Is Cartesian dualism dead?

The force of convictions

Following the example of the results collected in Edinburgh, those from the Belgian study underline the strong persistence of dualist ideas even though they are less obvious. “Are the mind and the brain two separate things?”: 40% positive answers. “Does the mind fundamentally depend on the laws of physics?”: 39% said yes. “Does a spiritual part of us survive after death?”: 37% of those questioned believe this to be true. “Does each one of us have a separate soul from our body?”: positive answer for 37% of the sample.

A more detailed analysis shows that philosophical and religious convictions are – as we might expect – the main factor behind the answers given to the four questions asked, with age and gender nevertheless having a certain influence. It is revealing that 63% of believers consider that there is life after death, compared with 16% of non-believers, and that 57% of the first group, compared with 20% of the second one, consider that human beings have a separate soul from their body. “In the end, what is surprising is that not all believers replied positively to the two questions asked and not all the non-believers negatively”, Steven Laureys comments. Furthermore, it appears that women are more dualist than men. Hence, only 34% of them believe that the mind depends on the laws of physics, while 48% of men believe this.

A very wide range of ages is represented in the Liège study. It allowed another phenomenon to be pinpointed: young subjects (under 30 years old) are more dualist than middle-aged individuals (31-49 years old) and especially more than the “over-50s”. “Research into developmental psychology suggests that the belief in a consciousness separate from the body is present in all cultures, and therefore universal, and that all children “are born dualist”, emphasises Steven Laureys.

Approximately half of the doctors (55%) and members of paramedical professions (51%) who answered the questionnaire proposed by the neurologist of the Coma Science Group say they are believers. The answers collected from these people show that many of them have dualist convictions, with a preponderance in the paramedical group. While an almost equal percentage (around 40%) of doctors and professionals from the paramedical sector believe in life after death, the first group has a greater propensity to believe that the mind is governed by physical laws (45% compared with 37%); furthermore, they are less inclined to adhere to the concept of a separate soul from the body (36% compared with 44%). According to Steven Laureys, there are several possible explanations for these figures, but it is highly likely that the scientific background is a determining factor. Doesn’t an American study(2) published in Nature in 1998 show that, for instance, there are less believers and dualists among members of the National Academy of Sciences than within the general population of scientists?

Are we robots?

In any case, dualism is not dead and while it appears to be increasingly difficult to support, it still has many advocates, including eminent neuroscientists such as Christophe Koch, professor of biology and engineering at the California Institute of Technology. As for Steven Laureys, he is a monist. Both his clinical practice and his research into functional cerebral imaging have encouraged him to adopt this stance. He specifies: “I refer to scientific evidence, but I cannot say for sure that we have understood everything about consciousness, far from it. According to the current state of knowledge, we cannot definitively shut the door on dualist explanations, but it should be emphasised that we have no scientific evidence in their favour.”


(2) E.J. Larson and L. Witham, Leading scientists still reject God, in Nature 394 : 313-313, 1998.


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