Descartes Before The Horse

I’ve finally had a chance to get back to considering Titus Rivas’s paper, in which he and Hein van Dongen argue that the mind-brain model known as epiphenomenalism — which says that subjective mental phenomena are indeed ontologically real, that they are “irreducible” to physical processes, and that they exert no causal influence on the physical world — is false. In a previous post I agreed that their principal objection, which has to do with how the brain might ever come to express a belief in subjective mental phenomena in the first place if epiphenomenalism were true, is a good one. But if we are to discard epiphenomenalism, what alternatives are we left with? Rivas and van Dongen see only two alternatives: eliminative materialism and interactionist dualism — but I think they narrow the field unnecessarily. I’d like to go over the paper in some detail, and see where there might be implicit assumptions that could be leading us astray — a job that will require several posts (and which, given my lack of free time at the moment, may unfortunately be a slow go). Readers can find the original here.

But before beginning, I’d like to make clear the most important aspect of the view that I incline toward: first and foremost, I think that the mind is the result of the activity of the brain. This in itself does not rule out certain sorts of dualism, and that is what I’d like to focus on tonight.

Dualism has long been the model of choice for those who, for religious or “spiritual” reasons, have wished to introduce the notion of a “soul” as an ontologically distinct substance that interacts closely with the physical body during our lifetime, but which is capable of an independent existence (variously described) upon our death. In fact, it seems that most interactionist dualists progress quite naturally from an initial rejection of the mind as anything that matter might be capable of to a full-blown two-party system in which the immaterial mental part has a robustly independent existence, in which its association with the physical body is only a temporary phase, or is perhaps only one of a series of such associations. This is “interactionist substance dualism”, and there are some assumptions here that I’d like to have out in the open.

It is often suggested that we are driven to positing an ontologically distinct “mental” substance because it is quite plain that “mere” matter cannot be the substrate of subjective experience. Do we know this? Is our understanding of what subjectivity actually is sufficient to warrant such an axiom? Can we say that we have exhaustively enumerated all of matter’s properties and capabilities? One might argue, by varying what we take as the more parsimonious assumption, that we plainly haven’t, as we see special bits of matter — our brains — that seem to be doing just the thing that we are declaring that matter is incapable of.

And if we do posit a new kind of philosophical substance in the world’s ontological inventory, call it “mind”, and declare it to be ontologically distinct from “matter”, what have we achieved? Have we gained any insight into what it is about mind-substance that bestows upon it its gift for subjectivity? Have we any deeper understanding? No, we have simply added, rather arbitrarily, a new class of thing about which we can say nothing other than that it is able to be the locus of subjective experiences. How does this improve upon the view that matter, under conditions that are not yet understood, might do the same? If nobody had ever seen a magnet, it might seem equally reasonable to deny that a chunk of metal could push another chunk of metal around without touching it — to insist that for one piece of iron to move another they would have to be in direct contact — but as it turns out, that is not the case: magnets exist, and they show us that matter is capable of odd, counterintuitive tricks.

But let us assume that this substance-dualistic axiom is a good one, and that there are two kinds of substance — mind and matter — and that they can causally influence one another. As we know, this fits nicely with the “soul” model, in which the mental “self” is capable of independent existence. But it also allows for another description: that the mental is brought into existence, and sustained in that existence, by the action of the physical (why not, if we’re already allowing them to interact?). A two-way causal interaction between mind and body could take the form of a physical event A causing mental event B, which in turn causes mental event C, which then causes physical event D, and so on. In this view the mental, although ontologically distinct, still supervenes on the physical body, which acts as a sort of generator. Damage to the brain will cause an imperfectly generated mind (as certainly seems to be the case), and shutting off the brain would shut off the mind as well. Our mental part would “come on line” gradually, as the construction and outfitting of our brains progressed during embryonic development and infancy (as again seems to be the case), and upon our deaths our minds would simply cease to be.

This is a very different notion from the conventional “soul”-based model: it is interactionist dualism with the dog wagging the tail. I have contended that, in principle, at least, any view that posits a causally efficacious non-physical mental susbstance will be amenable to scientific verification, as it should leave footprints in the form of causal-closure violations, and this model would do so as well.

