1. The argument from Ockham’s razor: Postulating two basic kinds of substance, material and immaterial, needlessly complicates our ontology if mental phenomena can be adequately explained in terms of material substance alone. That they can be so explained is indicated by the next two arguments:
2. The argument from the explanatory impotence of dualism: Materialist explanations can appeal to the many details of the brain’s structure and function revealed by modern neuroscience, while dualists have yet to provide a comparable account of the structure and function of immaterial substance.
3. The argument from the neural dependence of all known mental phenomena: As both everyday experience and neuroscientific research show, reasoning, emotion, and consciousness are all very closely correlated with various processes in the brain, which is not what we would expect if these mental phenomena were associated with an immaterial substance.
4. The argument from evolutionary history: The evolutionary process that gave rise to the human species proceeded via purely material mechanisms from a purely material starting point, so that the end result must itself be purely material.
Churchland acknowledges that none of these arguments is by itself absolutely conclusive. But he does think the third one “comes close to being an outright refutation of (substance) dualism,” and he clearly believes that in tandem the arguments consign dualism to the dustbin for all practical purposes. No doubt most materialists would agree with him. But in fact these arguments have, I maintain, no force at all against dualism. None. Dualism may or may not in fact be true – obviously I think it is true, but that is another issue. The point is that, even if it were false, these arguments have no tendency to show that it is.
How can I say that? Easy. Keep in mind first of all that, as I have emphasized in the earlier posts in this series, the chief proponents of dualism historically have not defended their position as an “explanatory hypothesis” put forward as the “best explanation” of the “empirical data.” That just isn’t what they are up to, any more than geometers or logicians are. They are attempting instead to provide a strict demonstration of the immateriality of the mind, to show that it is metaphysically and conceptually impossible for the mind to be something material. Their attempts may or may not succeed – again, that is another question. But that is what they are trying to do, and thus it simply misses the point to evaluate their arguments the way one might evaluate an empirical hypothesis. When Andrew Wiles first claimed – correctly, as it turned out – to have proven Fermat’s Last Theorem, it would have been ridiculous to evaluate his purported proof by asking whether it best accounts for the empirical evidence, or is the “best explanation” among all the alternatives, or comports with Ockham’s razor. Anyone who asked such questions would simply be making a category mistake, and showing himself to be uninformed about the nature of mathematical reasoning. It is equally ridiculous, equally uninformed, equally a category mistake, to respond to Plato’s affinity argument, or Aristotle’s and Aquinas’s argument from the nature of knowledge, or Descartes’ clear and distinct perception argument, or the Cartesian-Leibnizian-Kantian unity of consciousness argument, or Swinburne’s or Hart’s modal arguments, or James Ross’s argument from the indeterminacy of the physical, by asking such questions. As with a purported mathematical demonstration, one can reasonably attempt to show that one or more of the premises of such metaphysical arguments are false, or that the conclusion does not follow. But doing so will not involve the sorts of considerations one might bring to bear on the evaluation of a hypothesis in chemistry or biology.
Of course, Churchland, committed as he is to a Quinean form of scientism, thinks that all good theories must in some sense be empirical scientific theories. He rejects the traditional conception of metaphysics as a rational field of study distinct from and more fundamental than physics, chemistry, biology, and the like, and would deny that there is any such thing as sound metaphysical reasoning that is not in some way a mere extension of empirical hypothesis formation. But he cannot simply assume all of this in the present context without begging the question, because this sort of scientism is precisely (part of) what the dualist denies. (As we have seen in earlier posts on naturalism, this kind of circular reasoning is absolutely rife in naturalist thinking.)
It is obvious, then, why Churchland’s first two arguments have no force, for they simply misconstrue the nature of the case for dualism. If any of the dualist arguments just mentioned works, then the immateriality of the mind will have been demonstrated, and asking “But do we really need to postulate immaterial substance?” or “How much can we really know about such substances?” would not be to the point. For we would not in that case be hypothetically “postulating” anything in the first place, but directly establishing its existence; and its existence will have been no less established even if we could not say much about its nature.
But this brings us to an additional problem with Churchland’s second argument, which further underlines just how embarrassingly uninformed he is about what dualists have actually said. In developing his “explanatory impotence” objection, Churchland complains that dualists have told us very little about the nature of “spiritual matter” or the “internal constitution of mind-stuff,” about the “nonmaterial elements that make it up” and the “laws that govern their behavior.” This is, for anyone familiar with the thought of a Plato, an Aquinas, a Descartes, or a Leibniz, simply cringe-making. The soul is not taken by these writers to be “made up” out of anything, precisely because it is metaphysically simple or non-composite. It is not a kind of “stuff,” it is not made out of “spiritual matter” (whatever that is), and it is not “constituted” out of “elements” which are related by “laws.” Nor is this some incidental or little-known aspect of their position – it is absolutely central to the traditional philosophical understanding of the soul. As is so often the case with naturalistic criticisms of dualism, theism, etc., Churchland’s argument is directed at a breathtakingly crude straw man.
