Shown The Door

Readers of these pages will know that I have often participated in the online discussion at The Maverick Philosopher, a weblog maintained by Dr. William Vallicella. Dr. Vallicella is a staunch defender of dualistic interpretations of the mind-body question, a position that puts him at odds with such prominent thinkers as Daniel Dennett, John Searle, the Churchlands, and many others (and of course with pretty much all of the neuroscientists studying the workings of the mind and brain). But despite what you may have gathered from harsh dismissals of dualism from Dennett et al., dualism is very much a defensible and consistent philosophical position. I believe it is most likely to turn out to be wrong — an unnecessary product of our need to fill explanatory gaps, and a relic of a pre-scientific model of the world — but it is indeed a view that can be coherently defended, and I have learned a great deal about how this can be done from Dr. Vallicella and his astute commenters.

There are many difficulties with dualism — I won’t trot them all out here, but they include in particular how there could be causal interaction between immaterial Mind and “ordinary” matter, as well as related questions about what binds such a mind to the body, how minds arose, in tandem with bodies, from a prebiotic world, and so forth. Arguments in support of dualism are not so easy to come by, however, as by its very nature a dualistic view places the intangible Mind outside the purview of empirical confirmation by the physical sciences. C.S. Lewis made a well-known argument based on the idea that materialism undermines our confidence in our Reason (I have written about this here), but for the most part, arguments favoring dualism rest on a single foundation, namely that the idea of atoms in motion giving rise to subjective consciousness is “unintelligible”: in other words, we can’t explain how such a thing can be. A related argument (given by David Chalmers and others) claims that even if we had an exhaustive understanding of the working of the brain, with a perfect mapping of neural activity to thoughts, we can still imagine the same neural activity taking place without the subjective experiencing, so there must always be an irreducible extra bit left over. (My suspicion is that this thought experiment is misleading, in that it assumes that it would indeed be possible for such activity to occur without consciousness; I think that once we truly understand what is going on in the brain, we will see that such “zombies” simply cannot be.)

Coming from a scientific background, I’m quite comfortable with the idea that there are things we simply don’t understand, and optimistic that as time goes by we will, in science’s customarily punctuated way, learn more, and understand more, about how the mind and the brain are related. I won’t be surprised if before too long we will make revolutionary advances in our understanding of what consciousness is, in the same way that 20th-century advances in physics revolutionized our understanding of space, time, and matter. In the meanwhile, although I am very skeptical that the dualists have the right answer, I think it is premature to rule anything out, and until we have a deeper understanding of what consciousness is, and of what matter is capable of, I certainly do not presume to be able to refute dualism.

As mentioned above, however, the primary argument in favor of dualism rests upon the fact that we have no materialistic account of consciousness as yet (and upon related arguments to do with intentionality, etc., which I have written about here); this boils down to something like: “We can’t imagine how materialism could possibly account for consciousness, so materialism must be false.” To the materialist, of course, this is not evidence of dualism, but simply notes the fact that materialism hasn’t accounted for consciousness. A scientist will simply say “well, hang on, we’re working on it.” But philosophers have a different toolkit, and for some, simply being content not to know for now won’t do.

Because I am intensely interested in the question of consciousness, I spent a lot of time over at Bill’s website, and tried consistently to see that materialist objections to dualistic assumptions were represented in the discussion. My goal was never to provide a knockdown philosophical refutation of dualism — as I’ve noted, I don’t think that can be done, at least not at our current level of understanding — but rather to make sure that the materialist model was being fairly presented, and to cry “foul” when I saw straw-man versions being offered, or reasonable materialistic accounts of the phenomena being swept under the rug. My opinion is that we simply don’t know enough yet to call this one, and I found the discussions fascinating and informative. I also met quite a few highly intelligent, erudite, and civilized commenters, from whose acquaintance I have benefited enormously and taken great pleasure.

Sadly, however, Bill has had enough of my potshots at dualism, and has asked me not to comment there anymore. You can read the thread that he felt was the “last straw” here.

It’s a pity, because apart from our differences regarding dualism, theism, and one or two other philosophical assumptions, Bill and I have much in common: an appreciation of precise language, a tendency toward political conservatism and scorn for P.C. multiculturalism, a love of chess, a similar attitude toward the follies and excesses of popular culture, and more (we’re also about the same age). But as Bill has often said, he is under no obligation to provide a forum for opposing views, and where there is disagreement upon fundamentals there can be no fruitful discussion (although I don’t think our disagreements were truly fundamental; it was the underpinnings and implications of our differences that I hoped to get a better look at). So I won’t be commenting at Maverick Philosopher any more.

