Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Some brief arguments for dualism, Part I

It is unreasonable to expect even the best argument for a controversial philosophical position to be capable, in one fell swoop and all by itself, of convincing the most skeptical opponent – or, indeed, even to move him slightly in the direction of reconsidering his position. That is (usually, anyway) simply not how the human mind works. A dispute over some particular argument for the existence of God, mind-body dualism, or traditional sexual morality (to take just three examples) can reflect a tacit disagreement about fundamental metaphysical assumptions that is so deep and unconscious that the parties to the dispute (or at least one party, usually the skeptical or “naturalist” one) are barely aware that it exists at all, and often talk past each other as a result. What seems like an obvious objection to an argument can often constitute in reality a failure to see the point of the argument, and in particular a failure to see that what the argument does is precisely to call into question the intelligibility or rational justifiability of the objection itself. While the argument in question can in many cases be stated fairly simply and straightforwardly, pages and pages, indeed an entire book, might be required in order to set the stage so that its terms and basic assumptions are properly understood, and that countless point-missing objections might patiently be swept away like so much intellectual rubbish standing in the way of understanding.

Some common objections to dualism are like this. They falsely assume, for example, that any argument for dualism must be something analogous to a “God of the gaps” argument – a “soul of the gaps,” as it were – which seeks to exploit some current lacuna in our knowledge of the brain and to suggest that the “hypothesis” of an immaterial substance might explain what neuroscientists have so far been unable to. It is then objected that such an explanation would violate Ockham’s razor, that neuroscience has already “explained” x, y, and z and thus can be expected to explain everything else, etc. etc. I hear these objections frequently. They are often presented by people who mean well, and who are not entirely uninformed about some of the arguments presented by both materialists and anti-materialists in the philosophy of mind. But they nevertheless reflect a very shallow understanding of the debate. For the main arguments for dualism do not have this structure at all. They are not quasi-scientific “explanatory” “hypotheses” which “postulate” the existence of this or that as one way among others (albeit the most “probable”) of “accounting for” “the evidence.” They are intended rather as strict metaphysical demonstrations. They either prove conclusively that the mind is immaterial or they prove nothing. And if they work, there can be no question of the materialist looking for other possible ways to explain “the data.” For the existence of an immaterial mind, or an immaterial aspect to the mind, will, given such a proof, simply have itself to be taken as a piece of data for which any acceptable theory has to account.

Again, this doesn’t mean that one should judge such arguments based on one’s immediate reaction to a first reading; to prove something conclusively doesn’t mean to prove it instantly, to the immediate satisfaction of the most hostile and stubborn skeptic. Even properly understanding an argument, especially in metaphysics, can require a great deal of effort and sustained thought. Still, some dualist arguments are straightforward enough that at least their basic thrust can be put fairly succinctly, even if a complete treatment would require various further explanations of this or that premise or key concept. In this post and several succeeding ones I want to present some of these arguments, in as brief a form as possible. (Further elaboration can be found in my books Philosophy of Mind and The Last Superstition.)

One aspect of the mind that philosophers have traditionally considered particularly difficult to account for in materialist terms is intentionality, which is that feature of a mental state in virtue of which it means, is about, represents, points to, or is directed at something, usually something beyond itself. Your thought about your car, for example, is about your car – it means or represents your car, and thus “points to” or is “directed at” your car. In this way it is like the word “car,” which is about, or represents, cars in general. Notice, though, that considered merely as a set of ink marks or (if spoken) sound waves, “car” doesn’t represent or mean anything at all; it is, by itself anyway, nothing but a meaningless pattern of ink marks or sound waves, and acquires whatever meaning it has from language users like us, who, with our capacity for thought, are able to impart meaning to physical shapes, sounds, and the like.

Now the puzzle intentionality poses for materialism can be summarized this way: Brain processes, like ink marks, sound waves, the motion of water molecules, electrical current, and any other physical phenomenon you can think of, seem clearly devoid of any inherent meaning. By themselves they are simply meaningless patterns of electrochemical activity. Yet our thoughts do have inherent meaning – that’s how they are able to impart it to otherwise meaningless ink marks, sound waves, etc. In that case, though, it seems that our thoughts cannot possibly be identified with any physical processes in the brain. In short: Thoughts and the like possess inherent meaning or intentionality; brain processes, like ink marks, sound waves, and the like, are utterly devoid of any inherent meaning or intentionality; so thoughts and the like cannot possibly be identified with brain processes.

