Dualism in the news

Dualism in the news October 20, 2008

That old chestnut of mind-body dualism – the freaky idea that our minds can somehow continue to exist after our brain has been destroyed – has been cropping up a bit recently in the media. Here’s a snapshot.

Never say die: why we can’t imagine death

First up is a great article in Scientific American by Jesse Bering, currently at the Institute of Cognition and Culture at Queens University, Belfast. Bering’s article covers some of the recent research by him and others that’s starting to show that we’ve got a built-in predisposition to be dualist – we just can’t help ourselves. That’s not just the religious and believers in the supernatural – under clever questioning, many atheists also reveal that they succumb to the same kind of illusions.

The evidence shows that children are born as natural dualists, and learn to shake off dualist thinking as they get older. But culture – particularly religious environments – can stunt that development:

In support of the idea that culture influences our natural tendency to deny the death of the mind, Harvard University psychologist Paul Harris and researcher Marta Giménez of the National University of Distance Education in Spain showed that when the wording in interviews is tweaked to include medical or scientific terms, psychological-continuity reasoning decreases. In this 2005 study published in the Journal of Cognition and Culture, seven- to 11-year-old children in Madrid who heard a story about a priest telling a child that his grandmother “is with God” were more likely to attribute ongoing mental states to the decedent than were those who heard the identical story but instead about a doctor saying a grandfather was “dead and buried.”

So why do we have this built dualism? Bering is a leading exponent of what he calls the “simulation-constraint” hypothesis – the idea that we simply can’t wrap our heads round the idea of non-consciousness because, by definition, it’s something that we can never experience. Piled up on this is the idea of ‘person permanence’, the intuition we all have that people continue to exist even when we can’t see them (when they leave the room, for example). He goes into much more depth on this in his 2006 paper The folk psychology of souls.

The soul? It may all be in your mind

Next up is an interview with Paul Bloom, a psychologist from Yale University and the author of a widely-cited article in Atlantic Monthly back in 2005, Is God an Accident?

Bloom points out some of the evidence against dualism:

Q. We know this from brain scans that look at parts of the brain lighting up in response to different [stimuli] – you can watch people think about a topic and watch parts of their brain light up?

A. That’s the most modern demonstration. But the idea that thought is the result of the physical brain comes from work that’s hundreds of years old. We’ve known that a blow to the head can affect your memory, your willpower, your conscience, your sense of right and wrong. We know that Alzheimer’s, strokes, and diseases of the brain can profoundly affect your mental life. It’s a tenuous view to say that the part of me that chooses right from wrong has no physical basis. If that were true, you wouldn’t expect getting smashed on the head, alcohol, or heroin to affect your will and your knowledge of right and wrong.

But he goes on to make an overture of peace to the religiously minded:

Q. What are the implications of this dualism, and its limitations, for religion? Obviously, you’re not suggesting theologians hold a going-out-of-business sale.

A. In fact, some theologians respond to this research with delight. According to many theological views, we have an inborn appreciation of God and souls. This is part of God’s gift to us. There’s nothing in my work that in any way should trouble anybody who’s theologically inclined. Though often, they say a belief in a single God is natural, and that’s probably wrong. Many more cultures believe in multiple gods.

This is a common argument among the scientifically literate religious, of course. The problem is that, as psychologists like Bering are increasingly showing, our dualism is not a design feature, but more of a design flaw – a by product of cognitive systems evolved for other purposes.

COGNITIVE SCIENCE: Arguing for Embodied Consciousness

This last one is via Science and Religion News, and is a review of a new book by Edward Slingerland, who made some controversial statements last year about whether morality can be scientific. But Slingerland is a convinced materialist. Science and Religion News has more on the book review, but here’s a key excerpt.

Slingerland starts with Darwin and eventually follows Daniel Dennett so far as to agree that consciousness can be done full justice through third-person descriptions that require no mysterious, unaccounted-for, nonmaterial, first-person entity as substrate. Thus the famous “Mary,” who intellectually knows everything there is to know about color despite having been sequestered for life in a color-free lab, will recognize red the first time she steps outside (4). And Thomas Nagel’s famous bats don’t know anything about bathood that we can’t figure out for ourselves from observation (5). No first-person construct, no locus of consciousness, need be invoked.

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