Interactive Nondualism: Process Thought's Reframing of the Physical/Mental Binary

[This was a sort of position paper drafted to assist the student interviewing me for his "Philosophy of Mind" course.] 

"What I am essentially protesting against is the bifurcation of nature ... into two divisions, namely into the nature apprehended in awareness and the nature which is the cause of awareness."—Alfred North Whitehead, The Concept of Nature, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1920) pp. 30-31. (online here)

"Beginning with a familiar Whiteheadian move, the rejection of the traditional 'bifurcation of nature' into a physical and a mental domain, the process approach operates like a gestalt switch, opening up new ways of looking at a wide variety of issues. Whiteheadians argue that the traditional mind-body problem dissolves if all basic constituents of reality are ... processes of information transfer that exhibit both ‘mental’ and ‘physical’ aspects in different accentuations according to context." (online here)

"I think that both mind and matter are merely convenient ways of grouping events."—Bertrand Russell, A History of Western Philosophy (online here)


The whole of reality, including every part thereof, is fundamentally interacting, newly influenced by others and newly influencing others, always and everywhere. This is my summation of process thought (more here).

In some configurations reality interacts in ways that have been called physical, and in other configurations it interacts in ways that have been called mental. (But with this outlook we might imagine a culture that never developed a "physical/mental" binary.)

So again, interacting, by which I always mean newly interacting, remains the fundamental reality, not matter or mind—not even things or properties. Every experience, sufficiently noted, supports this.

In the context of philosophy of mind, I called his position "interactive nondualism." 

Interactive nondualism has some affinities with what has been called "neutral monism." But interacting is not a namelessly neutral "something-we-know-not-what." We do know what interacting is—we're doing it right now. Nor is interacting neutral "stuff," in fact not a substance at all. Substances and even properties are ways in which we abstractly identify somewhat recurring ways of interacting. And interacting has both unifying and pluralizing aspects, so it's not strictly monistic. It does undermine dualism, what Whitehead called "the bifurcation of nature," so we could call it a form of nondualism (to borrow a term from Hindu philosophy). But it's a qualified nondualism, interactively qualified. That's why I prefer the phrase, "interactive nondualism."

Here there is no "hard problem of consciousness." There is the much "softer" task of reasonably identifying various ways of interacting in physical terms, in some contexts, and in mental terms, in other contexts, whenever the physical/mental distinction seems useful.

In fact, I don't see any reason why the various ways of interacting would have to be sorted into only two subcategories like the physical and the mental. Maybe there can be as many subcategories as there are adverbs to modify "interacting." After all, categories and subcategories, like substances and properties, are ways in which we abstractly identify somewhat recurring ways of interacting. (This sounds close to what philosopher of science John Dupre calls "promiscuous realism." Dupre has more recently "come out" as a process thinker.) Some diehard physicalists will still see this as a disguised form of panpsychism or idealism. But they are assuming the exhaustive bifurcation that interactive nondualism denies.

I admit that I lean towards panpsychism myself (more here and here), but it does seem that all the arguments in favor of panpsychism work just as well for interactive nondualism. And interactive nondualism, like neutral monism, seems to arouse fewer alarms, so it's easier to defend. (Many process thinkers, notably Charles Hartshorne and David Ray Griffin, embrace panpsychism—or "panexperientialism"—wholeheartedly. Others, like Schubert Ogden and Franklin Gamwell, find panpsychism too anthropomorphic and embrace something closer to interactive nondualism.)

Addendum: Interactive Nondualism Compared with Functionalism, Nonreductive Physicalism, Emergentism, etc.

"Functionalism in the philosophy of mind is the doctrine that what makes something a mental state of a particular type does not depend on its internal constitution, but rather on the way it functions, or the role it plays, in the system of which it is a part" (online here).

Interactive nondualism could easily be called a kind of functionalism, given the above definition, where "state" is shorthand for a way of interacting. Calling a way of interacting mental does indeed depend "on the way it functions, or the role it plays, in the system of which it is a part." But the way it functions would not be sharply contrasted with its "internal constitution," because the way it functions simply is its internal/external constitution, where the line between internal and external is fuzzy at best.

But note: interactive nondualism would also insist that what goes for "mental states" goes just as much for "physical states," with the same demurrals about terminology. "What makes something a [physical] state of a particular type does not depend on its internal constitution, but rather on the way it functions, or the role it plays, in the system of which it is a part."

