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Rethinking Dualism

Written by Jeff Drake
6 · 02 · 19

I sometimes feel that my brain is a sieve. So much of the material I read just passes through my head without sticking at all. It’s probably due to my age aggravated by the sometimes rather obtuse material I am reading. This is one reason I periodically re-read books and articles that catch my attention. I know that I missed something, probably multiple somethings, so I go in for a second dose.

This is certainly true for areas of philosophy that continue to interest me. One such topic is my favorite, the philosophy of mind. I’ll admit to being somewhat obsessed with consciousness and the questions that it poses: What is consciousness? What is required in order for consciousness to happen?  Is consciousness purely physical?

This effort has led me to reading and thinking about the so-called mind-body problem many times. (Note: The mind-body problem quite simply deals with these kinds of questions: Are we just a physical brain or are we made of a brain and something else, a non-physical mind? If so, how does a non-physical mind influence a physical body or vice versa?)

For most, there are two sides to this argument. One side says that there is only the physical brain and nothing else. These folks are called, “physicalists.” The other side says that we are both brain, a physical lump of grey matter, and mind i.e., an ethereal, non-physical something that exists inside us, separate from our brain yet somehow able to exert influence over it (and vice versa). These folks are called “dualists.”

I admit freely that I have entertained and accepted both positions at different times in my life. There is no right or wrong answer… yet, so it pays to keep an open mind about such things (no pun intended) and my position on the mind-body debate has evolved and morphed over the years, affected by the things I read regarding the latest scientific and philosophical research. My history is that I started studying philosophy in college as a dualist and later became a physicalist.

My latest research is leading me to consider that there may be a different direction, a middle road, so to speak, between the traditional mind-body arguments. Perhaps consciousness is not just physical, nor is it just mental, but something else altogether? Believe me, no one is more surprised than I am to be exploring this as a possible answer to questions of consciousness, but I think if I want to make any progress, the time is right to reanalyze the traditional mind-body arguments in conjunction with the current effort going into this field of research. Or, as Monty Python would say, “And now for something completely different!”

To be clear (and brief), between the two positions – that of a physicalist and a dualist – the easiest position to accept and defend should be that of the physicalist. For one thing, literally all of the scientific research to date supports this position. We are made of 100% physical matter. End of discussion. There is zero scientific evidence for the opposite, dualist position. Yet curiously, the dualist position is probably the most widely held position of the two. I think that most people on the street would say, if asked, that we have both a brain and a mind. Yet, this is the hardest position to defend. So why do people believe it? Well, facts are often easy to ignore when they contradict a belief that one has grown up with.

It’s not unusual to hear people (dualists) say that they believe our “minds” are made of some kind of energy that science just hasn’t discovered yet. However, there are a couple of problems with this belief.

First, scientists have been looking for new energy sources for at least 80+ years. Countless thousands of experiments have been performed by scientists all over the world trying to find something, anything “new” at a fundamental level in our world. This is the kind of discovery that makes history and usually the news. New, historical discoveries typically mean lucrative research investment dollars will be forthcoming. Thus, there are compelling incentives for scientists to find a new source of energy, if one were to be found, yet this appears difficult to do.

It took the Hadron collider at CERN to find the Higgs Boson and it still wasn’t easy. Think of all the science that led to this discovery (and billions of dollars)! But even the scientists at the Hadron project are currently worried about the fact that they just aren’t finding much “new” in the realm of the very small. Billions were spent only to find out that a prediction scientists have been talking about for some years was true. I fear that Hadron funding may fall victim to those who are asking, “What have you done for us lately?”

But the years of research begs the question, “Is it possible that there is some kind of new energy literally inside our bodies that science has not found?” It’s tempting to say, “Yeah, anything is possible.” But if we are to be honest and diligent in our pursuit of truth then we have to also ask, “Is the existence of such a thing at all probable given the amount of effort that has gone into finding it to date?” Sorry dualists, but the answer has to be, “No, it’s not very probable at all.” This position is simply untenable.

