This essay examines the interaction between dualism and modern cognitive sciences. Additionally, it examines a modern defendant of dualism, and extrapolates his reasoning further into the 21st-century in interacting with cognitive science developments in the future. Finally, it examines how dualism is already a problem in modern factors such as healthcare, and how it will need to further adapt for the betterment of society.
Dualism: Mind, Body, and Cognitive Science Dualism has been a powerful cornerstone in both Western and Eastern cultures for many years, chiefly because it is so centrally located within spiritual texts. The New Testament, for instance, makes a clear division between the soul of Jesus and his body, and how those separated entities were reunited for the resurrection of Jesus.
Perhaps more practically, the Bhagavad-Gita emphasizes the separation of mind and body as a tool with which one can combat everything from doubt to boredom: one’s body may be doing troubling tasks (such as killing family members, as Krishna asks Arjuna to do) or simply menial tasks, but one’s mind—a separate entity—is encouraged to stay focused on Krishna, regardless of the body’s actions. With these spiritual texts playing such a central part in Western and Eastern cultures, it is no surprise to discover that dualism has endured with such strength over the years.
However, dualism (as with many aspects of the religious texts that help promote it) becomes more problematic when modern science and medicine are applied to it. The most humble behaviorist models of psychology pose their own problems, as the study of correlations between external environmental experiences and the mind’s reaction work to close the gap between mind and body, as opposed to expanding it. The flawed practice of logical behaviorism does the same thing: reducing human interactions to a predictable math equation that does not account for the inherent illogic of the separation of mind and body.
Reductive materialism attempts to reconcile so-called “folk psychology” with neuroscience, claiming that mental states and brain states are one and the same, eliminating the need for dualism. Failures of reductive materialism led to the theory of functionalism, which considers minds to be equal (as in, similar mental states) that simply react to outward stimuli. This “cause and effect” belief seemingly eliminates the freedom of thought necessary to dualism, as the mind’s actions simply become reactions to the body’s experiences and needs.
However, modern dualism is not without its arguments, nor its defenders. According to Dr. Embree, there are three primary arguments for the existence and necessity of dualism: the first, as alluded to above, is that “epiphenomenalism inherently undermines the validity of thought” (2009). What this means is that any scientific explanation that attempts to debunk dualism (or does so as a byproduct) must bring with it the sobering effect of making free will a simple illusion that individuals believe as a kind of personal myth.
This works on the level of national myths as well: according to functionalist theory, the Founding Fathers of America were not free thinkers (a thought that would have troubled Thomas Paine, to say the least), but were simply reacting to the external stimuli they experienced. Perhaps more troubling to this national myth is the “equalizing” effect of functionalism: not only did George Washington do what he did in accordance with external stimuli, he did what anyone in his place, with his means, would have done.
Instead of being an agent of his destiny and of America’s, he was simply one vessel (of potentially many) for the predictable course of destiny. The second argument Dr. Embree puts forth for dualism is that “epiphenomenalism provides no explanation for the subjective elements…of conscious experience” (2009). According to this, attempts to explain the universe in terms of cause and effect creates one large problem: “that consciousness can be explained mechanistically” (2009).
Embree concedes that one might believe no such mechanism has been discovered yet, and one may simply be waiting for the day that such a thing is discovered…however, that pushes what is supposed to be a scientific, rational inquiry perilously close to something more akin to religious faith, in two ways: one is the contentment to wait for the arrival of something which will validate one’s world view, and two (much more troubling) is establishing so many other things on the shaky ground that is this faith.
For a religion, this is understandable. As a scientific inquiry into the workings of the human mind, it is quite disconcerting. Embree’s final argument for dualism is that “epiphenomenalism requires acceptance of deterministic assumptions about human nature and behavior” (2009). Embree himself admits that this is the weakest of his three arguments, because it does not deal with “logical” or “evidentiary” flaws in epiphenomenalism, but rather with the troubling aftermath.
According to him, accepting that “our behaviors are strictly and solely determined by forces outside our control” renders us “puppets (2009)” who are unable to ethically try and imprison fellow citizens, simply because the rejection of dualism leads to an inevitable triumph of nature over nurture: just as George Washington did the only thing he could in reaction to his environment, so too did this murderer, or that rapist. If their thoughts truly aren’t free, their thoughts are not their own, and punishing them no longer has any hope of them turning over a new leaf, but instead becomes an arbitrary exercise in authority.
On an emotional level, Embree’s arguments are very persuasive. On a philosophical level, very few individuals would be pleased to think of themselves as lacking free will. And, as he points out, even fewer individuals would be willing to overturn the entirety of how modern society is constructed simply to make it more philosophically consistent. However, by Embree’s own admission, the belief in dualism essentially gives itself a “get out of jail free card. ” When it comes to hard questions, such as whether consciousness can be determined mechanistically or not, a dualist is free to take or leave explanations as they see fit.
