Dec 03 2007

More on Dualism and Denial

Last week I wrote about dualism – the philosophical position that the mind is somehow more than or separate from the biological activity of the brain. I argued that dualists commit the same error in thinking as creationists when they doubt the causal relationship between brain an mind because we cannot fully explain how the brain causes mind, not recognizing that this is a separate question from does the brain cause the mind. In the same way creationists confuse scientific knowledge concerning how evolution works with the evidence for the fact of evolution. We can know that life evolved without knowing all the details of how, just as we can know that the mind is a manifestation of brain function without knowing all the details of how brain function creates the experience of mind.

In response to this post The Agnostic Blogger wrote this response. In it he writes:

Simply put, he does not understand the dualistโ€™s position. The dualist usually begins with an assumption- the mind exists. Now, this mind displays properties that are unlike physical entities- rationality, volition, awareness. Furthermore, science has not found a neural correlate for consciousness, and it is very possible that they never will. And it is the dualists that are being unskeptical?

It is true that I have never separated out the various forms of philosophical dualism. I am not a philosopher and when I discuss philosophy it is only to the extent that it intersects science, as the question of dualism certainly does. Further, I am interested in how critics of science use philosophy, which often reveals how philosophy has trickled down to the popular culture. Interestingly, while taking me to task for not distinguishing various types of dualism the Agnostic Blogger carelessly uses the phrase “the dualist’s position” – let us, rather, agree that there is a spectrum of dualist positions.

While considering this spectrum of dualism it occurred to me that there is yet another analogy that can be made between dualism and creationism, another denialist tactic they share, which I will get to below.

This is a gross oversimplification from a non-philosopher, but here are the basic types of philosophical dualism (taken from Wikipedia):

(1) Substance dualism asserts that mind and matter are fundamentally distinct kinds of substances.
(2) Property dualism suggests that the ontological distinction lies in the differences between properties of mind and matter (as in emergentism).
(3) Predicate dualism claims the irreducibility of mental predicates to physical predicates.

Substance dualism is the easiest to deal with and, for that reason, has largely been abandoned by serious philosophers. However, it is still in use by the enemies of science. I wrote previously about ID proponent and neurosurgeron, Michael Egnor, who claims that the substance of mind must be different from the substance of brain, even though it is clearly “influenced” by it. Although he does mix in some properties dualism arguments, by saying that the mind has different properties than the physical brain and that is why the latter cannot explain the former.

Property dualism also seems to be the favorite position of many in the spiritualism camp. There are also those, like B. Alan Wallace (who I interviewed on The Skeptics Guide podcast) who claims that the brain creates the mind but that the mind, once created, is a separate thing from the brain itself. There are also those who claim that the brain is some kind of antenna, that it is transmitting or channeling the mind to the physical body.

As I stated in my previous post, the evidence from neuroscience is now overwhelming that the mind is what the brain does. Cruder forms of dualism must deny this body of evidence, and for this reason no serious thinker still maintains that the brain is not at least involved with the mind. But even the more sophisticated forms of dualism must deny the scientific implications of modern neuroscience to some degree, or perform some logical fancy footwork to evade the conclusions of neuroscience.

I pointed out in my previous entry one such “dodge” – confusing the question of how for the question of if. This is also a form of the moving goalpost fallacy: always requiring more evidence from neuroscience than is currently available. Now that neuroscience has mapped cognitive function to the brain dualists are demanding that neuroscientists show how the brain produces the subjective experience of mind.

A more sophisticated “moving goalpost” form of dualism denialism is the claim that all the evidence from neuroscience only shows that brain function “correlates” with cognitive or mind function, and that correlation does not prove causation. No one can now deny, from the copious evidence, that activity within specific locations in the brain correlate with specific mental activities. And here is where we get to the analogy with evolution denial.

Some creationists/ID proponents, such as Michael Behe, accept all the evidence for common descent, for the change in life over time in a branching pattern of relatedness. This nicely accommodates the bulk of the evidence for the fact of evolution. Behe just maintains that the proposed mechanisms of evolution are not adequate to explain this change, that we need to invoke an invisible hand pushing evolution forward. In essence Behe is moving his creationism (the involvement of a creator, or “intelligent designer”) out of the way of all that evidence for evolution.

Also (and more in line with the “correlation is not causation” argument) it is common for creationists to dismiss the existence of transitional forms as mere correlation. For example they say that Archaeopteryx (or Ambulocetus or Tiktaalik) only look as if they are transitional, this does not prove that they actually are transitional (the descendant of one species and the ancestor of another). What they are saying is that even though the anatomy may correlate to what a transitional form would be that does not mean that evolutionary relationships caused that anatomical correlation.

