Neo-Descartian dualism

From writing a utopian fiction in my fifties I came first to doubt Darwinism, then to find its physicalism/materialism toxic. since then I’ve tried to fashion a natural philosophy from which better origin stories would naturally emerge. Below is my current version.

I begin with Descartes’ “I think therefore I am.” Here’s how I develop it:


  • Conscious thought can exist, we know because this is one.
  • Some conscious thoughts involve recall of other conscious thoughts. We can generalize this persistence of a capacity to have conscious thoughts as consciousness.
  • Conscious thoughts being conscious of each other hallucinate into existence a persistent entity able to have conscious thoughts, eg a conscious self. This allows us to say "I" and "we."
  • My being able to express this conscious thought in print/online proves I can consciously cause physical events. Conscious thoughts and matter can interact. How? Doesn't matter for now.


  • We experience our conscious self coming associated with body stuff such as limbs and our senses, eg sight.
  • We come equipped to locate things around us in 3D space (in the form of a few dozen specialized brain cells, science reveals).
  • We similarly come equipped to identify other body-self combinations like us (also in the form of a few dozen specialized brain cells).

This testifies to the value of believing in the existence of other things and other people like us arranged around us in space and time.


  • Physical things changing over time in response to physical processes is deterministic, ruling out unpredictable novelty and creativity.
  • Distinguishable from purely physical things are living creatures, which manifest indeterminacy, presumably driven by other processes.
  • New kinds of living creatures emerge where and when the creatures most like them already exist. Call this evolution.
  • Evolution manifests novelty and creativity, eg single-celled creatures evolving into giraffes and elephants.
  • Indeterminate processes in living creatures, evolutionary processes, and processes driving conscious experiences (mind) have similar properties, eg indeterminacy, non-conservation properties etc. As yet no logic distinguishes between them. So let’s not multiply processes unnecessarily, let's combine them and call them evo-mental processes. Then we’ve just two kinds of fundamental processes: physical, and evo-mental.
  • We have a basic drive to understand ourselves and the universe:

- The physical world. Physical sciences help us understand that.

- The evo-conscious world. To study that we can introspect and study biology, paleontology, history.

- Ways the physical and evo-conscious worlds can interact.

To say purely physical things and conscious thoughts can interact is controversial; physicalists deny it’s possible. So here are some examples:


  • My being able to express this conscious thought in print/online'
  • By species of living creatures evolving.
  • Growth, decay and death of the individual.
  • Instinctive motivation: pleasure-pain, sex, hunger, panic, etc.
  • Conscious monitoring of our senses and activation of nerve impulses.
  • All sorts of performance, eg body language, facial expressions, dance.
  • Language, spoken and written, and other media.
  • Culture: museums and art galleries, religious paraphernalia etc.
  • Institutions: technology, hospitality, education, banking, commerce.

Banking? That’s how conscious desires can interact with performances in terms of human ingenuity.


  • How evolutionary processes relate to conscious thinking processes.
  • How reach of consciousness developed with evolution and history.
  • Possibility of consciousness becoming enriched by what we discover about evolution.
  • How different modes of interaction dominated culture over time, eg Middle Ages, religion; today, exchanges of manufactured goods for money earned through labor. Tomorrow: pursuing a dualistic self-understanding?


  • We are by nature dualists: in consciousness we experience two worlds, a physical world driven by deterministic invariable processes, and a living world in which evo-mental processes operate.
  • Where Descartes introduced God to make sense of his dualistic vision, I introduce evolution. Where he invoked the pineal gland as the channel connecting mind and matter, I leave the matter open, regarding it at this moment as an unresolvable distraction.
  • It may be appropriate to transition from a physicalist to a dualist study of the universe.

Know of others engaged on such a quest? Please let me know.

The "evolution of consciousness" game

I launched this site 12 years ago to help the humanities inject meaning into our new origin story—that we evolved. Why did I think the humanities should be concerned? Because an overriding complaint today is the absence of meaning in modern life. For that we look to the humanities, not the sciences.

Through the writing of over 100 articles for the site since, I've narrowed my focus down to two issues.

