What is Dualism?

Dualism (from the Latin word duo meaning “two”) denotes a state of two parts. The term ‘dualism‘ was originally coined to denote co-eternal binary opposition, a meaning that is preserved in metaphysical and philosophical duality discourse but has been diluted in general or common usages. Dualism can refer to moral dualism, (e.g. the conflict between good and evil), mind-body or mind-matter dualism (e.g. Cartesian Dualism) or physical dualism (e.g. the Chinese Yin and Yang).

Dualism Contrast Judgment Conflict Mindfulness


Moral Dualism

Moral dualism is the belief of the great complement or conflict between the benevolent and the malignant.

Like ditheism/bitheism (see below), moral dualism does not imply the absence of monist or monotheistic principles. Moral dualism simply implies that there are two moral opposites at work, independent of any interpretation of what might be “moral” and – unlike ditheism/bitheism – independent of how these may be represented.

—which is also uncreated—is an absolute one. Zurvanism (Zurvanite Zoroastrianism), Manichaeism and Mandaeism, are representative of dualistic and monist philosophies since each has a supreme and transcendental First Principle from which the two equal-but-opposite entities then emanate. This is also true for the lesser-known Christian gnostic religions, such as Bogomils, Catharism, and so on. More complex forms of monist dualism also exist, for instance in Hermeticism, where Nous “thought” – that is described to have created man – brings forth both good and evil, dependent on interpretation, whether it receives prompting from the God or from the Demon. Duality with pluralism is considered a logical fallacy.


Moral dualism began as a theological belief. Dualism was first seen implicitly in Egyptian Religious beliefs by the contrast of the Gods Seth (disorder, death) and Osiris (order, life). The first explicit conception of dualism came from the Ancient Persian Religion of Zoroastrianism around the mid-fifth century BC. Zoroastrianism is a monotheistic religion that believes that Ahura Mazda is the eternal creator of all good things. Any violations of Ahura Mazda’s order arise from druj, which is everything uncreated. From this comes a significant choice for humans to make. Either they fully participate in human life for Ahura Mazda or they do not and give druj power. Personal dualism is even more distinct in the beliefs of later religions.

The religious dualism of Christianity is not a perfect dualism as God (good) will inevitably destroy Satan (evil). Early Christian Dualism is largely based on Platonic Dualism (See: Neoplatonism and Christianity). There is also a personal dualism in Christianity with a soul-body distinction based on the idea of an immaterial Christian Soul.

Duotheism, bitheism, ditheism

In theology, ‘dualism‘ may also refer to ‘duotheism’, ‘bitheism’ or ‘ditheism’. Although ditheism/bitheism imply moral dualism, they are not equivalent: ditheism/bitheism implies (at least) two gods, while moral dualism does not imply any -theism (theos = god) whatsoever.

Both ‘bitheism’ and ‘ditheism’ imply a belief in two equally powerful gods with complementary or antonymous properties. However, while bitheism implies harmony, ditheism implies rivalry and opposition, such as between Good and Evil. For example, a ditheistic system would be one in which one god is creative, the other is destructive (cf. theodicy). In a bitheistic system, one god could be male and the other female (cf. duotheism). However, bitheistic and ditheistic principles are not always so easily contrastable, for instance in a system where one god is the representative of summer and drought and the other of winter and rain/fertility (cf. the mythology of Persephone). Marcionism, an early Christian sect, held that the Old and New Testaments were the work of two opposing gods: both were First Principles, but of different religions.

As a feature of reality

Alternatively, dualism can mean the tendency of humans to perceive and understand the world as being divided into two overarching categories. In this sense, it is dualistic when one perceives a tree as a thing separate from everything surrounding it, or when one perceives a “self” that is distinct from the rest of the world. In traditions such as classical Hinduism, Zen Buddhism or Islamic Sufism, a key to enlightenment is “transcending” this sort of dualistic thinking, without merely substituting dualism with monism or pluralism.

In Chinese philosophy

The yin and yang symbolizes the duality in nature and all things in the Taoist religion.

The yin and yang symbolizes the duality in nature and all things in the Taoist religion.

The opposition and combination of the universe’s two basic principles of yin and yang is a large part of Chinese philosophy, and is an important feature of Taoism, both as a philosophy and as a religion. Yin and yang is also discussed in Confucianism, but to a lesser extent.

Some of the common associations with yang and yin, respectively, are: male and female, light and dark, active and passive, motion and stillness. The yin and yang symbol in actuality has very little to do with Western dualism; instead it represents the philosophy of balance, where two opposites co-exist in harmony and are able to transmute into each other. In the yin-yang symbol there is a dot of yin in yang and a dot of yang in yin. This symbolizes the inter-connectedness of the opposite forces as different aspects of Tao, the First Principle. Contrast is needed to create a distinguishable reality, without which we would experience nothingness. Therefore, the independent principles of yin and yang are actually dependent on one another for each other’s distinguishable existence. The complementary dualistic concept in Taoism represents the reciprocal interaction throughout nature, related to a feedback loop, where opposing forces do not exchange in opposition but instead exchange reciprocally to promote stabilization similar to homeostasis. An underlying principle in Taoism states that within every independent entity lies a part of its opposite. Within sickness lies health and vice versa. This is because all opposites are manifestations of the single Tao, and are therefore not independent from one another, but rather a variation of the same unifying force throughout all of nature.

