Cordelia Piras-trow

Mossbourne Community Academy, East London

A Levels in Philosophy and Ethics, Classical Civilisation and Spanish


Degree aspiration: Chinese Studies

Is the mental reducible to the physical, or is it a different kind of thing?

Substance dualism is the belief that the mind and body are distinct substances, a view commonly associated with Plato and René Descartes who both referred to the soul as existing and as being the centre of human identity-where the physical human body acts as a vessel to the soul. The opposing belief is the materialist stance of philosophers such as Richard Dawkins and Gilbert Ryle, who believe in the unity and wholeness of the mind and body due to the lack of hard evidence for the dualist perspective and the scientific advances in the role of human genes. Friedrich Nietzsche proposes an alternative perspective that is partially that of the materialist stance while incorporating dualist qualities, opposing Dawkins’ ideals of purpose-a stance that may be more readily accepted and with the conclusion that the mental is reducible to the physical.


Descartes was a prominent French philosopher of the 17th century who in his works dissociates the mind from the body due to the unreliability and uncertainty of the material world senses, and hence defining what is real and what isn’t. This complication Descartes presents with the example of dreaming. When one sleeps, dreams can often be deceiving and carry the sensation of being real, leading one to find themselves in a state of confusion as to what is dreamt and what is not. What is there to disprove that the current state we suppose that we are awake is not a dream, and vice versa? Dreams are based on what we have seen and heard in the physical world, as are all our thoughts, our opinions, which would suggest that at some point one is conscious in a physical world and has physical world experiences. And while Descartes finds faults in these experiences, he finds truth in consciousness-where he resolves: “I am thinking, therefore I am”. He concludes that the only thing he cannot doubt is his own existence, as to doubt is to think, and thinking is the centre of human identity. To support this, he claims one can think of themselves without a body but not their body without a mind, hence they must be separate, as the body is divisible and the mind is not. However, thinking that the mind can exist without the body does not prove that it really can. Descartes suggestion of their separation can be disproved by the fact that physical experiences affect the mind, such as brain damage or drug abuse, which can render a change in character. This relationship is also presented through external corporeal objects. Tom Butler Bowdon writing on Descartes wrote that it is not ones own conscious decision to hear a falling object hit the floor as the sound reaches them regardless. Hence sound cannot originate in ones own mind, which led Descartes to acknowledge the existence of corporeal objects. However, Descartes reasoning behind his conclusion is flawed as one might presume they can hear or see something which is not truly there-as can happen with schizophrenics or drug consumption in hallucinatory episodes. However such examples still demonstrate the interaction and effect bodily effects have on the mental experience due to both physical world triggers and triggers within the mind. This conjoins the mind and body. They work together. This is supported by Gilbert Ryle, who labels Descartes belief as a “Category Mistake”, which means that Descartes makes an error in the definitions of the terms he uses. By which Ryle indicates through the example of a march-past of a division, where Descartes is making a mistake in assuming that the division is something similar but separate to the battalions, batteries and squadrons-when in reality the division is the category for those components, it is the term which identifies the collective. Hence the fact that Descartes is incorrect in assuming the mind is a separate thing to the body, as in reality the mind is just a feature used to describe and characterize a human. In regards to imagining the mind without a body-the body is divisible into its parts and counterparts of which would include the mind as it is a function. Without a consciousness at all, one cannot be human-hence why one cannot imagine a body without a mind, and why the mental can be reduced to the physical.


Another critic of Descartes dualism, or any form of belief in the supernatural, is Richard Dawkins. He is a present day evolutionary biologist, a materialist who relies heavily on science, on his senses and who entirely rules out the possibility of any religion being remotely true. He views religion as being a prehistoric and medieval concept conjured by humans to comfort those who fear death due to its common feature of the afterlife or of an immortal soul living within bodies.  Yet science has shown, and ones own senses show a connection between the physical body and the mind, where the soul/mind is defined as the behaviour of the person-all of which end when the body dies, so how can that behaviour live on? This can be backed by the Law of Conservation of Energy, which states that energy cannot be destroyed, only transferred elsewhere, so the energy held within a person-be it the power of the mind and the body, the heat-will all transfer to the surrounding environment when one dies. A dualist or religious person could argue that one might live on through that energy, just as the soul supposedly leaves the body at death. If the mind is the function of something other than the brain, then there would be some mental phenomena without brain function. However this does violate the conservation of energy, as stated by Mario Bunge, as if the immaterial mind were to act on matter then it would create energy, and if matter were to act on an immaterial mind then energy would disappear. Religious ideals tend to appear illogical when placed by the side of science, as in this situation-and frequently has religion been used to fill voids yet unexplained by science, as with the mystery of consciousness. Dawkins proposes that genes are responsible for consciousness, describing it as an evolutionary phenomenon where a person is a colony of genes working so intricately and complexly that it has become aware of itself, with their drive being to replicate and survive. He says humans are “robot vehicles blindly programmed to preserve the selfish molecules known as genes”. One could agree with this statement as humans are physically built for replication and everything in our body has a function to continue preserving human life. However Dawkins fails to further explain his theory of self-awareness with scientific evidence and reason, or to explain free will of the individual that supposedly allows one to stray from the given role of replication. If humans were robots, programmed for the sole purpose of replication, then we wouldn’t have free will. We wouldn’t have the capacity to stray from reproducing, yet more and more people today are refusing to-career aspirations being a key reason. Each has an independence and individuality that creates the distinction between human and robot. Humans feel emotions, make decisions different to one another, think. Dawkins’ views are reasonably logical when looking and scientific evidence, as it is well known that thinking is the result of chemical processes in the brain,, yet it remains that there are human traits he nor science itself can yet explain, such as an explanation of how and why behind the function and existence of consciousness, but may be able to in the future.  Why must a supernatural explanation be assumed before searching for an answer in the physical world-as if it is within the physical world surely it is more likely to be a part of it. Consequently it appears more plausible for the mental to be reduced to the physical than to be a separate and distinct substance to the body-with the mind more likely to have been formed by evolution, something that we can see to be a possible occurrence by looking at other examples of life in our world, as opposed to an invisible conscious substance inhabiting physical things for which we cannot say the same.


