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dualism in retreat

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Back some thirty years ago when I was much more into philosophy than I am now, one of the main philosophical topics, with books of essays dedicated to it, was ‘the mind-body problem’. Since then, it seems to me, an army of researchers, not philosophers, have transformed this field beyond recognition, rendering the idea of a mind and a body on each side of some kind of a barrier as something impossibly démodé.

Throughout this period, philosophical dualism, the idea that mind stuff is irreducibly different from bodily stuff [including, obviously, the organs of the body such as the brain] has been in retreat. I remember [though I never read] a book that came out early in this period [actually first published in 1977] called The Self and its Brain, co-written by the philosopher Karl Popper and a Nobel Prize-winning neurologist, John Eccles, which put forward a version of dualism they called ‘interactionism’. Most of the book is available online here, and on rough perusal it seems attached to a rather limited ‘man-as-machine’ view of materialism, which is overly philosophical and historical. In fact I would say that it’s largely due to neurological research, and the wider and deeper picture it has provided of not only the clearly material components of the brain, but of their cellular, chemical and electrical interactions with other components, that we have an expanded notion of materialism, way beyond anything Descartes or Newton, let alone Lucretius or Democritus, could have conceived.

Dualism is still popular, but no longer quite so respectable. I find it cropping up in a lot of not-so-informed commentary accompanying online videos on brain research, consciousness and related subjects. Dualists, it seems to me, are faced with the insuperable difficulty of finding some explanation or cause of ‘mind-stuff’, the contents of consciousness etc, which is non-material, and at the same time non ‘magical’ [unless magic is to be embraced – which might work in theology but hardly in philosophy].

Another term that was a little more popular back thirty years ago is ‘epiphenomenalism’, a term which goes back at least as far as William James [who rejected it], but which doesn’t solve the problem. It seems to have been introduced as a kind of half-way house between dualism and materialism, in that it denied a ghost-in-the-machine or soul-like explanation of consciousness but accepted that our experience of consciousness and all its contents could not explained by anything so reductive or intellectually inadequate as a set of brain states. Epiphenomenalism no doubt came in different varieties but its essential theme was that, yes, there is some kind of necessary connection between brain states and conscious states but it isn’t a causal one, or at least not a simple causal one, for the vast difference, at least in appearance, between these two types of state, can’t possibly be made sense of in causal terms.

The problem remains, though, that if we don’t accept a wholly causal relationship, what kind of relationship can we intelligibly put in its place? I learn from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on epiphenomenalism, linked to above, and revised only last year, that the position is still argued for [in fact ‘interactionism’ has been described as a form of epiphenomenalism]. They present this example, admittedly from thirty years go:

Frank Jackson (1982) has given an epiphenomenalistic argument that has spawned lively responses from many quarters. This argument turns on the concept of physical information, where “physical information” is information about ourselves and our world of the kind that is obtainable in the physical, chemical, and biological sciences. In Jackson’s argument, a brilliant scientist, Mary, has learned all the physical information there is about color vision. Having been confined to a black and white room, however, Mary has never had a color experience. Jackson asks whether Mary will learn anything when she is released from her confinement and thus comes for the first time to have color experiences. It seems compelling that she would learn something; but as she already has all the physical information there is, what she learns must be some other kind of information, which we may call “phenomenal information”. This “knowledge argument” has been regarded as a strong reason to accept a dualistic view of our experiences. When combined with the traditional arguments given above, it becomes a potent source of support for epiphenomenalism.

I’m not sure if I’m missing something but I don’t find this argument, as presented, at all convincing. I think the philosophical fondness for ingenious thought experiments often obfuscates more than it reveals. It seems to me that the ‘phenomenal experience’ of seeing colour for Mary is simply an addition to the knowledge she has by other means. We may well call it another kind of information, but I see no  reason to use it in support of a dualistic position. Or we could say that we arrive at understanding by a variety of pathways [not just two], but this isn’t the dualism traditionally associated with the ‘mind-body problem’, or what Chalmers has called ‘the hard problem of consciousness’.

In any case, this example seems to me to illustrate just what the once-mighty dualist position has been reduced to, a quibble about directly experiential information and its difference from empirically arrived at information based on the analysis of neural pathways, the complex action of oxytocin and so forth. It’s not really surprising that neurological researchers ignore this sort of philosophising as they engage in precisely this work of teasing out the relation between felt experiences, behaviour, cognition and brain activity. We’re still in the infancy of such research, and if any philosophers can help move our understanding forward in this field, they at the very least need to be on top of the wide range of research being undertaken.

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Written by stewart henderson

June 5, 2012 at 10:20 pm

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