Dualism and Descartes’s Demon

Dualism and Descartes’s Demon September 14, 2011

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?

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  • "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."This seems like it would be pretty open to abuse throwing his complaints back at him. E.g. how does he know that everything we experience isn't utterly and simply illusions generated by his soul? Or even malevolent spirits? Or an illusion created by his god?You can't rule out living in a matrix-like revelation created by some demon in a dualist framework; dualism literally doubles all of the complications that a "monist" has to grapple with.

  • Andrew C

    I followed your link from NCregister, and I've greatly enjoyed reading your posts. What I'd like to comment on though, is not so much this particular matter, but rather on the topic in general. Honestly, I tend to find the arguments in blog posts like those at the NCregister weak. I suppose that makes sense for blogs in general. Personally, I'd like to make a plug for Etienne Gilson's book "The Christian Philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas." This book was eye-opening for me in a way that those blogs were not. For example, reading the whole metaphysical sweep of the first cause argument was mind-blowing and turned around many of the assumptions I had learned about the argument from the internet. For example, I had frequently heard the argument that the first cause argument commits the fallacy of composition. In reality though, Aquinas' argument doesn't proceed from a composition at all- it rather proceeds from any single single ontological unit. This of course shoots Hume in the foot. Furthermore, I had thought of the argument as extending across time. In reality though, the argument extends outside of time up and down the causal links of beings. I also thought that infinite regresses were not addressed by the argument, but Aquinas lays out several reasonable arguments against them. Since causal events happen between ontological bodies, and this metaphysical causation occurs in the present moment, an infinite regress of causes in the present moment would mean an infinite number of ontological bodies in the present moment. Obviously it's problematic to have infinite numbers of actually instantiated bodies at one time. Anyway, that's my plug after learning a lot from the book. You may already be familiar with all this. I know this is off topic, but I didn't see any other context to post it. I've definitely enjoyed reading your blog, and keep up the good work!

  • First to address the post on NCReg. It's not a very good look at what passes for the possible options for how human consciousness or body/soul is composed (but in fairness I do not think that is its goal either). There are at least four more options for how humans are composed just in Christianity: non-reductive physicalism, dual-aspect monism (which has a strong and perhaps stronger tradition in the Church than dualism since it is Aristotelian/Thomist), the tripartite model (body, soul, and spirit), and another one I've forgotten. Did I say four? There are three…Anyway, on to your question about knowing sensory things or not. We "know" things because everybody agrees on them. Anybody who doesn't fit in with what everybody else sees is either crazy, a liar, or a prophet/seer (at least if your culture allows for such things). Or a scientist! The great thing about the scientific method is that repeatability makes it clear to everybody that they can see it and agree on it. So repeatability makes sensory experience trustworthy.Of course anyone's understanding of WHY it is repeatable is a totally different question…So distrust the unrepeatable and the unpopular, right? Unless you are dealing with phenomena which are not subject to testing or popularity… which unfortunately can be quite a few. Cognitive biases and lack of the right senses have causes quite a bit of confusion (for example, not being able to see the rest of the electromagnetic spectrum). So what to hack to avoid errors? The most biased systems, perhaps. Things that have more to do with nature than with social life (because the social appears more real to humans than the natural in many cases). Things involving teleology (which we are biased to seek due to our need to pick up culture and work with other intentional creatures). Things involving disgust (which is a more powerful repellant than pain in some cases). Things involving status, sex, and power (too attractive). That's off the top of my head. Train to be skeptical of those things.Best option? Humility, in my humble opinion! Because pride is the vice that blinds us to all the rest! Skepticism and humility. And one should also always be skeptical of one’s own skepticism and humble of one’s humility, too. 🙂

  • Anonymous

    I think this can be largely explained by reification.My mind is what my brain does.Space and time exists and my brain lives there. If you mess with my brain, then you'll be messing with my mind. Can you think of any other way to mess with my mind – my "personality, will, reason, thoughts, emotions, morality"?No matter what I'm experiencing from inside this amazing meat suit, my mind can't literally go off existing somewhere independant of my brain. As far as I can be sure of, my mind will only continue existing whilst it's ticking along inside my brain. That's why I wear a helmet.Of course, when my neurons do stop firing, all bets are off.

