A “Case for Dualism”? Case dismissed.

By | June 20, 2011

On the advice of a blog visitor, I read a paper called “Case for Dualism” by Scott D. Brisbane.

My conclusion after reading the case for dualism is that it is a belief which results when a person does not understand, and even ignores the evidence for, the fact that the action of a brain results in the experience of a mind.

The first problem I see with the article is the writer’s assumption that a “spirit” or a “soul” is a “substance” (in addition to the brain) with “properties”, and that the soul is the same as the “mind”. Brisbane writes:

Before proceeding, it seems important to be aware that distinctions are often made between the mind, soul, spirit, and the ego or self. Unless otherwise noted, they will be used interchangeably to more easily focus on the mind-body problem.

The mind is not a substance, it is the result of brain activity. Second, these terms are not the same and should not be used interchangeably. In November of 2010 I traced the roots of the word “spirit” and came to a new understanding of the belief in spirits. (See the Origin of the Holy Ghost)

The word spirit in both Hebrew and Greek means "breath" or "wind."- link

Before science entered the picture, people believed the breath was a magical life force.

This made some sense. When you stop breathing, you die. The “spirit” (sometimes the “holy spirit”) came to be regarded as something entirely disconnected from the body. Spirits (winds) were believed to be those breaths of the living which were now free to roam and ruffle hair.

Remember, high and low pressure zones were also unknown in biblical times. The wind was as mysterious as the breath. Both are made of the same “element” (air), so they must be connected. Completely logical. But completely wrong.

This is misunderstanding of breath and the wind lead to centuries of superstitious people believing in ghosts and that a mystical immortal immaterial essence continues on after a body dies. Well, that would be nice, wouldn’t it? No evidence for it, but it would be so nice, that people believe it and skip (or invent) the evidence.

On to the next point. The author states:

It seems obvious that physical properties do not have the same features as mental properties. For example, mental events such as thoughts, feelings of pain and sensory experiences do not contain physical qualities like mass, spatial dimensions and space location, are not composed of chemicals, and do not have electrical properties.

Experiences result from but are not composed of electro-chemical reactions. The author is setting up a blind argument. This is like comparing the properties of Microsoft Word to the properties of an Intel CPU, while implicitly giving them equal status as hardware.

As monist Keith Maslin summarises, "physical occurrences do not just appear to be different from consciousness; they are utterly different, so utterly different in fact, that it is inconceivable how the
physical could produce the mental."

Just because you can not understand how Microsoft Word does what it does thanks to your computer’s CPU, that this is “inconceivable” only shows the limits of your knowledge. Because the actual fact is, Microsoft Word can do a mail merge as a result of the way electricity moves through a silicon chip. The hardware does produce the software, despite your lack of understanding of how it works.

Argument refuted. The author continues:

In a published journal, Bruce Hinrichs points out:
When a person reads a sentence, hears a speech, experiences an emotion, or thinks a thought, a cluster or network of brain cells fires in a certain pattern with particular intensity and timing.

Likewise, it has been observed that when a part of one's brain is touched with an electrode, it may cause a mental experience such as a memory to occur.

Some might classify this as evidence that mental states are
reducible to physical states, yet this only demonstrates that the mind is causally connected to the brain and not that they are identical. Therefore, the distinctiveness of mental and physical properties and states argues favourably of substance dualism.

Every time you stimulate the brain in a certain place, you’ll get the same mental experience, (even of leaving your body!) and every time you have the mental experience, you can see that part of the brain light up in an MRI. The author uses a straw man argument (a logical fallacy) by saying that they two are not identical, and therefore, the mind is “irreducible to the physical,” a “mental substance”.

No one has ever claimed that the mind is the exact same thing as the brain. That is the straw man, which is easily knocked down. The real argument, which is ignored by the author, is that thinking–and our experience of thinking as the mind–is the result of the action of the brain.

The author next ignores biology again by describing "self-presenting properties" as evidence for dualism. Again, the argument presented displays a lack of understanding of brain wiring. Our senses provide input without the need for conscious thought. There is a pathway from the optic nerve that leads to a different part of our brain than the part we normally use for vision, for example. This fact allows some completely blind people to avoid obstacles. There is no mystical substance involved. Just nerve cells, stimulus and response.

At this point I found it difficult to keep reading because, yes, “states of experience have a subjective qualitative feel to them … and this does not appear to be true of anything physical” but this is how the software of the mind works. Your experience with Microsoft Word’s formatting features seems in no way connected to those RAM memory sticks inside your computer. But guess what? Right. No memory chips, no bold text. The author can’t understand how the hardware produces the experience of the software, therefore, he would have you believe that Microsoft Word will keep running if you take away the computer!

The final most significant argument in the paper is as follows:

Intentionality is often referred to as the "ofness" and "aboutness" of mental states, and is perhaps one of the strongest arguments favouring dualism. One physical object can be harder and larger than another to the left, yet it cannot be "of" or "about" another physical object because "aboutness" is not within the language of physics and chemistry.

Once again, this is a straw man argument, faulty logic. The author admits to choosing sciences which have no business explaining “aboutness”, but uses this as evidence imply that the mind could operate without the brain.

“because of its intentionality, the mind is qualitatively different from non-mental, purely mechanical things.”