  • First, the humanities’ main concern must be not just with evolution itself but with the evolution of consciousness. Keywords are both “evolution” and “consciousness.” We must equip ourselves to define both, and how they relate.
  • Second, if we are to define consciousness in terms of evolution, do we have concepts up to the task? If not, how could we come up with the concepts we need?

Problem: how can we identify the concepts we need but haven’t yet come up with? I propose to identify ways our current definitions of consciousness and evolution fail us, and make up something to fill the gap. My solutions aren’t likely to be scientifically valid but they might encourage progress in coming up with better candidates.

Want to play this game? I’ve already developed two resources, available at Amazon, to help you.

Triadism 1: Who should decide how mind evolved?

For most of us, homo sapiens having evolved into existence has become our shared origin story. Quite a few versions of that story have been proposed over time. But in today’s school science classroom only one version may be taught, what I refer to as “Darwinism,” a purely physical process impervious to the operation of mind. Why is that? Why must mind be denied representation in the “official” story of how we evolved?  

I suggest this lies in people having different opinions about what needs accounting for—life and mind. Even my slight awareness of philosophy of mind confirms we differ about that, which could explain why different people are likely to favor different mechanisms for how evolution works. But if that’s so, if we differ about mind, why is a purely physical mechanism the only one that may be taught to school children? Who made that mechanism the default? Who among us is most likely to favor evolution being accounted for in purely physical terms?

To explore that I recalled ways I’ve read and observed people’s attitudes to mind to differ, and for each one I identified what kind of evolutionary theory I thought it implied. Note: while this is a purely personal and off-the-cuff exercise, what matters is not the listings themselves but what such a listing suggests. To me it suggests that the mechanism of evolution taught in school does indeed favor one cognitive style.

Here’s my list:

1: Degree of aphantasia. Phantasia is being able to bring images to mind, or having a mind’s eye. At one extreme, entirely unable to bring images to mind, are aphants, at the other extreme are hyperphants whose imagined images can be as vivid as vision itself. Most of us lie somewhere in between. Instead of storing visual experiences as mental images aphants seem to store it as something like data in a spreadsheet. They can report accurately on what they’ve seen but they can’t turn it back into mind’s-eye images. Because they can’t turn written descriptions into images they’re left cold by written descriptions of landscapes or something scary. If I experienced this flattening of experience I’d probably experience myself as somewhat robotic. But I would experience being able, through conscious choices, to establish new habits so I’d probably opt for Lamarckism. If I experienced no visual imagery at all but had vivid dreams, as some aphants report, I’d probably be a mysterian. On the other hand, as a hyperphant, able to summon up vivid visual imagery at will along with the frequently accompanying synesthesia, I might vote for solipsism.

2: Contradictory evidence for what’s real, when what you’re conscious of conflicts with what you see and hear your body doing. Which will you trust? If you trust your behavior more then you’re likely to distrust consciousness. With a mild case you’d probably simply dismiss conscious experiences as distracting illusions. That would make me an illusionist, effectively a physicalist with reservations. As an evolutionist I’d be confused; how could creatures with wonky minds evolve at all? I suspect a extreme case of this was the Wittgenstein who wrote “Tractatus.” Later, reconciled to how differently other people related consciousness to reality, he spoke of arriving at that relationship as a game for which different people chose different rules. I’ve no idea how he’d have conceived of how we evolved.

3: Internal voices narrating conscious experience. Extremes vary from a complete absence of internal chat to a voice that never stops. Some people experience multiple voices, but more common I think is experiencing the voice as one’s own, of a conscious self that one recognizes as persisting largely unchanged from one experience, one day, to the next. Experiencing that amounts to what I call a bank-account dualist: coins and notes you feed into a bank account become something with no apparent substance or location you can point to, that yet remains associated with the same identity over time.

4. Tendency to personify actors and objects, oneself, other people, parts of the physical world, and endow them with free will, in. One may be particularly aware of agency in other people and feel called on to devote oneself to them, selflessly, or one may project agency onto physical objects like trees or mountains. If I experienced matter as having agency, even down to the atom, I’d probably reason my way into becoming a panpsychist. Then my mechanism of evolution would probably have life emerging from matter through successive stages of self-organization.