It has been a pleasure, though, and I have learned a great deal. I will continue to follow the discussions over there, and to comment in these pages.

Related content from Sphere


  1. bob koepp says

    Hi Malcolm –
    Sorry to learn that you’re no longer welcome to leave comments at Bill’s place. My day, too, might come.

    Although I don’t agree with the un-invitation you’ve received, I do think that you haven’t understood the problem of ‘unintelligibility’ raised by Bill and other commentors on his blog. It’s not just that “we can’t explain how such a thing can be.” Rather, it reflects a judgment that the kind of explanation on offer is inadequate to the phenomena in need of explanation. The only kind of physical explanation we know about treats events solely in terms of their spatio-temporal relations or factors that can affect those spatio-temporal relations. That’s not the kind of explantion that’s needed if we’re hoping to integrate consciousness into the physical world. The kind of transformation that physics must undergo to effect such an integration is not of the same order as any previous revolution in physical thought. And I say this as someone strongly inclined to physicalism…

    Posted March 13, 2007 at 10:19 am | Permalink
  2. Malcolm says

    Hi Bob,

    Thanks. I’ve had some supportive emails from other of Bill’s commenters as well; I am most appreciative.

    I do agree that a radically expanded understanding of the natural world is needed in order to account for consciousness. I disagree sharply, though, that the scope of such a paradigm shift is of a different order than previous such revolutions; I think we are by now so accustomed to the odd ideas of relativity and QM that it is easy to forget how extraordinarily bizarre they seemed at the time, and how great was the intuitive chasm that had to be leapt to arrive at them.

    Furthermore, dualism really isn’t much of an explanation at all, and does nothing, really, to diminish the mystery of consciousness. On the one hand, we have a productive scientific program that has gradually pried open Nature’s baffling enigmas, and is toiling amain at this one, and on the other hand we have an intellectual surrender, a retreat into inaccessible and unconfirmable abstracta, without any shred of empirical evidence other than that we still do not understand how matter can give rise to consciousness. It may well be that we will never understand this — as I have said, dualism may in fact be true — but all I have objected to at Bill’s is how eager they are to pull the plug on patient inquiry, and to declare the case closed.

    Posted March 13, 2007 at 10:34 am | Permalink
  3. bob koepp says

    Malcolm –
    We agree that dualism isn’t an explantion.

    Regarding the nature of theoretical change, however we do disagree, perhaps even sharply. Nothing in GR or QM (nor any other theory from Aristotelian physics to string theory) has treated physical events in terms that aren’t translatable into spatio-temporal language. The surprises introduced with all revolutions (so far…) concern the nature of the functions and transformations allowed in our description of spatio-temporal patterns.

    Posted March 13, 2007 at 10:49 am | Permalink
  4. Malcolm says

    Hi again Bob,

    Perhaps consciousness, too, may well be explicable in suitably enhanced spatio-temporal terms. Also, don’t sell those previous revolutions short. To cast aside the universality of time itself was no small leap, for example; it altered the very meaning and relationship of “spatio” and “temporal”! Before Einstein nobody had ever imagined such a thing; it would have been “unintelligible”.

    Posted March 13, 2007 at 10:56 am | Permalink
  5. MikeZ says

    Yikes! Though… what would you expect from someone defending dualism, anyway? :-)

    – M

    Posted March 13, 2007 at 10:12 pm | Permalink
  6. Malcolm says

    Thanks, Mike!

    I’m sure it can’t be easy being a dualist lately; not like the good old days a few hundred years ago when everyone was on your side.

    Posted March 13, 2007 at 10:19 pm | Permalink
  7. Interesting, as I’ve received a stern warning myself about commenting there. It’s hard to believe (for me anyway) that someone could embrace dualism so fervently that it comes to banning dissenters. He is under no obligation to respond to your comments, after all, so it’s difficult to see the harm in allowing you to comment.

    I used to admire Vallicella tremendously, but I think he falls into a certain category of people who must always be told that they’re brilliant. In his case, he’s obviously pretty smart, so why must he constantly seek approval, if that’s what’s going on? A fragile ego?

    Myself, I’ve deleted gratuitously insulting comments on my blog, but nothing you (or anyone else that I can see) has written anything that could be construed as an insult. But maybe he does construe it that way.

    Posted March 14, 2007 at 8:15 pm | Permalink
  8. Malcolm says

    Hi Dennis, and thanks for stopping by.