This appalling ignorance of the actual views of dualists manifests itself again in Churchland’s third argument. Churchland himself admits that this argument has no effect against property dualism, since property dualism itself takes the brain to be the seat of mental phenomena. But he fails to see that it has no effect against the other main varieties of dualism either, given what they actually say about the relationship between the mind and the brain.
For starters, let’s take Aristotelian-Thomistic (A-T) hylemorphic dualism. The A-T view is that the intellect is immaterial, but that sensation and imagination are not. Hence it is no surprise at all that neuroscience has discovered various neural correlates of mental imagery and the varieties of perceptual experience. Moreover, A-T holds that though intellect is immaterial, its operation requires the presence of the images or “phantasms” of the imagination. Hence it is no surprise that neural damage can affect even the functioning of the intellect. Most importantly, the soul, of which intellect, sensation, and imagination are all powers, is not a complete substance in its own right in the first place, but rather the form of the body. The way intellectual and volitional activity relates to a particular human action is, accordingly, not to be understood on the model of billiard ball causation, but rather as the formal-cum-final causal side of a single event of which the relevant physiological processes are the material-cum-efficient causal side. That alterations to the body have mental consequences is thus no more surprising than the fact that altering the chalk marks that make up a triangle drawn on a chalkboard affects how well the marks instantiate the form of triangularity. It is important to emphasize that none of this involves any sort of retreat from some stronger form of dualism, as a way of accommodating the discoveries of contemporary neuroscience; it is what A-T has always said about the relationship between soul and body. There is absolutely nothing in modern neuroscience that need trouble the A-T hylemorphic dualist in the slightest.
What about the Cartesian dualist? Don’t the differences between Descartes’ views and those of his Scholastic predecessors make him vulnerable to the findings of neuroscience in a way the latter are not? No, they don’t. For one thing, and as I have noted in an earlier post, Descartes’ views on this subject were not in fact quite as different from those of his predecessors as is often supposed. For example, Descartes’ view appears to have been that it is the intellect, specifically, which is to be identified with the ego he thinks is capable of existing apart from the body. Sensations, emotions, and the like he regarded, not as purely mental phenomena, but rather as hybrid properties which can be predicated only of the soul-body composite, and not the soul alone. Hence even on Descartes’ view it is not at all surprising that neuroscience has discovered all sorts of correlations between various aspects of perceptual experience and various emotional states on the one hand, and various processes in the brain on the other.
Now what is true is that the Cartesian has a difficulty explaining mind-body interaction that the A-T view does not have, as I have discussed here and here. And the reason is that Descartes rejected the notion that the soul is the formal cause of the body. That is an enormously consequential difference between the two views. But it has nothing to do with the specific question about whether a dualist need be troubled by the discovery of detailed correlations between mental phenomena and neural phenomena, which is what is at issue in the argument of Churchland’s under consideration. In particular, even the Cartesian need not be troubled by the fact that intellectual activity too (and not just sensation, emotion, and the like) can be dramatically affected by changes to the brain.
Why not? For one thing, as Churchland himself admits, the Cartesian regards the brain as a “mediator” between the soul and the rest of the body, so that we should expect that damage to this mediator will prevent the intellect from receiving the information it derives from the body and from controlling bodily behavior as well as it normally would.
But there is a deeper consideration. Consider the following analogy: A typed, written, or spoken token of the word “bark,” considered merely as a material object, has all sorts of complex physical properties, and those physical properties are highly relevant to its status as a word, as a bearer of linguistic meaning. Alter the physical properties of the token too radically, and it can no longer convey the meaning it once did. For example, if the ink should smear, the sound be muffled, or the power source to a word processor be cut off, the word will disappear, or might at least become so distorted that it becomes unintelligible. It would be absurd, though, for someone to suggest that these facts lend any support whatsoever to the claim that a word token qua word token is exhausted by its physical properties. It clearly is not. It is, for example, indeterminate from the physical properties alone whether the “bark” in question is the bark of a dog or the bark of a tree. Indeed, since the fact that the relevant sounds and shapes are associated with a certain meaning is entirely contingent, an accident of the history of the English language, it is indeterminate from the physical properties alone whether the word has any meaning at all. In short, the physical properties are a necessary condition for any particular physical object’s counting as a word token, but they are not a sufficient condition. And piling up bits of physicochemical knowledge about word tokens cannot possibly change this fact in the slightest, for it is a conceptual point about the nature of words, not an empirical point about what the latest research in phonetics (or whatever) has turned up.
