Stuff And Nonsense

In a recent post Bill Vallicella, the Maverick Philosopher, called our attention to a 2006 paper entitled Giving Dualism Its Due, in which philosopher William Lycan acknowledges that there is really no compelling evidence either for or against mind-body dualism.

Lycan’s paper begins:

I have been a materialist about the mind for forty years, since first I considered the mind-body issue. In all that time I have seen exactly one argument for mind-body dualism that I thought even prima facie convincing. And like many other materialists, I have often quickly cited standard objections to dualism that are widely taken to be fatal — notoriously the dread Interaction Problem. My materialism has never wavered. Nor is it about to waver now; I cannot take dualism very seriously.

Being a philosopher, of course I would like to think that my stance is rational, held not just instinctively and scientistically and in the mainstream but because the arguments do indeed favor materialism over dualism. But I do not think that, though I used to. My position may be rational, broadly speaking, but not because the arguments favor it: Though the arguments for dualism do (indeed) fail, so do the arguments for materialism. And the standard objections to dualism are not very convincing; if one really manages to be a dualist in the first place, one should not be much impressed by them. My purpose in this paper is to hold my own feet to the fire and admit that I do not proportion my belief to the evidence.

It is a brave and interesting essay. Like Lycan, I cannot take dualism very seriously either; I think that both scientific parsimony and the mountain of observational data showing the apparently causal connectedness of brain and mind make it odd indeed that anyone would find dualism intellectually attractive. (I can see why for many people it might be emotionally attractive, as our friend Deogolwulf points out here, but that’s another matter.) The mind appears, as far as we can make out, simply to be something the brain does, somehow. That “somehow” is a deep puzzle still, however, and for now the dualist can indeed, as Lycan charitably argues, claim that his position is as compatible with the evidence as the materialist’s.

To have such a respected and rock-ribbed materialist as Lycan make such a concession is catnip for dualists, of course, and Dr. Vallicella, as unrepentant a dualist as you will find anywhere, has followed up today with another post in which he castigates materialist philosophers for their scornful use of terms like “spookstuff” to describe whatever it is that dualists think the mind consists of. Vallicella explains that to the dualist the mind is no ordinary “stuff”: it is not as if it is simply some finely divided or rarefied physical matter. But I think that he is mischaracterizing the usage of “spookstuff” by materialists when they speak of substance dualism. I would be very surprised indeed if Daniel Dennett, for example, has in mind some attenuated physical vapor or ectoplasm when he uses the term; he has spent decades in these philosophical trenches, and surely knows the technical sense of the word “substance”: to wit, as Vallicella tells us, “substances in the sense of individuals capable of independent existence whose whole essence consists in acts of thought, perception, imagination, feeling, and the like.”

No, the way I have always understood this derisive use of language like “spookstuff” (and scornful and derisive it is) is that it is a reaction to the fact that the “substance” of substance dualists is never given any definition or description other than that it is “immaterial”, and that it is capable of subjective experience. This is, I think, utterly unhelpful, and adds no explanatory leverage whatsoever. We are constantly told by dualists that it is somehow self-evident that “mere matter” can’t possibly be the substrate of subjective experience (a claim that presumes an exhaustive understanding of what “mere” matter can and cannot do, which strikes me as astonishingly premature), yet we are never told by virtue of what, exactly, an otherwise indescribable non-physical mental “substance” is able to pull the trick off.

Frankly, I see little more to substance dualism than an abhorrence of bafflement.

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  1. bob koepp says

    Hi Malcolm – I can’t get too worked up about “spookstuff” either, because I like the way philosphers poke fun at each other. But at some point, we need to “get serious” and address the real strengths and weaknesses of the various accounts of reality on offer. Philosophy can’t rest content with name calling.

    And then, we need to face up to the fact that the “substance”, not only of dualists, but also of materialists, is pretty mysterious — some might even say it’s spooky. We don’t have a decent theory of material stuff and we don’t have a decent theory of mental stuff. And lest anyone say, “But physics provides a decent theory of material stuff!”, I can only say we don’t even know why (or whether) gravitational fields are generated by matter.