Likewise, some modern dualists acknowledge that brain function correlates to the mind but this does not prove that it causes the mind. Strictly speaking this is true (assuming causation from correlation is a logical fallacy), but it is also a logical fallacy to assume that correlation does not result from causation. Further, we can infer causation from multiple correlations that all point in the same direction. The brain does not only correlate with mind, it does so in every way we would predict from the hypothesis that the brain causes mind. For example, if an independent or separate mind caused changes in the brain (reversing cause and effect) then we would not expect that altering brain function would alter the mind also – but it does. We can use drugs to change brain function, and the mind alters. Damage to a part of the brain damages the corresponding mental activity. Every way we choose to look at it the correlations indicate that the causal arrow is pointing from the brain to the mind.

Does this metaphysically prove that the mind is nothing but brain function? No, science does not deal with metaphysical certitude. However, I think that we can come to two broad conclusions based upon the current state of neuroscience:

1) The “brain causes mind” hypothesis has held up to all scientific observations. Every correlation predicted from this hypothesis has been observed, and there is no established evidence that is incompatible with this hypothesis.

2) The brain is sufficient to explain the mind, meaning that we do not require something other than or more than the brain to explain the phenomenon of mind.

So while some form of dualism cannot be excluded on philosophical grounds, dualism is completely unnecessary. The more modern and subtle forms of dualism do try to account for the evidence of neuroscience, in the same way the Behe tries to account for the evidence of evolution, but still commit some logical fallacies in maintaining that an invisible hand is necessary. And very much like ID proponents, until dualists can propose a testable hypothesis of their position it suffers from the worst of scientific vices – it is not even wrong.

21 responses so far

21 Responses to “More on Dualism and Denial”

  1. M4tton 03 Dec 2007 at 2:13 pm

    Not much to disagree with there.

  2. Scepticonon 03 Dec 2007 at 3:23 pm

    M4tt said “Not much to disagree with there.”

    I would have said the same about the previous post, but I would have been wrong. No matter how reasonable and well thought out a position there is always someone to disagree with you.

    Although, I covered a very few of these arguments in my local paper to try and point out that the “Spiritual columnist” was overstating how certain she could be on matters of the soul, no one disagreed, but no-one agreed either – I was completely ignored. But the next week she touched on “Gods Grace”, that started a firestorm.

  3. Blake Staceyon 03 Dec 2007 at 3:36 pm

    Now, this mind displays properties that are unlike physical entities- rationality, volition, awareness.

    Actually, Ian Couzin’s work on animal swarm behavior has shown that memory (in the form of hysteresis) can arise in a system whose individual components have none. This, I submit, should make any philosopher of mind jibber and yelp.

  4. Nevaron 03 Dec 2007 at 4:03 pm

    I had a debate about this with someone where one of my points was causality. I’m not sure how well causality is accepted, but I thought it a rather good way of showing that a mind separate from the brain/body does not make sense.

    If we could trace the causal chain of say, a thought, and keep tracing all causes leading up to it, we would theoretically end up at the beginning of all things caused. If mind (or even spirit/soul) existed separately, we would expect it to make some impact on this causal chain, i.e. an effect without a cause. We do not observe such effects. The mind’s input seems to either always coincide exactly with the causal chain leading up to a thought, or perhaps it is present at the very beginning of the chain for every thought, both of which seem redundant.

  5. VicGomboson 03 Dec 2007 at 4:05 pm

    So, Steve–what about the “hardware” vs. “software” model we (in cognitive sciences, sometimes called an “information processing approach”) use to depict the mind and brain?
    I consider myself monoistic and materialist about the functioning of the human “mind”–the brain is necessary for this thing we call consciousness (in whatever way you would like to define consciousness). In cognitive psychology, we often refer to brain and neural systems as “hardware” and the learned associations, memory representations, concepts, thoughts, etc. as “software”. Though it can run the risk of oversimplifying, I think it is an apt metaphor–while a brain is necessary for human consciousness, it is not a sufficient condition alone. Learning and experience is also necessary, creating the software the runs the hardware of the brain.
    So would this depiction of human psychology fall into the property dualist position?

  6. Michael.Meadonon 03 Dec 2007 at 4:32 pm

    Good post Steve. I agree with M4tt… no much to disagree with.

    Although, to be picky and pedantic, using the term “invisible hand” in the sense you’re doing is a tad confusing. Wrestling the term away from its entrenched use (i.e. Adam Smith’s) is going to be hard & is liable to be misunderstood.

