A materialist defends substance dualism

At UD, Vincent Torley links to an odd little paper by William Lycan, a philosopher at the University of North Carolina, entitled Giving Dualism Its Due.

The abstract reads:

Despite the current resurgence of modest forms of mind-body dualism, traditional Cartesian immaterial-substance dualism has few if any defenders. This paper argues that no convincing case has been against substance dualism, and that standard objections to it can be credibly answered.

The interesting part is that Lycan is a materialist. He writes:

My position may be rational, broadly speaking, but not because the arguments favor it: Though the arguments for dualism do (indeed) fail, so do the arguments for materialism. And the standard objections to dualism are not very convincing; if one really manages to be a dualist in the first place, one should not be much impressed by them. My purpose in this paper is to hold my own feet to the fire and admit that I do not proportion my belief to the evidence.

Since many commenters here (including me) are materialists, I think this paper might stimulate an interesting discussion.

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35 thoughts on “A materialist defends substance dualism

  1. Thanks. Yes, I’ll probably join the discussion.

    I didn’t get that far into the vjtorley post, which suffers from the “tldr” problem (sometimes known as “diarrhea of the typewriter”).

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  2. I didn’t either. I started skimming long before that point, but the words “no good arguments for materialism” caught my eye.

    Someone should really take vjtorley aside and explain how counterproductive his prolixity is. Unlike kairosfocus, I think he would at least consider the criticism.

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  3. Lycan seems to have a strange idea of what justifies adherence to a position. He says things like

    Plausible? Of course not. But I think only because dualism itself is not plausible. If one actually is a dualist and holds fixed the assumption of Cartesian interaction, the transducer explanation is pretty good.

    But of course if we’re being rational, we won’t “hold fixed” the assumption of Cartesian interaction, nor will we hold fixed its negation. We’ll examine the entirety of the evidence and decide which hypothesis is a better fit.

    In other words, the question shouldn’t be “If I am already a committed dualist, will I be swayed by these objections?” Instead, it should be “If I am a rational person examining all of the evidence, arguments, and objections, will I find dualism or materialism to be better supported?”

    That comment of Lycan’s is not just a one-off, either. He later writes:

    Here again, the picture is implausible, but only because dualism and Cartesian interaction are implausible in the first place. Subtract those two implausibilities, and the rest of the picture is not bad at all.

    Also:

    The dualist should never and would never accept [premise] 1 in the first place.

    But if the dualist shouldn’t accept premise 1, then neither should the materialist, if both are being rational.

    If I am rational, and if reason and evidence favor materialism, then I should be a materialist, regardless of whether my trajectory takes me through dualism at some point.

    And of course the mirror-image statement is also true.

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  4. Think of somebody like Thomas Nagel, who does not see materialism as remotely plausible. Lycan seems to be arguing that for someone such as Nagel, dualism might not be a irrational as it is often taken to be.

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  5. Can someone explain property dualism to me? Also, I’m still ploughing through Nagel! And yes, vjtorley is a decent guy. Will read this paper.

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  6. I see no value in dualism. If something interacts with matter it is matter. Didn’t Einstein clear that up?

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  7. What is “matter”, these days, anyway? “Materialists” believe in a substance long since discarded as nothing more, really, than a quaint superstition.

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  8. If there’s interest, I could write up a post describing the various traditional positions in philosophy of mind (including property dualism, eliminative materialism, etc.) and also some new sub-varieties.

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  9. “Matter” is a metaphor. The billiard ball metaphor died a hundred years ago. Matter is whatever can be studied by physics. If something supposedly immaterial interacts with something considered to be material, it can be studied by physics.

    Physics has been dealing with regularities that do not fit the billiard ball metaphor since 1905.

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  10. Perhaps something that describes how dualism sidesteps Occam’s Razor. Something that demonstrates the heuristic value of dualism.

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  11. Please do.

    But from my own very limited reading, questions such as “what is matter/material/physical,” “what is materialism/physicalism/naturalism” are frustratingly elusive.

    Strangely, Murray’s comment above might actually be on target. It seems to me that a lot of the debate about (substance) materialism/dualism is predicated on the antiquated atomistic notion that reality is composited of one or more substances, and to gain a true understanding of reality is to identify these substances and their properties.