This is precisely because dualism, brought back to its Cartesian foundations, is founded on observation and assumption. Even as Descartes acknowledges the limits of observation (the hand in front of him could always be a dream image), his famous conclusion—“I think, therefore I am”—is, itself, an assumption. Any attempts at rationally explaining why the brain acts or reacts in specific ways to specific stimuli represents a threat to this simple principle, and dualists protest against the futility of it.
Ironically, perhaps, for a philosophy that self-associates so vividly with free thinking, that attempts to curtail discussion into the mind/body problem are the philosophic equivalent of the dualists locking the behaviorists away, a la Galileo. The freedom to think seems incompatible with the freedom to explore why we think. The final assertion of Embree’s is persuasive as well, though not necessarily in the way that he’s intended. He is correct that society is effectively set in its ways, so any major advancements or discoveries regarding the way that individuals think is not likely to turn society on its ear.
However, such a view that this process is “all or nothing”—that is to say that all of society changes, right down to our notions of justice, or nothing changes—is oversimplifying the matter to an obscene degree, To use an analogy, Darwin’s discoveries did not mean that society had an obligation, more or otherwise, to burn down every church they saw. However, it amounted to an incremental change in the way the world works on the part of everyone who believed in the scientific findings—a series of micro changes that eventually worked on a macro level.
This is particularly true of discoveries related to how the mind works—the entire justice system was not turned inside out in response to the discoveries of Freud, but the incremental changes his psychological revelations brought about in individuals did eventually affect the justice system in terms of sentencing prisoners, organizing prisons, and simply understanding criminal behavior. What rings most true about Embree’s work, perhaps, is his correct assertion that on some level, people need to believe in dualism, if only to preserve the freedom of thought.
Individuals being told that they are only doing or saying something because of the environment around them will feel no more illuminated than someone told they are doing or saying something because God or the Devil are making them do it. It risks robbing life of its spark, or zest. However, what Embree seems to overlook are the astounding advancements in sheer human empathy that are offered by discovering how the mind works. “Freedom of thought” certainly sounds attractive, like a bumper sticker one might wear in Orwell’s 1984 (shortly before Big Brother had this person taken away, of course).
However, to continue the Orewellian strand, freedom of thought does not prevent “group think” simply because societies attempt to organize around their cultural similarities and when that proves insufficient, they rally around their dissimilarity to other groups. White, rural communities continue subtle (and some not so subtle) forms of segregation against black and Hispanic individuals. On a national level, in the so-called “Post 9/11 world,” citizens are measured by just how American they are, and extra scrutiny is given to those from another country.
This is, of course, the double-sided coin of dualism; as Stefan Eck points out, “Descartes did not only help establish the natural sciences, but also the freedom of thought in philosophy, the humanities…his philosophical ideas were important for the emergence of modern politics of freedom and equality” (2009, p. 158). Doing anything to dismantle this may be seen by opponents as political maneuvering—quelling their ability to express personal philosophy in the name of an ambiguous future unity.
Right now, this tendency to fear and rally against the unknown is a major form of societal unity—uniting in solidarity against the perceived threat of an unknown and unknowable Other. Discoveries in the way the mind works can continue down the road towards true equality because individuals will be able to empathize better with, for instance, an illegal immigrant, because they will no longer see them as outsider threats to the external notion of America, but simply one of their own possible fates had they not been born in a time and place of great privilege and prosperity.
Despite this, there are many exciting possibilities for dualism in the 21st century. As mentioned above, the basic tenets of dualism remain necessary to focus most individuals on achievement. If they are made to feel like their special achievements are effectively a lottery that someone else could have one, it would threaten to derail the entire notion of human achievement. In this sense, dualism remains necessary for the realm of politics, as well.
For obvious reasons, a system of representative democracy would fall apart if individuals thought that the person they were voting for would do no worse or no better than another individual from the same circumstances and location. As Dr. Embree so eloquently describes, a belief in dualism remains necessary for a belief in justice to seem well-founded. The justice system is already under severe scrutiny for possible flaws—best not to give critics more philosophical ammunition by implying that guilt is a subjective force that no human can logically dispense to another human.
Stefan Eck describes this quite well: …Cartesian dualism is precisely one of the foundations of the politics of freedom and equality that Lock and Farquhar propose. Descartes says that the mind is independent of the physical body that contains it. Modern politics hold that people’s opinions are to be kept separate from bodily attributes such as gender, skin color, or beauty, that the minds of those who take part in the political sphere have to be split from their bodies to ensure that bodily difference is not turned into political difference.
