Chapter 1: Dualism

Nature and Purpose
by John F. Haught

Chapter 1: Dualism

Dualism is a way of thinking about reality and man that separates each of these into mutually exclusive spheres. Dualism divides reality into spirit and matter and man into soul and body or into mind over against matter. A tendency toward dualism in feelings, in mythic-symbolic consciousness and in philosophical reflection has always been present in Western culture (and perhaps other cultures also) . It is this tendency more than any other single factor that lies behind the conviction of scientism that nature is indifferent to human hope and to divine influence. In its doctrines of a purposeless universe running blindly toward final catastrophe, scientific materialism unknowingly exhibits the atavistic inclination toward dualism that is a perennial ingredient of our consciousness. This dualistic predilection, therefore, merits a brief examination at the very beginning of our inquiry into nature and purpose.

Dualism and the Problem of Life

There is an interesting and ironic history behind the modern conviction that physical reality is fundamentally dead or inert, and, therefore, blind, aimless and impersonal. The persuasion that nature is purposeless rests on the premise that, prior to man’s evolutionary appearance, nature is totally lacking in anything like mentality. The universe is "unconscious" according to this conviction in all of the evolutionary phases preceding the emergence of the noosphere.1

It is important that we grasp clearly how the picture of an "unconscious" universe" evolved out of the myths and philosophies that wrested mentality from its matrix in nature. The key to our story lies in the inveterate dualism of Western thought and in the inversions and monistic resolutions that this dualism has undergone.

Early mans experience was saturated with a sense of the pervasive aliveness of the world. Very little that resembled the inert figured into the horizon of his consciousness. People, plants, animals, rivers, weather and other natural conditions overwhelmed him with an impression of the vital fluidity of it all. "Primitive panvitalism," Hans Jonas writes, "was the comprehensive view."2 But, if everything was alive, then the main occasion for wonder and primitive bafflement was the fact of death. If everything lives, how can this or that dead body appear to be so inert, so lifeless?

This is the paradox: precisely the importance of the tombs in the beginnings of mankind, the power of the death motif in the beginnings of human thought, testify to the greater power of the universal life motif as their sustaining ground: being was intelligible only as living; and the divined constancy of being could be understood only as the constancy of life, even beyond death and in defiance of its apparent verdict.3

In archaic thought, and even up to the Renaissance, death was considered somehow illusory, incapable of being made intelligible in terms of the overwhelming flux of vitality that buoyed human existence. But this was before Copernicus, Galileo, Newton and Descartes, all of whom contributed, along of course with many others, to the birth of the modern picture of the overwhelming inertness of matter. Modern physics, geology and astronomy have disclosed vast tracts of empty and lifeless space. And they have led us to conjecture how precious and precarious is the infinitesimal amount of life that exists in the universe.

Modern thought, as a result, has a radically different perspective from that of primitive panvitalism:

Death is the natural thing, life the problem. From the physical sciences there spread over the conception of all existence an ontology whose model entity is pure matter, stripped of all features of life. What at the animistic stage was not even discovered has in the meantime conquered the vision of reality, entirely ousting its counterpart. The tremendously enlarged universe of modern cosmology is conceived as a field of inanimate masses and forces which operate according to the laws of inertia and of quantitative distribution in space. This denuded substratum of all reality could only be arrived at through a progressive expurgation of vital features from the physical record and through strict abstention from projecting into its image our own felt aliveness.

. . .

This means that the lifeless has become the knowable par excellence and is for that reason also considered the true and only foundation of reality. It is the "natural" as well as the original state of things. Not only in terms of relative quantity but also in terms of ontological genuineness, nonlife is the rule, life the puzzling exception in physical existence.4

As a result of this inverted theoretical situation, Jonas concludes ". . . it is the existence of life within a mechanical universe which now calls for an explanation, and explanation has to be in terms of the lifeless."5

The explanation of the "living" in terms of the nonliving has become the ideal of much modern scientific inquiry. It is axiomatic to many, for example, that biology is reducible to physics and chemistry, and therefore, that life is reducible to the "inanimate." The dizzying advances in molecular biology blur the former distinctions between man, animal, plant and mineral; and the recent "reductions" of mind to brain are fruits of the methodological imperative to explain the animate and mental in terms of the inanimate and the unconscious.

