Genealogy of an Error: Cartesian Dualism

It is regrettable that today in the 21st century there is still discussion of substance dualism, an idea that died some time ago, but the moldering corpse of which is dutifully carried from cave to cave and revered by stiff necked theists. It originates with the catastrophic collision of two momentous errors:  Ancient Near Eastern god mythology and Western metaphysics.

The concept of metaphysics is foreign and posterior to the Bible. The primitive Near Eastern gods are by no means of some noumenal realm but rather a physical force within the world and present. They control the waters and the winds, bring feast or famine and are the primal force of the universe. They are gods of fear, reflecting the ever-present existential peril of primitive man overwhelmed by the violent whims of nature. They are projections of the brutally primitive father figure, at once threatening and protecting – a force amenable to supplication, obedience and praise. Man thus created god in his father’s image. Survival was seen as dependent on the favor of these father gods and worship became a matter of life and death. Accordingly, the heretic became the greatest threat to tribal survival and an abomination requiring immediate death. The god(s) of the Bible are no different, present in the world and causative.

Metaphysics as we know it is a Greek invention which separated the physical world from its essence, positing that what we encountered in the world was merely form the essence of which derived from an unknowable and nonphysical noumenal realm. Our soul, as nonphysical, was the conduit between noumenal truth and physical appearance. This metaphysical separation of essence from the physical is an error that has ever since misled humanity to seek truth in the imaginary heavens rather than the earth.

I have written before of the metaphor of Christianity as an incompatible graft onto the body of Europe – one destined to go through a process of rejection.

Greek metaphysics was the suture that bound this strange oriental religion to the West via Augustine’s use of Aristotelian metaphysics of causality and Thomistic/Platonic metaphysics of soul. This synthesis justified Christianity to the Western intellect, marrying the continuation of primitive myth and superstition to the metaphysical annihilation of essential truth in the world. Thus, was born the illusion of Cartesian substance duality.

I address this issue here as a follow on to two long dialogs with the theist philosopher Dr. John Mark Reynolds, at the end of which, in lieu of providing a justification for an immaterial soul, he referred me to an argument by a minor theist philosopher, Frank B Dilley.

I will critique his argument, which at least acknowledges what Reynolds would not: that dualism is dead other than among the waning influence and number of theist philosophers. Dilley claims his scope thus:

“Three prominent conceptions are the Platonic/Cartesian, the Aristotelian/Thomistic, and now “emergent” dualists. All three are thought to be dead by the majority of contemporary philosophers of mind.

“Descartes was convinced that the present existence of a non-substantial self could not be contradicted, and found other reasons to support his view that this self was not material, persisted in time, was possibly immortal, and had a relation to its body which was merely contingent and with which it interacted frequently. Taking consciousness seriously requires a non-material self.

“Briefly stated, modern Cartesians have defended the existence of a nonmaterial persisting conscious self, justifying its persistence in order to account for continuity of experience, character and memory, and justifying its non-materiality by the fact that its contents (qualia, feelings, thoughts, etc.) cannot be located in the physical world (inside or outside the self) and that its ways of responding (reasoning, free will, intentionality, etc.) are not ways that material bodies operate. So far I am merely stating the obvious about substance dualism.”

Before going into a more detailed look at Dilley’s argument, I will make some preliminary comments.

Descartes’ claim that non-substantial self could not be contradicted rested on a primitive and naïve understanding of the nature of the physical. For Descartes, the physical, other than energy, was irreducible matter (stuff), and qualia, feelings and thoughts were immaterial. Today we understand that whatever is physical exists at the most elementary state yet known as waves in a quantum field. This state, not possibly known to Descartes, provides far more possibility for eventually understanding mind as physically based. It is important to disentangle the notion of physical from material, and interesting to note that the only two instances in the universe we know of where deterministic causality ceases and indeterminacy is the rule are in the wave activities (vibrations) of quantum events and the wave activities of the mind (which may be the key for the existence of free will). This approach, sometimes called quantum mind, is being followed seriously by such leading-edge physicists and neuroscientists as Michio Kaku, Roger Penrose, Adrian Kent, Hiroomi Umezawa, Giuseppe Vitiello, Walter Freeman, Karl Pribram, and Henry Stapp. Simply put, substance dualism is a product of ignorance of the nature of physicality. When we finally come to understand the nature of consciousness, it will primarily be due to the work of physicists and neuroscientists, not philosophers and theologians.