    Science is one of the tools that is supposed to probe the nature of the universe, and materialists generally rely on it as the primary or even the only such tool. It is then curious to note that science in the last two-three hundred years has markedly diverged from the alchemical agenda of seeking out the fundamental “stuff” of existence.

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  12. Nagel, from what I can make out so far in Mind and Cosmos, proposes something called “neutral monism” which seems to amount to there being something other than material stuff but which is nonetheless part of the universe. It doesn’t seem very monist to me.

    I think the big issue (for Nagel anyway, possibly for William and/or the IDists) is the conviction that somehow “consciousness” doesn’t lend itself to a material (defined anyway you like) explanation – Nagel agrees that consciousness is completely correlated with material conditions, but does not see how, without some further puzzle piece, those material conditions produce consciousness.

    I haven’t got to his solution yet, but hints suggest that the hidden puzzle piece is something to do with an inbuilt tendency of the universe to find function.

    Ironically, perhaps, Nagel, in dismissing dualism because of its theological implications, seems to have hit on something very much resembling the more respectable end of theologist. The first monist I met was an Aquinas scholar (rather an eminent one) who used to preach dismissively about the idea that the “soul” was something like a helium party balloon, that we were handed sometime between conception and birth, and which we let go on death. What a foolish notion, he would say. But I never quite figured out what he was suggesting instead (although the Resurrection of the Body came into it).

    For me, the aha moment was realising that there wasn’t actually a problem to solve – that the apparently intractable “consciousness” problem is the result of an ill-posed question, not lack of a “material” or non-dualist answer.

    Essentially, if we pose the question as: by what mechanisms are we conscious of X? rather than “by what mechanism are we conscious?” I think the problem simply goes away, and I don’t think we lose anything in the change, because being conscious, but not being conscious OF anything, is an oxymoron, I think (even if all we are conscious of is that we are not conscious of anything).

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  13. Lizzie,

    Can someone explain property dualism to me?

    While we await KN’s more detailed post, here’s my take:

    ‘Property dualism’ is a response to the problem of subjective experience, to wit: nothing about a third-person description of a complicated physical system, such as the brain, suggests that it gives rise to subjective experience or explains why that happens.

    If subjective experience is not reducible to physics, then what accounts for it? Property dualists suggest that in addition to its well-understood physical properties, matter also exhibits non-physical properties, and that it is these non-physical properties that account for subjective experience.

    Property dualists are still monists in the sense that they believe that reality consists of just one substance: matter/energy. However, they believe that this single substance has non-physical as well as physical properties.

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  14. So is Nagel a property dualist? Because he claims to be a “neutral monist”.

    Anyway, I’m not a property dualist in that case, which is something of a relief.

    I don’t think there is, in fact, a “problem of subjective experience” (although it took half a century for the penny to drop for me).

    I think subjective experience is simply the experience of being a subject, and to do that, the subject has to be able to model itself as an object. Which is kind of complicated in practice, but not all that intractable, theoretically.

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  15. Lizzie,

    Essentially, if we pose the question as: by what mechanisms are we conscious of X? rather than “by what mechanism are we conscious?” I think the problem simply goes away, and I don’t think we lose anything in the change, because being conscious, but not being conscious OF anything, is an oxymoron, I think (even if all we are conscious of is that we are not conscious of anything).

    I think your argument rests on an ambiguity in the word ‘conscious’. On the one hand, to be conscious of something is to hold it in one’s mind, so that it can be manipulated and reasoned about. On the other hand, to be conscious of something means to have a subjective experience of that thing.

    Somebody (Ned Block?) coined the terms ‘access consciousness’ and ‘phenomenal consciousness’ to describe these seemingly distinct phenomena.

    ‘Access consciousness’ is an information processing phenomenon, and we know how physical systems can accomplish information processing, even if most of the details remain to be worked out in the case of the brain.

    Yet as far as I know, nobody has a plausible explanation of how ‘phenomenal consciousness’ can arise from interacting matter, and nobody knows what such an explanation would even look like.

    ‘Access consciousness’ is relatively easy to explain. The problem of phenomenal consciousness is the difficult one — the Hard Problem, to use Chalmers’ phrase.

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  16. I think subjective experience is simply the experience of being a subject, and to do that, the subject has to be able to model itself as an object.