    I don’t think Bill is insulted, so much as irritated. He is indeed a fervent dualist, and he and other like-minded parties are fond of announcing flatly in posts and comments that materialism is simply false, for the reason that it is “unintelligible”, or by borrowing Chalmers’ (I think flawed) argument that since we can imagine zombies, mind is irreducible to matter, or with statements like this (from the thread that got me 86’ed):

    Now exactly where in that bustling arena of meaningless atomic motion do I find the ‘sensing, perceiving, thinking, etc.’? Nowhere. Therefore that notion doesn’t make ‘prima facie sense’.

    Well! If I’m a member in good standing of the Kommenter Korps (which I certainly was), there is no way I can sit idly by while such dogmatic assertions are being made. Dualism might be true, and it might not — I’m fine with that — but what is not justified is simply to insist that we already know enough to call the case closed. So every time this sort of thing would appear, I’d pop up like a Whack-A-Mole to try to keep everyone honest. There were a few related topics upon which I consistently tried to keep the options open; another was that there might be an evolutionary account of how intentionality arose from nonliving matter.

    I think Bill just got tired of it. He made it sound as if he had already demolished the points I raised, but generally rather pointedly ignored my follow-on questions and objections.

    Obviously, given the small minority of thinkers who are dualists these days, for Bill et al. to claim victory is overweening; if it were a done deal there would be broad agreement, no? Sometimes I was reminded of the Iraqi Information Minister, aka Baghdad Bob.

    As I’ve said, it’s a shame that Bill was so annoyed; I enjoyed the discussion over there, generally. As you say, he’s a smart guy, as well as being a scholarly philosopher, and, except for his stubbornness regarding certain axiomatic assumptions, very fair-minded.

    Posted March 15, 2007 at 12:31 pm | Permalink
  9. To alter the pop song, ” it’s his party and he’ll cry if he wants to”. Is the estimable Dr. Bill a dualist though; I wonder: he’s a playful contrarian and likes to strike the outre while it’s hot.

    I’ve been backtracking through your thoughts on consciousness. The materialist monist position is an honourable one. I’m a monist myself so in writing to you I am in a sense addressing myself and it is I think it is the case that whether one’s route to that singular condition is from the materialist or the idealist starting point, monism itself transcends its origins. Spinoza in Ethics III.prop.II has it “all this showing that the body itself can do many things from the laws of its nature alone at which the mind belonging to the body is amazed.” Here he is adopting the mind set of the usual philosopher of the time because of course he believes that the mind and the body are dual aspects of a single reality and are not substantive.

    Daniel Dennett in the initial pages of ‘Consciousness Explained’ dismisses consciousness as a romantic figment (Chap.2) and then goes on to write a book about it. Yes he is right that psycho-physical dualism is the ‘iron mountain’ which deranges the philosopher’s compass. There are many good things in that book but I feel it is marred by rhetoric, no doubt the influence of his apprenticeship with Gilbert Ryle. Neverthless his analysis of the Phi-phenomenon is masterly.

    Posted March 15, 2007 at 7:27 pm | Permalink
  10. Malcolm says

    Hi Michael, and thanks for dropping by.

    I have very little doubt that Bill is the dualist he appears to be; if he were simply playing the contrarian, one might expect him to do so contra dualism from time to time, which I’ve never witnessed.

    I quite agree with you about monism, of course, and that mind and body are just different features of the one world there is. John Searle puts it very well in a passage I quoted here.

    I admire Dennett, and agree with him about most things, but am still trying to understand his postion that consciousness is a sort of “user illusion”. The question there, obviously, is who, or what, is perceiving the illusion?

    Posted March 16, 2007 at 1:35 pm | Permalink
  11. I think that he would claim that there is a continuous running commentary like talking into one’s own ear and that this flow of awareness or continual review is all that there is. There is no auditor or an inner mental subject and its mental objects. Is this adequate to the sort of identity that we think we have or that we experience ourselves as having? Hume felt that this would involve the incoherent notion of memory having the magical power of creating its own subject. This is also a difficulty for the skandha theory of Buddhism according to Shankara.

    Posted March 16, 2007 at 6:39 pm | Permalink
  12. Malcolm says

    Hi Michael,

    Well, all that is fine, I suppose, as long as we aren’t flatly denying that we indeed experience conscious awareness. I’m going to have to go back to Consciousness Explained to see to what extent he really is denying the subjective experiencing that is the hallmark of consciousness. I’ve never been able to believe that is really what he means, and it’s hard to pin him down on this one.

    He has certainly made some very strong arguments about the unreliablity, gappiness, and inconsistency of our subjective experiences see (“Quining Qualia, for example), but that is some distance from denying that they exist at all.

