Reality Consists of Mental and Physical Qualities
Classic Philosophical Questions Part 6 - Metaphysics
John Dewey, from Experience and Nature
Kem Stone - 18 February 2008
Presented as an alternative to dualism as well as materialism and idealism, John Dewey’s approach to the mind-
body problem rejects all of these proposals and aims to look at the issue in a different way. Rather than thinking
of mind and matter as actual substances, Dewey calls them “qualities” and posits that when material substance is
organised with sufficient complexity, the qualities of life and mind emerge as a result. The supposed dualism,
Dewey believes, is a result of thousands of years of metaphysical prejudice within our cultures that has made our
language such that one can not even speak of the issue without a dualistic bias. Although Dewey makes many
interesting and valid points, I do not believe they bring us any closer to a solution of the mind-body problem,
which exists independent of the terms used to describe it.
Dewey sees the character of life and culture as the source of our ideas regarding mind and body. When life is a
difficult struggle, man is apt to see himself as the image of a divine and eternal spirit, merely temporarily encased in
a body as a pilgrim in a strange world. In current times, when nature is conceived to be mechanical, existence as
a body within the system of nature is more easily understandable, and consciousness itself becomes the mystery.
“These conceptions have primarily nothing to do with mind-body; they have to do with underlying metaphysical
issues:—the denial of quality in general to natural events; the ignoring in particular of temporal quality and the
dogma of the superior reality of ‘causes’” (387). The underlying metaphysical issues in question have shaped our
language in such a way that mental and physical are thought to be completely separate and that one must be the
cause of the other.
To remedy this problem, Dewey introduces the term “psycho-physical” to denote the properties of living
organisms. By this term they are not seen as either completely mental or physical in nature, but as physical bodies
with psychic properties, particularly the activity of “need-demand-satisfaction”. By this terminology there is no
problem of the relation between the physical and psychic, as both are empirical events marked by their own
particular qualities, and both imply a certain level of organisation, an empirical trait which both share.
Increasing levels of organisation lead to more complex properties of psycho-physical objects. While simple
organisms may have only the properties most basic to life—self-nourishment and reproduction—complex animals
have subjective awareness and thus the property of feelings which vary in quality in correspondence with different
events. Once we reach the level of complexity that is present in a human brain, we have the property of mind
which manifests itself through language and communication, which is organised interaction with other creatures.
“The distinction between physical, psycho-physical, and mental is thus one of levels of increasing complexity and
intimacy of interaction among natural events. The idea that matter, life and mind represent separate kinds of Being
is a doctrine that springs, as so many philosophic errors have sprung, from a substantiation of eventual functions.
The fallacy converts consequences of interaction of events into causes of the occurrence of these consequences—
a reduplication which is significant as to the importance of the functions, but which hopelessly confuses
understanding of them” (387).
Though one might consider Dewey’s theory another form of materialism, Dewey objects to this form of
mechanistic metaphysics on the grounds described above—that “cause” occupies a superior position in reality to
“effect” and that matter is the efficient cause of life and mind. It is not matter that is the cause of life and mind, but
natural events involving matter which give rise to them, and “effects” because they mean the release of
potentialities, are more important to our understanding of nature that just “causes”. Dewey maintains that mind is
still directly related to physical events, and insists that a proper understanding of these relations is highly important
in terms of how we educate and modify behaviour.
Dewey’s objection to dualism is that it splits one world into two separate and disconnected realms of existence
and offers no explanation as to their perfect correspondence. This correspondence, Dewey holds, is a relation of
certain properties within a single world but on different levels of interaction. “Interacting-events have tighter and
looser ties, which qualify them with certain beginnings and endings, and which mark them off from other fields of
interaction. Such relatively closed fields come into conjunction at times so as to interact with each other, and a
critical alteration is effected. A new larger field is formed, in which new energies are released, and to which new
qualities appertain” (389). In Dewey’s understanding, simple interactions give rise to relations of increasing
complexity which eventually result in the qualities of life and mind.
These fields are divided by Dewey into three distinct plateaus. The first is physical, characterised by narrow and
external interactions and operating according to a purely mathematical, mechanical system. Life constitutes the
second level, as need-demand-satisfaction comes into play among physical objects which now have properties by
which they interact with the world on a more complex level. While there are many qualitative differences between
plant and animal, and lower and higher life-forms, all have the common bond of psycho-physical properties.
Finally, the third plateau is unique to the highest animal forms and is characterised by association, communication
and participation. This field is further diversified by individualities, but all share the property of intellect, or
possession of and response to meanings.
Somewhat ironically, it is the character of language itself that constitutes the difficulty in the discussion about body-
mind. “Our language is so permeated with consequences of theories which have divided the body and the mind
from each other, making separate existential realms out of them, that we lack the words to designate the actual
existential fact” (389). We discuss body and mind as though these are two entirely distinct phenomena, yet “body-
mind” as Dewey uses the term actually designates what takes place when a body is engaged in the activities
characterised by the third plateau—association, communication, and participation. In this phrase, “body”
designates the cumulative operation of factors within the rest of nature, while “mind” refers to the differential
characteristics of body when it is engaged in these complex activities.
