Beyond Dualism

Philosophy has long been concerned with dualism, which is the separation of reality into two universes: the physical universe (the material world) and the mental universe (the spiritual world). The relationship between these two is a subject of much debate. Some people hold that only one or the other exists. Those that maintain both must describe how these two universes interact. This interaction becomes particularly thorny if there are characteristics of one which are not characteristics of the other (e.g. free will and determinism). 

This two-fold division between matter and mind is called Cartesian dualism in western philosophy, although it exists in some of the oldest Indian texts as the division between name (nama) and form (rupa).  In distinction to classical dualism, Cognitive Set Theory introduces a third universe, by dividing the mental universe into two further universes: the perceptual and the conceptual (which makes obvious sense, since the perception of a thing is not identical to the concept of a thing).  This distinction also exists at least as far back as the Buddhist Sautrantika school, and possibly much earlier.

Each of these universes contains or mirrors the others, depending on one’s perspective.  As an example of containment, the perceptual world of an individual exists within the physical world: this is how we (in the west) most often understand things.  However, the physical world is perceived by an individual, and in that way it exists within the perceptual world.  Each of these perspectives is correct from its own perspective.

An example of the mirroring that occurs between these universes is how we typically assume that our perception mirrors physical reality. The division of reality into multiple layers which mirror one was also established in early Indian philosophy if not before: Samkya philosophy uses a double-sided mirror as an analogy for consciousness, which reflects both external (form) and psychological (name) worlds.  In contrast to Samkya philosophy, Cognitive Set Theory is explained primarily from the view of scientific realism.  This does not exclude other perspectives: hopefully, it can serve as an initial view from which to understand more spiritual dimensions of experience.

The picture below depicts a referential relationship between these universes: the objective (U), perceptual (O), and conceptual (V):
  A referential (mirroring) relationship is depicted between these three universes. In accordance with the common view of things, the physical world is primary, and perceptual references to that world are secondary. Things in the physical world are called “objects”, and the things that reference them are called “percepts”.  Naturally enough, conceptual references to those percepts are called “concepts”.

This analysis of reality is a fairly simple decomposition of something which is not ultimately divided.  This decomposition does not entail a permanent fissure in reality, but rather points to different referential layers, which ultimately exist in accord with their referents to the degree that they are accurate reflections.

As mentioned, these three ontological layers are found in several Buddhist theories (ontological because Buddhists most often explain things using non-conceptual mind (perception) as the basis of experience). The Dalai Lama characterizes them as follows (The Universe in a Single Atom, p.125):

  1. Matter – physical objects
  2. Mind – subjective experiences
  3. Abstract composites – mental formations

More extensive elaborations of the connections between CST and Buddhism can be found in subsequent posts.  

This three-fold division of reality into physical, perceptual, and conceptual spheres occurs in numerous non-Buddhist contexts.  In psychology, this mental division exists in numerous forms, such as the division between episodic and semantic memory.  Karl Popper’s three-fold division of reality characterizes these three divisions as worlds (although his world three corresponded to abstract thoughts made incarnate in the world as opposed to abstract thoughts with a mental basis).  

In any case, we do not regard dualism to be a very refined point of view.  It would be much more descriptive to talk about reality in terms of multiple layers, and it would be closer to the truth to talk in non-dual terms (which turns out to be both an amusing and elusive project).  Hopefully, the three universes in Cognitive Set Theory offer a step in this more refined direction.


One response to “Beyond Dualism”

  1. Dear Sir,

    I am one of those people whose interests lie “at the crossroads of psychology, linguistics, logic, mathematics, and philosophy”. This is why I started to read the electronic version of your book.

    Like you, I see the need to connect “the real” with “the mental”, but I prefer to do this by synthesizing these two contradictory views. I think that most of my human fellows tend to ignore the cognitive issue of scale and limit their analysis to the simple notion of part/whole relation in the single-scale world. Acknowledging existence of scales helps to see that mental phenomena are just an observation of smaller-scale phenomena by a larger-scale collection. Consider the issue of light duality as an example – the wave behavior of light is an artifact of the large-scale observation of corpuscular behavior at the smaller scale. These are “views” of light from two different scales (not perspectives but scales). See for example Victor Stenger’s video titled “Victor Stenger – The Future of Naturalism Interview”:

    Just like you, I am working on the theory I developed in my PhD thesis in which I presented a naturalistic interpretation of cognition. I was awarded my degree earlier this year. I wonder if it would be possible to know a bit more about you, the author of the book. I am looking both for someone with whom I could engage in a meaningful discussion and for a mentor.

    My regards, Wes

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