  7. Michael.Meadonon 03 Dec 2007 at 4:33 pm

    Sorry, that should have been “…noT much…”

  8. Nevaron 03 Dec 2007 at 5:28 pm

    Perhaps it’s just me, but consciousness seems rather uncomplicated. There is continuous input to the brain and it’s continuously being processed by the brain. That’s it. It is like having an engine, switching it on and then abstracting its state of running, to use a terrible invention, its “runningness”. Where is this “runningness” located? Can we pinpoint the part of the machine that causes it? As I said, maybe it’s just me ๐Ÿ˜‰

  9. M4tton 03 Dec 2007 at 5:49 pm

    Nope, not just you, I think it was Gilbert Ryle who first used that particular metaphor / argument in 1949 – he called it a ‘category error’. Not seen it used much recently.

    What you have done next is give the most broad overview possible, a bit like: ‘ A life, rather uncomplicated; born, lived, died. That’s it.

    The devil, they say, is in the details.

    I think it takes a couple of years of focused study to begin to realise just how painfully hard consciousness really is.

  10. orestesmantraon 03 Dec 2007 at 9:25 pm

    Nevar, in order to satisfactorily answer the problem of dualism, one must be able to answer why the mere “functionality” of the brain gives rises to experience. This is Chalmer’s “hard problem”: one must be able to explain why phenomenal experienced evolved if function is the only thing being evolutionarily selected for.

    Now, being a dualist, Chalmer’s doesn’t think that it is conceptually possible to answer such a question, but I this is where I disagree with him. I think the phenomenology of consciousness does have an important function, but I won’t go into details.

    I just wanted to point out that the analogy between human consciousness and a car engine doesn’t really work because a car engine doesn’t have any experiences, whereas we do.

  11. Aaron Son 03 Dec 2007 at 10:50 pm

    The hardware/software analogy always seemed garbagy to me.

    Hardware = Software. Software on a computer is just an application on the ROM, which is just indents on some plastic hard drive to read off with some binary system. These indents in a drive as well as the working computer they are in totally explain what happens, the input(physics), processing (comp. architecture), output(sound waves, light). They are not “two” different aspects.

    What *is* different is the abstraction in our heads, and only in our heads, of what the software is “meant” for, what it “looks/feels” like, and how to “use” it and such. Also, how we demark “programs” in the hard drive is in our heads. Just like a “chair” could be seen not with 4 legs, but 3, the other being part of the “floor”. So in that sense, they are different, but that is not really useful here since it is focused on how other observers feel.

    I look foward to better examples and analogies from the new field of Computation Neuroscience. Hardware is type equivilant to software. But consciousness/qualia and hardware are not type equivilant, but the hardware makes the qualia by neural correlates which overlay at some focus point (subjective observer), which determines the hardware’s response. In order to not violate Conservation of Energy, qualia and matter must be ontologically equivilant (not some wacky separate univserses with no way to intereact).

  12. VicGomboson 04 Dec 2007 at 1:58 am

    Aaron: I can agree with you–after my post, I thought my separation of hardware and software was too simplistic. And, really, even consciousness and the qualia of sensations/experiences can be reduced as emergent properties of extremely complex neural interactions.
    The more I think of it–especially from multidisciplinary contributions in cognitive science (including computational neuroscience)–the hardware/software model of human cognition and consciousness is still monism. I didn’t mean to imply that the software had an ethereal quality separate from the brain.

  13. Nevaron 04 Dec 2007 at 3:12 am


    I agreed that I gave a very broad overview. I was not trying to simplify or leave out details, but merely pointing out that consciousness is an emergent property of the brain.


    Hehe, of course a car engine has “experiences”, they’re just different. Without oil the car engine “experiences” strain. It even reacts to it. It just does not have enough functionality (programming) to interpret that strain or that it’s having it.

    Without the brain proccessing input, we wouldn’t have any experience of anything. The functionality of the brain makes it possible to experience. Take the functionality of a computer program as an example; it is a collection of 0’s and 1’s (or electricty flowing actually) and yet we experience a web browser.

    The brain can conceive of many things that are very complex, even that it is itself more than a brain. This complexity causes a sense of something more, consciousness or an “I”. Still, the brain can only do what it has been programmed (learned, gathered) to do. I see it as similar to an extremely advanced AI arguing that it’s alive and an individual. It will also have consciousness and experience things.

  14. Aaron Son 04 Dec 2007 at 5:33 pm

    @VicGombos: Yeah, my main point there was that software *is* hardware, whereas quality and hardware are not “the same” but correlate. A smart robot need not have mental states. So that’s where that hardware/software analogy goes bad.

    @M4tt: Heh, I am a programmer myself (that is one of my two majors), and I wouldn’t call it a “user illusion”. I suppose depending how you define that you can stretch it to work, but more likely it would just add more confusion to an already confused topic.