5: How much of mind your consciousness has access to. Some people are conscious only of sense impressions coming in and their behaviors going out. They’re not aware of their minds working, it seems to operate behind a curtain, what’s going on back there they can know about only by what they see themselves doing or by speaking or writing. If this was my experience everything would appears to be physical so I’d be a physicalist. For evolution I’d settle for a purely physical theory, Darwinism.

Another version of this, which I’ve observed becoming more common over my lifetime, is people experiencing having no executive control over their mental faculties. In the movie “Inside Out” a young girl experiences her feelings and behavior being entirely controlled by competing mental modules: joy, sadness, fear, disgust, and anger. One critic exulted that everyday conscious experience was finally being acknowledged! Until I was 30 I experienced another limitation in cognition, epiphenomenalism—I had no awareness my behavior could influence my conscious thinking at all. I opted for physicalism. I remained a committed Darwinist up into my fifties.

From compiling this list I concluded that today’s purely physical origin story corresponds to cognitive styles favoring physicalism. Yet this appears to reflect how only a minority of us experience consciousness. Could this be confusing for children with other cognitive styles? Should we supplement that story with others able to account for mind? Should we each be entitled to adopt whichever theory of mind best suits our cognitive style?

Take me, for example. I do have mind’s eye, I do experience an internal voice narrating my thinking for me, I do recognize agency in other people and in such material phenomena as computers and machines, though not down to the level of atoms. I observe little contradiction between how my body reports on the world outside me and how I see my body responding to it. I experience being able to consciously direct my attention (free will?). I experience remaining the same person over time. I experience my self having executive control over most of the mental faculties it’s aware of. I can for short periods during medication consciously monitor and subdue my thinking. I am conscious of being conscious, of how my experience is more vivid at some times than others for example. I’m going to claim this makes me a representative sample of the general population and in the following chapters I arrive at a mechanism of evolution I think corresponds better to such a mentality than Darwinism does.

The kind of natural philosophy I could feel at home in takes the form of a triad. First leg of this triad is a world of purely physical matter. The second is a world of mind running on meanings. The third is a world of conscious experiences. The nature of each is unlike the others, yet each can interact with both the others. Whether these are three faces into the same noumena or three separate worlds I lack the means to resolve.  


Triadism 5. What evolution means

If updating Stoicism was all it took to come up with ways mind could evolve, why does it seem a novelty? I think partly because of ideas left behind by Christendom, and how science dealt with them. According to the Christian story our free will and consciousness were special gifts from God. Once science took over and wanted to tell a different story it dismissed those gifts, along with angels and devils, for being supernatural. So scientists felt no need to account for how those gifts evolved.

But for most people today those gifts—consciousness, creativity and free will—do need accounting for. Then, does that make my triadism a new religion? I say, no. As far as we know genomes have existed for only a few billion years and only here on Earth, so they aren’t infinite or eternal. Living creatures keep going extinct so genomes don’t appear to be omnipotent and all-knowing. And they’d make a poor personal god—they seem quite happy for most of the creatures they code for to serve as fodder for creatures coded for by other genomes. So, not a religion. More of a natural philosophy. 

That’s nothing to sneeze at. A new natural philosophy can offer benefits. It can spin off new concepts.

Let's try that.

The three branches of my triadism correspond to three distinct realities: matter, life, mind. We have different ways of accessing each one: matter through science, life through study of evolution, mind through consciousness. All three realities can interact with the others. That's how the world looks to me, overall. 

Each way we access what's real in the world can inform us differently. Physical sciences can show us ways it manifests itself as matter and energy. Consciousness we all experience directly, so we each know what that can tell us. The big unknown is what we can learn about what’s real from evolution.

Let’s compare what’s evolved with what’s purely physical. In something purely physical, a crystal say, the relatively simple molecules it consists of line up in a regular grid that repeats no matter how large the crystal grows. It’s quite homogenous. A living creature is entirely different, it consists of relatively large and complex molecules, then as we go up in scale those molecules come to constitute entirely different but still complex structures, all the way up to the individual creature and even entire populations (the ant colony). Study of the physical world and the study of life act as two different kinds of probes into what’s real, offer us two entirely different ways of learning about it. Just as we can learn about ourselves by studying matter scientifically we can learn about ourselves by studying how evolution works.

