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).”
- Hasker at the Bridge of Death
- What decent physicalism is not
- What's in the next podcast series:
- Consciousness Cuts Both Ways
- Dualism and Gender Identity
- Glenn Peoples, “William Hasker at the Bridge of Death” Philosophia Christi 10:2 (2008), 393-409. [↩]
- 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). [↩]
- Robert C. Koons, “Introduction,” Robert C. Koons and George Bealer (eds), The Waning of Materialism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), xvii. [↩]