Notes for Ontology I: Dualism & Behaviorism

I. Metaphysics is the study of topics that are considered after or beyond questions dealing with physical issues.  Instead of asking questions such as, How much does a thing weigh? it asks what reality itself is, and what distinguishes reality from mere appearance.  It also tries to determine whether it makes sense to think of some things (e.g., numbers, minds, ideas, natural laws, etc.) as real as sensible objects like tables and books.  It thus raises issues about questions that are beyond the physical such as: Does the universe have an order or purpose?  Is there life after death?  Do human beings have souls or are they only bodies?  Are humans only highly developed animals?  Do computers think?

The study of the nature of reality is also called "ontology," which literally means the "study [logos] of being [ontos]."  Since what it means for something to be or to be real is an issue beyond what is physically accessible, ontological questions are metaphysical.  Metaphysics includes not only the study of being and reality but also the study of specific kinds of beings (such as minds).  Metaphysics in general and ontology in particular are both interested in providing a "logos," a rational explanation for existence.

II. Mythos and Logos: Recall from earlier in the semester: A rational explanation differs from a mythic explanation insofar as myth provides an account or story about how things come to be as they are.  A rational explanation of something does not require that we know why the thing is that way; it only requires that we understand how that thing makes sense in terms of our experience of nature.  It does not ask why there is anything at all (including nature), because to do so would require us to appeal to yet another principle of explanation, and that would generate an infinite regress.

Mythos, on the other hand, attempts to explain the natural world ultimately by appealing to supernatural or divine forces.  For the mythic mind, the act of recounting the myth or casting a spell reinvokes what it means to say that something exists in the first place.  Myth identifies things as real without attempting to justify such identifications.  A mythic pronouncment is thus not the natural speech or act of a human being; it is the supernatural speech or act of the gods.

By contrast, a rational or "logical" explanation tries to justify why something is the way it is by appealing to things in nature that are not themselves questioned but are simply accepted as the way things are in nature.  Myth identifies those unquestioned things for us and provides us with our understanding of what logos (logic, meaning, reason) is.

Ultimately, there is no rationale or justification for myth because it is through myth that reason itself is identified.  That is, myth does not "explain" how things are as much as it simply reveals how things are.  Apart from such a revelation, it makes no sense to try to talk about things.

Some philosophers (e.g., Nietzsche) object to the metaphysical attempt to provide a totalizing, eternal, uniform picture of reality.  Others (positivists) argue that metaphysical speculation is meaningless since it cannot be falsified and is not true by definition.  To such objections metaphysicians often reply that the attempt to understand the nature of reality is not concerned with being true as much as with being helpful in making sense of life.

III. Views on the Nature of Reality:

This semester we will focus only on dualism, materialistic monism, and pluralism.  However, information on other positions is given below (just in case you are interested).

A. Dualism (Descartes): there are two kinds of things that are real: mind/thought (mental or spiritual things) and body/extension (material things).  Mental things can be known only through introspection (first-person accounts); physical things are known through sensible observation (third-person accounts).  My knowledge of other minds is based on their behavior; but my knowledge of myself is not.  Introspection reveals the reality of mental things that are accessible only privately. Because the mental and the physical can be conceived as distinct, it is possible that they are distinct.  At least conceptually there is no reason to think they are necessarily united; so it is possible that at the dissolution of the body, the soul or mind survives in some afterlife.


According to Gilbert Ryle, dualism endorses a "ghost in the machine" view.  It is based on the "category mistake" of thinking of a thing in terms of a category in which it does not belong: here, the mistake is thinking of the soul/mind as if it were a thing like a body.

B. Materialism: reality is best understood only in terms of physical, sensibly experienced events (e.g., the behavior of people or the motions of material bodies).  Life is a physico-chemical process and mind and thought are only either behaviors, ways of speaking about behaviors, or electrochemical activities of the brain.  Mental events are physical processes that are like other material things and should be described in a similar way (e.g., by describing them in terms of laws of nature).  Mental states (including intentions, fears, and beliefs) are only inclinations to behave in certain ways or brain states.  "Mentality" is either our way of describing bodily behaviors or a by-product (or "epiphenomenon") of brain (or neural) activity.  Intelligence is the evolutionary result of chance events in the development of the universe.  There is no purpose or plan in the development of the universe.  Variations: