Practical Metaphysics: The Case of Mind-Body Dualism

Metaphysics is unavoidable in human life and metaphysical assumptions predate rational self-conscious reflection. Though most people spend little or no time pondering metaphysical questions as such, there is no one who does not adopt one metaphysical stance or another. What I mean by a metaphysical stance is a position that assumes certain realities that go beyond empirical tests and all possible observations. These assumptions have practical consequences for the way a person experiences the world and projects him or herself into it. It is part of our ‘being in the world’. Philosophers, of course, have explicitly considered metaphysical questions. What is Being? Reality? Metaphysical Substance? How are appearances related to what is? How do reason and logic function in arguing metaphysical theories?

One unavoidable metaphysical concern is the problem of mind-body dualism. The ancient Western philosophical tradition largely treats mind and body as separate, though the concept of ‘mind’ is modern. The ancient distinction is between body and soul. Bodies can disintegrate, but souls move on to whatever awaits them after leaving the body. Some are described as going to Hades as gibbering shades, some to the Blessed Isles, others to the River Tartarus, Heaven, Hell or Paradise. Some are said to pass from body to body in successive reincarnations. Can we prove that such views are logically impossible?
Other-worldly religions perpetuate a commitment to metaphysical dualism for the simple reason that if this were not true, then there would be no ‘other world’, no afterlife, no other body to inhabit. Dualism is an unavoidable metaphysical view for those who believe and have faith in the existence of life after death. It is right that believers in the afterlife speak of belief and faith, because no metaphysical view can be proved beyond doubt.
Descartes provoked the modern problem by casting the mind-body distinction as one between Divinely created secondary metaphysical substances. This idea permitted the continuance of mental life beyond the destruction of the body. He deferred to revelation at the cost of logical consistency in his philosophy. Today’s debate about mind-body dualism takes up a naturalistic rather an a religious perspective. From this perspective, dualism can hardly be understood.
Sometimes a gap opens up between one metaphysical orientation and another. People looking at each other from opposite sides of this gap, over time, start speaking, as it were, different languages. We really stop being able to understand one another. It is like the lack of understanding we find in two intransigent ideologically-minded political parties. At this point, argument loses its grip. It is useless to attack someone who is not standing on the same metaphysical ground as oneself. The best we can do is to profess ignorance of metaphysical matters and start asking questions about the different views and their practical implications.
The situation is complex, but the basic idea is that the rejection of metaphysics is itself a metaphysical position. Even my own non-dogmatic skepticism is a profession of faith in the benefits of lightening the load of beliefs I carry. There are still plenty of things that I believe provisionally on the basis of experience, but I do not have to go on to make a leap of faith to one of the alternative metaphysical narratives that history has thrown my way.
To conclude, let us return to mind-body dualism. Accept it or reject it, one is willy-nilly entering into a personal contract with a metaphysical view. Furthermore, no matter what view is adopted, it will have practical consequences and affect one’s life and lived experience. So, from the naturalistic position of most Western university philosophy departments, what is the practical consequence of dropping mind-body dualism? The main one is that we will no longer be able to speak of mind continuing after the end of the body.
Accepting dualism, on the other hand, which it is always possible to do with faith and belief, legitimizes one or another of the myriad narratives that deal with the next life. For many believers, there is a heavenly judge who sees how law-abiding one has been. However, one’s consciousness changes upon the thought that one is being observed. In one story, Saint Peter is always looking on, never sleeping, recording in his book one’s good and bad deeds and intentions. This puts a burden on those who accept mind-body dualism that is absent from those who do not. I hope this shows that practical metaphysics is not a contradiction in terms, but a necessity. It is best to be actively conscious of the role that practical metaphysics plays in all our lives.

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