Dualism in the Movies

What Is Dualism?

Dualism is the age-old belief that there are two sorts of stuff in the universe: physical stuff (the stuff that constitutes brains and bodies and stones and trees and cats), and mind stuff (or “soul” stuff, if you like). It found it’s most cogent expression in Descartes’ Meditations, where early on he remarks that there is one thing clearly, distinctly, and uniquely possessed by the mind: Thinking.

Thinking is another attribute of the soul; and here I discover what properly belongs to myself. This alone is inseparable from me. I am — I exist: this is certain; but how often? As often as I think; for perhaps it would even happen, if I should wholly cease to think, that I should at the same time altogether cease to be… I am therefore, precisely speaking, only a thinking thing…

Whatever else he might be, it is definitely the case that Descartes is a thinking thing. Go ahead and doubt the existence of what we usually think of as the real world — stones, trees, and cats. Say that it’s all an illusion, or a dream, or that there’s an evil demon deceiving us about the true nature of things. But one thing that’s certain is that if Descartes is being deceived, Descartes is being deceived — even if his mind is being fooled about things, it is his mind that is being fooled.

Well, if the mind has this certain specialness that the rest of the world (if it exists at all) doesn’t, then the mind and the body must be separate sorts of things:

[B]ecause I know that all which I clearly and distinctly conceive can be produced by God exactly as I conceive it, it is sufficient that I am able clearly and distinctly to conceive one thing apart from another, in order to be certain that the one is different from the other, seeing they may at least be made to exist separately, by the omnipotence of God; and it matters not by what power this separation is made, in order to be compelled to judge them different; and, therefore, merely because I know with certitude that I exist, and because, in the meantime, I do not observe that aught necessarily belongs to my nature or essence beyond my being a thinking thing, I rightly conclude that my essence consists only in my being a thinking thing [or a substance whose whole essence or nature is merely thinking]. And although I may, or rather, as I will shortly say, although I certainly do possess a body with which I am very closely conjoined; nevertheless, because, on the one hand, I have a clear and distinct idea of myself, in as far as I am only a thinking and unextended thing, and as, on the other hand, I possess a distinct idea of body, in as far as it is only an extended and unthinking thing, it is certain that I, [that is, my mind, by which I am what I am], is entirely and truly distinct from my body, and may exist without it.

Here is dualism: the idea that mental and physical substances are of an entirely different kind from one another. And, in fact, the idea goes further — mind-stuff is inherently non-physical. It doesn’t exist in space-time (otherwise it would just be a variety of physical stuff), and it doesn’t need the body in order to exist.

Dualism in the Movies

Hollywood, always up for exploiting a good philosophical idea, has a proud history of using dualism to good dramatic effect. There are a plethora of mind/body transfer stories told on film.

Here Comes Mr. JordanAnd early film taking full advantage of dualism was “Here Comes Mr. Jordan”, in 1941. The story has our hero, a boxer named Joe, die in a plane crash at the start of the film. Unfortunately, the death was a mistake, due to the slip-up of an absent-minded angel. Joe wasn’t really supposed to die for a good long time. (We can use this example to talk about determinism. Maybe someday…) Joe, obviously, isn’t happy about this, and so God allows Joe’s soul to be transferred into the freshly dead body of a corrupt millionaire, just murdered by his wife. Misadventures ensue, as the personhood — the identity — of Joe tries to navigate his way in a new body, in new circumstances.

The key for our discussion here is that Joe’s mind — his personhood; his soul — is completely separatable from any physical body. It is a different sort of stuff entirely, and can be housed in any host body by a sufficiently powerful supernatural being.

You might, at this point, be thinking the following very reasonable question: But how does this non-physical mind stuff actually interact with a physical body? Well, that’s a damn good question, and sits at the core of many criticisms of dualism. We usually think of causation as a purely physical process. Billiard balls smash into billiard balls and make them move; atoms collide into atoms, generating heat and occasionally atomic detonations; you push a door in order to open it; an avalanche crushes trees beneath its mass;… physical objects and physical movements cause other physical objects to move. How is a non-physical thing (a mind) supposed to cause anything physical to happen? If you’re a dualist, you’re in trouble here. The mind (a non-physical thing) thinks that you should raise your right hand; the physical hand moves. What is the causal chain here? Descartes postulated that the mind finds its way into the brain via the pineal gland; but this is really no answer — it just delays the answer. The new questions becomes: How does the mind interact with the pineal gland? And we are back at square one.

“Here Comes Mr. Jordan” was remade in 1978 as “Heaven Can Wait”, with Warren Beatty.

Heaven Can Wait

And ever since there has been no shortage of dualistic cinema to amuse us and make us question our philosophical takes on the philosophy and metaphysics of the mind.

Actually, there were several Disney flicks that got in on the dualistic action, before “Heaven Can Wait”.

1959’s “The Shaggy Dog”, starring Fred MacMurray as an unfortunate soul who gets transferred into a dog’s body:

The Shaggy Dog

In 1976, the franchise was continued with “The Shaggy D.A.”, starring (if you can call it that) Tim Conway as another unfortunate mind-transfer victim, into another dog’s body. (“The Shaggy Dog” was, naturally, remade in 2006 with Tim Allen, and a million dollars worth of computer graphics.)

“Freaky Friday” was another Disney movie that might have been the first actual mind-swap movie:

Freaky Friday

In this movie, a daughter and a mother actually swap minds — the mother’s mind takes up residence in the daughter’s body, and vice versa. A clearer illustration of dualism at work can’t be found. The mind “stuff” is completely separable from the body, and indeed can be transferred into a new body with the right sort of voodoo.

Dualism has, of course, also found its way into horror movies. Of course, every ghost movie, or life-after death movie, can be said to be dualistic in its nature. But one of the funniest expressions of dualism in a horror movie comes from the “Child’s Play” franchise, wherein the mind/soul of a murderous psychopath is severed from his own body and transferred into a talking children’s doll. The mind stuff doesn’t even need a brain, apparently! And it can control the doll’s movements to the extent of being able to wield knives and run relatively fast.

Child's Play

Other Philosophies of Mind

Dualism eventually gave birth to behaviorism, which begot physicalism, which begot functionalism. This isn’t the place to discuss all of these, but suffice it to say that functionalism is closely tied to the field of artificial intelligence, and thus is tied to a stack of other movies, from “2001” to “The Matrix”. But we’ll save that for another post.

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