Ghost Stories

As so often happens, there is an interesting conversation underway over at The Maverick Philosopher. In this case the topic is the recurring theme of mind-body dualism, and in particular how a non-physical mind might causally interact with a physical body. (The original post has to do with a rather arcane metaphysical system known as “hylomorphic” or “Thomistic” dualism, but a lively chat ensued.)

Dualism has a lasting appeal, and it is easy to see why. Our inner life is private and entirely subjective, and it does indeed seem that there is a bidirectional causal connection between our mental states (which it is hard to see as being in any sense material) and the physical world. In particular, it appears to us that our immaterial mental states are causally responsible for the voluntary actions of our bodies. But the world, as we look out upon it, seems entirely physical, as do all the ordinary interactions we can observe. Can it be that the only exception is for the ghosts inside our skulls? And if there is such a link between our immaterial minds and the coarse matter of which we are built, what possible form could it take? It is so difficult to imagine how such an interaction could work that no serious model has ever been put forth.

The intuition is strong, however, and dualism is still taken very seriously by quite a few philosophers (although, unsurprisingly, by almost no scientists). Why? Well, consider two prominent alternatives:

One possibility is that there is a mental world — but rather than there being any genuine causal connection, the mental and physical do not interact at all, but still march in lockstep — a regularity maintained by God, or by some unknown agency. This, I think, seems extraordinarily contrived.

Another way things could be is for consciousness to be a subjective “view” of the processes of the brain, but without itself exerting any causal influence. This means that our conscious awareness is just “along for the ride”, and it means also that our sense that it is our consciousness that drives our actions is simply an illusion. This model is known as “epiphenomenalism”.

Neither of these is particularly appealing, as they seem to take the reins from our hands (although in the former case a convoluted sort of causality is still possible, albeit through a mediating agent).

There is, as yet, no way to conclusively refute any of these views, so we must go with our intuitions. I favor epiphenomenalism; I am simply not inclined to posit an entire abstract world of inexplicable causal interactions simply in order to make an exception for a small clade of bipedal apes. I think epiphenomenalism squares well with recent developments in neuroscience, and I believe that a sophisticated interpretation leaves our dignity intact, and is the most parsimonious account of the phenomena. I will take this up again shortly, but for now, it is late, and interested readers are invited to wander over to the discussion at Dr. Vallicella’s place.

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7 Comments

  1. Kevin Kim says

    I’ve never quite understood why epiphenomenalism backs away from the idea that the mental is causal. What the heck is this “along for the ride” business, anyway? Why not simply say that mind arises from matter and that, because of its complexity, it operates according to a specialized set of rules (much the same way computer software is different from hardware), and that those rules allow the mind to act upon itself as well as upon the body (to the extent that we make a neat mind/body distinction, which I’m hesitant to do, as a nondualist)?

    Kevin

    Posted February 5, 2007 at 2:04 am | Permalink
  2. Malcolm says

    I’m not sure that’s entirely coherent, Kevin. I’m fine with the mind arising from matter – that the physical brain is able to “see” itself, somehow, in the subjective way we call consciousness – but that notion that this subjective awareneness in itself has causal powers may, I think, be a persistent “user illusion”.

    I think you are troubled by this too, as shown by your saying “to the extent that we make a neat mind/body distinction, which I’m hesitant to do, as a nondualist“.

    I’m hesitant too, and that’s exactly the problem.

    Posted February 5, 2007 at 11:26 am | Permalink
  3. Kevin Kim says

    Perhaps the reason I don’t grok epiphenomenalism is this:

    As I wrote in a long-ago essay on mind (a version of which has gone into my book), I see the progression this way:

    Matter -> Life -> Mind

    With matter at the bottom tier, we can understand matter, life, and mind to be related in much the same way that layers of a pyramid are. From matter comes life; from life comes mind. In other words, no mind without life, and no life without matter. Transitively, no mind without matter.

    I don’t think it’s incoherent to say that life, having arisen epiphenomenally out of mind (where “epiphenomenon” is understood as the higher-order result of lower-order processes/phenomena), can affect (i.e., act causally with relation to) life as well as matter. By the same token, I see nothing incoherent about saying that mind can affect other minds as well as life and abiotic matter.

    That’s why I have trouble with the idea that mind is just along for the ride. I consider it inextricably linked with matter (because mind arises from it), and can therefore never be a substance dualist, but by the same token I see mind as operating according to a set of rules that does not entirely correspond to the rules governing brute, abiotic matter, and can therefore never be an “idealist” in the mind-only sense. In my book I’m calling this “materialistic nondualism,” but am beginning to wonder whether this corresponds in some way to Jaegwon Kim’s notion of supervenience.

