I want to take up this matter of non-duality and the split of mind and matter. Brian has accused me of being a dualist – a Cartesian (gasp) – and I must defend myself for it has become very unsightly for any would-be intellectual to be a Cartesian. The French philosopher Rene Descartes, the father of philosophy, famously (increasingly infamously) created what is sometimes known as the Cartesian split between mind and matter. His motive was to carve out a space where the human soul could exist. And so with his famous quotation, “I think therefore I am,” he envisioned a non-material thinking being that existed inside of us and where our thoughts and feelings came from.
This split between mind and matter leaves one troublesome question. How does mind influence matter. How does my thinking about lifting my arm cause my arm to rise up? How does an immaterial thought affect a material object? This is a very difficult question to answer. Descartes himself was aware of the problem, in fact he came up with an answer, albeit an improbably one. He thought that something mysterious happened occasionally in the pituitary gland where some thought moved matter just a little bit to get the motion started – or something like that. So you see, answers to the dualist riddle of how mind affects matter have been far from totally satisfying.
Dualism over the past century or so has fallen dramatically out of favor and it has been generally accepted that no such split between mind and matter could really exist. Traditionally there have been two main competing non-dual theories of reality in the West – Materialism on the one hand and Idealism on the other.
Materialism is the belief that matter is what reality is fundamentally made up of and that all mental stuff can and will be explained as secondary effects to the movement of matter. This is the popular non-dual theory of the so-called scientific types who see mind as a creation of electrochemical activity in the brain. According to this view the physical snap crackle and popping of neurons in the brain somehow leads to thought, feeling and meaning. Most of us to some degree or other, consciously or unconsciously, have assimilated this view of consciousness as a product of brain activity and of course there is a great deal of obvious truth in it.
Idealism on the other hand is the belief that mental stuff, thought, is what reality is fundamentally made up of and that our experience of matter is created by the mind. This is the view that is most often found favorable to the so called religious or spiritual types. It sees ultimate reality as being some kind of metaphysical realm from which matter in some form or other is being produced and governed. As Jeff Grace pointed out in his comment our hero Charles Peirce can be seen to be an Idealist in that he believed that “matter is effete [weakened] mind,” although I believe Peirce was going further than Idealism, or at least starting to.
So the Materialist overcomes the Cartesian split by asserting that all is matter and the Idealist by asserting that all is mind. Brian was implying that because I was emphasizing over and over again the difference between mind and matter that I must be a Cartesian. I am actually trying to think through a third possibility. One that does not assert that mind comes from matter, or that matter comes from mind, but also recognizes the obvious differences between them. I agree that the Cartesian split is unsatisfying, but so also do I find Materialism and Idealism unsatisfying. I want to find a non-dual understanding of reality that can also cope with the distinction between mind and matter.
This is what I believe the American Pragmatists were leaning toward and also what Integral Theory as it has been popularized by Ken Wilber is an attempt to do. How do we recognize the distinctions of the world while also seeing how they are integrated into an unbroken whole? I believe to do this we can start by thinking in terms of different dimensions of reality. We have to begin to grasp the holonic, holistic, and dynamic nature of multiple dimensional reality in order to start to put together a picture that even begins to feel satisfyingly able to encompass our experience.
I welcome any thoughts you might have and I look forward to devoting a post or two to developing this notion.