A Psychological Inquiry: Dualism versus Materialism

Born of Osiris, Soul Sphere by Cameron Gray

In 2008, I revisited my ideas about Source Material Dualism (see my paper and notes in my previous blog posts) in my graduate bio-psychology pro-seminar at California State University, Bakersfield. Dr. Isabel Sumaya assigned my graduate class to write a brief discussion on the Mind-Brain debate within the field of psychology. Although I got an A on this paper, Dr. Sumaya commented that it did not change her views.

Kobayashi Maru: Changing the Rules of the Mind-Brain Debate


California State University, Bakersfield

For centuries, philosophers and scientists have debated the issue of monism (or materialism) versus dualism. Both sides have presented a vast number of arguments, theories, and evidence in support of their side, but none of this has changed the debate’s crucial stalemate. With the advent of neuroimaging (i.e., fMRI studies), monists believed that they found the necessary technology to provide support for their side. Studies found that participants undergoing fMRI that were shown pornographic images had increases in their neurological correlates for arousal (Hamann, Herman, Nolan, & Wallen, 2004; Karama et al., 2002). This seemed to indicate that behavior occurred due to brain activity.

However, fMRI studies have also found evidence for “self-directed neuroplasticity,” which refers to the ability to systematically and predictably alter brain functions (Schwartz, Stapp, & Beauregard, 2005). For example, observations of systematic brain changes were found following cognitive-behavioral therapy when participants faced their spider phobias. Similarly, the cognitive strategy of “reappraisal” has been shown “to modulate emotional experience” (Beauregard, 2007). For example, participants shown negative images showed systematic brain changes when asked to reappraise the image versus attend to it.  This seemed to be evidence for the mind, which “encompasses functions that include consciousness, cognition, language, perception, emotion, memory, sleep and dreaming” (Hansotia, 2003, p. 330).

Schwartz et al. (2005) explain that support from fMRI studies for behavioral changes being solely due to brain activity occurs when “one is investigating phenomena that are mostly passive in nature” (p. 1311), as in the example showing changes in the neurological correlates for arousal when pornography is viewed. However, when fMRI studies look at systematic brain changes from cognitive effort, the idea of a brain-based causal mechanism is problematic. The problem here is that each side wants to say that their view is correct. Dualists seek mind to control aspects of the brain to show that they are two different things, whereas monists say that the mind is a byproduct of the brain (if there is a mind at all). There is no way to discern which side is correct. Are the mind and brain two different things or are they one and the same? Evidence seems to support both sides. Neurologist Phiroze Hansotia (2003) concludes that the evidence points to the brain being “the organ of the mind and that the quality of the mind [being dependent] on the quality of the brain” (p. 331).

To understand this more clearly, I will illustrate my own beliefs, which have developed from my own scientific understanding. First, there is an inherent duality in the universe, as in the first moments of the Big Bang, nothing became equal parts matter and antimatter (Rizzini, Venturelli, & Zurlo, 2007). The European Organization for Nuclear Research or CERN has replicated this event in their large hadron collider or LHC, effectively making little big bangs. Closer to home, our own neurons undergo excitement and inhibition, which are polar extremes of the electro-chemical messages sent by neurotransmitters. In polarity, one finds dichotomous variables on either side of a continuum representing opposition in some thing. Taoists symbolically represent this inherent polarity in the universe in the yin and yang (Molloy, 2004).

I see the brain and mind as such polar opposites; brain representing physical reality and mind representing mental reality. They are opposite aspects of one continuum, which seems to be like a dualistic monism. However, they are dependent on one another, as one cannot operate without the other. For example, an individual in a vegetative state exists only because technology allows it (Hansotia, 2003). Like a frog’s legs reflexing with a volt of electricity, there is no consciousness. For this person, there is neither mental reality nor physical reality, as their brain no longer functions. So, did the brain damage cause the impaired function or did impaired cognitions cause the brain damage? We know that mental conflicts can be expressed as physical ailments (i.e., stress-induced back pain), which cannot be fixed no matter how much physical therapy occurs (Dolan, 2007). It seems that, in the words of Neurologist G.W. Bruyn, “Mind and matter are two sides of the coin” (Dolan, p. 5).