But as mentioned above, I don’t see that we gain much by insisting that mental phenomena are an ontologically distinct non-physical substance; to do so we simply deny by arbitrary fiat that matter can muster up subjectivity, then invent a new type of substance that can, about which we can say nothing else.

In the next post we’ll look at some of the other assumptions made in this paper, in particular having to do with axiology and morality. We also need to take a look at the concept of “reducibility”.

[Note: A nod to BV for today's title. It was too apt not to use.]

8 Comments

  1. Hi Malcolm,

    Let me limit myself this time to saying that it is also the specifically subjective and qualitative parts of the mind that must be causally efficacious, as Hein and I claim to have demonstrated. This efficacy of qualia is the main problem for the scholars who deny the existence of the efficacy of consciousness. They do not primarily reject it because it would lead to substance dualism, but they reject it as such, because in their view it would amount to unacceptable magic.

    Furthermore, you seem to believe that there is no evidence for survival after death, whereas there really is plenty. Scholars such as the late dr. Ian Stevenson of the University of Virginia, have collected strong evidence for survival and even reincarnation. (Also see: Reincarnation research: In search of the most parsimonious sufficient hypothesis and The Survivalist Interpretation of Recent Studies Into the Near-Death Experience)

    In general, I don’t see any obvious bonus if we simply reject substance dualism out of hand. I do understand why anyone would like to do without conservatism and religious bigotry, but why would anyone really like to believe that he is the product of his brain and will perish with it? What are the benefits of such a belief system, i.e. apart from its inherent logical and empirical problems?

    Also see this paper of mine: Neuropsychology and personalist dualism: a few remarks and my dualist online papers

    Best wishes,

    Titus

    Posted May 8, 2007 at 10:58 am | Permalink
  2. Malcolm says

    Hi Titus,

    They do not primarily reject it because it would lead to substance dualism, but they reject it as such, because in their view it would amount to unacceptable magic.

    I’m not sure there is a meaningful distinction to be made there; the point is simply that to physicalists, substance dualism and magic are nearly equivalent terms. But to deny the efficacy of the subjective parts of the mind, or to make flat assertions about their ontology, before we have any real understanding of what subjectivity even is, is clearly premature. This is the point I was attempting to make in the fourth and fifth paragraphs above. I am inclined to doubt interactionist substance dualism (especially the non-supervenient, independent sort) not only for the reasons outlined in this series of posts, but also for reasons of scientific parsimony.

    You’re right that I am skeptical about survival after death. I will look at the links you recommend, but it does seem to me that if it were true there wouldn’t be an anecdote here or an article there, but there would, rather, be overwhelming evidence all around us. I remain agnostic, however, if just barely so.

    In this post I have tried, arguendo, to assume that interactionist dualism might in fact be true, and to point out that even if so we can still have a model in which the mind is the product of the body, and not capable of independent existence. I think that even under the assumption of interactionist dualism, the evidence (as well as common sense) strongly impels us to see the mind as supervenient upon the brain.

    I understand your point about not seeing any psychological bonus to physicalism; I agree that it would be comforting to imagine that our consciousness, our personal viewpoint and identity, will survive our deaths. But it is just this very fact — that it is something we yearn for with such aching poignancy — that should make us extremely demanding in terms of skeptical rigor, and, as discussed in these posts, there are many difficulties with such a view.

    But the point, really, is that no matter how little anyone would “really like to believe that he is the product of his brain and will perish with it”, this may nevertheless be the way things are, and the benefit of such a “belief system” would be that it correlates with the truth. One “bonus”, if you like, would be that it would focus our attention on this life, and might lead people to see how precious it really is, rather than, say, exalting death in favor of disporting with virgins in Paradise (those poor virgins!).

    Finally, I agree that we can certainly do without religious bigotry (or bigotry of any sort!), but there is something to be said for thoughtful conservatism. We have much that is worth conserving.

    Posted May 8, 2007 at 12:11 pm | Permalink
  3. Malcolm, you wrote:
    “But let us assume that this substance-dualistic axiom is a good one, and that there are two kinds of substance — mind and matter — and that they can causally influence one another. As we know, this fits nicely with the “soul” model, in which the mental “self” is capable of independent existence. But it also allows for another description: that the mental is brought into existence, and sustained in that existence, by the action of the physical (why not, if we’re already allowing them to interact?).”

