The rise of dualism?

Philosophy Philosophy of mind

Imagine for a moment that you are a student at Dortmund University in Germany (highlighted on the map to the left). You chose to go there, let’s assume, because of the climate – both academic and geographical. Then imagine one day you woke up in Austria. You’ve moved! You’ve gone from one place to another. You’re no longer in the same place, and your climate – one would assume – has changed. In fact, you hear on the radio as you eat breakfast that literally millions and millions of people who were in Germany are now in Austria. The population of Germany is waning, and people are flooding into Austria.

Well, actually, not exactly. That’s the impression you might have initially: You were in the West of Germany, and now you’re in Austria, so you must have moved. There must be a mass Exodus going on if millions of people from Germany are suddenly in Austria. But actually, in the place where you are now, the sky is the same as it was before, the climate is the same, the people are the same, and in fact – your location is the same! How is this possible? Here’s how: While you were sleeping, an invasion took place. A swift but decisive battle was fought, and invaders from Austria re-drew the border dividing Germany from Austria, as illustrated on the right. People who regarded themselves as German before still regard themselves as Germans now, but the Austrians – they will take some convincing!

The Invading Austrians are happy for you to continue life as before, which you happily do. OK, so you’ve come to accept that although you’re in exactly the same place you were in before, the militant Austrians now call the land you stand on “Austria.” But then imagine that the Austrians start sending out press releases: There has been a mass exodus from Germany to Austria! The population of Austria is on the rapid rise! Austria must be really popular, because people are leaving Germany and moving to Austria. You can’t believe your eyes as you read the headlines in one after the other daily Germ- I mean Austrian newspaper. This is nonsense! That’s not what happened at all. Nobody changed where they live – The Austrians have just changed the labels on the map! There’s no “move” from Germany to Austria going on.

OK, as you can probably gather, I’m painting this scene as an analogy, and the scene is now set. I’m really talking about philosophy of mind and two points of view therein: Dualism and Physicalism. Physicalism is Germany. Dualism is Austria. Dualists are changing the map.

A stroll through literature on the philosophy of mind, where dualism is contrasted with physicalism, will reveal two things. First, that there is a variety of views that are properly called dualism, and that there is a variety of views that are properly called physicalism. Second, that perhaps the fundamental distinction between physicalism and dualism (especially when the context is a discussion between Christian philosophers) is that in physicalism, the mind is crucially dependent on the brain (and, let’s say, neural pathways and the body in general) to the point where it is limited by brain capacity, complexity, condition and so on, and that the mind cannot exist at all without the brain and body. The mind is in some basically true sense a product of the brain and body, although what makes this the case is not something all physicalists agree on (maybe the best way to speak is to say that the mind “supervenes” on the brain, or maybe the mind is a property of the brain, or maybe something else). Some physicalists take the remarkable view that there really is no such thing as the conscious mind, and all that exists is a collection of events of “content fixation” happening in the brain (the minority view of Daniel Dennett). In spite of the disagreements within it, physicalism is still a simple and identifiable thesis: That we are made of physical stuff, and everything that we are depends on physical matter. Take the matter away and you take you away. That’s why it’s called physicalism, because it claims that we are physical.

In dualism (again, especially in the context of discussions between Christian thinkers), this is not the case. Although there may be various types of interaction between the non-material soul and the material brain (and just what this interaction involves is no small quibble), dualism is the view that our conscious selves are non-material, as opposed to our bodies, which are physical. There can be all sorts of contrasts that we make between powers, properties, aspects and so on, but the central point is that we are two kinds of substances: mind and matter. The reason that this is the feature that marks out dualism (i.e. the issue of substances) is that this is the way in which it is different from physicalism, which is likewise a view about substances (in other words, it is an ontological view on human nature: What are we made of?). Dualism – especially in Christian circles, often also involves the belief that the ongoing existence of a body is not, in principle, crucial for the existence of the mind. The mind is not a product or property of the body/brain and can exist without the body. Even if one believes in a kind of “interactive dualism” where the mind or soul interacts with the body, one might believe that the soul survives the death of the body.

Okay, now for the issue that prompted this blog post: There are people out there claiming that physicalism is on the rapid decline, and that there is an ascendancy of dualism. When this was first put to me, I was incredulous. The claim simply does not map onto my experience of reality. My own experience is most widely among religious philosophers – the ones who would be expected by many to be more inclined towards dualism than most – and in fact there is a very clear trend in the opposite direction over the last few decades. New works are frequently published highlighting the fact that evangelical Christians in particular are turning from dualism and embracing physicalism. Published articles and books by the likes of Bruce Reichenbach, Warren Brown, Nancey Murphy, Joel Green, Trenton Merricks and others are testimony to the fact that things have changed, and dualism can no longer be taken for granted in Christian circles, and theological liberalism is not part of the equation. So the claim that dualism is on the rise and physicalism on the decline is definitely false of Christianity.

