January 2, 2004


NATURAL-BORN DUALISTS: A Talk with Paul Bloom (Edge.org)

Some scholars are confident that people will come to accept the scientific world-view, and reject the notion of an immaterial soul. I am much less optimistic.

People do believe all sorts of things that violate common sense. Some philosophers have argued that everything in the world is made of water, others that there is no such thing as pain. It has been claimed that there is no objective morality, and that the external world does not exist. Some people think that thermostats have beliefs; others argue that rocks have a form of consciousness. Some suggest that each brain contains two conscious entities (one for each hemisphere), and some doubt that consciousness even exists. We can add to this list of crazy views what Francis Crick called ‘the astonishing hypothesis"—the view that dualism is wrong, that mental life is the product of a purely physical brain.

People might sincerely believe these things. (I certainly believe the last one.) But such beliefs exist at a different level than gut feelings. They are more fragile, and less embedded in our everyday lives. The most severe moral relativist, if he were to see someone murder a child, would feel that it is very wrong indeed. A radical behaviorist can’t help but wonder what other people think of her; and there really are no atheists in foxholes. People can reject dualism at a conscious level, but the intuitive sense that body and soul exist is here to stay.

What about the more modest proposal that people will come to reject dualism at an explicit conscious level? In the domain of bodies, after all, most of us accept that common sense is wrong. We concede that apparently solid objects are actually mostly empty space, consisting of tiny particles and fields of energy. Perhaps the same sort of reconciliation will happen in the domain of souls, and it will come to be broadly recognized that our dualist belief system, though intuitively appealing, is factually mistaken. Perhaps we will all come to agree with Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett and join the side of the "brights" [*]: those who reject the supernatural and endorse the world-view established by science.

But I am skeptical here too. The notion that our souls are flesh is profoundly troubling to many, as it clashes with religion. Dualism and religion are not the same: You can be dualist without holding any other religious beliefs, and you can hold religious beliefs without being dualist. But they almost always go together. And some very popular religious views rest on a dualist foundation, such as the belief that people survive the destruction of their bodies. If you give up on dualism, this is what you lose.

This is not small potatoes. The insights of neuroscience are a much harder pill to swallow than, say, evolutionary biology. A religion such as Judaism or Catholicism might survive even if it comes to reject a literal account of God creating man and animals. But it cannot survive the rejection of the immaterial soul. Pope John Paul II was clear about this. A few years ago, he famously conceded that our bodies may have evolved, and that the Darwinian theory of evolution might well be true. But he drew the line at souls, stating that theories "which consider the mind as emerging from the forces of living matter, or as a mere epiphenomenon of this matter, are incompatible with the truth about man." Over 300 years ago, a philosopher named Henry Moore expressed this view in even sharper terms, writing: "No spirit, no God."

When people hear about research into the neural basis of thought, they learn about specific findings: this part of the brain is involved in risk taking, that part is active when someone thinks about music, and so on. But the general assumption underlying this research, that of the physical origin of mental life, is not generally appreciated, and it is interesting to consider how people will react when it is. The clash between dualism and science will not easily be resolved, and the stakes are high. The same sorts of heated controversies that raged over the study and teaching of evolution over the last hundred years are likely to erupt over psychology and neuroscience in the years to come.

The stakes are easier to perceive these days if you simply point out: No spirit, no freedom.

Posted by Orrin Judd at January 2, 2004 11:17 PM
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