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