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.