Materialists and dualists

There’s an interesting blog-debate between skeptic Steven Novella and intelligent design proponent Michael Egnor. Both Egnor and Novella come from a neuroscience background, though Novella’s materialism is by far the more scientifically mainstream view than Egnor’s dualism.

I am entirely in Novella’s camp, I confess. The materialist position is continuous with the rest of science, is making steady progress, and occasionally comes up with surprising explanations rather than just rephrasing folk psychology. In many ways, cognitive neuroscience is only at the beginning of what promises to be vastly complicated and difficult road. But I think there are very good reasons to believe it’s on the right track, while would-be competitors like dualism are hard to take seriously any more.

So Egnor-type dualists continually have to resort to charging the materialists not just with not having solved certain problems, but of being incapable of addressing some fundamental issues. And they latch onto any hint of incompleteness or philosophical perplexity they find, like the so-called “hard problem” of consciousness. I’m inclined to think the problem here is one of more traditional-minded philosophers confusing themselves. But in any case, I expect philosophers will sort things out among themselves. Or (if we’re pessimistic) perhaps they’ll get bogged down in debates of gloriously obscure technicality, disconnecting themselves from reality checks in the process. But I think we’re past the point where philosophizing can have a major effect on the process of doing science about the mind and brain. As Novella also points out, dualism is very much like anti-evolution thought: a public nuisance but intellectual backwater.

About Taner Edis

Professor of physics at Truman State University

  • Philip

    Note the following philosophical blunders in Novella’s reply.

    Novella says that “the functioning of the brain is an adequate explanation for the phenomenon of mind,” that “Brain function correlates with the mind,” that “the brain functions to produce all mental phenomena,” that the mind is “the functioning of the brain,” and that there is “undeniable evidence linking brain function to mental function.” But Novella also denies that “the mind is a separate and definable thing,” that “mind has a separate existence,” and that “the mind is something more than the brain.”

    In introductory philosophy classes, students learn of the difference between type-identity theory and functionalism. According to type-identity theory, the mind is fully describable in neurological terms, because mental properties are neurological properties. With the prevalence of computers came another theory, functionalism, according to which the mind is a causal role played by the brain and by other hardware capable of realizing mental properties, such as a computer using chips rather than neurons. According to functionalism, the mind is not fully describable in neurological terms, because the mind is multiply realizable. Just as the script of Hamlet isn’t identical with any particular troop of actors performing the play, but can be performed by different actors, so too the mind is more than just the brain. Now Novella says both that brain functions are crucial to mental functions, and that the mind isn’t separate from the brain. Thus, he contradicts himself, confusing type-identity theory with functionalism.

    Over and over again, Novella says also that “the brain causes consciousness,” that “the brain causes the mind.” But as noted above, he says that the mind isn’t separate from the brain, that “the mind is a manifestation of the brain.” Again, in introductory philosophy class, students learn that causes are separate from their effects. So if the brain causes the mind, the mind isn’t the brain. Novella considers Wallace’s claim that “the brain creates the mind, but that the mind, once created, is something more than the brain,” and says that the problem with this view is that it’s “non-falsifiable” and untestable. But in saying that the brain causes the mind, and that the mind is only a function of the brain, Novella himself is committed to dualism. And of course functionalism is testable: just build an AI using computer chips rather than neurons.

    Novella says that the “philosophical” question of qualia “is meaningless because it does not yield any specific predictions or distinctions from a purely materialistic world.” This is the verificationist criterion of meaning, beloved by positivists who pretend they don’t do philosophy. Again, in their introductory philosophy classes, students learn that this criterion has been undermined for some time now. If a statement’s meaningfulness depends on the statement’s having testable predictions, the philosophical assumption, that meaning in general consists in a statement’s verifiability, is itself meaningless because the philosophical assumption isn’t testable; that’s part of what makes it philosophical.