The claim then has to be that among philosophers more generally, dualism is on the rise and physicalism on the decline. Two pieces of evidence have been offered to me to support this daring claim. The first is a forthcoming book edited by Benedikt Paul Göcke, After Physicalism.

As the book is forthcoming I haven’t had the opportunity to read it yet. I’m not familiar with all of the contributors, but two of them are John Foster and Richard Swinburne, well-known defenders of Cartesian dualism. But one of the contributors is William Hasker, a defender, not of substance dualism but emergentism. This is a view in which the mind is emergent on the brain – created by it and continually dependent on it for its existence. I am aware that Hasker uses the word “substance” to refer to the mind, but this frankly does not make it so. The mind, in this view, is akin to a magnetic field generated by a magnet or a gravitational field generated by a planet. Only in an age of such finely honed classification of theories of mind could anyone think to affix the word “dualism” to a view like this. And yet, this is given here as an example of a view to consider “after” we have dispensed with physicalism. Indeed, it seems quite clear to me that the principal reason Hasker styles his view “dualism” at all is to engineer it to be compatible with the conscious survival of bodily death (an engineering attempt that, I have argued elsewhere, fails1 ). Interestingly, Hasker himself is under no illusions about there being a sea-change in favour of dualism, defending emergentism (which I regard as not dualism at all in any helpful sense) in the face of what he calls a “materialist consensus.”2

Another example suggested to me as evidence of the demise of physicalist views of human persons was The Waning of Materialism. As I looked through the synopsis, I noticed right away that property dualism and Aristotelianism are given as alternatives to materialism, and here again Hasker appears on behalf of dualism when in fact he is an emergentist (in this volume he is reproducing the unity of consciousness argument against physicalism).

Property dualism? Now, while this does include the word “dualism,” do not be deceived. Property dualism is a positively physicalist view of human nature. It maintains that although there exist mental properties, there do not exist mental substances. Human beings, it maintains, are entirely physical, and yet their physical brains have dual properties: physical properties and mental properties. In his 1996 text on philosophy of mind, Jaegwon Kim noted that a form of property dualism, commonly called “soft materialism” [emphasis added] is the prevailing view among physicalists (although he believed that really they should give it up, a view challenged by physicalists who hold property dualism)! And as for Aristotelian (or Thomist) views of the mind, as I have explained elsewhere, this is not substance dualism at all (at least in its basic metaphysical outlook, setting aside for now a concern I have about Aquinas’s attempt to shoehorn in survival of death). Whatever sort of nuance of the word “dualism” is at work here, it is nothing that any physicalist should be worried about. Remember: Physicalism here is physicalism about substances in the human being. In order to be an alternative to physicalism, a view would need to be non-physicalism about substances.

In fact – and I think, most unhelpfully – The Waning of Materialism intentionally sets up its use of terms in such a way that “materialism” is not even presented as a view of the ontology of human persons at all. The book turns out to simply reject reductivism. As Robert Koons explains:

In general, we use ‘anti-materialism’ to refer to the disjunction of a certain cluster of views incompatible with materialism: namely, dualism (property dualism or substance dualism); robust neutral monism (neither physical properties nor mental properties have metaphysical priority over the other); anti-reductionist versions of hylomorphism; anti-reductionist accounts of normativity; ‘liberal naturalism’ (as opposed to reductive naturalism); idealism (e.g., phenomenalism); epistemic stalemate (the materialism/anti-materialism debate ultimately ends in a draw); enigma (the Mind-Body problem has no solution); various anti-realisms (including those that deny the legitimacy, or even the intelligibility, of the Mind-Body Problem). In the next few paragraphs, however, we will focus on property dualism, as if it is the view most representative of the views in this cluster, as we will use ‘anti-materialism’ as if it refers just to property dualism. The thought is that, if property dualism fares well with regard to the problems facing it, the disjunction of views in the cluster will fare well with regard to the problems facing it.3

As explicitly admitted, substance dualism is only one of the many views that this book treats as non-materialist. And yet, readers of philosophy are treating books like this one as evidence of the rise of dualism and the demise of physicalism. Such treatment, in my humble view, is no more than wishful thinking. If this is what is being hailed as the rising replacement for physicalism, then physicalists can rest easy (albeit somewhat frustrated by the muddled way that some are choosing to communicate). It’s like the student who went to sleep in Germany and woke up in Austria without moving an inch. People who have long-held physicalist views of human persons and who show no signs of changing their minds soon are now being told that really they’re not physicalists after all, but rather part of a large-scale swing towards dualism! As I told someone who tried to get me to grant that property represented a rejection of physicalism: “I’m quite happy for someone to say that they aren’t a physicalist. As long as they agree with me about what we’re made of, the label doesn’t matter. They’ve sold the farm already, and as a bonus they get to enjoy the feeling of having discovered a new and better alternative (whether they really have or not).”

