concept pages: copyright Robert Ellis 2010

The inevitability of dualism

The inevitability of dualism is the idea that dualism is unavoidable. The argument goes that our whole way of understanding the world is dualistic, and thus the idea that we could ever transcend that way of understanding is deluded . Middle Way philosophy accepts this view given one sense of the term 'dualism'. However, there is no reason why we should accept this sense of dualism and its pessimistic implications, as there is another important sense in which dualism is not inevitable.

The sense of 'dualism' in which our whole experience must be dualistic is one based on a purely cognitive analysis of our understanding of the world. Our minds work by separating objects or qualities, and thus by implication opposing them to one another. In our way of thinking, a brick is a brick, not a wall or a house, however much it is pointed out that we could re-conceptualise it as a wall, a house, or indeed a set of atoms. It may be abstractly true that the person we hate could be re-conceptualised as indistinguishable from the one we love, but this reflection alone is not enough to stop us loving and hating. We are egoistic beings, and our existence appears to be inevitably dualistic because it is egoistic. I see bricks, friends and enemies because I utilise, accept or reject them, and however much I refine my responses it seems there will always be some degree of acceptance or rejection present. In A Buddhist theory of moral objectivity, this sense of dualism is distinguished by using the capitalised Dualism.

However, this conception of dualism is an absolute one that can be dissolved at a stroke through incrementality. The fact that I will always, in practice, oppose objects to one another does not mean that I will always oppose them to the same extent, nor that I cannot usefully refine my concept of an object. We cannot annihilate our egos, and the history of our attempts to annihilate the ego is littered with self-deception: but we can stretch the ego and its identifications so that its desires and meanings are more integrated, and its beliefs better in accordance with conditions. Rather than insisting that a foetus is either a person or not a person, for example, I can bring my beliefs closer to addressing conditions by accepting that it has some of the likely features of personhood to a degree, but not others. Here, in a different sense, my belief becomes less dualistic.

The re-conception of dualism and non-dualism in incremental terms is crucial in providing the possibility of escape from metaphysics and thus the possibility of objectivity. It is metaphysical thinking that insists that we must conceive the universe in terms of ultimate objects or substances, yet our experience (as Kant noted 200 years ago) gives us no access to these objects or substances, but only relative evidence about qualities. Escape from dualism becomes possible when we stop conceiving of either absolute objects (or truths of any kind) or their absence, and accept that increments provide a more accurate way of objectifying both our factual beliefs and our values.


Links to related discussion

dualism (concept page)

ego (concept page)

Psychological basis and philosophical expression (thesis)


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