Sarah (switchfan) wrote,

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Today I had my first tutorial meeting. the last 2 days have been spent living in books, whether in the library or the common room (where most of us go to study). Except for the fact that i feel anti-social because all I've done is study, I enjoyed it. I hope I'm not turning into a scholar (defined as someone who never leaves school and get multiple degrees and eventually a teaching job - i'm not painting this as a necessarily bad thing), because I want to graduate and leave it at that.

So anyway, this tutorial was for my philosophy of mind study. My essay question (also title of my essay) was "What is dualism, is it a plausible theory, and what are the alternatives?" It was just supposed to be an overview paper. If you go to my blog I'm going to post the paper, if anyone is interested. I think the whole debate is fascinating. I didn't have time to go beyond my required reading and write on the question of dualism/monism and Christian faith, unfortunately. maybe later.

My tutorial was an hour, and the first thing I did was read my paper to my tutor. Then we discussed some points I'd made, she made some more points, we talked about some nuances (and problems with the entire debate as a whole - she agrees with my analysis of it in my paper), and then she gave me a choice of two different things that I could study next week. Her name is Meriel, and she's very nice and very interesting, and I had a GREAT time talking philosophy for an hour. I don't know what I was thinking my freshman year... English major?! sheesh....

My tutorial was from 11-12, and then i ate lunch with Charity and we walked around the egyptian section of the Ashmolean for 30 minutes. That's the free museum in Oxford, and it has lots of different, really cool things. There were TONS of egyptian amulets, jewelry, and other various things found in egyptian tombs. They were in surprisingly good condition for being anywhere from 2-4 thousand years old.

My next tutorial, on Wittgenstein's later philosophy, is on monday. I spent the entire afternoon in the library because I haven't gotten even halfway through the reading list yet, and everyone discussing him talks in code. I'm just getting to the point where I can understand it if I outline the chapters as i go... but it takes FOREVER. i'm not used to 30 pages taking me 6 hours to read.

i love school. especially the way they do it here. I think my "i hate academia" friends would have a terrible time though, because you have to be very disciplined about your studies. your time is mostly free, and you have to take initiative and go out and study. although i bet the english have an easier time of it, I think my american counterparts are very spoiled for the most part. having class 3 times a week feels like babysitting to me now. and as long as i can remember to allow enough time for my reading I won't have any trouble comprehending anything. i highly recommend studying abroad guys, it's really stretching.

It's also been very warm here the last couple of days. 40's to upper 50's during the day. And it was sunny most of today, that was nice too. I went running this morning (finally), and saw the park workers hard at work, and it made me miss my job a LOT. they were driving tractors, and scooping mulch with a mini-backhoe, and driving trucks... *sigh* I like learning, but I miss my job (shout out to my co-workers, i miss you too *sad face*).

What is Dualism? Is it a Plausible Theory? What are the Alternatives?

The question of what my core self is composed of is a question of some history. Plato was the first major philosopher to postulate a dualist theory of self, and in recent history Descartes renewed the debate and moved it to the forefront of the area of philosophy known as Philosophy of Mind. In this paper I wish to explain what exactly Dualism is. Then I will explore the problems and overall plausibility of the theory of dualism, and explain a major alternative to that view. Then I will explain some problems with the tactics of the entire debate as a whole.

What is Dualism? It is “the view that human beings are made up of two radically distinct constituents (body, constituted by matter like other natural objects, and an immaterial mind or soul).” In other words, dualism holds that the core of a human, what makes her unique and that she calls 'myself', is something immaterial and separable from her body. “It is the soul, not the body or brain, which thinks, feels, imagines and undergoes experiences.... The body should be relegated to the status of mere vehicle, providing the focus for the soul's causal intercourse with the rest of the natural world.”

Dualists claim this view of the world on two grounds. Their first proof is that it is possible for us to imagine the essence of a material object (be it person or thing) existing apart from its material manifestation. Plato held this view, and consequently developed his theory of forms and that the soul (what we consider the mind) conti-nues to exist after the death of the body. Descartes greatly expanded this line of thought in his Meditations. His main argument in part VI set off the debate surrou-nding dualism that continues to this day.

"[B]ecause I know that all which I clearly and distinctly conceive can be produced by God exactly as I conceive it, it is sufficient that I am able clearly and distinctly to conceive one thing apart from another, in order to be certain that the one is different from the other, seeing they may at least be made to exist separately, by the omnipotence of God; and it matters not by what power this separation is made, in order to be compelled to judge them different; and, therefore, merely because I know with certitude that I exist, and because, in the meantime, I do not observe that aught necessarily belongs to my nature or essence beyond my being a thinking thing, I rightly conclude that my essence consists only in my being a thinking thing [or a substance whose whole essence or nature is merely thinking]. And although I may, or rather, as I will shortly say, although I certainly do possess a body with which I am very closely conjoined; nevertheless, because, on the one hand, I have a clear and distinct idea of myself, in as far as I am only a thinking and unextended thing, and as, on the other hand, I possess a distinct idea of body, in as far as it is only an extended and unthinking thing, it is certain that I, [that is, my mind, by which I am what I am], is entirely and truly distinct from my body, and may exist without it."

The dualist's second claim is that it just does not seem possible that our rich mental life; whatever it is within us that hopes, dreams, fears, appreciates art, and imagines fantasies, could be fully explained or accounted for by purely material objects. This argument appeals to the premise “that there are some particularly deep or impressive thoughts and feelings which merely material things cannot have.”