    Posted February 16, 2008 at 8:29 am | Permalink
  2. Malcolm says

    Hi Bob,

    I agree with what you’ve said here, but will point out that science, at least, makes progress on these problems. We certainly have a deeper account of gravitation than we did in Descartes’ day, and a far deeper understanding of the function of the brain and its relationship to the contents of consciousness than we did even fifty years ago.

    In my opinion the mind-body problem will ultimately be seen to be a problem in physics; parsimony inclines me to think that matter, suitably arranged, can be conscious. I think we stand in a position similar to that of classical physics at the end of the 19th century. But it is hard for me to see where the dualistic philosophical program goes from here.

    Posted February 16, 2008 at 1:10 pm | Permalink
  3. bighominid says

    The dualistic stance certainly isn’t going to spur further progress in AI research.


    Posted February 16, 2008 at 2:07 pm | Permalink
  4. Malcolm says

    Or anything else.

    Posted February 16, 2008 at 2:38 pm | Permalink
  5. bob koepp says

    It’s heresy, I know, but I don’t think that science has made progress on the nature of matter or mind, viewed as substances. That’s because ‘substance’ is a metaphysical notion with which science can safely and profitably avoid entanglement. Modern science has learned the trick of starting in the middle of things, working toward local, tentative solutions to problems without settling “foundational” issues. So, I’d say we have a different account of gravitation than Descartes (or even Newton), and a better account insofar as it better comports with available evidence. But we don’t have a “deep” understanding of gravity. Our theories only deal with the structural, relational features of gravitation, without giving us so much as a clue as to why gravitation has those structural, relational features.

    Posted February 16, 2008 at 7:51 pm | Permalink
  6. Malcolm says

    Bob, I don’t know about heresy, but I do think you are stretching the Kuhnian point.

    While I agree that science does not usually concern itself directly with foundational issues, it has made quite extraordinary progress on any number of fronts — and I would insist that we have a much deeper understanding of a great many aspects of physics, including gravitation, than we did a hundred years ago. Einstein’s insights regarding space, time, and gravitation, for example, are not simply a slightly better fit to the data than Newton’s model, and just “different” otherwise.

    I do agree that some new and radical insight will be needed for a theory of consciousness. But I wouldn’t hold my breath waiting to see that coming from dualist philosophers.

    Posted February 17, 2008 at 1:19 am | Permalink
  7. bob koepp says

    Malcolm – I’m not sure what you mean by ‘Kuhnian point.’ I said that I think our current theory of gravitation is better than what came before, so I’m not denying that science has “progressed.” I just don’t think that progress touches on the “deep” questions about the nature of matter. Perhaps Einstein did make an important contribution to our understanding of matter; i.e., it’s not different (in a deep sense) from energy. But his theory doesn’t tell us “what matter-energy is.”

    I believe that metaphysical theories should comport with our best available scientific theories, so I accept scientific theories as a constraints on metaphysical theorizing. But those constraints don’t by themselves constitute a contentful metaphysical theory. Even if we assume that our current physical theories are “right,” the most that we can extract from them metaphysically speaking is that matter is whatever satisfies the relations specified in those theories. So far as the deep/shallow metaphor is concerened, this is a surface phenomenon.

    My point, as usual, is that the concept of matter is not more intelligible than the concept of mind. If, per Descartes, matter was pure extension, it would be intelligible. But Descartes was wrong. Matter apparently has properties that are, in 17th century parlance, occult; i.e., matter is mysterious.

    Posted February 17, 2008 at 8:30 am | Permalink
  8. Malcolm says

    Hi Bob,

    Well, I certainly won’t dispute that we haven’t plumbed Nature all the way down to bedrock, and perhaps we never will. We might disagree about how “superficial” our present knowledge is, however; we have come an awfully long way in the last four hundred years or so, and know a great deal now that we didn’t then. There are many topics that are well-explored now that were once as baffling as consciousness is today, and I see no reason to imagine that we are about to run out of steam. You say we don’t have “a concept” of matter, but we do indeed have quite a number of concepts of matter that have allowed us to make enormous advances in all manner of practical ways.