So we could say that interactive nondualism is functionalism radicalized to apply to matter as much as mind.

What about nonreductive physicalism? Interactive nondualism is definitely nonreductive: the novelty involved in any interaction cannot be reduced to what went before, nor to the somewhat recurring ways of interacting we may abstractly identify.

But since newly interacting is more concrete than any abstracted physical/mental distinction, it would be misleading, I think, to insist on calling this a form of physicalism, even a nonreductive form.

People could of course stretch the word "physical" to include all that newly interacting involves, but then they start to look like process theists stretching the word "divine" to mean the all-inclusively interacting whole of reality (see Hempel's Dilemma). It can be done, with reason, in either case. In fact stretching has been done repeatedly with words like "physical" and "divine." Just read the histories of either term. But when this happens, the relevant question is and has always been what might be gained by keeping and stretching a word, and what might be lost by dropping it altogether and trying something else. And while there may be all sorts of reasons for keeping and stretching a word, it becomes more difficult to object to others who wish to try out alternative terminology (more here).

Arguments for keeping or discarding words like "physical" and "mental" thus start to look like an interreligious dialogue. It's easy to support certain ways of speaking as legitimate, more difficult to insist that these are the only legitimate ways of speaking. With appropriate degrees of stretching, I can see good reasons for keeping words like "matter" and "mind" as all-embracing terms. I can also see good reasons for keeping words like "God," "Tao," "Brahman," "Sunyata" and "nature" as all-embracing terms. I can't see good reasons for insisting that any of these terms must the last word for everybody.

Maybe this could be called a form of emergentism, but in this case, if we use that term, it is not only what we have called mental properties that emerge: what we have called physical properties are likewise emergent. And in either case, their emergence is not the sudden appearance of something utterly different from what was already there, but an amplification of aspects that are always present in every instance of interacting.

Q&A with Stuart Glennan

SG: "Interacting in its ordinary meaning expresses a relation, typically between two or more objects or other kinds of entities -- people interact, particles and fields interact, etc.  You say "the whole of reality, including every part thereof is fundamentally interacting, newly influenced by others and newly influencing others."  So what are the parts of reality that are interacting or influencing?  And can this view be meaningfully articulated without identifying the relata of the interactions?"

CA: Yes, we do have to identify “relata.” And I do implicitly identify them in my further discussion—as various "ways of interacting." Some of these ways are highly recurrent, others not so much. I use the vague phrase, “ways of interacting,” to speak of what have traditionally been called substances and properties. And I prefer vagueness here. Following Aristotle, in the right context I believe vagueness is a virtue, not a vice. In trying to be more precise, Whitehead and Hartshorne both seem to preserve a kind of dualism between actualities (or actual occasions) and their features or properties. I am questioning whether such a sharp distinction is necessary. It seems to me that it's not, but I could be wrong.

SG: "Your view, as best as I can understand it, sounds like panpsychism—perhaps a bit like Spinoza.  Neutral monism is—well neutral—but it's still not very process oriented, as I understand it (which may not be very well)."

CA: Well, maybe it's still panpsychism. I do lean that way, as I admitted already. But I do wonder if you're still assuming the "bifurcation" Whitehead (and I) question, assuming that, if it's pan-something but not "panphysicalism," it must be panpsychism. If I have to be labeled a panpsychist I suppose I can live with that. I do find Galen Strawson's arguments mostly persuasive, except for his insistence that panpsychism is the culmination of a consistent physicalism. Some versions of neutral monism, especially Spinoza’s, are not process oriented, but others are, especially Bertrand Russell's, who I think got his version from collaborating with Whitehead. Russell's version was in fact my first exposure to process thought as I was finishing his History of Western Philosophy as a college sophomore back in the summer of 1973: "What has been thought of as a particle will have to be thought of as a series of events. The series of events that replaces a particle has certain important physical properties, and therefore demands our attention; but it has no more substantiality than any other series of events that we might arbitrarily single out. Thus "matter" is not part of the ultimate material of the world, but merely a convenient way of collecting events into bundles ... I think that both mind and matter are merely convenient ways of grouping events. ... This doctrine effects a great simplification in our picture of the structure of the world."—Russell, A History of Western Philosophy (online here)