Dualism redux

By EcoEvo@TCD • Perspectives • 27 Feb 2013


My post on the problem of consciousness troubled a few readers because I dared toy with the idea of dualism, something so offensive to scientists I’m wary to speak its name. But I’m going to continue to argue for dualism because it’s not clear to me that it is wrong even for all the flack it has received. I think a return to this topic is also warranted because of the controversy generated by Thomas Nagel’s latest book, ‘Mind and Cosmos’.

A charge made against my previous post was that dualism is a pernicious idea. Yet nihilism is a negative, and I would argue, damaging philosophy par excellence, but that has no bearing on its truth or falsity. Similarly, one commentator spoke about dualism being argued for because it speaks to a human desire to be something more than physical. But, again, that does not mean it’s wrong. This holds for any idea. We can only take people to task in arguing for something if the only reason they do so is because it comports with their views.

(On a side note I reckon the implications of a physicalist universe are far more terrifying than a dualist one. They are best spelled out by the atheist philosopher Alexander Rosenberg in his essay ‘The Disenchanted Naturalist’s Guide to Reality’.)

Previously I used David Chalmers’ zombie argument to question if the world as we conceive it can account for the presence of consciousness. Chalmers summarises the message of his original zombie argument as “If any account of physical processes would apply equally well to a zombie world, it is hard to see how such an account can explain the existence of consciousness in our world.” Arguments from logical possibility are contentious but let’s not lose sight of what Chalmers is saying.

The subtitle of Nagel’s book is likely to grab the attention of biologists – ‘Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False’. But you should hold your cries of “Creationist!” because they’re misplaced. I really need to stress that this debate should not be framed as being between science and religion or science and pseudoscience but rather physicalism and dualism. Indeed some of the more prominent defenders of the latter position, Nagel and Chalmers included, are card carrying atheists.

I haven’t read Nagel’s book yet (I hope to do so) but you can get a sense of the themes he develops from the following description, “The modern materialist approach to life has conspicuously failed to explain such central mind-related features of our world as consciousness, intentionality, meaning, and value.” He argues that there is something more needed to get us from physical matter to conscious thoughts, not even evolution by natural selection can get us there with a purely material world to manipulate. There is a difference of kind rather than degree here.

Some of the criticisms of his latest work argue that he leaves a lot unsaid and many of his arguments have been criticised as vague. But Nagel is most famously known for a famous 1974 essay he wrote on ‘What Is it Like to Be a Bat?’ He says that although bats are conscious they experience the world in an entirely different way to us i.e. there is something like it is to be a bat. If we imagine ourselves as being bats it’s actually through our human minds, i.e. we’re imagining what it would be like for us to have echolocation, which is entirely different. If instead we record all the sensory data that a bat experiences we’re still left wondering about how he/she experiences the world from its own point of view. The normal physicalist approach leaves us guessing.

Previously we were asked to have a prior commitment to physicalism but there are a number of properties of consciousness that should cause us to at least re-evaluate our priors. Neurons, physical entities that they are, do not seem to have the tools to do what is being asked of them. When it comes to physicalism, past performance is no guarantee of future success.


Adam Kane: kanead [at] tcd.ie

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2 Responses

  1. expectingrain

    That all sounds about right. Physicalism is a highly impoverished tool to explain both what consciousness is and how it might have come about. Chalmer’s zombie argument is a nice way of illustrating the explanatory weakness of this theory (or set of theories). What perplexes me is that dualism doesn’t seem to doesn’t seem to have too much more lifting power than physicalism. It hardly advances us in our understanding of consciousness or its origins. It mostly gives us good reasons for thinking that physicalism probably isn’t right. We can see why religion so easily enters the fold here. Unsatisfied by physicalism and unimpressed by a purely philosophical account of dualism, the latter begins to make far more sense from a religious perspective. Though I would not advocate that philosophical dualists should give up (and maybe even physicalists have something more to add), they are yet to turn consciousness from an implacable mystery to an understandable problem. Until they have, those who end up taking a religious approach to the question are well within their rights since mystery is most properly explored in this domain.

  2. Luke McNally

    Again, I’d have to strenuously disagree with almost everything you said Adam. Point-by-point:

    1) An entirely physicalist universe and the philosophical nihilism that it leads to need not be damaging in any way. While nihilism leads to the rejection of virtue ethics, utilitarianism, contractualism, etc. (the “good moralities”), it also leads to the rejection of all other “ought” based ethical systems such as egoism, objectivism, etc. (the “bad moralities”). The most likely outcome of nihilism is ethical systems based on pragmatics honed to the society in question, and the rejection of absolutes. I see this as constructive rather than destructive from a pragmatic perspective. Even where it to lead to the moral degradation of society, as a scientist I’d still rather not be (or for others to be) blinded by the illusion that morality is in any way objective.

    2) Arguments of logical possibility are only useful as a form of negation: showing something is logically impossible is a useful activity. Showing logical possibility does not advance things in any way. To me Chalmers zombie argument is as inane as the flying spaghetti monster.

    3) I’ve read half of Nagel’s book. While he may not be creationist he is quite anti-natural selection, and certainly opposed to it as an explanation for humans. Basically he rejects natural selection (though not totally), intelligent design and creationism, and points towards some incredibly vague notion of teleology. Most of this seems to come from his almost non-existent knowledge of how natural selection works, and how it creates the appearance of teleology. In fact natural selection is teleological in the same sense as the second law of thermodynamics is (see http://www.zoo.ox.ac.uk/group/gardner/publications/Gardner_InPress.pdf).

    4) Actually there is a good explanation of how “meaning” (though maybe not in the same fluffy sense that Nagel means) can arise from inanimate matter based on recursion. This is best described in Hofstadter’s books “Godel, Escher, Bach” and “I am a strange loop”. This argument does lead to some interesting conclusions about what meaning and consciousness are, but also provides a very compelling explanation of how recursion in the brain creates consciousness.

    5) “The normal physicalist approach leaves us guessing” – a dualist approach has shown no prospects of improving our understanding here. We’ve had centuries of dualism. A few decades of neuroscience has already brought on our understanding of consciousness at very basic levels by leaps and bounds. There are “hard problems” in consciousness that may never be solved, but if they are it will be by physicalist means. The dualist approach is simply throwing our hands up and saying we can’t answer it so there must be a ghost in the shell.

    6) “Neurons, physical entities that they are, do not seem to have the tools to do what is being asked of them”. You should read Hofstadter. I’d be very surprised if you’d still make this assertion afterwards.

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