You can, as I have implied, look at this as just a “puzzle” for materialism – one which might be solved by developing a complex functional analysis of mental states, or by framing materialism in terms of the concept of “supervenience” rather than identity or reduction, or whatever. Or you can see it as a very simple and straightforward statement of an objection that, while it can also be formulated in much more sophisticated and technical terms and in a way that takes account of and preempts the various objections materialists might try to raise against it, nevertheless goes to the core of the problem with materialism, and indeed shows why materialism cannot be true. This latter view is the one I endorse. I maintain that the problem for materialism just described is insuperable. It shows that a materialist explanation of the mind is impossible in principle, a conceptual impossibility. And the reason has in part to do with the concept of matter to which materialists themselves are at least implicitly committed. Some of the further posts in this series will develop this suggestion. Along the way we will see (among other things) that the common materialist claim that “everything else has been explained in materialist terms” is an urban legend, based on nothing more than conceptual sleight of hand coupled with historical ignorance. Stay tuned.


  1. So, where, exactly, is meaning located ?

    Also, if I look up a word in a dictionary, and deduce the meaning from what I have read, does the meaning then flit out of my brain, off to wherever meaning is located ?

  2. I think the first response here illustrates the opening of the article quite nicely. It is, after all, based on the assumption of materialism.

    Asking "where" the information goes assumes that the dualist is proposing an object located in a physical place.

    This seems to be the most common type of response to arguments against materialism.

  3. Debilis is right. materialists are notoriously guilty of trying to imagine the immaterial soul visually. If only they could take the word "immaterial" a bit more literally.

    They do the same thing with the interaction problem, at least the versions that rely on axioms like the conservation of energy. They forget that the way these axioms were established was by looking at the empirical world, so how can we expect them to apply where the immaterial is concerned?

  4. Not to mention that (1) we assume that matter is well understood, when it is clearly not so (note that I did *not* mean to say 'not clearly so) and (2) there are known exceptions to the conservation of energy (CE) even when dealing with material events. If CE doesn't apply to all material things, why think we should expect it to apply to the IMmaterial?

  5. But in some way, the meaning appears to be localized in a physical space. If the meaning is something John possesses and that Mary does not possess, then it is in John and not in Mary, i.e., here and not there. We might say, "If you want the meaning, go over there and get it from John." Indeed, that may be the only local place where the meaning is. If you don't go to that specific place, then you might never get the meaning.
    This seems especially true when we try to interpret a speaker's intended meaning. We might conjecture his possible meanings, but it may be impossible to obtain the meaning without going to where the speaker to get it.

  6. If I was still a materialist, my response would be that the very concept of "meaning" is both an invention of, and an illusion presented to, our minds -- our minds being simply the software that runs on the hardware of our brains.

    Even as a non-materialist, intentionality just seems like an aspect of our "operating systems", a behavior that only appears to be special when we *also* accept the reality that there's a genuine Hard Problem of Consciousness. It seems to me that we could be P-zombies with no subjective experiences and could make the exact same argument about intentionality, so long as our behaviors were reasonably similar to real humans.

    And, sure; p-zombies could also make the same sounds about subjective experience itself, but I have no idea *why* they would make such sounds if subjective experience didn't exist. In contrast, I think the intentionality argument might still make sense, and even be compelling, to some zombies.

    Unfortunately, I'm replying to a rather ancient post, which means there's a good chance that nobody will ever read this, rendering these words truly meaningless...

    1. kk well i´ve read your comment :D

    2. "If I was still a materialist, my response would be that the very concept of "meaning" is both an invention of, and an illusion presented to, our minds -- our minds being simply the software that runs on the hardware of our brains."

      The problem with this objection is that it assumes that it has a meaning. If meaning is not real, then your own frase that "the meaning is not a real thing" is meaningless.

  7. lol. i like how most of the comments here were made in different years. good article.

  8. Amazing article — finally understood dualism what a load of nonsense how can anyone be a materialist whoop