Secondly, dualists still must deal with explaining how a non-physical mind can make a physical body do anything at all! And then there are the additional nagging questions: Where does this invisible mind exist anyway? Is it in our head? How do you know it’s not in your arm or leg? If someone sustains brain damage, does the mind stay intact or is it damaged, too? Most would agree that the mind can be damaged by physical brain trauma. We hear examples of this every day in the news. But how does this work exactly? How do the two things, a mind and a brain, communicate? I suppose figuring this out would be easier if we could first find and identify a non-physical mind to analyze. But we can’t.

So, in the tug of war between physicalism and dualism, physicalism wins, based on science. But physicalists should not crow too loudly about this because physicalism is not out of the woods quite yet. Physicalists have their own problems that they have to deal with. For example, if we are purely physical beings, how is it that we experience anything? For example, I experience the color red when I look at a rose. Further, I can look at a rose and see the color red, but I can also close my eyes and imagine a rose and see red. But, if you were to open my head up and look inside while I was doing either of these two activities, would you see the red color I’m experiencing anywhere (other than blood)? Nope. So how does this work? In philosophy, this is known as the “explanatory gap.”

Given that the dualist arguments fail and that there is no answer (yet) for the problem of “experience” for physicalists, are we at a standstill? Can we make no further progress until science finds an answer? As recently as a year or two ago, I’d probably agree that we’d have to wait a long time. But like I said, my views on this are now evolving. I am open once again to the idea that there may be something else going on when it comes to consciousness.

Could it be that consciousness may not be purely physical? That is to say, our bodies are physical, made of 100% matter, but could the physical parts of us somehow work together and generate something else, something greater than our physical parts, a non-physical something that we can call a mind? Note that this mind cannot exist by itself, separate from our bodies. It is not anything spiritual. If your body dies, so too does your mind. Instead, this “mind” is the result of a myriad of physical processes and events that have to occur just so, but when they do: “Voila! Consciousness!”

What about questions regarding where consciousness exists? It is popular to think that consciousness is only inside our heads., but is that really the way it works? Is it possible that consciousness requires more than just the gray matter in our heads? Buddhists, for example, believe that consciousness is a mystical thing inside our body and with enough meditation practice, you can eliminate everything else in your head and simply experience pure consciousness, at one with the universe. So, we have to ask, “Is it possible to eliminate everything in our minds and just be conscious, as Buddhist meditation practices espouse?” Well, not really, if you seriously think about it. At the very least, trying to eliminate every single thought in your mind will always fall short, because no matter how hard you try, you will always be aware of your own consciousness. You can’t escape this. So, you see, in the end, as my favorite philosopher, Maurice Merleau-Ponti once said, “Consciousness is always consciousness of something.” To be conscious is to be conscious within a specific context i.e., the world. Could this be a potential clue to the origin of consciousness?

Science is discovering how the interaction between ourselves and our environment (our world) is wired into our very genes. We are not only born to interact with the world before us, we are genetically wired to do so from the very beginning of our cellular existence! Could it be that consciousness requires this interaction between the internal (our brain) and the external (our world) in order to happen at all?

We’re not anywhere near a point yet where we can say what consciousness is or how it comes about, but there are several intriguing theories related to how consciousness happens that have really caught my attention and each is contributing to my drive to look in a new direction for possible answers.

The theories I’m talking about are below:

  • Emergence
    • In philosophy, systems theory, science, and art, emergence occurs when an entity is observed to have properties its parts do not have on their own. These properties or behaviors emerge only when the parts interact in a wider whole. (Wikipedia)
  • Enactivism
    • Enactivism argues that cognition arises through a dynamic interaction between an acting organism and its environment. It claims that our environment is one which we selectively create through our capacities to interact with the world. (Wikipedia)
    • Enactivism is rooted in the phenomenological work of Merleau-Ponty and Bateson’s biological perspective work.
  • Extended consciousness.
    • Extended consciousness is the theory that cognitive processes can extend outside the brain and the body to include objects that we interact with in our environment. (Extended Cognition and Extended Consciousness by David J. Chalmers)

I will explore each of these theories further in follow-on posts.

Let us know what you think…


1 Comment

  1. Michael B Connolly

    Very interesting!


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Jeff Drake

Retired IT consultant, world-traveler, hobby photographer, and philosopher.