    So yes, we don’t have a full account, at ultimate depth, of anything, but that’s OK, and to be expected. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and a full understanding of Nature isn’t going to be either. But we understand a great many things a lot more deeply than we used to. And we are just beginning to get our hands on the brain.

    Posted February 17, 2008 at 6:23 pm | Permalink
  9. Malcolm says


    Let me put this another way. I agree we don’t know what the ultimate, foundational description of the world will look like, or whether it is even possible that we ever will. I’m not arguing about that. I am arguing about whether we ought to assume that mind is an “immaterial substance”, as some do, or whether we should assume it is somehow the result of a physical process, which is the view that I incline toward. There are a number of reasons why I disfavor dualism; they have the same effect on Lycan as well. Foremost among them is that dualism provides no explanatory help; it just substitutes one mystery for another, and multiplies entities without good reason.

    Posted February 17, 2008 at 7:48 pm | Permalink
  10. bob koepp says

    Malcolm – I don’t think we need to make any assumptions about whether the mind is an immaterial substance or is generated entirely by matter to develop an empirical science of the mind, at least not at this point in the game. The reason we can get by without making such assumptions is that they don’t have any “bite” when it comes to formulating the kinds of questions we are in a position to address with empirical methods. So your complaint that dualism provides no explanatory power needs to be applied as well to materialism. And as for mysteries, I persist in my impression that the kinds of dynamical properties we attribute to posited “material” entities, the very properties in virtue of which we are able to fashion explanations, are occult in the sense thought so objectionable by the creators of modern science. It’s the various forces and fields we associate with material entities that do the explanatory work of physical theories, but what we know about them is limited entirely to their supposed effects. This is just another sort of “ghost in the machine.”

    Posted February 17, 2008 at 9:52 pm | Permalink
  11. Malcolm says

    Hi Bob,

    So it seems that you are saying that the whole dualism-materialism debate about the mind is essentially a waste of time at this point; that regardless we will simply keep working to build an empirical theory. Is that about right?

    Posted February 17, 2008 at 9:59 pm | Permalink
  12. My inimitably muddled tuppence-worth: I must admit I am not much impressed with Dennett’s polemics. Indeed I think he dismisses or misses the whole problem in his efforts to remain scientistic. Galen Strawson makes the good point about how Dennett “looking-glasses” the word “consciousness” to mean precisely something that involves no consciousness — in other words, he surreptitiously makes the world-beatingly absurd claim that there is no consciousness. Why? Because consciousness is a damned difficult thing to fit into standard materialism. But I don’t see why the assumptions of standard materialism should be maintained even unto absurdity.

    Betrand Russell noted how just at the time when psychologists were trying to set the mind on material grounds, physicists were moving those grounds into something less “material”. Of course, we are all now confused about the terms “material” and “mental” in their fundamental aspects. I admit the whole affair is very confusing (or at least, I am very confused!). Time for a little of Spinoza’s neutral monism?

    Posted February 18, 2008 at 6:59 am | Permalink
  13. bob koepp says

    I’ll go as far as saying I think the dualism-materialism debate is wasted time for anybody trying to formulate empirical, scientific theories of the mind. But for people engaging metaphysical questions it’s not a waste; quite the opposite.

    And in the realm of metaphysical speculations, I say three cheers for neutral monism.

    Posted February 18, 2008 at 8:00 am | Permalink
  14. Malcolm says

    Gents, I’ll have to return to this later on this evening, as the work-day interferes.

    Posted February 18, 2008 at 1:18 pm | Permalink
  15. Malcolm says

    Well, free at last, for the remainder of the evening at least. (I can’t say that I’m one of those folks who dread retirement, for fear of not knowing what to do with all the free time.)

    I’m not so sure that I want to cheer for neutral monism; I think that it does too much to preserve the distinction between the physical and the mental, and it also posits a third entity — the neutral ground itself — that parsimony disinclines me to welcome. I also think, Bob, that Titus Rivas landed a few blows against it in that long conversation you and he had in this comment thread; he was able to bring the same argument that he used against epiphenomenalism to bear upon neutral monism as well.