    Novella says that “The biggest problem with dualism is that the materialist neuroscience model explains all observed phenomena–there is nothing left for the dualists to explain.” Of course, the whole point about qualia is that they’re subjective, private, and therefore scientifically, publicly unobservable. So how can this be a problem with dualism? Perhaps the problem instead rests with the limit of scientific methods. At most, the meaning of scientific statements as such depends on their verifiability (or falsifiability), but the dualist doesn’t claim that talk of qualia is scientific. By hypothesis and by internal experience, qualia are private rather than public, so if science requires publicly testable predictions, qualia aren’t scientific subject matter. Novella simply begs the question by trotting out the positivist’s criterion of meaning.

    Novella and Taner Edis are practitioners of scientistic, positivistic philosophy: they do philosophy without realizing that this is what they’re doing, and so they do it badly. Novella accuses Egnor of confusing “scientific questions and methodology with philosophical questions,” but of course Novella is oblivious to his own, contradictory and self-undermining philosophical assumptions. Edis says that “we’re past the point where philosophizing can have a major effect on the process of doing science about the mind and brain.” But that’s not the issue; the issue is whether we’re past the point where good philosophy can have a major effect on the process of doing bad philosophy, such as that practiced by scientists who pretend they’re doing science even when they’re doing philosophy. Clearly, we’re not past that point.

  • Steven Carr

    What do dualists think the brain is for?

    All these scientists doing bad philosophy and making great strides in understanding how cognitive processes work.

    So who needs good philosophy, when bad philosophy is just so much more useful?

  • Philip

    Well, Steven, you might ask Novella what good dualism is, since half of what he says commits him at least to property dualism. (The difference between property and substance dualism, of course, is another of those distinctions discovered in introductory philosophy courses, though the difference doesn’t come up in Novella’s discussion.)

    And I didn’t say that all of neuroscience is bad philosophy. Real scientific work, the testing of hypotheses, and so forth, is science and not at all philosophy. And hooray for this science! It’s done the world a lot of good, and all scientists should be respected for putting to work the greatest methods discovered for learning about the natural world. When Novella studies the brain in a scientific way, he’s doing science and doesn’t need to think about philosophy.

    However, when it comes to generalizing about the findings of neuroscience, and about how the mind relates to the brain, it’s easy to move from science to philosophy, as Novella did in his reply to Egnor. As I said, good philosophy is needed to correct, not science itself, but bad philosophy, such as the philosophy practiced by scientists who, stepping out of their laboratories and into their armchairs, pontificate in positivistic fashion, slamming philosophy while trotting out primitive philosophical claims of their own.

  • Taner Edis

    I can only thank “Philip” (whom I expect is some sort of beginning philosophy grad student with too much time on his hand) for his illustration of how armchair philosophy is useless for advancing science.

  • Odd

    They sure must learn a lot in those “introductory philosophy classes”. I’m impressed.

  • bpabbott

    Personally, I view ‘dualism’ as a good example of a hidden cognitive dissonance.

    Materialism is not a threat to religion if it is excluded from it. Meaning that religion is only properly applied to the non-material.

    Once I embraced that perspective, many of the words attributed to Jesus in the NT had new meaning for me. Generally, a meaning that is in no way in conflict with material experience.

    Although I am and will remain an atheist, this perspective makes me wonder if a man of great moral fiber may have risen to such mythical proportions and that those he was most opposed to perverted his message to suit themselves personally (what I believe to be the proper meaning of blasphemy).

    Since such appears to be a natural tendency of humanity, I find my conjecture much more likely that the incredulous claims of the Abrahamic religions and their ID offspring.

  • CyberKitten

    I think that the whole Dulist separation of mind & brain was a *huge* mistake which led to all kinds of wrong-headed sidetracks in philosophy.

    As fas as I’m concerned the ‘mind’ is an emergent property produced by the electrical activity in the brain. There is no ‘mind-stuff’ and its wrong to think of it (mind) as an object or a thing.

  • Cristero

    This article is an complete example of dogmatic matherialism and “science of the gaps”.