Volume > Issue > Dualism, the Human Body & the Self

Dualism, the Human Body & the Self


By E. Christian Brugger | November 2007
E. Christian Brugger is Associate Professor of Theology and Director of Integrative Research at the Institute for the Psychological Sciences in Arlington, Virginia. He lives in Alexandria, Virginia, with his wife and four children.

We modern men and women are ambivalent about our bodies. We’re not sure if we want to keep them or send them back. We want bigger breasts, whiter teeth, smaller rumps, and blonder hair; new chins, new ears, new eyes, and a smaller nose; we get dermabrasions, abdominoplasties, liposuctions, forehead lifts, and neck lifts; we get face implants, hair transplants, skin rejuvinations, injectable fillers (don’t ask!), breast reductions, skin injections, wrinkle removals, hair plucks, and tummy tucks. Why? Do we see our bodies as raw material? Are they like as a sculptor’s marble, full of malleable possibilities for the creation of something beautiful? Or do we just wish to patch ourselves up a bit? Do we see our bodies as ourselves at all? Or do they stand over against us as matter opposed to spirit? If my body is me, does my will to slash and reshape it imply hostility toward myself? Or just ambivalence?

Either way, we have a problem. But the problem is not unique to our times. It is an ancient problem — the “problem of the body.” It has vexed philosophers for centuries. It arises like this: Each conscious person possesses a wholly unique awareness of himself — call it “self-consciousness.” It is consciousness of an inner life, of a hidden me, an unmediated and immediate awareness of the complex reality of my mental and emotional “world” inaccessible to all but myself. This “inner self” is experienced as a spiritual reality, not a bodily one; it can even be experienced as opposed to the body, as, say, when my mind wants to do something but my body is too weary. Because of the remarkable cognitive capacities of memory and imagination, this mental self is experienced as, in a sense, unlimited by space and time (e.g., I can remember the distant past and project myself into the future all while banally sipping coffee at Starbucks). I look in the mirror and the face smiling back does not reveal even half the complexity of this inner world.

And yet I also have a body. My body is not hidden. It is posited in the empirical world, visible to all, undeniably there. It gets headaches and needs sleep; it blushes when I’m embarrassed and growls when I’m hungry. It changes enough over time that one who has not seen me in years might say, “I didn’t recognize you.” Yet it also is continuous over time. In one sense it is the same body as when I was an infant, insofar as I was no less me then as now, and I have had a body all along. And yet materially it is entirely different. Not a single cell from my infant body remains in my adult body. I therefore conclude, and rightly, that my body is not the principle of self-continuity over time. (If it were, then there would be no continuity between my infant self and my adult self, which is absurd.) The “inner” spiritual self, rather, is the principle of continuity.

The speculative problems raised by this inner-outer distinction have generated an entire area of philosophical speculation called “the mind-body problem”: What precisely is the relationship between mind and body? In philosophy there are two dominant theoretical replies — two, that is, that start from the premise that minds and bodies both exist, that they are basic to human life, and that neither can be reduced entirely to the other. The first is that mind and body are two substantially different realities. But only one is defining of the person. The real me is a spiritual non-bodily reality. My body is a kind of garment I wear, or instrument I command, or vehicle I drive, or prison I am encased in. In other words, my body is not really me. In philosophy this view is called “mind-body dualism.”

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