    Deogolwulf, I quite agree that eliminative materialism is absurd, and I think that “standard materialism”, which seems to call for an account of the mental in terms of our present account of the physical, is hopeless. But as Bob often reminds us, we are a long way from a full account of the physical, and it is this more than anything else that I think is overlooked by adamant dualists such as Rivas or Vallicella (and, I suppose, by proponents of neutral monism, too). We hear again and again that it is “absurd” that this or that mental phenomenon could be brought about by “mere” matter: intentionality, qualia, and so on — as if we already had before us an exhaustive listing of what matter can and can’t be or do. Galen Strawson, as quoted in SEP, makes this point nicely:

    When I say that the mental, and in particular the Experiential, is physical, and endorse the view that “experience is really just neurons firing,” I mean something completely different from what some materialists have apparently meant by saying such things. I don’t mean that all aspects of what is going on, in the case of conscious experience, can be described by current physics, or some nonrevolutionary extension of it. Such a view amounts to radical “eliminativism’ with respect to consciousness, and is mad. My claim is different. It is that the Experiential (considered just as such) — the feature of reality we have to do with when we consider experiences specifically and solely in respect of the Experiential character they have for those who have them as they have them — that “just is” physical.

    This seems right to me: the mental experience is the physical process.

    Strawson again:

    Many take the [mind-body problem] to be the problem of how mental phenomena can be physical phenomena given what we already know about the nature of the physical. But those who think this are already lost. For the fact is that we have no good reason to think that we know anything about the physical that gives us any reason to find any problem in the idea that mental phenomena are physical phenomena.

    In virtue of what are some physical processes also mental? We don’t know enough yet to say. But this is just where neuroscience has been getting good traction. At the very least we should be able to isolate ever more precisely those physical phenomena that are specifically associated with particular subjective experiences. But even having an exact description of the physical process only takes us so far: we will doubtless be in need of what Pinker calls “an unborn genius — a Darwin or Einstein of consciousness — [who] comes up with a flabbergasting new idea that suddenly makes it all clear to us.”

    Posted February 18, 2008 at 10:34 pm | Permalink
  16. Malcolm, I agree, for what it’s worth, that we are “a long way from a full account of the physical”, but, as I’m sure you appreciate, we enter into some strange territory when we say that “the mental experience is the physical process” — territory once undreamt-of by the old materialists or physicalists or whatever we should call them. Galen Strawson, for instance, is a panpsychist. He thinks physicalism (materialism) entails panpsychism. For him, the mental is the physical because at some level the physical is the mental — that there is experiential being in the physical. Thus, he does not think mental experience is reducible to the physical in any conventional terms of physics or neuroscience. And he is at least right in that regard: mental experience is utterly irreducible to physical process if physcial process itself is devoid of experiential being. No insight into my thought of spending the weekend flicking peanuts at passing motor-cars can be gained solely by examining my brain-states. The only way to know that certain brain-states are associated with certain mental states is by first communicating what those mental states are — that is by communicating them in mental-experiential terms. Right from the outset, we are talking in terms of mental experience not physical process. If you did not know beforehand — through communication in mental terms — that I was thinking such and such, no association of mental experience with physical process would be possible. And, as you suggest, even to know the exact location and motion of every particle of matter in my brain while I am savouring my weekend of mischief is not only in no way the same as experiencing that thought, but also one could not know such a thought was taking place except through mental communication. The association of mental experience with physical process is possible only by prior communication — in mental terms. The associated physical substate of an experience and the experience itself are very different things. Neuroscience is a non-starter as far as the content of mental experience is concerned. (And this leaves aside the whole problem of there being no identical brains, and thus an exacerbation of the problem of association in specifics.)

    Now, since you have had to sit there reading something written by someone telling you what you already know, you are probably feeling tense. Might I suggest you buy a bag of peanuts? I hear they can be used recreationally.

    Posted February 19, 2008 at 5:51 am | Permalink
  17. bob koepp says

    Ummm… Neutral monism is, virtually by definition, more parsimonious than dualism. As its name implies, it posits just one entity — the dual aspects or modes are not entities.