Glenn Peoples

 

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  1. Glenn Peoples, “William Hasker at the Bridge of Death” Philosophia Christi 10:2 (2008), 393-409. []
  2. Hasker, “Emergent Dualism: Challenge to a Materialist Consensus” in Joel B. Green (ed.), What About the Soul? Neuroscience and Christian Anthropology (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2004). []
  3. Robert C. Koons, “Introduction,” Robert C. Koons and George Bealer (eds), The Waning of Materialism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), xvii. []

{ 27 comments… add one }

  • colin April 23, 2012, 4:33 am

    Question: do you think God is comprised of a substance?

  • Glenn April 23, 2012, 8:01 am

    Colin – yes.

  • Richard April 23, 2012, 1:58 pm

    The short answer is yes.

    The long answer is …

  • Glenn April 23, 2012, 5:34 pm

    Given the actual question posed, the long answer is also yes.

  • colin April 24, 2012, 1:48 am

    Cool. Maybe I don’t understand the definition of ‘substance’ then.

  • matt April 24, 2012, 9:42 am

    Glenn, I’d like to know how you account for the use of the word “mind” or whatever supervenes on or emerges from the physical stuff. It seems that we have to say that this supervening thing is in fact a thing. Is the idea that however convenient terms like ‘mind’ may be, we can still reduce whatever it is that the mind is supposed to do to the physical? I believe William James made the point, with respect to mind, that whenever you have a series and then add something to it that thing is still a new thing (of course, he meant this concerning thoughts not ‘mind’ as such). The example he uses is lemonade, that when you drink it you do not taste lemon – sugar – water. When the ingredients are combined there is a new thing, lemonade! I suppose this goes against a reductive view, but how then does the ‘non-reductive’ physicalist avoid reduction except by the addition of an adjective?

    What is the term ‘dualism’ supposed to mean in this debate as well? I understand that this is one of the points that you are making, that the terms are muddled, but I’d also like to hear you clarify them. When you say physicalism, but then say that you are non-reductive do you mean that people really are ‘physical’ and ‘mental’ but are to be understood ontologically as physical rather than as souls, minds and the like? To put it in Pascal’s terms, would a Swinburne or a Craig say that we are like the angels while you, Murphy et al would say that we are like the animals? I hope my questions aren’t too muddled

  • Nick April 24, 2012, 6:01 pm

    Does this issue have implications for the trichotomy and dichotomy debate? If so how? It is assumed that immaterial persons are made of parts it would seem from these two ideas. Most would go with either a model of a two part body, soul-spirit, or three part, body, soul, spirit model to explain what the Biblical data says about the make up of people. But, this does not give a clear cut answer when compared to the philosophical models. Nor do they (dicho and tricho) follow the philosophical systems in exact likeness. As I can see there is such a close connection between the mind and the body, think of someone in an induced coma. In this type of scenario both are appear to be effected equally. I can see this topic would very involved. Consider psychosomatic illnesses for instance. The mental stress can be manifested in the body for example irritable bowel syndrome.
    This needs some careful reflection of how these issues really are in reality. Glenn how much can be empirically tested with regards to how the mind and body are unified scientifically ?

  • Richard April 24, 2012, 7:10 pm

    Question: do you think God is a giant computer?

  • Glenn April 24, 2012, 7:26 pm

    Matt, I really don’t intend to defend the truth of physicalism against objections here, but I’m happy to address this:

    What is the term ‘dualism’ supposed to mean in this debate as well? I understand that this is one of the points that you are making, that the terms are muddled, but I’d also like to hear you clarify them. When you say physicalism, but then say that you are non-reductive do you mean that people really are ‘physical’ and ‘mental’ but are to be understood ontologically as physical rather than as souls, minds and the like? To put it in Pascal’s terms, would a Swinburne or a Craig say that we are like the angels while you, Murphy et al would say that we are like the animals? I hope my questions aren’t too muddled

    No, not muddled at all I don’t think. I think you’ve basically got it right: We are animals, made of the “dust of the earth,” as it were (now where have I seen that metaphor before?).