    We already have some people who define a “mental state” as a “consciousness” and others who define “consciousness” as “having personhood” (Peter Singer type definition) or being “self-conscious”. Worse still, things like token *physicalism” can be called property *dualism*.

    I know I sound like a broken record on this, but seriously, this topic is definition landmine just waiting to cause pointless heated arguments over X because two people have different definitions of X.

  15. Nevaron 05 Dec 2007 at 7:02 am

    I agree with Aaron S, we can open a forum topic to continue this instead of clogging up Dr. Novella’s blog ๐Ÿ™‚

    But, I don’t want to, so here are my final comments.

    I retract my statement about AI as I have no evidence for that. Besides, it was really just a side item and had very little to do with my main point which is, to quote one of the broad conclusions that Steven made :

    “2) The brain is sufficient to explain the mind, meaning that we do not require something other than or more than the brain to explain the phenomenon of mind.”

    I think this can be applied to many things that we experience and have conveniently abstracted and labeled; mental states, consciousness, ego, ID, soul, spirit, mind, etc. Thus, based on the evidence, I fail to see how any experience cannot be explained by the functioning of the brain.

  16. Aaron Son 05 Dec 2007 at 1:02 pm

    “whereas quality and hardware are not “the same” but correlate”

    Haha, I mean “qualia” of course… ๐Ÿ˜‰

  17. gorillapawson 05 Dec 2007 at 6:37 pm

    How about getting a well-respected dualist on the Skeptic’s Guide, one that has a mature and sophisticated treatment of these issues. A philosophy of mind discussion isn’t really what your podcast is all about, but there are times when the two disciplines intersect, particularly when you cross into the territory of philosophy as you’ve clearly done here.

    I would have to disagree with the charge that the dualist uses the same “tactics” of ID. Philosophy is about arriving at the truth (look up the etymology if you don’t believe me), and not advancing some agenda as the IDers seem to be. As such, I don’t think the dualist is looking to win anything, simply to point out that there may be other things responsible for the mind. If science can demonstrate that the brain is necessary and sufficient for all mental behavior, I believe most serious dualist philosophers would gracefully concede the point.

    Also, I think the main difference in the tactics of the IDers and the dualists is that science has consistently shown how it is possible for many of these phenomena to be true, while I don’t think the materialist has even put forth a hypothesis of how a materialistic mechanism would work to generate these complex mental phenomena– not that they require each little thing to be proved (and thus moving the goalpost as you suggest). I don’t think the dualist necessarily wants all of the details for every possible mental phenomena, but simply a mature explanation of how it would be possible for these things to work.

    I personally would love to hear a show (or several) on this topic, perhaps Dr. Novella could do it as a special topic edition/series on the subject. The intersection of Science and Philosophy of Mind would be great fun, especially if the panel had psychologists, philosophers, neurologists and AI experts.

  18. PrimroseRoadon 10 Dec 2007 at 3:00 pm

    Insightful post. A few recent books on information theory and embodiment (see esp. Katherine Hayles’ “How We Became Posthuman”) cast dualism/neo-Cartesianism/consciousness-obsessed work as a sort of throwback to either Freud or Descartes. To say that consciousness is more than the body/brain and that it in itself is entirely what makes us human opens the door for many crackpot theories about how “consciousness” can do more than the body can.

  19. Aaron Son 13 Dec 2007 at 5:34 pm

    PrimroseRoad: ever see “what the bleep do we know” and “consciousness causes wave-function collapse”…?

  20. Ian Wardellon 18 Feb 2008 at 11:35 am

    Steven Novella
    if an independent or separate mind caused changes in the brain (reversing cause and effect) then we would not expect that altering brain function would alter the mind also – but it does.


    if an independent or separate brain caused changes in conscious states (reversing cause and effect) then we would not expect that conscious decisions would alter the brain also – but they do.

    Well obviously there is something wrong here.

    I see no difficulty with the notion that brain function can influence mental states. It depends if you think that intelligence, interests, etc are intrinsic to the self — in which case altering brain function shouldn’t change them — or whether you think they are mere properties of the self which can change.

    A substance dualist would surely maintain they are properties rather than intrinsic to the self. Otherwise they could not subscribe to an unchanging enduring self.

    It depends on what people think makes a self. Cannot a person’s interests change and even intelligence, and yet be the same person (i.e same self)? Even though my interests and intelligence may have radically changed since I was a child, it certainly seems to me that I am still literally the same self. At least, if you maintain otherwise, then arguments need to be presented.

  21. […] science. It is important to keep an eye on the arguments and tactics being developed by the DI to deny the core claim of neuroscience, that the mind is what the brain does. This is likely to be an increasing area of attention for the […]

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