    Rivas’ whole argument is an attempt to demonstrate that mind must causally influence matter. For the neutral monist, there are no causal influences between mind and matter, because neither is a substance. In fact, there are not even causal influences of mind on mind or matter on matter. The whole point of neutral monism is to dissolve (rather than resolve) the so-called interaction problem.

    Posted February 19, 2008 at 8:31 am | Permalink
  18. Malcolm says


    I’m not entirely sure that I want to reject panpsychism, though I have no particular inclination to embrace it. It may be that not all matter has a mental aspect, but rather just certain specific arrangements or configurations of matter, and it is the isolation of exactly what arrangements or configurations those are that is the sort of necessary, painstaking empirical work that neuroscientists, bless ’em, have the patience for.

    You are quite right that as matters stand we would not, even if we knew the precise state of an entire functioning brain, be able to infer what mental states each detail of the physical state corresponded with, without having reports from the subject as to what his moment-to-moment experiences were. It seems to me, though, that this is similar to the problem an archaeologist faces when trying to decipher an unknown system of writing, and even now we are beginning to make progress in this project. And even if every brain uses a different syntactic implementation — which is almost certainly the case, to a greater or lesser extent — this doesn’t mean that a general understanding, resulting from mapping a great many brains at work, might not lead to techniques for “reading” any given brain. For example, it might be that we can develop a standard set of stimuli that we can use to “prime the pump” — in the same way that we might, if we were able to ask a user of an unknown writing system to show us how he writes a carefully chosen set of two hundred words, use that as a basis to go on to translate the entire system.

    Anyway, the philosophical question here is not whether we can ever manage, as a practical matter, to read thoughts by looking at the brain, but whether mental phenomena are in fact grounded in the physical.

    Posted February 19, 2008 at 10:41 am | Permalink
  19. Malcolm says

    Bob, I suppose you’re right, though there is an eely quality to neutral monism that makes it hard for me ever to feel I have a firm grasp on it. It requires that we reject the physicality of the physical, and the mentality of the mental, in favor of an unexperienceable tertium quid, and in that way I’m inclined to see it as less parsimonious than imagining that there is a physical world that includes some arrangements of matter that can be the seat of subjective experiencing.

    But I do confess that parsing these distinctions — in particular among neutral monism, dual aspect theory, and identity theory — can leave me feeling a little queasy.

    Posted February 19, 2008 at 10:53 am | Permalink
  20. bob koepp says

    Malcolm – I think you are misunderstanding neutral monism. It does not posit an “unexperienceable tertium quid.” Rather, I think the claim of neutral monists is that the neutral ground is experienced, but “under an aspect.”
    So we don’t need to reject either physicality or mentalilty, any more than we need to deny that objects have fronts in order to acknowledge their backsides, or deny sights to acknowledge sounds. What is rejected in neutral monism is the assumption that matter and/or mind are entities, things in their own right. Of course materialists, idealists, dualists, trinitarians (on that last one, I just couldn’t resist…) are going to balk, since what they view as “the really real” is being downgraded to a sort of “way of appearing.”

    BTW, my three cheers for neutral monism are not in the way of an endorsement — even though I do tilt somewhat in that direction, my reasons are not of a sort that I would expect others to appreciate. Rather, my cheering is intended to remind spectators that there are contestants on the field “just as qualified” as the big name players.

    Posted February 19, 2008 at 11:42 am | Permalink
  21. Malcolm says

    Bob, perhaps I am indeed making an ill-grounded criticism; as I admitted earlier, I have found it hard to make myself fully comfortable with the taxonomy of these closely related ideas. My own inclination is toward positing a physical world of which a subset can, under the right conditions, present a subjective mental aspect.

    I can see your point that to the neutral monist there is no “tertium quid”, as to the monist the physical and the mental aren’t “quids”, if you will, in the first place. But it is only by denying the quiddity, so to speak, of the physical and the mental that neutral monists can say they aren’t adding a third species to the menagerie, namely the neutral ground itself, which nonmonists wouldn’t even acknowledge exists.

    There does begin to be rather an angels-dancing-on-the-head-of-a-pin quality to all of this; it is hard to see how such disputes will be resolved (or dissolved) other than by the ongoing need for workable theories to accommodate empirical scientific results.