(2009, p. 156-157) Ideally, though, modern dualism and modern dualists will not be against inquiries into the way the mind works. Modern medicine, as a whole, will continue its struggle with how far down the dualism rabbit hole it is prepared to go. Grant Duncan points out that Western medicine often regards pain as “a simply bodily sensation,” and that modern medicine “often [neglects] psychological factors in health and illness” (2000, p. 493).
The reason for this is simple: the extreme end of believing that pain is often entirely in the mind is the end that is sharing shelf space with books on healing crystals and other holistic claptrap. Grant goes on to point out that in the overmedicated modern world, those who experience chronic pain do their best “to justify the pain and to avoid the label of ‘psychogenic’… if the pain does not fall into that ‘physical’ category, then it is likely to be treated with skepticism and moral disapproval” (2000, p. 507-508).
This is the brutal bottom line: those whose pain is “only” in their mind will often be regarded as someone trying to scam the doctor for unnecessary medication. Meanwhile, psychologists—in a field that, theoretically, is most threatened by inquiries that would eliminate dualism once and for all—continue to experience unfavorable representations in modern media as “head shrinkers” who are content to blame all modern problems on the patient’s mother and then bill them an exorbitant amount. Where, then, does this leave modern psychology and its inevitable ties to dualism?
Ideally, psychologists will realize that fields such as neuroscience are approaching the same problems as psychology approaches, merely from a different angle. Reductive materialism is another great example of this, as it takes the things that psychology focuses on (beliefs and desires) and claims that these can be restated and explained through neuroscience—that neuroscience is not attempting to invalidate a person’s beliefs and desires as necessary aspects of their psychological make-up, but to explain why they experience those desires.
As Scott Arnold puts it, “[reductive materialism] allows that behavior has mental causes and that the causal processes may be complex, involving a series of mental causes and effects ultimately resulting in behavior” (2010). In the future, psychology and neuroscience may very well work as one entity that may come to be preventative, as opposed to simply reactive. What does this mean?
Instead of saying “patient X has unhealthy desire Y, we are prescribing medicine Z,” the combined future of psychology and neuroscience may be more like “patient X is predisposed towards behaviors Y, we are prescribing Z course of treatment to avoid these behaviors. ” This is what Arnold means when he says that “ we have a kind of Double Language Theory, in which there are two languages (the language of folk psychology and the language of the neurosciences) to talk about one and the same phenomenon, the neurosciences” (2010).
Ultimately, reductive materialism is more inclusive than exclusive, allowing a mixture of the two worlds. The result will be a future that is likely a shared dream between doctor and patient: a world that minimizes medication, circumvents and prevents negative behavior, and ultimately allows for the patient to spend less time on the therapeutic couch, and more time in the world itself, enjoying life. In all likelihood, the cognitive sciences and the proponents of dualism will have a long, rocky road to travel together.
Dualism is necessary for individuals to believe in abstracts (freedom, desire), whereas the cognitive sciences are necessary for individuals to understand, in concrete terms, what is happening with their brains. In the future, it is likely the dualism will be taught (even more than it is now) in philosophy and ethics classes as just one possible branch of human thought, as opposed to the sole branch which must bear the weight of the entire human experience without ever snapping.
Reductive materialism points out the irony of the likeliest fate of the cognitive sciences and dualism: just as reductive materialism is necessary to transform the language of the people—“folk psychology”—into neuroscience terms, it will be necessary for someone to “re-translate” any new breakthroughs back into the language of common people. Perhaps this is the function that dualism will always serve, even among its proponents: that cognitive science research actually works within the boundaries of dualism in the sense that it focuses on the body, while dualists are free to concentrate on their mental sphere however they wish.
Perception, after all, does determine reality, and no amount of cognitive science research can undermine a dualist’s own reality unless they will it to be so. At the end of the day, dualism is actually much closer at home to the spiritual writings that have helped carry its torch than it ever will be to the sciences. Dualism is the language of hope and faith—a belief in the perfectibility of the soul when the perfectibility of the body seems impossible. Cognitive science, however, remains what it always has: not the language of what may be, but the language of what is. References Arnold, Scott (2010).
The mind body problem. University of Alabama, Birmingham. Retrieved May 15th, 2010, from http://www. uab. edu/ philosophy/faculty/arnold/4-Mind- body. htm Duncan, G. (2000) Mind-Body Dualism and the Biopsychosocial Model of Pain: What did Descartes Really Say? , Journal of Medicine and Philosophy, 25:4, 485-513 Ecks, Stefan (2009). Welcome home, Descartes! Rethinking the anthropology of the body. Perspectives in Biology and Medicine, 52 (1), 153-158. Embree, Marlowe (2009). Why I am a dualist. University of Wisconsin. Retrieved May 15th, 2010, from http://www. marathon. uwc. edu/psychology/dualist. htm
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