    But robots, like Google’s self-driving car, model themselves as objects. Surely you don’t think they have subjective experiences?

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  17. Yet as far as I know, nobody has a plausible explanation of how ‘phenomenal consciousness’ can arise from interacting matter, and nobody knows what such an explanation would even look like.

    Perhaps if we could definitively define “matter” and it did not include the capability of being conscious, we would have a problem.

    But as it stands I think most people are reifying the billiard ball metaphor for matter. This leads to problems explaining consciousness.

    It seems to me the more sensible approach is to stand with physics in not pretending that we fully understand “matter” or existence.

    The fact that we can’t fully explain consciousness then becomes just another unsolved problem. One doesn’t solve problems by inventing fictional entities or properties.

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  18. Perhaps if we could definitively define “matter” and it did not include the capability of being conscious, we would have a problem.

    Nobody is claiming that we have an exhaustive understanding of matter and energy. What the property dualists are saying is that it’s hard to see how any physical property, known or unknown, could lead to subjective experience. They posit a non-physical property or properties to explain subjective experience, though I think most of them would cheerfully admit that they have no more of an idea how non-physical properties could give rise to subjectivity than they do of how physical properties could.

    It seems to me the more sensible approach is to stand with physics in not pretending that we fully understand “matter” or existence.

    The fact that we can’t fully explain consciousness then becomes just another unsolved problem.

    But unsolved problems are not all of the same order. The dark matter problem is unsolved, but nobody seriously doubts that it has a solution in terms of physical law.

    Phenomenal consciousness is different. The property dualists think that a physical explanation will never suffice. The mysterians, like Pinker and McGinn, think it’s possible that no explanation will ever suffice, because human brains may simply be incapable of comprehending how matter and energy give rise to consciousness.

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  19. keiths: But robots, like Google’s self-driving car, model themselves as objects.Surely you don’t think they have subjective experiences?

    Well, it depends on the kind of object they model themselves as. But it’s a start.

    ETA: A better example, I think, is Asimo, who exhibits awareness of the obstacles in its (his?) path, and his position in space. But when we ask “what would it be like to be Asimo” there’s not much it would be like, because there it’s so little.

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  20. That’s interesting. What kind of a model do you think is sufficient to generate subjective experience?

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  21. One with the ability to model the self and with its wants derived reflexively from the model it develops.

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  22. BWE:
    One with the ability to model the self and with its wants derived reflexively from the model it develops.

    Yes, I think that’s the essence of what we’d call consciousness at a minimum. But once you’ve got that reflexivity, and can model “this thing” as an exemplar of “other things like this thing”, and can predict the behavour of other things by running the model on the self-model and noting the simulated outcome, based in part on data on actual past outcomes, and indeed incorporating from past outcomes when “other things like this thing” act in a given way, you really have got a self-aware thing, I would suggest, and all the mechanisms in place for modelling “this thing” as a thing to which bad things and good things happen – in other words, I suggest, for the state “I feel bad” or “I feel happy” (“This thing” is in a state where bad things are likely to happen; “this thing” is in a state where good things are likely to happen).

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  23. …you really have got a self-aware thing, I would suggest, and all the mechanisms in place for modelling “this thing” as a thing to which bad things and good things happen – in other words, I suggest, for the state “I feel bad” or “I feel happy”.

    Why should modelling your own state give rise to corresponding subjective experiences if modelling someone else’s state does not?

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  24. What the property dualists are saying is that it’s hard to see how any physical property, known or unknown, could lead to subjective experience.

    That’s an argument from ignorance. I don’t know how it could be possible; therefore, it isn’t possible. It’s no different from the argument from incredulity against evolution. It’s also equivalent to vitalism.

    I’d just point out that so far, only physical things have subjective experiences.

    More importantly, anything that has measurable or detectable properties can be studied by known methods. I know it sounds circular, but it simply doesn’t make any sense to divide “things” (objects with detectable properties) into material and other.

    I thought we abandoned that kind of physics with the equivalence of matter and energy. Since Einstein we have found even weirder properties of matter, some of which such as dark matter and energy, are still puzzling.

    What precedent is there in the history of science for any useful heuristic arising from a dualistic model?

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  25. keiths: Why should modelling your own state give rise to corresponding subjective experiences if modelling someone else’s state does not?