  • Glenn April 24, 2012, 7:30 pm

    Nick, I don’t think the issue of “trichotomy” really enters the picture. I know of no philosophers of mind (or religion) who believe that we are actually three types of substance: Matter, soul and spirit.

    As for testing, that’s a tough one. At best we can project models of how we think our consciousness would/should relate to our physical constitutents given either model, and then sit and watch what goes on in the world around us. I also think that physicalism does remarkably well in this regard.

    I have a podcast episode in the works on this issue where I look at how to put together a Christian view of human life, since and salvation from a physicalist (and, I think, biblical) point of view.

  • Glenn April 24, 2012, 7:31 pm

    Richard… what do you mean by “computer”? Surely you don’t mean something with a motherboard, CPU, hard drive etc.

  • Richard April 24, 2012, 7:53 pm

    what do you mean by “computer”? Surely you don’t mean something with a motherboard, CPU, hard drive etc.

    No, I mean a computer like me. Something running the Lamb of God Operating System (LOGOS™). But the Professional Edition, not the Home Edition.

    I have a podcast episode in the works on this issue where I look at how to put together a Christian view of human life, since and salvation from a physicalist (and, I think, biblical) point of view.

    I am totally looking forward to this. It will be as highly acclaimed as it is now highly anticipated, I’m sure. :-)

  • Glenn April 24, 2012, 8:14 pm

    Richard, just because I’m really not sure what you mean, I’ll have to say no – I don’t think that about God.

  • Richard April 24, 2012, 8:27 pm

    Glenn, (correct me if I’m wrong, but) you’re a physicalist about the human mind. You think that you and I (that is, our minds) are comprised (non-reductively) of a material substance.

    You’ve stated that you think that (the mind of) God is comprised of a substance. An immaterial substance, presumably, but a substance nonetheless. My question is, do you think that God’s mind works in a way which is comparable to the way in which our minds work? (I think of myself as software running on wetware.)

    I hope my question is now a bit clearer.

  • Nick April 24, 2012, 8:30 pm

    My thought was probably badly composed. There is a tendency to consider passages like “love the Lord your God with all your heart,soul and mind” as a confirmation of a unity with diversity if that makes sense. Physicalism would seem to have many obvious proofs. A person who experiences shock during witnessing an horrifying event for instance would indicate a direct link perhaps between the mind and body. I can see that dualism would pose itself some difficult problems when reviewing the same event. I will listen to the podcast. Thanks.

  • Glenn April 24, 2012, 9:19 pm

    Richard – Ah OK yes I think that’s clearer. Well I guess I do think we are emant to think like God (“thinking God’s thoughts after him” is a phrase that I use from time to time). But as for using the same (mechanisms) mechanisms? No I don’t think so. I construe God’s omniscience intuitively, unlike our thinking, which is all about induction, building upon what came before, accruing information, that sort of thing.

    So while we are meant to emulate God’s mind, we do it in a way that is not comparable to the way God’s mind is what it is.

  • Glenn April 24, 2012, 9:22 pm

    Nick – actually that verse is an interesting one. The Septuagint (which the Gospel writers use when quoting Jesus, quoting Deuteronomy) says heart, mind soul AND strength. So maybe there are four substances now. ;) The fact that these lists were, in the Gospel writers’ view, interchangeable, suggests that actually they did not view it as a list of what we are made of at all.

  • Richard April 24, 2012, 9:47 pm

    Glenn, I guess it’s my turn to say I’m really not sure what you mean (about the way God’s mind is what it is).

  • Nick April 24, 2012, 10:04 pm

    Yes, I agree. If I memory is correct at least one passage mentions 5 things. I am not proposing some evidence for this type of thinking. Your comments about different ‘mechanisms’ is a good one because for a start we have a brain that can deteriorates over time. And the reasoning and general cognitive skills are clearly faulty to outside healthy observers. It would lean more to physicalism I would think. I wonder what this topic says about the physical person of Christ? He was truly human and truly God, he has a properly functioning mind in the Gospels. In his resurrected state he appears to continue to function in a consistent cogitative manner.

  • matt April 25, 2012, 10:53 am

    thanks, Glenn.

    If I read you correctly, your beef with this dualist gerrymandering is that it involves calling views ‘dualist’ that are essentially physicalist, or involve a model of the world that treats humans as essentially physical rather than as essentially soulish. It seems like there are two kinds of ‘dualist’ views from the perspective that you critique, one that involves treating people as “bodies with minds” and another as “minds with bodies.” Am I correct in assuming that you are saying that when a person says that people are “bodies with minds” that they are asserting a physicalist position no matter how much they may pretend to be doing otherwise?