Mind-matter and mind-body dualism

In philosophy of mind

Main article: Mind–body Dualism

In philosophy of mind, dualism is any of a narrow variety of views about the relationship between mind and matter, which claims that mind and matter are two ontologically separate categories. In particular, mind-body dualism claims that neither the mind nor matter can be reduced to each other in any way, and thus is opposed to materialism in general, and reductive materialism in particular. Mind-body dualism can exist as substance dualism which claims that the mind and the body are composed of a distinct substance, and as property dualism which claims that there may not be a distinction in substance, but that mental and physical properties are still categorically distinct, and not reducible to each other. This type of dualism is sometimes referred to as “mind and body” and stands in contrast to philosophical monism, which views mind and matter as being ultimately the same kind of thing. See also Cartesian dualism, substance dualism, epiphenomenalism.

In Buddhist philosophy

During the classical era of Buddhist philosophy in India, philosophers such as Dharmakirti argue for a dualism between states of consciousness and Buddhist atoms (the basic building blocks that make up reality), according to “the standard interpretation” of Dharmakirti’s Buddhist metaphysics. Typically in Western philosophy, dualism is considered to be a dualism between mind (nonphysical) and brain (physical), which ultimately involves mind interacting with the physical brain, and therefore also interacting with the micro-particles (basic building blocks) that make up the brain tissue. Buddhist dualism, in Dharmakirti’s sense, is different in that it is not a dualism between the mind and brain, but rather between states of consciousness (nonphysical) and basic building blocks (according to the Buddhist atomism of Dharmakirti, Buddhist atoms are also nonphysical: they are unstructured points of energy). Like so many Buddhists from 600-1000 CE, Dharmakirti’s philosophy involved mereological nihilism, meaning that other than states of consciousness, the only things that exist are momentary quantum particles, much like the particles of quantum physics (quarks, electrons, etc.).


The first significant argument against dualism came from Thomas Hobbes’s (1588–1679) materialist critique of the human person. Hobbes argues that all of human experience comes from biological processes contained within the body (see: The Leviathan ). In response to Hobbes, the French Philosopher Rene Descartes (1596–1650) developed Cartesian Dualism, which posits that there is a divisible, mechanical body and an indivisible, immaterial mind which interact with one another. The body perceives external inputs and the awareness of them comes from the soul. The point of interaction between the two are at the pineal gland in the brain.

During the 19th and 20th centuries, materialistic monism has became the norm. Still, in addition to already discussed theories of dualism (particularly the Christian and Cartesian Models) there are new theories in the defense of dualism. Naturalistic dualism comes from Australian Philosopher, David Chalmers (born 1966) who argues there is an explanatory gap between objective and subjective experience that cannot be bridged by reductionism because consciousness is, at least, logically autonomous of the physical properties upon which it supervenes. According to Chalmers, a naturalistic account of property dualism requires a new fundamental category of properties described by new laws of supervenience; the challenge being analogous to that of understanding electricity based on the mechanistic and Newtonian models of materialism prior to Maxwell’s equations.

A similar defense comes from Australian Philosopher Frank Jackson (born 1943) who revived the theory of Epiphenomenalism which argues that mental states do not play a role in physical states. Jackson argues that there are two kinds of dualism. The first is substance dualism that assumes there is second, non-corporeal form of reality. In this form, body and soul are two different substances. The second form is property dualism that says that body and soul are different properties of the same body. He claims that functions of the mind/soul are internal, very private experiences that are not accessible to observation by others, and therefore not accessible by science (at least not yet). We can know everything, for example, about a bat’s facility for echolocation, but we will never know how the bat experiences that phenomenon. In Jackson’s mind experiment, he imagines a girl who grows up in a black-and-white room. She may grow up learning all about the scientific facts of colors, but has no way of experiences colors other than black or white. When someone bring a red tomato into her room, she is stunned. She discovers a new fact: the experience of red is ‘like this.’ That experience is not a physical fact but a conscious one.

Soul dualism

Main article: Soul dualism

In some cultures, people (or also other beings) are believed to have two (or more) kinds of soul. In several cases, one of these souls is associated with body functions (and is sometimes thought to disappear after death, but not always), and the other one is able to leave the body (for example, a shaman’s free-soul may be held to be able to undertake a spirit journey). The plethora of soul types may be even more complex.