Other terms that Dewey believes have real meaning when separated from our traditional understanding of them
are “soul” and “spirit”. Though we need not believe that a “soul” is a distinct substance that animates life, Dewey
insists that it is not meaningless to say that a particular person has “soul”. This refers to a quality within a particular
man or woman who demonstrates a great degree of sensitive and rich participation in the complex activities of
life. To say that a work of art has “soul” is to separate it from those things which are lifeless and mechanical.
“Spirit” refers to the quality that gives such things life. “Animals are spirited, but man is a living spirit. He lives in
his works and his works do follow him. Soul is form, spirit informs. It is the moving function of that of which soul
is the substance” (390). Although Dewey believes these terms can still be properly applied in modern discourse,
he admits that their meanings are perhaps too laden with traditional mythology and theological doctrine that they
must be surrendered.
The main point of the preceding discussion is that these old ideas do not disappear when the beliefs that have
always been associated with them are discarded, but they come to be understood differently. “Soul” was once
considered a life-giving substance, but we now attribute all of the qualities that were its attributes to the nervous
system, centralised in the brain. What is missing is the emphasis on the interconnectedness of this mechanical
process with the living results it gives rise to. Physiologists and psychologists, Dewey argues, often ignore the
intimate interdependence of these processes with one another. “The world seems mad in preoccupation with
what is specific, particular, disconnected in medicine, politics, science, industry, education….But the recovery of
sanity depends upon seeing and using these specifiable things as links functionally in a process. To see the
organism in nature, the nervous system in the organism, the brain in the nervous system, the cortex in the brain is
the answer to the problems which haunt philosophy. And when thus seen they will be seen to be in, not as
marbles are in a box but as events are in history, in a moving, growing never finished process” (390).
I consider this final point to be completely valid, as the very structure of scientific research and education leads us
to cluster our knowledge of the world into distinct and separate fields while ignoring the interconnectedness of
everything. One cannot truly understand biology without an understanding of physics and chemistry, just as one
cannot really comprehend a work of art or literature without an understanding of the historical context in which it
was created. In focussing on one particular field of science, those who shape our understanding of the world
ignore the big picture, the complex whole that emerges when you consider human beings not just for the
physiological processes that govern the body, but for the creative and intellectual products that emerge from these
processes. If all scientists, historians, and philosophers were to keep the whole in mind while examining the parts,
it would be a far more fruitful and productive approach to the search for knowledge than what currently goes on.
However, when considering Dewey’s argument as a whole, I find that it ultimately fails to eliminate the original
problem of the interconnectedness between mind and body. Rather than separating these into two distinct
substances, emergent theories of consciousness postulate that matter, with sufficient complexity, will give rise to
the properties of life and eventually to those of mind. While this is entirely plausible and perhaps even completely
true, we have merely shifted the burden of explaining subjective experience from its relation to matter to its relation
to complex organisation. If we cannot possibly conceive of how matter can think, why should it be any easier to
conceive that matter, when arranged in a particular form, can think? What is it about a brain that allows such a
property to emerge whereas in other forms of matter, from dead minerals to plants and even simple animals, we
find no trace of it?
There is a plausible answer to this riddle, though it does not appear at all in Dewey’s text, and it is called
panprotopsychism. According to this theory, all matter, even down to the most basic elements, has psychic
properties. This is not to say that even atoms and molecules can think, reason, associate, and communicate, but
that there is some form of subjective awareness active in each and every piece of the universe. And as simple
elements combine and work together to form living organisms and eventually evolve to form creatures of ever
greater complexity, their conscious properties combine and work together to give rise to more complex forms of
consciousness and eventually evolve into a process complex enough to be aware of itself—thought.
For some reason, this idea has not gained any widespread popularity, though it certainly seems to me to be the
most plausible scientific explanation for consciousness that I have ever come across. It seems that the irony of it is
that most spiritual thinkers do not want to reduce the miraculous phenomenon of awareness to a mechanical
process, while most scientists do not wish to grant the phenomenon of awareness to their closed mechanical
processes. However I believe that should these groups ever reconcile and embrace this concept, it may lead to a
solution to many of the greatest mysteries of science, from the problems with our current understanding of the
theory of natural selection right down to the very origin of life itself.
But although it points in the direction of such a theory, Dewey never raises the possibility, and insists as the
materialists do that the entire mind-body problem as it is understood is merely a result of our cultural and linguistic
prejudices. Yet the stark contrast between the nature of physical matter and that of subjective experience is one
so deep and fundamental that it completely transcends culture and language. No matter what time or place you
live or what words you use to describe consciousness, the mystery remains firmly entrenched in reality. And no
matter how you reformulate the ideas and concepts relating to it, the mystery endures with as much force as ever,
still begging for a solution.