August 2011
« Jul    

Dualism in many guises

One of these days we have to get over dualism! Most scientist and philosophers (not all) give lip services to having thrown out Descartes’ dualism but then some bring dualism back in under another name.

One way in which this happens is in computer science. Recently Kay Sotala put on the Less Wrong site the draft of a paper. Here are some quotes from the draft:

The ability to transfer a human mind to a computer, creating an “upload”, will have a considerable impact on society. Previous work has examined some of the economical consequences of the ability to copy minds, as well as the improved coordination ability stemming from being able to copy, delete and restore minds. …A digital mind running on a computer system can upgrade the system to utilize more powerful hardware, while biological humans cannot drastically upgrade their brains. Suppose that there is some minimum hardware configuration that provides a digital mind with roughly the same processing power and memory as a human brain. Any increase in hardware resources past this point is a hardware advantage in favor of the digital mind.

The notion that the mind and brain can be separated with one translated into a digital program and the other into electronic computer is hard to visualize without a type of dualism – not spirit and matter but software and hardware.

Another division goes back to Plato. In a conversation with Alfredo Pereira Jr., he wrote this in response to my saying that Double-Aspect Monism sounded like Dualism to me:

Monism is not Dualism! Double-Aspect Monism (DAM) assumes a difference between the physical and the mental, holding that they are two aspects of the same being. The difference may be just epistemological (each aspect derives from a different perspective, first-person or third-person) or ontological (as in Aristotle’s hylomorphism: everything in Nature is composed of Matter and Form, they work together but are intrinsically different principles)… These conscious mental patterns (feelings) are embedded on physical (energy) processes, but they are not reductible to physical properties (like the form of a geometrical figure that cannot be reduced to the material substrate of a physical object having the form, e.g. of a triangle, rectangle, etc.).

I have encountered other similar divisions based on reifying an abstract concept (form, mathematical expression etc.) as real but distinct from physical reality. Here we have the separation of mental and physical (as opposed to spirit and matter). It says that something can be real without being part of physical reality; that concepts, numbers or forms can somehow interact with one another without touching the material world, but staying on their own (magical) level.

Then we have another division between consciousness and unconsciousness, a division that Freud made. Freud’s theories are not taken very seriously by most people today but this division survived. Very many envisage a conscious mind that is able to make decisions and an unconscious mind that is automatic. This is the ‘my brain made me do it’ attitude. Many coaching and self-help groups have simple descriptions of this type of dualism.

An iceberg can serve as a useful metaphor to understand the unconscious mind, its relationship to the conscious mind and how the two parts of our mind can better work together. As an iceberg floats in the water, the huge mass of it remains below the surface. Only a small percentage of the whole iceberg is visible above the surface. In this way, the iceberg is like the mind. The conscious mind is what we notice above the surface while the unconscious mind, the largest and most powerful part, remains unseen below the surface.

More scientific people tend not to use ‘mind’ but instead use ‘process’ so we have conscious processes and unconscious processes. This still assumes there is a division but it is an acceptable one. But sometimes in reading authors who use ‘process’, I get the feeling that they are still making a firm division in their thoughts.

There is an notion sometimes put forward that it does not matter whether dualism is a faulty concept, because we are doomed to believe it. On the Edge site Paul Bloom had an article on inborn dualism.

Where does common-sense dualism come from? One reasonable answer is it is learned. Children are raised in environments where they hear dualistic stories, they see movies where souls are depicted as independent from bodies, and they usually get some sort of religious training. And this dualism is inherent in the language that they learn; when we talk about the relationship between a person and his or her brain, we use the language of possession, not of identity. …There are also certain universal experiences that support a dualist worldview, such as the sensation of leaving one’s body in a dream, or the experience of our bodies disobeying our will…. So it is perfectly plausible that children start off innocent of any body-soul separation, and come to be dualists through experience. But I want to defend a very different view. I think children are dualists from the start. …Once children learn that the brain is involved in thinking, they don’t take it as showing that the brain as the source of mental life; they don’t become materialists. Rather they interpret “thinking” in a narrow sense, and conclude that the brain is a cognitive prosthesis, something added to the soul to enhance its computing power.

I, personally, have great difficulty with forms of dualism – I do not feel divided. This is one of the things that produced my interest in neurobiology. When I was about 12, I made a really stupid remark along dualist lines and my mother sharply criticized it. I was mortified because I had just been playing at being a clever smart-ass beyond what I could backup and I knew it. There was real shame at being catch talking nonsense. I got busy thinking about whether I was divided and found no reason to think I was. As a teenager in the ’50s I could not believe what I was being taught and read. At that time I found no one who disputed that one way or another our thinking was divided and I could not accept that as true. I am sure that I am not the only person in the world that is not doomed to be a dualist. Now I find that some scientists are leaving dualism behind and I follow their work with great interest.

Leave a Reply