In the same way, the dualist claims to be making a conceptual point about the relationship between mind and body, one to which neuroscientific research, important and interesting as it is in itself, is irrelevant. The existence of such-and-such physiological phenomena may well be a necessary condition for the existence of intentional human actions, intelligible speech, and so forth, but it is not and cannot be a sufficient condition. And that remains true whether we are interpreting dualism in A-T terms or in Cartesian terms. A-T regards the soul as the formal cause of a single substance of which the matter of the body is the material cause. Cartesians regard mind and matter as two distinct substances. Either way, there is not, and in principle cannot be, anything distinctively mental in matter as such, any more than a word token, considered merely as an arrangement of ink marks or a pattern of sound waves, has any meaning on its own. Or at least, there cannot be if dualism is correct. No amount of neuroscientific evidence can undermine this judgment, because what is at issue is whether any purely material phenomena at all, neurological or otherwise, can in principle be mental.
“But doesn’t that make dualism unfalsifiable?” If “unfalsifiable” means “not subject to rational evaluation and criticism,” then no, of course it isn’t unfalsifiable. Metaphysical arguments, like mathematical arguments, are perfectly susceptible of rational analysis and refutation, even if, like mathematical arguments, such analysis does not involve the weighing of probabilities, the comparison of alternative empirical hypotheses, etc. If “unfalsifiable” means instead “not subject to refutation via empirical scientific research,” then yes, dualism is unfalsifiable in that sense. But so is mathematics, and yet that doesn’t detract from its status as a rational field of investigation. Again, if the materialist wants to insist that all rational inquiry must ultimately be a kind of empirical scientific inquiry, he is welcome to make the case, but he cannot simply assume the truth of scientism when criticizing the dualist, otherwise he will simply be begging the question.
And that brings us, finally, to the fourth of Churchland’s arguments, the argument from evolution. Here again we have an argument that is entirely without force, and the main reason should be obvious from what has just been said: Dualism is a metaphysical theory, not an empirical hypothesis, and thus it is not the sort of thing that could be refuted by empirical biological findings any more than by neuroscientific ones.
But there is more to be said. Churchland’s fourth argument is also question-begging. For whether Darwinian evolution – which is supposed to be a purely materialist theory – is in fact a complete explanation of human nature depends on whether human nature is entirely material. And of course, the dualist’s claim is precisely that human beings are not and cannot be purely material, in which case no purely materialist theory could possibly provide a complete explanation of human nature. Hence it is no good to merely to assert, as an argument against dualism, that Darwinism has already explained human nature in materialist terms. That simply assumes the falsity of dualism without proving it.
Nor is it any good to stamp one’s feet and insist that if Darwinism entails materialism, then we had all better be materialists. Because here’s a newsflash: If Darwinism entailed that 2 + 2 = 5, what that would show is, not that 2 + 2 = 5, but that Darwinism is false, or at least needs to be seriously modified. Similarly, if Darwinism really does entail materialism, but the arguments of an Aquinas, a Descartes, or a James Ross show that materialism is false, then so much the worse for Darwinism. It had better adapt itself to the metaphysical facts, or be selected out. Like so many other naturalists, Churchland waves the “evolution” talisman as if it sufficed to shut off all debate, assuring us that in light of Darwinism we “are creatures of matter” and “should learn to live with that fact.” But this is sheer, question-begging bluff, not serious philosophical argument.
We have seen, then, over the course of these three posts, that Churchland’s treatment of dualism in Matter and Consciousness, though purporting to be a balanced summary, is in fact almost completely worthless both as a guide to what dualists have actually said and as a critique of dualism. And this is a textbook! And a widely used one, which has long been in print – it was one of the books I was taught out of as an undergraduate, and (I am ashamed to say) as a teacher I once used it myself. It took me many years to see just how bad it is. Most students who have read it probably have no idea, and never will.
But that’s how bad ideas spread: By ignorance and intellectual dishonesty smugly masquerading as expertise. Here, as with the debate over theism, the naturalistic skeptic can maintain the illusion of rational superiority only to the extent that he and his readers remain ignorant of what the great thinkers of the past have actually said. For to paraphrase Cardinal Newman, to be deep in history is to cease to be a naturalist.