  • I know that everything around me, including myself, is made up of mostly space. I also know that everything works on a probabilistic model and that my classical view of the world is wrong. However, this knowledge does not prevent me from acting as if objects were solid or as if cause and effect are real."Either the monistic atheist is right or the dualistic Catholic is right"Not only is this a criminal attempt to appeal to people's emotions, it misses out all non-Catholic religions that are dualist, all non-theistic dualists, all karma-based philosophies where we're all connected, dismisses all theistic monists, all universalists and a whole raft of other positions that I don't even know about."how do you know which sensory experiences to distrust or reject?"Reproducible ones. If you cannot reproduce a sensory experience it is not trustworthy. That it is reproducible does not make it trustworthy, but it does give one confidence in it. Should it fit in a logical framework with other reproducible sensory experiences then we can build a body of apparent knowledge.Even if Laplace's Demon is true, we have little choice but to evaluate the illusions it is creating for us to spot patterns and perhaps learn something of the Demon in our indirect investigation of it. We are pattern spotting creatures and even if our brains are not real our consciousness tends to spot patterns and look for regularity and explanations. Thus, even in an illusory world we are built to use science to uncover its secrets. Should there be no regularity then we're screwed as our minds are not set to cope with that – although we are fairly capable of adaptation…

  • "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"I think the point was that if you assume that all perceptions of emotions, thoughts, principles, are simply the chemical reactions in the brain then there is nothing more to them than that. No higher idea, principle, etc that transends the physical plane. Thus taking drugs to induce happy thoughts is equivalent to any other form of inducing happiness.But if we assume the dualism stated is true, then we have other options. The point of the article IMO is to point out the dead end that we encounter with monism.

  • "Thus taking drugs to induce happy thoughts is equivalent to any other form of inducing happiness."This is the point that was annoying me when Sam Harris came out with his secular objective morality (The Moral Landscape). He has no real objection to this other than a gut feel that it is probably wrong and lessens future happiness either for an individual or society at large. It always struck me as a 'clutching at straws' defence of his argument.However, if we assume (and neuroscience will eventually back me up on this) that the various regions of the brain have their own desires and rewards, rather than a single grouping of 'happiness cells and dopamine' in the brain, then we can see that certain activities are their own reward and one can trade drug induced or physical orgasmic pleasure for what might be considered the more cerebral pleasure of learning a new skill. This allows for both the variety of pleasure we see humans partaking in and the variability over time over which pleasures individuals prefer. This is a much better get-out to the pleasure machine than Sam's wishful thinking.This view of the brain also succumbs to a more sophisticated happiness machine, one which allows us to grow our knowledge, our talents, our aesthetics, as well as the more base desires, but isn't this simply a 13th Floor conundrum – if we truly want these skills, challenges, rewards etc. then the machine will provide them and ultimately fake the 'real world' since that's what we will appear to want. That's probably gone far enough off-topic…

  • In principle, for any established faith system to have any credibility it has to be cross-cultural. This provides a rebuttable presumption that there is some kind of persuasiveness in the message. Of course, this also presumes that truth is persuasive, and that people as a whole gravitate towards truth. We're left with four accounts: Christianity, of which Catholicism is by far the clearest claimant; Buddhism; Islam, which squanders its claim by — understatement! —- its especially domineering early history; and atheism, albeit hardly a system. (Atheism through history is more like a succession of expatriates who agree only on that they disagree with everyone around them. Deists would not agree with Dawkins.)In this sense, considering the limited, halted spread of Buddhism, it is fair to posit the modern blend of atheists against Catholics, especially considering the latter's irrefutable contributions to /pretty much everything/, up to and including the university system which every thirty years coughs out another muddy flavor of atheism.This is not an ultimate method of finding truth, but it is the first step. Call it triage.

  • @Benjamin Baxter, I appreciate what you're trying to avoid by making a belief system have to be cross-border, but it really is simply an argumentum ad populum. And atheism doesn't count as a belief system.

    • (I’m Benjamin Baxter.)

      I don’t know if you’re even going to read this, but if you do, read the last bit again — “It is not a method of finding truth. It is triage.” — as well as the bit about atheism not being a system. I mean to refute the objection that “there are so many gods to choose from” and “how do I know where to start?” Start with what is presumptively credible and move on from there.