don’t believe. I had a choice to stay but I would never believe. There are some very compelling arguments against freewill. I don’t remember the author here so pardon me. Free Will: Does free will exist?
    “It is possible, but hard to see how.

    When I say that it’s “hard to see how,” that’s not the same as to say that it’s implausible. It is very possible, but first we would need to take out a powerful and very persistent philosophical argument:
    If the universe is deterministic, then we obviously don’t have free will, because we can’t have chosen otherwise.
    If the universe is not deterministic, then it is random. If our decisions are random, they’re not freely willed.
    Determinism and randomness exhaust the possibilities.
    Therefore, we cannot possibly have free will”. Tom, EEG studies have also shown our decisions are made as much as ten seconds prior to our awareness of it. Although no freewill sounds unsettling, we are products of our environments. We are exposed to a million things without our choice before we are even out of diapers, although I think we can chart courses to achieve our own measure of happiness. Usually the truth is somewhere in the middle.

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    1. I can relate to your upbringing as I was raised Protestant, from the fanatical Pentecostal to more moderate Baptist, but once in my late teens was mentally forced away from it.
      I feel pretty certain most truths humans believe are illusory, with underlying reason or logic. Regardless, I find an ironic solace in my “choice” to believe – within the fray of human experience – we have no “choice”. We just go and flow, being.

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  4. This is a very interesting question. I write a lot on my blog about the mind and consciousness, and how much of it is dependent on the physical world. I guess until we figure out what exactly consciousness is, we will never really know if we have free will or not (nor would we know if we live in a simulation either). What I think is that a decision is not only a single cause that leads to a single effect. Your entire past causes and effects really make you the person that you are, which makes every single person different. So even though we may not have free will, I like to think that each cause and effect reaction is unique only to us. Another interesting thing is that our brain regulates which neuron impulses to let in and which to ignore. I think that we all live in our own subjective reality, because what our brain decides to acknowledge is based on our biases, opinions, memories, and desires. So even though the lack of free will may seem like we are just cogs in a machine, we are still all very unique people. That’s just my view on this entire matter.

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  5. I appreciate both the thought that went into this blog post, and in the thread of comments, too.

    I am 51 years old, and this is a subject that has occupied my thoughts for decades. Although I have always considered the Bible authoritative, there are conflicting schools of thought within theological circles.

    In reading your response to one of your reader’s comments I observed that we both were exposed to both Arminian and Calvinist theologies. In 1999 I had experience that lead me to abandon Arminianism, and to embrace Calvinism. However, I am still unsure if I hold to all five points…partially due to scripture that seems to contradict a couple of them and partly due to my own emotional reaction to them.

    If you are interested in my thoughts on this subject you can type “dual nature” in the search bar at my blog. There are a few posts I have written on this subject.

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