    Well, I think modelling someone else’s state does give rise to subjective experiences – what I meant was that being able to model yourself as an exemplar of a set of other things, all with their own subjective states, is what we call “theory of mind” and it’s probably a rather important contributor to what we know as human consciousness, and gives us the ability to both empathise and deceive.

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  26. I would expect that the puzzle of consciousness might be solved if and when we can replicate it — say in silicon.

    Brains have half a billion years head start on evolving the spaghetti that makes them function. I really don’t think there is any short cut to simulating grains. We just have to cut and try.

    I’d point out that understanding chemistry has not produced any immediate insights into how to construct replicators from scratch.I think building artificial brains will be much harder, because we aren’t using the same materials.

    I am impressed, however, by recent solutions to the problem of flying, as evidenced by model helicopters that can maneuver in swarms. That’s pretty amazing.

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  27. Sometimes we make the hard problem much harder than it needs to be (and it is hard enough as it is).

    Consider the following:

    Yourself.
    Another person.
    A dead person.
    A stone.
    A dog.
    A dead dog.
    An oak tree.
    A mouse.
    An ant.
    An amoeba.
    The sun.
    A diamond.

    Which is characterized by mentality (the “mind” side of “mind/body”) and which is not?

    Most of use will have no trouble ranking these from “certainly characterized by mentality” to “certainly not characterized by mentality.”

    We might quibble over a few, but does anyone here seriously argue that it is something other than the physical and functional organization of the object (the “material”) to which you are attending as you classify these objects?

    If so, what is that something other, and what can you say about it?

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  28. We might quibble over a few, but does anyone here seriously argue that it is something other than the physical and functional organization of the object (the “material”) to which you are attending as you classify these objects?

    Hi Bill,

    I certainly don’t, but the Hard Problem isn’t about asking the question “Is consciousness a product of certain arrangements of matter?”

    The question is “How and why do certain arrangements of matter give rise to consciousness (specifically, subjective experience)?”

    BWE and Lizzie are suggesting that self-modelling is somehow the key to producing subjective experience, but I don’t see why. It seems to me they are confusing access consciousness with phenomenal consciousness.

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  29. keiths: Hi Bill,

    I certainly don’t, but the Hard Problem isn’t about asking the question “Is consciousness a product of certain arrangements of matter?”

    The question is “How and why do certain arrangements of matter give rise to consciousness (specifically, subjective experience)?”

    BWE and Lizzie are suggesting that self-modelling is somehow the key to producing subjective experience, but I don’t see why.It seems to me they are confusing access consciousness with phenomenal consciousness.

    I think what you think we are confusing is a distinction without a difference 🙂

    In other words, I think to hold something in one’s mind and consider it is to subjectively experience it.

    (I’m sorry to be a little haphazard in this conversation – I’ve got an urgent problem to solve this week, which is relevant to this thread, as it happens, but also pressing! I’ll try to go through posts more methodically at the weekend. Just thought I’d better say that in case I sounded as though I was being somewhat nonchalantly dismissive!)

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  30. But just a quick comment: in my view, imagining something, remembering something and experiencing something are essentially the same processes, just time-stamped a little differently.

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  31. We might quibble over a few, but does anyone here seriously argue that it is something other than the physical and functional organization of the object (the “material”) to which you are attending as you classify these objects?

    Raises hand.

    If so, what is that something other, and what can you say about it?

    It’s the behavior.

    At a glance, I cannot recognize any difference in physical and functional organization of a live dog and a recently dead dog. But I can sure notice the difference in behavior.

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  32. In other words, I think to hold something in one’s mind and consider it is to subjectively experience it.

    That raises two questions in my mind:

    1. Is it not possible to hold something in one’s subconscious mind and consider it subconsciously?

    2. If a robot holds an obstacle in mind and considers how to avoid it, is it having a subjective experience?

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  33. keiths: That raises two questions in my mind:

    1. Is it not possible to hold something in one’s subconscious mind and consider it subconsciously?

    Could you unpack what you mean by “subconscious mind” there?

    2. If a robot holds an obstacle in mind and considers how to avoid it, is it having a subjective experience?

    Not necessarily. Depends on the robot. But at some point, I think we will get the nesting sufficiently deep that it becomes meaningless to say that it is not.

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