Reframing the Mind-Body Problem

An Exercise in Letting Go of Dualist Assumptions

Stephen L. Talbott

We are all dualists now — often none more so than those of us who loudly refuse the "Cartesian mind-matter dichotomy." For the dichotomy is built into our experience at such a fundamental level that academic thoughts have little bearing on it. It has become our common sense. Material things are "out there," substantial and objective; mind is "in here," insubstantial to the point of nonbeing and isolated within its own subjectivity. If I imagine I am free of dualism at the level of my experience, chances are I merely confirm that I haven’t yet become aware of the depth of its hold upon me.

In slightly different terms: dealing satisfactorily with the problems of mind, world, and cognition may depend less upon finding new, breakthrough ideas than in working upon the established and slowly evolving structure of our experience — experience that determines what does and does not make sense to us (Barfield 1965). The right ideas may already be lying around, if only we could recognize them. And one clue to guide our recognition might be this: if the ideas are to be fruitful in delivering us from the distortions of our common-sense dualist experience, they will necessarily outrage our common sense.

My aim here is to sketch very broadly and as suggestively as possible certain ideas that have indeed been lying around for a long while, and my hope is that they may prove intriguing precisely because they outrage common sense in just the needed way while also respecting both reason and experiment. In pursuing this task, I will skirt many of the established ruts of the existing polemical landscape, and will use certain common terms in a way that may strike most readers as odd. This will not be a conventional philosophical exposition. My challenge is not so much to establish and defend a particular position in the current debates as to make conceivable an unfamiliar, nondualist point of view from which all positions take on a different and perhaps unexpected aspect.

An Irresistible Prejudice

Our inherited dualist proclivity is not without its contradictions. That there is a problem built in to our experience — a problem causing exactly the kind of difficulties we are now wrestling with regarding consciousness — was recognized by Samuel Taylor Coleridge during the first half of the nineteenth century. He referred to two fundamental presumptions we all share. The first, an "innate prejudice ... at once undemonstrable and irresistible," is that "there exist things without us" — things that are "extrinsic and alien"