Friedrich Nietzsche was a German philosopher of the 19th century who did not agree nor disagree with the materialist or dualist perspectives. He says, in his novel Zarathustra: “body am through and through, and nothing besides; and soul is merely a word for something about the body”. Through this he appears to align himself with Gilbert Ryle with his criticism of dualists making a “Category Mistake”, with the mind being a function of the body. He indicates that the only one thing is the sum of all, that mind and body could not be divided-also much like Ryle and Dawkins. He was highly critical of dualism, possibly more so than of materialism, saying “the eye that is turned in no particular direction is an absurdity and nonsense”, hence a focus on the physical world. A trust in the senses. Even so he struggled to separate human freedom from theological concepts of immortal individuality. And in doing so he contradicts himself in his questioning of belief for the improvable and seemingly non-existent all the while refusing to renounce attributes of theology. Nietzsche introduces “The Will to Power” which is the concept of an irrational force, or power, found in all individuals that urges them towards their nature. For example, the power of the philosopher would or scientist would be directed into a will to find truth. To have a particular job type you must have the qualities it requires-and if you do not then your course changes in the direction of what you are best suited to. In this concept, Nietzsche stresses that the will to power is also an eternal struggle for mankind to move forward and advance through ambition. This could be perceived as his version of the soul, as much like Descartes of Plato’s interpretation of the soul it is eternal-yet also like the materialist viewpoint it is part of nature in the physical realm. But as it is an eternal feature, like dualism, it does not die with the body. Unless Nietzsche intended for this concept as applied for the collective of the human race and not the individual-which accordingly does not rule out this “will to power’ as being the same thing as the body, as the human population is made up for the same organs and body structures, yet this nature Nietzsche talks of differs for the individual. However Nietzsche does not specify whether the will to power was purely good or bad. What of those who do not aspire to better themselves? Who lack ambition? Unless there are categories of will to power, such as a criminal bettering their skill of theft and escape from authorities. Yet if such is the case one could simply say this is the soul and its desires-but in personal and non-supernatural terms, practically metaphorical. In this case Nietzsche’s concept could be more readily accepted for the meantime, balancing between science and the metaphysical to support the feeling of the soul that one experiences-the mystery of consciousness yet unexplained by science-all the while not denying science. A soul, a nature, however the individual wishes to define what they feel but without the need for the creation and belief in an unprovable theory: an immortal consciousness that unexplainably lives on.


Overall, there is scientific evidence showing the interaction between the brain and thought processes, and to choose to ignore it is, as Nietzsche said, “an eye turned in no particular direction”. One would be ignoring evidence right before them, for theories that provide comfort. So one could believe in the bodily mental function, or translate the soul into the overall essence of a human, their nature, as to take away one’s thought process and consciousness one would no longer be human.


Ayer,  A.J, 1956, The Problem of Knowledge,  Penguin, London

Butler-Bowdon, T, 2013, 50 Philosophy Classics, Nicholas Brealey Publishing, London & Boston

Descartes, R, 1641, Meditations on First Philosophy,

Pitts, J.B, 2019, Conservation Laws and the Philosophy of Mind: Opening the Black Box, Finding a Mirror, Philosophia

Anderson, R. Lanier, "Friedrich Nietzsche", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2017 Edition)

Michels, S, 2004, Nietzsche on Truth and the Will, Volume 8, Minerva

Dawkins, R, 1976, The Selfish Gene, Oxford University Press

Magidor, Ofra, "Category Mistakes", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2019 Edition)


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