    This ‘as we know’ makes me want to leap to my feet like a lawyer and cry ‘Objection your honour the reader is being led’. Why sir that’s as great a solecism as winking at a Queen!

    Even though Bill the unbranded holds otherwise soul/body is not congruent with mind/body. The modern philosopher in any case is only interested in psycho-physical dualism of the Cartesian sort though if you go out to Meditation 6 his dualism is more muted than in other places.

    The development of your position will take a few posts. It’s a riddling topic. Good luck with it.

    Posted May 8, 2007 at 3:24 pm | Permalink
  4. Malcolm says

    Hi Michael, and thanks for joining in.

    Well, fine: “as we know” might put the case too strongly. But substance dualism does fit nicely with the “soul” model, at least as it is understood by many, if not most, of those who think about these things at all.

    If you ask ten different philosophers just what, exactly, the word “soul” means, no doubt you’d get at least a dozen answers, and I know that the aforementioned philosopher whose door I no longer darken has given considerable shrift to such exotic notions as hylomorphic soul/body dualism. But most who think of souls, and who imagine an afterlife in which personal consciousness carries on, would, I think, say that if the mind is to transcend death, it must belong with the soul, not the body. Ergo “fits nicely”.

    Posted May 8, 2007 at 3:49 pm | Permalink
  5. Titus Rivas says

    Hi Malcolm,

    I’m afraid that much what I would like to say about your points concerning dualism and its ontological alternatives has already been said in response to the Epiphenomenalism blog. So I’ll leave it at this because my time is limited:

    – There is no real contradiction between acknowledging life’s worth and holding a rational belief in an afterlife, based on empirical evidence.

    – The main problem with the evidence for survival after death and parapsychology in general is not that there is no good evidence, but that such evidence is largely ignored due to the anti-dualist paradigm in the West.

    Good luck with your endeavours and maybe till some other time.
    Thanks for your attention,

    Titus

    Posted May 8, 2007 at 8:55 pm | Permalink
  6. Malcolm says

    Hi Titus,

    You wrote:

    There is no real contradiction between acknowledging life’s worth and holding a rational belief in an afterlife, based on empirical evidence.

    I agree that there is no logical contradiction, but for many there is indeed a contradiction in practical terms. It only seems reasonable, after all, that if one is assured of an infinite and pleasant afterlife that it might tend to devalue, slightly, our brief and trying sojourn here below.

    If the evidence for an afterlife is as compelling as you say, the truth will out. I do admit that science proceeds with a fair amount of inertia, but it can be counted on to face facts in the long run. I will look at the sources you have linked to. And of course, evidence of the sort I imagine you are referring to would bring the mechanism of the afterlife within the sphere of scientific inquiry, a prospect which troubles me not at all. Like most people, I’d prefer to survive death too. If it’s real, then by all means let’s get to the bottom of it.

    There is more that I wished to go over in your paper, as time permits, and I do hope you’ll stop by when I do.

    Thanks as always for your comments.

    Posted May 8, 2007 at 9:47 pm | Permalink
  7. Titus Rivas says

    Hi Malcolm,

    I personally relate our debate to the age-old debate between followers of the Aristotelian view of man and Platonism.

    In general, I wish to point yourself and your visitors to this excellent New Dualism Archive, constructed by Dr. Ian Thompson and to my own Athanasia website.

    Posted May 9, 2007 at 2:28 pm | Permalink
  8. Malcolm says

    Hi again Titus,

    I will certainly take a look, and I think you are right to cast this debate in those terms.

    I’m sorry I’ve been moving so slowly; these are deep and difficult questions, and unfortunately the demands of life and gainful employment leave me scant time to respond properly. I’ll continue as time permits.

    Thanks again for visiting and commenting. I know that we both want the same thing, which is to get at the truth, and it is good to have such an articulate representative of the dualist position to discuss these matters with.

    Posted May 9, 2007 at 2:52 pm | Permalink

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