Existing concepts: creativity and free will, physical determinism and closed causation—what can evolution tell us about them? Earlier I insisted that evolution was creative, as we observe ourselves being. But now I want to turn that around. I want to redefine creativity in terms of the appearance on Earth of radically new kinds of living creatures. Let’s call that novelty-creation. How living creatures differ, that’s something physical, something open to public scrutiny. Evolution may not be able to do what physics tells us is impossible, but physics can’t tell us what evolution’s going to do next. Because of that you can’t claim causation is closed. If we follow the Stoics in seeing our creativity as a small portion of the creativity of nature, or of the genome as I suggest then, while our creativity will be limited as evolution is, it will also be free of strict physical determinism, as evolution is. This pulls the rug out from under what’s called “theory of mind” where strict physical determinism is the default; you have to declare your theory compatible or incompatible with determinism.

But on the other hand we can’t claim to have absolute free will--evolution must operate within an envelope of possibilities all its own. Instead of the extremes of free will or physical reductionism I suggest we talk of “volition”— the ability to employ “volition” to create novelty, to choose to do something. So retire free will and physical determinism in favor of some freedom to act of our own volition. That I propose be made theory of mind’s default that you declare your theory compatible or incompatible with.

How is it possible for one event to be followed by something novel? Recall I supposed some of our own thinking could involve our thoughts evolving, one into another. And, since such thinking in us invariably comes with consciousness I proposed we say that’s true of genomes too, that they can be conscious—that of course is where we would have got it from. Then we can see all novelty-creation, both in us and in the genome, as a property of consciousness. Then we can explore what’s real through consciousness, both through how we experience it and in the form of living creatures evolving.

How can we explore consciousness from the inside? Through art and culture of course, science and technology. But most of all, as meanings, the rails our minds run on.

Are meanings real? They have very little physical presence. Genomes do have to build physical accommodations for them in creatures’ brains but then in these lodgings the genome can embed a basic set of meanings needed to carry on a life. An orb spider comes into the world knowing how to spin a web, how to devour prey, how to mate, and much else. That all originates as code in the genome, translates into growth of brain tissue in the egg or embryo and meanings in mind in the adult. Spiders are real, and their behavior is real. So surely meanings, though not physical, are real. I’ve devoted one branch of my triadism to them.

In connection with the spider I’m saying “meanings” where we used to say “instincts.” I choose to refer to them as meanings because that’s how they appear in us. Just as our genome, of its own conscious volition, built meanings into us so we of our own conscious volition extend those meanings into entire libraries. I demonstrated that with mother and father becoming motherland and fatherland. As we create and name new meanings we expand the mother tongue that we inherited. Spoken or written, words take on physical form. As patterns of connection in mind they can be accessed by the autonomic system. At the same time they can be real in consciousness. They are real, as real as the code written along the genome of a spider for how to spin its web.

How exceptional does my triad make us? It frees us from possession of a soul that separates us from the rest of creation. But, in addition to an upright posture that gives us hands for making tools, it points to us alone having enough consciousness to create meanings, and associate them with behaviors and words. We can consciously create novelties, to a greater degree than any other living creature can.

But still we are just living creatures. I take it for granted that consciousness ends with our death. We have just our lifetime to make as much sense of the world as we want. The form of consciousness we inherit through our language is likely a creation of just the past 3000 years, say 100 generations. So we may expect to create in our lifetimes another two or three percent of our culture’s consciousness. Quite possibly that will result from ways we find wisdom in knowing we evolved.

Remember how I said living creatures evolved by genomes simply thinking them into existence but, before living creatures could evolve, their genomes had to evolve first? Genomes may evolve through entirely different mechanisms from those they employ to create us. Discovering these mechanisms might introduce us to even more powerful mental tools. Studying how genomes themselves evolved could lead to us enriching our own thinking with nature’s ultimate powers.


Triadism 2. Mind, a world of meanings

My triad’s first branch is matter, pretty much as science describes it. My second triad concerns mind. In this chapter I’ll describe mind as I experience it (for that see Triadism 1) and how it differs from matter.