If we accept that dualism is true, the next step is to explain how it is that an entirely immaterial entity (the mind) can interact with an entirely material entity (the body). Most dualists, including Plato and Descartes, hold to the theory of dualistic interactionism. “It is called that because it asserts that a person (which is not a phy-sical thing) and that person's body (which is a physical thing) can act upon each other.” This is how we feel pain and hurt when a friend punches us, or happiness and contentment after a delicious meal. It is also how our mind interacts with the world: by ordering or manipulating our material body to commit actions.

An explanation of exactly how dualism works is where the theory starts to get bogged down. Dualism certainly is a plausible theory. The fact that, as Descartes pointed out, we can conceive of the possibility of ourselves existing without our body is proof that the theory is logically possible. Or, as Peter Carruthers put it, “There are possible worlds in which conscious states occur in the absence of any physical subject of those states. However, there is surely no possible world in which conscious states occur in the absence of any conscious subject whatever.” We could also argue that material, conscious, non-humans, do not seem to possess as rich a mental life as we do (dogs, as far as we know, do not appreciate art), and thus it must be our human mind that makes the difference. However, logical possibility does not entail certainty, or even necessarily probability. Just because we can imagine that our minds are separate from our bodies does not mean that they are. “Descartes's premises about what we can feign to be the case show – at most – that we can feign that we are dis-tinct from our bodies: and this isn't sufficient to show that we really are separate from our bodies.”

Also, one of the biggest problems with the certainty of the theory of dualism is that it has yet to come up with any good explanations as to how exactly the material and immaterial interact. This has caused some dualists to retreat into epipheno-menalism. This is the idea that our material bodies affect our minds, but not the other way around. Thus we can view the body to mind interaction rather like fire to smoke, or by viewing our mental life as purely a by-product of our material brain. This gives the dualist less to prove, but it doesn't explain the interaction any better. Other dualists retreat even farther into interactionism, and claim that the material and the mental co-exist in a parallel way, but that there is no causal interaction between them. Smith and Jones point out that these retreats only hamper the dualist's argument, because they completely abolish the ground of the second proof (if minds cannot affect bodies then how could we argue that our rich mental life in any way animated our actions?). This leaves no proof at all for these dualists to even postulate that other people have minds, because everything can be explained in purely physical terms.

The main alternative to dualism is, of course, materialism, also known as physicalism. Materialism holds just the opposite of dualism: that humans are entirely material entities. The materialist “maintains, not that we don't have mental states as we ordinarily understand them, but that having mental states doesn't require the possession of a non-physical extra something.” Materialists have all the same data available to them as dualists, but do not think that any extra immaterial entity is required to explain it all plausibly.

As with any philosophical theory, there are numerous arguments that have been constructed for and against both dualism and materialism. Both theories can explain observed human behaviour, although how satisfactorily they do that will depend on the assumptions of the reader. Both theories claim the foundation of rationality when starting from an empirical base. Descartes and many other dualists claim that it is obvious that if you reflect on your consciousness and thoughts, you will come to realize that these exists apart from your body – that there is an “I” that is not material. However, Hume and others argue just as strenuously that Descartes was not thinking very clearly. “[A]ll that can be establish on the basis on introspe-ction is the existence of conscious states and events themselves. When I 'look into' myself, I am aware of thoughts, experiences, feeling. I am not aware of any self which has or possesses these states. The self is not an item in consciousness.”

It is here that some points are in order about how the debate is being conducted. In the first place, both sides claim that the burden of proof rests on the other. Dualists have the weight of antiquity on their side in the form of Plato, and their assumptions about the obvious existence of a separate “I” in our reflections. Materialists, on the other hand, first assume that nothing exists aside from the material world, and hold steadfast to a fundamental principle of science, “that the physical world is 'causally closed' – i.e. There are no causal influences on physical events besides other physical events.” Without more direct proof either way, I suspect this debate will not reach any kind of conclusion.

In the second place, it is obvious that both sides at the same time can't use the claim that rational introspection will obviously lead to their point of view. One of the main problems is that no one has written a formula by which we can determine how we are to go about reflecting on our consciousness in order to discover if it is our brain or our mind that is 'me'. For all we know, the people who come to dualist conclusions have tended to follow a certain path with their reflections which led them to conclusions that seemed obvious, while people who have come to materialist conclusions followed a different path which led them to opposite, but apparently just as obvious conclusions. Another possible explanation for these radically different conclusions is that whatever defines how we are unique also determines the way we view our consciousness. In other words, our genetic or innate differences (which manifest themselves in every other way we think and do things) mean that to John Doe, it is always going to look to him in his reflections on his consciousness that he has an immediate awareness of a unified, conscious life. Whereas Jane Doe, even if she starts in exactly the same place the John did, and follows exactly the same form of inquiry, will always come to the conclusion that mental states are not separable from the brain.

In conclusion, while both dualism and materialism are plausible, I do not think that either theories make an especially compelling case for themselves over the other. A lot of this debate seems to involve interpreting the data based on pre-conceived assumptions, and from this I am led to believe that there is not compelling evidence on either side such that to disagree with the inevitable conclusion would cause you to commit intellectual suicide.


hm.... apparently my footnotes didn't transfer over, so if anyone has a compelling wish to see my sources that I cited and quoted from, I will gladly send them to you - just let me know.

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