  • Glenn April 25, 2012, 11:24 am

    Well – if they mean “minds” in the sense of an extra substance, then no, they can still say “we are bodies with minds” and it’s fair enough to call it dualism. But if they say that we are “bodies with minds” and they mean that the mind is not an added substance but is a feature of the body (which is the case for emergentism, Aristotelianism or property dualism), then they can’t call it an alternative to physicalism.

  • basil April 27, 2012, 10:06 am

    Glenn,
    Can you recommend a book or papers that spell out the difference between Thomistic and Aristotelian views of the soul?
    ~BW

  • Glenn April 27, 2012, 7:33 pm

    Basil – They are really the same. But for a good book defending that view, see Oderberg’s Real Essentialism.

  • Ross January 28, 2013, 5:30 pm

    Glenn you say that “perhaps the fundamental distinction between physicalism and dualism… is that in physicalism, the mind is crucially dependent on the brain to the point where it is limited by brain capacity, complexity, condition and so on, and that the mind cannot exist at all without the brain and body…In dualism…this is not the case.”

    Although I can well understand that there would be different definitions of dualism, this is not the definition which I have most encountered. The Stanford encyclopedia of Philosophy states the defining characteristic of Dualist views is that “the mental and the physical are both real and neither can be assimilated to the other”. One of the first books on philosophy I bought states that dualism is the belief that “mind and matter are distinct and seperate” Furthermore Edward Feser (in his beginner’s guide to philosophy of mind) similarly has Dualism as being the view that “…mind and matter are equally fundamental aspects of reality, neither reducible to the other.”

    My reading on this subject has indicated to me that the feature which defines dualism is it’s belief that mental states (i.e the mind) are not physical and are properly therefore a non-physical element of reality. There is nothing in the definitions I’ve encountered which states that dualist views must hold that the mind can survive without the brain, or that the non-physical mind does not depend on the brain. That seems to be a different (though undoubtedly related) issue. Hence this is why emergent dualism, property dualism etc are labelled as dualism; because even though the mind still on these views depends on the brain nevertheless there is still ‘two’ features to the mind, the physical and the non-physical. And if a view states that there are ‘two’ of something I fail to see why it is not appropriate to call it ‘dualism”.

    So I don’t think dualists are suddenly ‘changing the map”, this definition of dualism seems to be both old and widespread.

  • Glenn January 28, 2013, 11:22 pm

    “the mental and the physical are both real and neither can be assimilated to the other” – It sounds to me like this is basically getting at the denial that “the mind is crucially dependent on the brain to the point where it is limited by brain capacity, complexity, condition and so on, and that the mind cannot exist at all without the brain and body.” Surely what I describe here is the assimilation of mind to brain (or matter more broadly).

    And yes, this is a widespread definition, and yes it means dualists are indeed changing the map, for a mental property of a physical thing is, after all, assimilating mind to brain in the way that physicalists typically do.

    And as for the notion that if there are two things, then there’s dualism – no, that’s not how the term works. Dualism isn’t simply the idea that there are two things. If that’s what it meant, than any physicalist who thought that there were two general categories of physical event in the brain (for example) would be a dualist! No, in the existing context of the mind-brain discussion, mind-brain (or body-soul) dualism is the view that there are two radically different types of substance, one material and one not.

  • Ross February 2, 2013, 3:53 pm

    Ok I’ve been doing some more reading/ googling etc and both definitions seem common enough (as per the actual blog entry!). Still stating that the mind/mental is a properly immaterial aspect of reality, as opposed to the physical brain and body, does seem to me a radical enough difference to warrant the title dualism. But all this is immaterial as it is just semantics in the end. Just to clarify though is your definition of a ‘substance’ that of an independently existing thing (forgive me if you’ve already addressed this elsewhere)? If minds/mental states were properly immaterial and had active causal power on the brain but yet still required the brain for their operation/existence , would there be a different ‘substance’ here on your view?

  • Glenn February 2, 2013, 4:12 pm

    If minds/mental states were properly immaterial and had active causal power on the brain but yet still required the brain for their operation/existence , would there be a different ‘substance’ here on your view?

    If by “properly immaterial” you mean not generated and sustained by the material, but only requiring the brain to interact with other things in this world, then yes, that would be substance dualism with two different substances. If it’s actually generated/sustained by the physical processes of the brain/body, then that’s what is widely known emergent monism (monism being the opposite of dualism), because it’s a mind that can exist and be fully contained in a wholly material universe. William Hasker insists on calling it “emergent dualism,” but that’s another story.

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