    Posted February 19, 2008 at 12:13 pm | Permalink
  22. bob koepp says

    Malcolm – I also find it difficult to fashion a good taxonomy of these metaphysical positions. For example, I just don’t know how to distinguish panpsychism of the sort espoused by Strawson from neutral monism, as I understand the latter. When he voices objections to neutral monism Strawson seems to treat matter and mind as entities/substances rather than as aspects under which entities/substances are presented. Yet when he talks about the mentality of matter or the materiality of mind, he seems to be thinking of at least one of them as a non-substance. Very confusing…

    I think you’re probably right that the reso/disso-lution of these metaphysical disputes will come, if at all, from pretty radical revisions forced on us by anomalous data. Necessity is the mother of invention, etc, etc. We’ve actually seen the first glimmerings of this dynamic as we try to accommodate robust physical phenomena that resist interpretation in terms of entrenched assumptions about causality and identity. But it’s still very early in that game.

    Posted February 19, 2008 at 1:16 pm | Permalink
  23. Malcolm says

    Bob, I’m always pleased when we get to the point in these conversations where we begin to agree more than disagree.

    I think at bottom our views aren’t so divergent: a disinclination toward dualism, and a feeling that one way or another there is essentially one sort of “stuff” in the world, and that somehow our minds arise from its activity. I also think that we simply don’t have the right vocabulary, the right conceptual tools, to describe it properly yet. Indeed, if Colin McGinn is right, we never will. But I think he’s wrong. (Well, I hope he’s wrong, anyway. Might as well be optimistic.)

    As you say, it is early in the game, but things are moving briskly. I think the next couple of decades should be interesting ones on a number of fronts.

    Posted February 19, 2008 at 5:20 pm | Permalink
  24. bob koepp says

    Malcolm – Sometimes, despite myself, I can be agreeable;-) But then, my critical nature kicks in and I make observations like the following.

    It just over 100 years ago that philosophers/metaphysicians were jarred awake by innovations in relativistic and quantum physics. Ever since, they’ve been puzzling and arguing about what it all means. To date, I think the only progress is in clarifying the issues. So I’m not going to expect a lot to happen in the next couple decades. I’d love to be proved wrong, though…

    Posted February 19, 2008 at 5:32 pm | Permalink
  25. Malcolm says

    Well, regarding philosophy, I’d say you’re right. But you must admit that since Max Planck’s day there have been one or two minor technical accomplishments that rest on modern-day physics (with biology and neuroscience about ready to shift into high gear too). As much as I’d like to get to the bottom of it all, I’ll settle for more of those — and the philosophers will just have to try to keep up as well as they can.

    Posted February 19, 2008 at 5:36 pm | Permalink
  26. bob koepp says

    Malcolm – The thing is, the techncal accomplishments, both in physics proper and in it’s applications, have increased our ability to predict and control a lot of neat phenomena, but haven’t done much to increase our understanding of what, if anything, lies behind those phenomena. It’s common wisdom, after all, that quantum physics is superb at modeling phenonema without being able to say why the phenomena are as they are. When theoreticians, and here I mean the working scientists, try to “make sense” of their own productions, they often find themselves wallowing in the same mud as traditional philosophers. I’ll never forget the surprise I felt when I found movers and shakers in the world of quantum physics speculating about platonic forms, observer influence on measuring devices, etc. Of course, none of those speculations, fascinating though they may be, have been worked into a shape that allows for testing. None of us knows what the future holds — we might even be working our way back to Plato or beyond! I doubt it, but then, I’m a natural skeptic.

    Posted February 19, 2008 at 6:45 pm | Permalink
  27. Malcolm says

    Yes, we are a long way from bedrock. As Feynman said, if you think you understand quantum mechanics, you don’t understand quantum mechanics.

    But there have indeed been revolutions that broadened and deepened our understanding, that represented genuine progress toward truth — and they have required, as we have already noted, both intractable data and visionary genius. Here’s hoping our young genius is already among us; I’m not worried about there being any shortage of troublesome data.

    Posted February 19, 2008 at 8:30 pm | Permalink