It is the dualism of soul and body, spirit and nature, mind and matter that has made possible the shift of problematics from that of how to explain death if everything is alive, to that of how to explain life if everything is dead. Dualism is the pivotal mythic and philosophic construct on which this inversion has turned.6 While dualism has been an important factor in our coming to vivid awareness of the faculty of mentality which makes us distinct and aware of our special status, it has at the same time exorcized nature outside of human mentation of the qualities of mind and aliveness that we experience in the subtlety of our own consciousness. It has given rise to an "ontology of death." 7 Anything that is not "mind" "in here" is denuded of the vitality associated with thought and experience, and is placed "out there" in a totally different kind of world of inert, passive material objects.

This bifurcation of reality came to expression in Orphism, Gnosticism, Neo-Platonism, and Medieval anthropology, culminating in Descartes’ noted distinction of res cogitans (mind) and res extensa (matter). The influence of the dualistic myth and metaphysics on the birth and growth of modern science has been amply documented, and it is not necessary to trace the whole story here.8 It is enough only to point out that the inertness bequeathed to matter by dualism has become the basis upon which the mathematization of physical reality and motion in Newtonian and Cartesian physics has been constructed. And it is safe to say that without the dualistic premise modern science as we know it could not have developed as fruitfully or rapidly as it has.

It is also true, however, that dualism still lurks behind the dominant contemporary philosophies of nature in which matter remains essentially mindless and lifeless. It is dualism that, in the final analysis, structures the current methodological ideal in the life sciences which consists of the attempt to specify or explain biotic and conscious operations in terms of the sciences (physics and chemistry) that deal with the allegedly inanimate. Without the sphere of unconscious and lifeless chunks of matter delineated by dualism such a methodological ideal (which animates current efforts especially in biology to find the physico-chemical "secret" of life) could hardly have taken hold in scientific inquiry. In a curious way we owe a great deal to what I think is a serious mistake in cosmology.

Dualism and the Problem of Purpose

Standing at the end of the history of this dualism it is easy for us to see why any attribution of "mentality" (and therefore of purposefulness) to nature will be dismissed as romantic anthropomorphism. By expelling anything that resembles feeling, experience or perceptivity from the sphere commonly called nature, modern thought has also eliminated the possibility of attributing purpose to nature also. It has rightly recognized that without a vein of "mentality in the universe there can be no purpose either. And so, by rejecting the alliance of nature and mind, it has removed to that extent the feasibility of our searching for purpose in the world of nature. For where there is no dimension of "mind" there is no aim or purpose either.

In turn, the rejection of a teleological universe has led in many cases to doubt about any human purpose whatsoever. Needless to say, there has been a close connection all along between the modern experience of meaninglessness and the development of the picture of an impersonal universe that gives no backing to our projects. The same dualistic myths that have made us feel exceptional have also led to our sense of alienation from nature and purpose.

It is possible in theory to anticipate, therefore, the enormous implications that a new alliance of nature and mind might have for the contemporary crisis of meaning. Nothing less imposing than the significance of our lives is bound up with the quest for a union of mind and nature established on solid grounds compatible with reason, common sense and science. If we could grasp somehow that our subjectivity is a blossoming forth of nature itself, and not some enigmatic "nothingness" or separate substance over against nature, we would have at least the context in which to discuss once again the question of nature and purpose.

The basis for a synthetic vision of mind and nature is worked out most comprehensively by Alfred North Whitehead. The following chapter is an introductory synopsis and simplification of his notion of physical reality. It is designed especially to highlight his critique of dualism and to prepare for our subsequent discussion of the central problem of science and religion today, that of purpose in nature.


1 The term noosphere is used by Teilhard de Chardin to refer to the phase in evolution where consciousness as we attribute it to man becomes present and begins to spread over our planet. We shall propose with Whitehead and Hartshorne that while consciousness does not exist on earth prior to man, mentality is a pervasive aspect of physical reality.

2 Hans Jonas, The Phenomenon of Life (New York: Harper and Row, 1966), p. 9.

3 Ibid.

4 Ibid., pp. 9-10.

5 Ibid.

6 I am indebted in many ways to Jonas’ book The Phenomenon of Life for this interpretation.

7 This expression is Paul Tillich’s: Systematic Theology Vol. III (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1963), p. 19.

8 Cf. E. A. Burtt, The Metaphysical Foundations of Modern Science (Garden City, New York: Doubleday Anchor Books, 1954).