The problems of dualism

It’s probably well-known to readers of this blog by now that I maintain a Cartesian dualist position. It takes a certain amount of either sheer, raw stubborness to do this, or an incredible amount of philosophical naiveté. As Searle recently noted, most modern philosophers [trained and working in American and British schools — he didn’t say that, but clearly implied it] reject cartesian mind/body dualism. As Quine explained, it raises many more problems than it solves.

Long ago, I found answers to some of the common complaints about dualism. I just realized yesterday that I’ve never posted any of them. It’s probably time I did. Just for the record, you understand.

The first and foremost issue I’d like to address is the often-repeated criticism that dualism, which involves a non-material mind or spirit, and a material brain or body, raises the question of just how, exactly the non-material component should have causal efficacy on the material part of the system. How can they interact? these materialist thinkers ask, in all seriousness.

Why this question is asked confuses me because we have many familiar examples in both real life and science where non-material things interact with material things. Energy affects matter through forces, and neither energy nor forces are made of little tiny balls of hard stuff. Science is strongly dualistic in its metaphysics, as I’ve mentioned before, in fact it involves the interaction of six kinds of things: matter, energy, forces, space, time, and rules. The laws of nature regulate the behavior of all physical systems at every level — yet no one complains about how this happens. (Okay, I admit it’s somewhat incorrect to say physics is dualistic; it’s sextuplistic, or at least quintuplistic if you ignore the rules part. If you throw in the geometric math of string theory with its eleven dimensions, it might even be hyperplistic.)

A more interesting example of the problem of interaction is computer programs. Computer programs are abstract entities (I think even Quine would agree to that, since he has also gone on record as accepting the existence of abstract entities). So how does it control the computer’s activities? By the application of reduction, you could propose that computers are actually controlled by electronics and the physics of electricity, but that’s inexact. Electrical theory fully explains unprogrammed computers just as well, so you need some additional level of explanation to account for computers that show spreadsheets and play music. Which leads to the question, how do programs control computers?

Ultimately, though, despite these specific kinds of arguments, science itself has long proposed how to deal with questions of this kind. In the scientific world, we don’t ask how something is possible. If observation shows that something happens, then we accept that it happens. The rule books are updated to note that it happens, and the experimentalists and theorists go about the business of describing quantitatively the process that’s involved. No muss, no fuss. So if galaxies are pushed away from each other, and the hubble expansion rate is increasing, we don’t have crazies running through the halls of University screaming that the Universe cannot do this. You just puzzle out how it works.

Same thing with mind and body, or programs and computers. I lift my hand. The thought leads to the action. Simple observation reveals that thoughts influence objects. So you write it down in your book thus: “Thoughts influence objects.” The next step is to describe the form and details of this process. And that’s all you have to do.

Which leads to the more basic question I haven’t touched on yet: What are materialists really proposing with their interaction point? Is it a proposal that all interactions have to involve collisions of little hard things? If so, we’ve abandoned that model of reality long, long ago, and I would be amazed to hear somebody actually propose it today. Or is the model of interaction something else, something more worthy of attention? If so, I have no idea what it is, and I reject the position that all interactions have to be physical (elastic or inelastic) collisions. I think most physicists would agree.


About John Valley

Born in Michigan, USA, in 1948, I've since lived all over the US, but back here again. I've worked as operating systems developer, consultant, and published three books on Unix and programming back in the 90's. My interests include philosophy and cooking chili. I can usually be found online in the mornings, on Undernet, chatting with people in the #Philosophical channel.
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1 Response to The problems of dualism

  1. olga mishra:ольга мишра says:

    if we can have a unified field theory.. if we can dream of electrons as a probabilistic – not – in definite – state/space,,

    if we can already witness countless exampless in real life…

    why cant we conjecture such efficaies?

    somehow electrons and photos can exhibit duality.. we are made of matter, matter is made of atomic parties …which in turn is comprised of subatomic particles..

    if sub atomic particles can exhibit duality.. what makes us think – the human existence – cant?

    olga mishra

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