Consciousness–matter dualism

In Samkhya and Yogic philosophy

Correctly distinguishing between Self (Spirit/Consciousness Purusha) and Matter/Nature (Prakrti) is of central importance to Samkhya Philosophy. Samkhya Philosophy elaborates that although Prakriti originates from Purusha, there is a fundamental dualism between spirit and phenomena that is presented to such Selves by Matter/Nature. Such phenomena of Matter/Nature includes reflections of the intellect (buddhi), the faculty that makes things personal (the I-Maker/ahamkara), the instinctual mind (manas), the capacities to perceive sense data, the capacities to act, the principles of the elements of sense perception, and the gross elements. These arise when Prakriti is in the presence of a Purusha, and they become enmeshed and entangled when there is mis-identification between Prakriti and Purusha. False confusion between the Self and what is not the Self is considered the fundamental ignorance (avidya)that perpetuates bondage in this world. Liberation is sought by becoming aware of such distinctions on a very deep level of personal knowledge, so that one may eventually use the great faculty of the mind—intellectual reflection (buddhi/mahat) — without mistakenly identifying it with the Purusha, and then the effects of such entanglement will unravel and one will no longer be bound by incarnations or confused by Prakriti.

In Vedanta philosophy

The Vedanta philosophy is divided into Dvaita (dualistic) and Advaita (non-dualistic) monism. Dvaita proposes dualism in consciousness and matter, while advaita does not. While Dvaita philosophy recognizes the differences between Jiva (Subordinate soul) and Ishvara (Supreme God), Advaita philosophy looks at everything as Brahman (The Supreme God, considered the only truth – The singular reality) which has three fundamental attributes sat-cit-ānanda (Existence-Consciousness-Bliss). Advaita vedanta insists that the experiential personal realization of unity of everything must be achieved. Until a person achieves such realization, Advaita Vedanta uses the Samkhya dualism of consciousness and matter for describing the world. Dvaita, on the other hand, considers the Atman (Soul) as eternal but dependent on the Paramatman (Supreme God). Dvaita holds that upon Mukti, one enjoys the same quantity of bliss as sat-cit-ānanda but one can never be equal to Brahman.

In philosophy of science

In philosophy of science, dualism often refers to the dichotomy between the “subject” (the observer) and the “object” (the observed). Criticism of Western science may label this kind of dualism as a flaw in the nature of science itself. In part, this has something to do with potentially complicated interactions between the subject and the object, of the sort discussed in the social construction literature. another dualism, in Popperian in philosophy of science refers to “hypothesis” and “refutation” (for example, experimental refutation). This notion also carried to Popper’s political philosophy.

In physics

In physics, dualism refers to mediums with properties that can be associated with the mechanics of two different phenomena. Because these two phenomena’s mechanics are mutually exclusive, both are needed in order to describe the possible behaviors.

Dualism in recent religious movements

Main article: Ethical dualism

In recent years, but far after European Imperialism, the distinction between “eastern” and “western” philosophy has been less significant than in previous times. In the wake of these changes new religious and philosophical movements have drawn freely upon many of the world’s religions to attract new initiates. Dualism is often cited within these groups, along with ideas of oneness, wholeness and theories of multiple intelligences.

In the Emin Society (printed in their archives) Dualism is presented as the Law of Two, which is said to have seven levels:

  • First level: Apparent Opposites
  • Second level: The apparent opposites are actually two ends of the same bar (or the North-South vector is split by the East-West vector) (or the law of things adjacent)
  • Third level: Pitching and Yawing, (or Basque bargaining)
  • Fourth level: Balance and Movement
  • Fifth level: Solve and Coagulate
  • Sixth level: Over and Under Compensation
  • Seventh level: Apparent movement between two poles (or hot and cold)

The Discordian religion offers two competing forces that rely on each other: Order and Disorder (in Chaos.) These two are further separated, falling into either constructive or destructive versions of Order and Disorder. This is illustrated by the Discordian Hodge Podge (also Sacred Chao), a symbol that is similar in design to the Taoist yin yang. Another dualism put forward by Discordianism is the use of seriousness and humor.

The spiritual teacher Meher Baba described dualism as consisting of the opposites of experience, which must become balanced before one can go beyond them: “Evolution from the standpoint of the Creator is a divine sport, in which the Unconditioned tests the infinitude of His absolute knowledge, power and bliss in the midst of all conditions. But evolution from the standpoint of the creature, with his limited knowledge, limited power, limited capacity for enjoying bliss, is an epic of alternating rest and struggle, joy and sorrow, love and hate, until, in the perfected man, God balances the pairs of opposites and transcends duality.

Dualism in modern and contemporary philosophy

The American philosopher Arthur Oncken Lovejoy in his *The Revolt Against Dualism (1960) develops a critique of the modern new realism, reproposing a form of dualism based on a “fork of human experience.”

Political Dualism

In politics, dualism refers to the separation of powers between the legislature and executive, which keeps a balance between the two, ensuring government doesn’t go against the will of the people’s representatives. Dualism implies administrators, such as ministers, cannot be members of the body that keeps check on them. In this sense, the United States is politically dualist, whereas a Westminster-style parliamentary democracy such as Canada or the United Kingdom is not (see responsible government).

Adapted from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

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