It is common for theists such as Dilley to obfuscate the immaterial nature of the universe by constantly referring to the more promising avenue of non-reductive physicalism as non-reductive materialism to reinforce this misconception of materiality. But Dilley does candidly admit what is at stake here and his motivation:

“There is widespread agreement, also, that much is at stake if Cartesian dualism is abandoned. If there is no Cartesian soul then there is no reason to believe in a self which unifies present experience or which persists over time, in the possibility of life beyond death, in rationality as we ordinarily conceive it, in libertarian free will, and in our ordinary notions of moral responsibility.”

This foreshadows his later conclusion that, even if we cannot prove immaterial substance, we should use the as yet inconclusiveness of physical explanation of mind as an excuse to maintain our belief: “perhaps we should hold onto our folk psychological ideas..” This isn’t serious thought, but merely an attempt to cling to Christianity by his fingernails. If we eliminate the soul, we lose immortality and a transcendent god. He errs, however, in claiming physicalism necessarily abolishes free will, morality, unification of experience. and reason. To the contrary, wave activity and brain structure likely provide more solid physical ground for their explanation.

Most of Dilley’s article focuses on the defects of epiphenomenalism and panpsychism, which I don’t dispute. Although these defects might be resolved in time, I don’t think either of these are the answer and won’t go into Dilley’s objections. He provides very little argument, however, to justify taking substance dualism seriously, but we will look at what little there is.

Dilley first presents the individuation problem, which arises as a tension between individual bodies and sense experience on the one hand, and immaterial soul on the other. If our consciousness is not defined by our unique material facts, then how do we distinguish one soul from another? What happens if we transplant this immaterial soul to another body? Dilley responds:

“…dualists could say that spirits are located in the same place where their brains are, but any good Cartesian must reject that suggestion. It is precisely because colors and thoughts cannot be reduced to physical properties or be found in physical space that makes dualism attractive. This point is made decisively by Colin McGinn, not himself a dualist, who points out of our conscious experience that “it is not located at any specific place; it is not made up of spatially distributed parts; it has no spatial dimensionality; it is not solid. Even to ask for its spatial properties is to commit some sort of category mistake, analogous to asking for the spatial properties of numbers.”18 It is precisely because colors and thoughts cannot be reduced to physical properties or be found in physical space that makes dualism attractive.”

Here he simply repeats Descartes error of material, unavoidable for Descartes but inexcusable for anyone in the 21st century. If anything, the seeming immaterial nature and absence of space and location are precisely what make quantum mind attractive. He concludes:

“A good Cartesian can imagine that there is a possible person in this or some possible world who has exactly similar psychological characteristics to hers and yet is someone else, and can imagine that a person who grew up differently in this world or some possible world could still be her. Had she become a plumber instead of a philosopher she would have been the same person, though, to borrow from John Gardner, under these circumstances it might be her pipes, not her theories that fail to hold water. For Cartesians, it is the subject of awareness, not the psychological states or body it has, that individuates and identifies the person.”

The nice thing about metaphysics is you can derive a solution for any problem at all because we can imagine anything at all. His solution here is that he can imagine differentiation of souls irrespective of bodies. To do this, however, he conflates three distinct concepts central to cognition:

1. Soul, which supposedly is our true and eternal immaterial self.

2. Consciousness, which is what we are aware of at any particular moment.

3. Mind, which includes subconscious and unconscious activities.

The problem then becomes, what is the soul without body experience, and how do we explain the changes to our souls through those experiences.