    Here’s part of the Wikipedia entry on supervenience, which sounds an awful lot like what I’m trying to say:

    “Supervenience has traditionally been used to describe relationships between sets of properties in a manner which does not imply a strong reductive relationship. For example, many hold that economic properties supervene on physical properties, in that if two worlds were exactly the same physically, they would also be the same economically. However, this does not entail that economics can be reduced in any straightforward way to physics. Thus, supervenience allows one to hold that “high-level phenonema” (like those of economics, psychology, or aesthetics) depend, ultimately, on physics, without assuming that one can study those high-level phenomena using means appropriate to physics.”

    Exactly. Mind is ultimately traceable back to matter, but thinking that mind can be reduced to mere physics is a bit cavalier.

    My two scents, as the skunk said.

    Kevin

    Posted February 6, 2007 at 11:55 am | Permalink
  4. Malcolm says

    Hi Kevin,

    I understand more clearly now what you are arguing for, and I entirely agree that there are wrong ways to think about reduction. Certainly I wouldn’t recommend analyzing, say, a political crisis at the level of individual molecular interactions, and no more would I suggest that we explain composing poetry at the neural level.

    I think it is important to distinguish “mind” from “consciousness” here. The point I was making is that I think that the self-awareness of consciousness might well be epiphenomenal, and that it might be a mistake to imagine that it is that self-awareness that has causal powers. The mind (i.e. the output of the working brain) can tick right along, generating behavior, with the self-awareness simply existing as a view of that process.

    Is this sentence what you meant to say?

    I don’t think it’s incoherent to say that life, having arisen epiphenomenally out of mind (where “epiphenomenon” is understood as the higher-order result of lower-order processes/phenomena), can affect (i.e., act causally with relation to) life as well as matter.

    Posted February 6, 2007 at 12:10 pm | Permalink
  5. Kevin Kim says

    Whoops– I meant to switch “mind” and “life.” Thanks for catching that.

    Kevin

    Posted February 6, 2007 at 11:20 pm | Permalink
  6. Kevin Kim says

    No, scratch the above. I think I was stoned or something. The paragraph should read this way:

    I don’t think it’s incoherent to say that life, having arisen epiphenomenally out of matter (where “epiphenomenon” is understood as the higher-order result of lower-order processes/phenomena), can affect (i.e., act causally with relation to) other life as well as matter. By the same token, I see nothing incoherent about saying that mind can affect other minds as well as life and abiotic matter.

    In fact, I’d probably want to add something to the above: not only can phenomena at each tier of the pyramid affect phenomena at the same tier and below (e.g., life affecting life and matter), but they can also affect phenomena in the higher tiers as well (e.g., life affecting mind, matter affecting life, matter affecting mind).

    What interests me is the idea that the pyramid might still be a work in progress. What if– given enough time– mind proves not to be the topmost tier?

    re: distinguishing mind and consciousness

    I guess this depends on which worldview we’re talking about. Some would make no distinction between the two terms; others would make distinctions, though perhaps not in the same way as still others might.

    Kevin

    Posted February 8, 2007 at 5:28 am | Permalink
  7. Malcolm says

    Hi Kevin,

    I absolutely agree with you that emergent properties can “reach down” to affect the substrate from which they emerge — “tangled hierarchies” Douglas Hofstadter called that in his extraordinary book Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid, which deals with such recursion extensively, and with dazzling brilliance (that book, by the way, is one of the most fascinating you’ll ever read, and if you haven’t, you should drop everything and get it now).

    The point I was making, however, hinges on the difference between mind and conscious self-awareness. All the “mental” things we do: converse, write, add numbers, scheme and plot, etc., can be done quite unconsciously too, with no outwardly visible difference. It is that self-awareness that I am referring to as “consciousness”, and that I think in itself might have no causal power, because we get all the causality we need from the same underlying processes that create the conscious experience in the first place. This is not to say that the level of consciousness is not an indicator of some sort of higher-level brain integration, and that therefore the cultivation of such integration, say through meditative practice, might not lead us to desirable inner development. It is simply that the conscious experience itself is off to one side, as it were, and not actually in the driver’s seat. This solves almost at one stroke the difficulties of dualism, I think. There are a few philosophical quibbles that one might make, but I don’t think they are serious, and I’ll try to give them a look later.

    Posted February 8, 2007 at 11:34 am | Permalink