Imagine being suspended in space above the surface of Mars. You have a camera, it’s facing down towards that surface; every so often it takes a photo. So far, all very physical. On the retina of your eyes, as you too face down towards the surface, there is an image, that closely resembles the image gathered by the camera; at some point you reach out and press a button. Again, all very physical. But unlike the camera you have a mind and, between seeing the planet and pressing that button your mind establishes a connection between your glance at the planet’s surface and what happens when you press that button. In both cases there’s a chain of causation. What I want to account for is the difference between those two chains of causation, between the mechanical linkage of camera viewfinder and shutter and what in you connects visual sensation and muscular actuation.

From the previous chapter (Triadism 1) recall that some people aren’t aware of anything linking sensation and muscular actuation, they can’t monitor how it happens and aren’t likely to be curious about what makes it happen. It’s simply whatever does connect sensation to muscular actuation, for them probably by default a physical connection similar to the workings of the automated camera. That’s one answer to what mind is--there’s nothing to account for. I mean, really. End of story.

If the rest of us do have something we want to account for, I suggest first of all it concerns meaning. I visualize our minds as equipped with huge libraries of meanings. First, a sensation such as an image gets tagged with one or two meanings, these meanings then engage a blizzard of other meanings, sometimes leading to a final meaning that triggers some muscular actuation. I suggest a chain of causation in mind is a pattern of connections between meanings.

This pattern of connections can operate independently of consciousness. It can operate autonomically as in changes in the beating of our hearts or our ability to drive while being conscious of something else--we can know our minds are working without that knowledge contributing to the direction of our behavior. That was how it felt to be an epiphenomenalist, my purely physical body seemed not to have access to my mind, what I was thinking, I just assumed my behavior was driven entirely by autonomic processes. To understand my behavior I’d have needed only an account of the successive meanings leading up to it. And that’s what this chapter is limited to. Consciousness, and how it contributes to any causal chain, I leave to a final chapter.

What do meanings consist of? I conceive of them as quite similar to what Plato referred to as ideas, so refer to him for what they’re made of. I can only give you examples. Looking down at the surface of Mars and referring to “ground” and “atmosphere” is relating how it looks to ideas, imposing meanings on it. “Returning” and “re-entering” would be meanings. “Deciding” and “doubting” are meanings. “The” has a different meaning from “a.” All words correspond to meanings. Many bodily reactions correspond to meanings, such as blushing or fleeing in panic. Rationality and spirituality consist of meanings.

Some we come with at birth, such as several dozen cells in our brains that label things around us with directions and distances of them from us. Others came as machinerry for memory, sensation, prediction, decision-making, doubt. Meanings can be linked by association and contradiction, by reason and logic, by being answers to questions, by being causes and their effects. Here’s an example: “Mother” and “Father” may be among the first meanings we form. But from these we can construct “Motherland” and Fatherland,” the former the country where our mothers nurtured us, the latter the territory our fathers call on us to defend. And so on. As long as we live our stock of meanings continues to grow.

Neuroscientists like to identify meanings with circuits in our brains. But meanings can do things matter can’t. Look down once again at the surface of Mars, can you see meanings down there? Anything that can want something, or expect something? If you’re like me, you can’t. Mars consists of rock and gas with no agents able to distinguish “if… then” from “while… do” as living creatures can. Only what’s alive, or is made by a creature like us, can do that, can attach meanings to what's purely physical.

Science itself couldn’t exist without trafficking in meanings. Just to carry out any experiment a scientist has to employ meanings: noticing a discrepancy in how matter presents itself, conceiving of hypotheses to account for that discrepancy, reasoning to a procedure that could distinguish between them, designing apparatus able to make that distinction, pursuing in rational order the steps in the experiment, recording results, coming to a conclusion, publishing the results and reporting on them at a conference. Think of the physical world as a box; to practice science on something physical you have to think outside that box, you have to employ meanings that lie in mind. The machinery in our brains that supports our mind’s employment of meanings may observe the laws of physics but the meanings themselves belong to a world apart from the physical.

A remaining mystery is, how did we come by the equipment needed to generate and accommodate meanings? Apart from machinery we’ve built and use to mimic our own mental processes, such as our computers, we won’t find any such equipment in non-living matter. Volcanos can’t decide when to erupt for example, as we can decide when to urinate. How did equipment supporting meanings get built into us? To answer that I call on traditional wisdom for help in figuring out how this equipment evolved in us.