At the National Catholic Register, Frank Cronin has written a post titled, “Atheism, Quidditch, and the Truth.” So that was enough linkbait alone to have me itching to write a post, but then, just to sweeten the deal, the whole thing turns out to be about dualism (which gives me a good opening to talk transhumanism). So let’s get going.
The Harry Potter reference in the title looks like it’s just there for the search engines, since he uses Quidditch to lead in to his main theme: distinguishing fantasy from reality. Before I get to the substance of his argument, I’m compelled to point out that Quidditch has some manifestations in the real world. Cronin’s definitions get a little long, so I’m collapsing them below, but give him a fair shot and read his in full (he refers to non-dualists as monists):
Monism sees all aspects of human consciousness as physical, biochemical events. Our personality, our will, our reason, our thoughts, our emotions, our morality are solely the product of neural activity, a collective concert of biochemical events in our brain that create these many psychological and cognitive experiences.
For monists, every human experience we have is merely the byproduct of brain activity…everything we experience, everything we hold dear are utterly and simply illusions generated by collective cellular events. Nothing more.
… Now, in fairness to monists, they don’t really live their life as if everything was a mirage. They generally live lives like most of us, within the bounds of common sense, reason and science. But their view of human consciousness does not justify or explain their ordinary, daily living. It is a view of consciousness that is impractical and inaccurate, as even their daily lives attest.
Cronin uses this accusation of hypocrisy as proof that monism is unsustainable and must be dismissed as fantasy. Then he pulls some very quick excluded-middle footwork to slide from talking about monists and dualists to atheist monists and Catholic dualists (“Either the monistic atheist is right or the dualistic Catholic is right… The other must be a fantasy, a fabrication, a phony, fictitious faith”). So that’s poor form in the conclusion, but I want to take a crack at the heart of the argument.
I have extremely dualist instincts, but even I think this sounds like a strawman. The monists I know don’t think the fact that their neurons are firing means their experience is illusion, and they’d contest every use of similarly dismissive language (‘solely,’ ‘merely,’ etc) in the excerpt above. The fact that human cognition and consciousness have a biological component (or are run entirely on wetware) does not necessarily diminish them. Let me use an example:
Technicians can use transcranial magnetic stimulation or direct electrical stimulation to affect clusters of neurons in the human brain. These brain-hacking techniques can trigger sensory experiences or can alleviate problems like major depression and pain in phantom limbs.
We tend to dismiss brain stim-mediated experiences as not real since the natural stimulus has been replaced by a person wielding a strange looking magnet. Cronin seems to think we should backslide from there to writing off any other subjective experience as illusory, since, at the biochemical level, the two may be indistinguishable. That’s a bizarre stance for him to take as a Catholic (who is presumably not as prone to Gnostic heresies as I have been accused of being).
Catholicism and materialists both put a lot of effort on people as embodied beings – our identities are inextricably entangled with the physical world. It shouldn’t surprise anyone that physical stimuli affect us. I think the high-tech, science fictional feel of brain stimulation makes it harder for people to critically evaluate these philosophical arguments, so here’s a more quotidian example.
I live in a major metropolitan area, so, presumably, if I wanted to, I could get my hands on heroin, or some similar drug. Shooting up is crude way of manipulating biochemisty to produce euphoric feelings, and, just as in the case in electrical brain stimulation, we have an intuition that those feelings of happiness aren’t valid or earned. But almost no one runs around saying the experience of drug users delegitimize romantic love, since it jacks you up on oxytocin. Heck, no one even goes so far as to tell me to stop claiming to ‘enjoy’ extremely dark chocolate since it’s merely an illusion born of theobromine. (No one whose biochemisty makes them ‘want’ to live, anyway).
Brain hacking stirs up the terror of Descartes – that a little demon is meddling with our sensory inputs. Cronin thinks the real problem for atheists is that they have no God-as-guarantor that our perceptions and feelings are still entangled with the external world. What brain stim, especially its clinical applications should teach him is that no one gets that kind of security. TMS is used to correct illusory feedback errors that aren’t any more correct for arising ‘naturally.’ And even Catholics can be victims of tinnitus. On the plus side, they get to pick up a good rebuttal to the claim that temporal lobe epilepsy disproves religious ecstasy.
So the real question is: how do you know which sensory experiences to distrust or reject? Neither dualists or monists get a pass from that one, and it has a lot more practical salience that choosing up metaphysical teams.
Bonus question: what can/should you hack to avoid errors?