Dilley’s next stop is the famously intractable interaction problem. While a metaphysician can magically solve problems through definition, these solutions almost always result in contradiction. In this case, the problem arises as the inability of material substance and immaterial substance to interact. Without interaction there can be no effect on the soul of the sort Dilley posited above, and the soul can have no effect on the brain. This problem arises directly from the initial metaphysical error of separation of mind and body and can never be solved. Or, not solved as long as we refrain from the special pleading that usually underlies metaphysical definition. In Dilley’s case:

“As many dualists have claimed, mind-brain interactions may be “anomalous.” It may be true that physical causes and effects are linked by spatio-temporal continuity, but that is surely not true of mental causes and effects. Mental causes, unlike physical causes, may be linked by semantic content or by association, but not by spatial links. Links between mind and brain are causal, not spatial. If psychokinesis is possible, mind does not move from the vicinity of its body and go to the area of the body it affects, it just directly works on that object.

Moreover, if mental causes merely change the distribution of energy in the physical world, then conservation of energy causes no problem. I differ from some Cartesians in thinking that any actions of mind on brain should in principle be capable of scientific investigation. It is true that my mind itself cannot be examined by physical science, but if my mind acts on my brain by changing the resistance of synapses, or if my mind can act on “remote” matter and directly affect other brains, then a developed physical science should provide evidence of mental causation. Some parapsychologists think that parapsychological science has established such influences.”

And anomalous can mean anything at all since immaterial consciousness can never be examined, and therefore is unfalsifiable. Quantum mind or any other physical explanation, on the other hand, will stand or fall on the basis of falsifiability. Serious people cannot afford mere metaphysical assertion. As for parapsychology, he then went into positive speculation about remote viewing (which US DoD and the CIA definitively debunked when it shut down the Stargate Project over Ingo Swann’s consistent failures), communication with the dead, etc.

Having blithely solved the interaction problem, Dilley is free to solve the related problem of mind/brain pairing:

“The ultimate solution to the original attaching of souls to bodies precedes any awareness on my part, but a solution which appeals to God is in order for most theists, since it is rare to find a dualist who is not a theist. Souls need bodies in order to gather information and to interact with other souls, and it may well be that bodies are needed for souls to develop. Many theists from Plato onward have developed “soul-building” explanations for the soul’s attachment to and even restriction to one body at a time.

“Once a soul has been attached to a body, there are quite ordinary explanations for why soul and body become increasingly interdependent.”

Who knew it was that easy? Now that he solved the pairing problem by appealing to god everything else falls into place. Except that, now that he has solved the interaction and pairing problem, he concludes his case with what he calls “the structured soul, the structured body and the pairing problem.”

“Cartesian philosophers have no problem in recognizing that the body/brain has a structure, and that changing of that structure is an ongoing process. What is not discussed so frequently is that the soul or mind must also have a structure. What we Cartesians should say about the soul is that it is not at present a blank slate but that our minds are slates that have been well written on. We should say that our present experience discloses to us that our souls are structured. Now, to talk about the soul as structured is not typical Cartesian talk, but I want to argue that it should be and to use the fact that the soul has a structure to help to minimize the “pairing” problem in the way it is usually raised. Why a particular existing soul continues to be paired with a particular existing body with which it mutually interacts has a relatively simple solution.”

This is another great example of the contradictions that arise from metaphysically defining away problems. Above he postulated that souls and mind cannot be spatial, but in this last section describes mind as a structure, which necessarily implies spatial topology, and even more conveniently, maps exactly to the brain. This implies several fatal problems for his justification of Cartesian Dualism:

1. The justification requires a spatial concept of mind.

2. The spatial mapping of mind and brain remove any valid reason for positing a separate mind in the first place since they end up indistinguishable.

3. All of this conveniently ignores the certain fact that the brain and brain chemistry absolutely determine consciousness. Drugs will alter consciousness, serotonin imbalance will cause depression which will severely impact one’s thoughts, and the mind completely disappears when under general anesthetic. From this, it is safe to conclude that the mind is identical to the brain, and certainly will cease in all aspects after death.

In Part 2 I will explore another approach to understanding mind.

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