Returning to the example above about the individual in a vegetative state, if the plug were removed, then their life would be extinguished. There is a third factor involved with this dilemma of mind-brain. Whatever causes life provides whatever is necessary for both the mind and brain to function. Without that third variable, neither would work. Physicist Paul Davies (1983) indicates that this necessary variable is energy:

Physics tells us that energy is conserved-it cannot be created or destroyed. When a person metabolizes food, so the energy is released in his body, which then dissipates into the surroundings as heat, or work performed by activity. The total energy content of a person’s body remains more or less unchanged. What happens is that there is a flow of energy through the body (p. 65).

Both Buddhism and Judaism provide different answers for this idea. Buddhism speaks of humans as an everchanging flux (i.e., constant energy flow) (Epstein, 1995), whereas Jewish mysticism describes the divine spark as the life giving force (Matt, 1998).

Some might call this energy or life-giving force the soul. Physicist Fred Alan Wolf (1999) describes the soul as being similar to matter or energy, immortal, yet unable to be controlled physically. “The soul is what makes the person more than a machine, what constitutes individuality” (Dolan, 2007, p. 2). Either way, when it comes down to this third variable, no one can say one way or the other who is right or wrong. There will continue to be a perpetual deadlock between those who believe in the soul, which gives life and allows the brain and mind to function, and those who believe that the energy has nothing to do with anything, but animating organs and reducing the self, memories, and ambitions to mere manifestations of firing neural circuits (Dolan, 2007). This unknowing is okay, as contemporary quantum physics explains something that is non-physical and has no traceable origin, yet shows physical effects, can be used scientifically as a primary variable (Schwartz, 2005). So, it is time to leave the debate behind and agree to disagree, so that we can move on to more important research endeavors. Enough time, energy, and brainpower have already been wasted.


Beauregard, M. (2007). Mind does really matter: Evidence from neuroimaging studies of emotional self-regulation, psychotherapy, and placebo effect. Progress in Neurobiology, 81, 218-236.

Davies, P. (1983). God and the new physics. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Dolan, B. (2007). Soul searching: A brief history of the mind/body debate in the neurosciences. Neurosurgery Focus, 23, 1-7.

Epstein, M. (1995). Thoughts without a thinker: Psychotherapy from a Buddhist perspective. New York: Basic Books.

Hamann, S., Herman, R. A., Nolan, C. L., & Wallen, K. (2004). Men and women differ in amygdala response to visual sexual stimuli. Nature Neuroscience  7, 411-416.

Hansotia, P. (2003). A neurologist looks at mind and brain: “The enchanted loom.” Clinical Medicine & Research, 1, 327-332.

Karama, S., Lecours, A. R., Leroux, J-M, Bourgouin, P., Beaudoin, G., Joubert, S., & Beauregard, M. (2002). Areas of brain activation in males and females during viewing of erotic film excerpts. Human Brain Mapping, 16, 1-13.

Matt, D. C. (1998). God & the Big Bang: Discovering harmony between science & spirituality. Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights Publishing.

Molloy, M. (2004). Experiencing the world’s religions: Tradition, challenge, and change (3rd Ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill.

Rizzini, E. L., Venturelli, L., & Zurlo, N. (2007). On the chemical reaction of matter with antimatter. ChemPhysChem 8, 1145-1150.

Schwartz, J. M., Stapp, H. P., Beauregard, M. (2005). Quantum physics in neuroscience and psychology: A neurophysical model of mind-brain interaction. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, 360, 1309-1327.

Wolf, F. A. (1999). The spiritual universe. Needham, MA: Moment Point Press.


  1. If your paper is correct, then why did it not change your professor’s stance? It cannot be that she would deliberately choose the incorrect argument, or perhaps with the what is actually known, there can be two or more “correct” stances.


    • Thanks for reading. I merely presented an argument for my particular opinion on the subject backed by some evidence that I believed showed support for my view. This is in no way a thorough review, as I did not cover arguments against and indicate why my opinion was more correct than the alternative. I simply made my argument to show that at this time we cannot say one way or the other, so we should just agree to disagree and move onto bigger and better things to worry about. As such, I indicate that we don’t have a correct answer at this time, as we are only fighting over opinions using evidence to support each, and interpreting them in ways that support our own view. She continues to hold her opinions, regardless of the logic and reasoning I have presented in mine. We just resolve to hold our opinions until enough evidence has accumulated to inform us otherwise.


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