The Mind-Body Problem in Philosophy

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  • 0:02 Argument
  • 0:32 Dualism
  • 1:25 Materialism
  • 2:04 Ryle & Churchland
  • 3:03 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jessica Whittemore

Jessica has taught junior high history and college seminar courses. She has a master's degree in education.

This lesson will highlight the philosophical arguments concerning the mind and the body. It will define dualism and materialism as well as citing the works of Descartes, Ryle, and Churchland.


There are just some arguments that never end. Should the toilet paper face out or in? Is fried better than baked? Is the mind really separate from the body?

Since I couldn't find much empirical evidence about toilet paper, and since I am totally a fried girl, we'll spend today discussing the philosophical arguments surrounding the mind and the body. In order to do this, we're going to focus on dualism versus materialism. Being the harder of the two to grasp, let's start with dualism.


Dualism is the concept that reality or existence is divided into two parts. When speaking philosophically about humans, these two parts are often identified as the mind and the physical body. According to dualism, the mind is somehow separate from the physical attributes of the body.

In dualism, the mind is part of the unseen world. Being a bit gross, if you opened up a human skull you could see, touch, and smell the human brain. However, try as you might, you would not find a mind. According to dualism, it is a separate entity or reality.

Using this idea, the very famous Descartes asserted the mind is the seat of our consciousness. This mind is where we find our emotions, our will, our intellect, and our passions. For this reason, our identity comes from the mind. Summing this up, Descartes would say, 'I think, therefore I am!'


Standing opposed to dualism in the mind-body argument is materialism. Materialism is the belief that nothing but matter exists. In other words, if you can't experience it with your senses, it's not part of reality. Using these parameters, materialism holds that the mind does not exist. We can't see, touch, or taste it so it's on the same plane as myth.

For many who espouse materialism, what we call the mind is really just a collection of physical processes. For instance, materialism would argue that when a person is depressed, it has nothing to do with what's going on in some mystical mind. It's just brain chemicals misfiring.

Ryle & Churchland

One proponent of materialism who really challenged the concept of dualism was Gilbert Ryle. He actually thought the idea of a mind controlling the physical body to be as absurd as ghosts operating machines.

Paul Churchland, another philosopher who espouses materialism, uses traumatic brain injury to argue against the mind as the seat of identity. Summing up his arguments, he asks, 'If the mind is the seat of identity, why does brain injury alter a person's personality?'

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