Mind–body dualism, in philosophy, any theory that mind and body are distinct kinds of substances or natures. This position implies that mind and body not only differ in meaning but refer to different kinds of entities. Thus, a dualist would oppose any theory that identifies mind with the brain, conceived as a physical mechanism.
Beginning from his famous Cogito, ergo sum (Latin: “I think, therefore I am”), Descartes developed a theory of mind as an immaterial, nonextended substance that engages in various activities such as rational thought, imagining, feeling, and willing.
Matter, or extended substance, conforms to the laws of physics in mechanistic fashion, with the important exception of the human body, which Descartes believed is causally affected by the human mind and which causally produces certain mental events.
For example, willing the arm to be raised causes it to be raised, whereas being hit by a hammer on the finger causes the mind to feel pain. This part of Descartes’s dualistic theory, known as interactionism, raises one of the chief problems faced by Descartes: the question how this causal interaction is possible.
This problem gave rise to other varieties of dualism, such as occasionalism and some forms of parallelism that do not require direct causal interaction. Occasionalism maintains that apparent links between mental and physical events are the result of God’s constant causal action.
Parallelism also rejects causal interaction but without constant divine intervention. Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, a 17th-century German rationalist and mathematician, saw mind and body as two perfectly correlated series, synchronized like two clocks at their origin by God in a preestablished harmony.
The epiphenomenalist holds, however, that the only true causes are physical events, with mind as a by-product. Mental events seem causally efficacious because certain mental events occur just before certain physical events and because humans are ignorant of the events in the brain that truly cause them.
Among the difficulties of dualism is the inherent obscurity in conceiving of what sort of thing a mental substance—an immaterial, thinking “stuff”—might be. Such criticisms have led some thinkers to abandon dualism in favour of various monistic theories.