    Posted March 16, 2007 at 6:59 pm | Permalink
  13. bob koepp says

    I don’t think Dennett denies the existence of consciousness. He does appear to believe, though, that the phenomenological aspect of consciousness is “irrelevant,” in the sense that it is orthogonal to the scientific investigation of cognition. In other words, “what it’s like” is just not a proper scientific concern. If he’s right about this, it seems to reflect more on the proper limits of science than the nature of consciousnes.

    Posted March 17, 2007 at 10:21 am | Permalink
  14. Brian Ober says

    You guys are crazy. A pissing contest over dualism?? I regularly read both WWW and The Maverick – I find you both interesting characters – but Bill throwing you out of his comment area is akin to, I don’t know, the Judean People’s Front v. The People’s Front of Judea scene in “Life of Brian”.

    Have a nice St. Patrick’s Day.

    Posted March 17, 2007 at 11:08 am | Permalink
  15. Malcolm says

    Hi Brian,

    Thanks, although I didn’t think I had done anything crazy; I was pretty startled myself, I have to say. I’m just trying to get a little traction on “life’s persistent questions”, and I thought that was Bill’s agenda too. Even if he thought I was barking up the wrong tree, I’m surprised that the barking bothered him so much, especially as we barked in unison on many topics.

    Bob, that’s a good take on Dennett’s attitude. I think he may have declared a more radical position from time to time, but I can’t recall exactly where. I have most of his books up on the shelf, and at some point will take another look at Consciousness Explained.

    Posted March 17, 2007 at 3:02 pm | Permalink
  16. It’s death by a thousand cuts, what’s left is an exsanguinated shell. He makes great play of saying that it doesn’t do what we think it does and isn’t required to do the things that we do and that it essentially arises out of the power of language to reify what are mental fictions. Mind may be its greatest production. He says that this is counter-intuitive because he would hold that all the commonly accepted accounts of consciousness are informed by Dualism, even those of scientists who devise experiments which try to be theory neutral. As I recollect Libet’s experiments are examples and the cozening suggestion about Orwellian or Stalinest interpretation of the phi-phenomenon.

    He huffs and puffs about qualia which indicates to me that he doubts but that there might be something to them. John Heil in his book ‘Phil. of Mind, a contemporary intro.’ has I think a persuasive take on qualia. He distinguishes between the qualities of material objects and the qualities of conscious experience. The first are public and the second are private and ineffable. As a materialist realist he would say that when I look at the glare of the screen rather than the words what I am experiencing is my own brain. This material quality is the quality of my own brain. It’s not public, it’s not conceptual, it’s not linguistic or as Wittgenstein said ‘it’s not a something, but not a nothing either’.

    Posted March 18, 2007 at 10:37 am | Permalink
  17. Malcolm says

    Hi Michael,

    Yes, I’ve always felt that conscious experience is simply what a functioning brain looks like from a privileged viewing angle — namely inside itself — in a way that we don’t yet understand. To some the notion that matter is capable of this is “unintelligible”; but science has a habit of making the unintelligible intelligible as time goes by, and dualistic accounts don’t demystify things either, but simply put the pea under a different shell, as I intend to argue in a forthcoming post.

    I think Dennett’s account of the Libet experiments, and of the “Orwellian” and “Stalinesque” timestamping and revision that goes on in the brain, are excellent, and important, as is his examination of how unreliable, gappy, and vague even our own experiences of qualia are.

    A very important aspect of all of this, which gets only occasional treatment in the mainstream philosophy-of-mind discussion, but which is absolutely central to esoteric systems of inner work, is the relation of consciousness to attention.

    Posted March 18, 2007 at 12:41 pm | Permalink
  18. I have been enjoying wonderful threads about consciousness at the web site of late. You will never be asked to squelch your ideas there.

    My personal experience includes out-of-body awareness of my own consciousness being able to separate from my physical being. I therefore see us as spirits living a human experience.

    Some Taoists hold that there are “Immortals” among us, able to exist in both realms at will.

    Posted March 18, 2007 at 12:58 pm | Permalink
  19. Malcolm says

    Hi Pat,

    That looks like an interesting site; I’ll take a look. I’ve been exposed to these ideas for a very long time; my conviction is that to the extent that they are objectively true, they should be amenable to scientific inquiry.

    Posted March 18, 2007 at 1:22 pm | Permalink
  20. Hi Mac,

    I agree whole-heartedly. I believe some scientific inquiry has been conducted on the state of one’s brain waves etc. – when meditating for instance.

    Releasing our consciousness from the mechanisms of our various interactive “monkey” brains and allowing our consciousness to expand into sharing other sources of energy, may be traceable.

    Our faith in reason can exist with our reasons to have other faiths…

    Posted March 19, 2007 at 9:04 am | Permalink