Of course, the mind is different from the firing of neurons which result in it. No one is saying it is the same. Dualism is willful hardware blindness which results in the attribution of magical properties to software.

[T]he fact that Joe's thought that the painting is beautiful is about the painting cannot be reduced to any physical fact about Joe's brain and central nervous system. Nor can this fact be identified with Joe's disposition or tendency to do certain things; for example, to smile and say, 'How lovely that is!' after viewing the painting.

The experience of beauty has been localized in the brain, so the first part of this argument is wrong. When we experience beauty, the anterior cingulate, the parietal cortex, and the orbito-frontal cortex become active.

If one's thinking is nothing more than his being disposed to behave in certain ways, then one would have no idea what it was that one was thinking about until that behavior was manifested!

Neuroscience can already predict what a person will do, to a limited degree. See “Brain scanners can see your decisions before you make them.” In the experiment, the brain scanners could tell what the test subjects were going to decide seconds before the subjects were even aware of making a decision. Indeed, the people had “no idea what it was that one was thinking” until seven seconds after the behavior manifested! Dualism sent home with a spanking.

This dualist also ignores the fact that the brain is wired with feedback loops. We are aware of your thoughts, we can hear our internal dialogue. In fact, conjoined twins Krista and Tatiana Hogan who share part of their thalamus, may also hear each other’s thoughts. One girl with her eyes closed can already see what the other girl with her eyes open can see.

… It's just one of the remarkable incidents which have astonished doctors in British Columbia treating the conjoined twins, who say they may have a unique neural link which means they share one mind.

They believe the sisters share a part of the brain called the thalamus, which sends physical sensations and motor functions to the cerebral cortex.

In other words, they are effectively able to see through each other's eyes — and perhaps even hear each others' thoughts.

In an in-depth interview with the New York Times their mother, Felicia Simms, revealed how when one twin has her eyes covered, she can identify what the other one sees… Todd Feinberg, the professor of psychiatry and neurology at Albert Einstein College of Medicine, told the Times: 'It's like they are one and two people at the same time.

Software is very real and very useful. Dualism (the proposition that a mind is separate from a body) is on the one hand obviously true (the mind and body are separate things, one software, the other hardware) and on the other hand obviously false. The faulty assumption is that because the two are different, they can be separated. There is no mind and no consciousness without a body. The evidence is abundant that the mind is the result of the action of the brain (a causal, not merely a correlative relationship):

  1. Consciousness can be turned on and off with chemicals which act upon the brain.
  2. Brain activity correlates with mental activity – Imaging of living brains while subjects are performing different mental tasks shows that specific brain areas become active when particular mental experiences occur.
  3. During brain surgery, a person can be made to leave his or her body every time a certain area of the brain is stimulated. Stop the stimulation and the person returns to the body.
  4. People with brain damage experience related mind damage depending on the area of the brain damaged.
  5. Mental development follows brain development.
  6. There is no mental function without brain function.

The dualist author favors “substance dualism” which states that the mind emerges from the appropriate arrangement of physical matter. If the soul existed as the essence of a person, then brain damage should not change the character of the person, but it does. Some brain damage dramatically changes a person’s personality.

What quality, then, is unique to the supposed “soul”? There is no ability or experience a person can have which is not changeable by a brain change, therefore, dualists are adding a mysterious undefined substance for no reason.

One of the most complicated structures in the universe is inside your skull. Why add anything more?

2 thoughts on “A “Case for Dualism”? Case dismissed.

  1. Marjorie Kaye

    I think it’s even more complicated than either explanation–dualism or skull contents. Since I understand scientific concepts better when they are fed to me in the form of a video (trying to read Damasio was an uphill battle) I often watch The Science Channel. Recently Morgan Freeman’s Universe dealt with the concept of “soul.” Credible people offer differing views including a “soul is skull contents and dies with you” guy. The video is on youtube–Science Channel Morgan Freeman’s Through the wormhole–“Is Death the End?” One opinion focused on quantum physics ala ” this is your brain and this is your brain on quantum physics.” Don’t ask me to explain–I barely comprehended it at the time and I don’t retain well–changes in the middle aged brain–I’m not the bright penny that i was.

    The former actress me still reads my horoscope so I’m ready to buy any New Age pudding that tells me death is but a door or an escalator to another level and I’ll see my mom and grandma and my dog when I “pass over.” Also, every mean person gets what they deserve. Unfortunately, as you have pointed out, brain injuries can turn you into a completely different person–angry instead of nice, or the other opposite, or you start talking with an accent.

    Unfortunately, Tree of Life, which tackled death and the nature of the Universe seemed more like The Fountain than not–beautiful but repetitious–and no friggin story. Mallick forgot that our human Universe deals with the specific–he gives us so little to care about. We see and hear the parents’ grief–but death is an abstraction. Give me Toy Story 3 where Woody and his friends hold hands as they are being fed to an inferno. Is that the last word on it? No, but the point is clear and it resonates. Perhaps our soul lies in the way we link to each other and how we come to accept ourselves. Where does a brain injury fit in? Sadly, it doesn’t.

    John Gray’s The Immortality Commission (no I didn’t read it but I read material he wrote about the book and some of the reviews) deals with various attempts to get a handle on the Big Chill–including research by The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. I wrote an entire horror novel that starts with one of their experiments. Even the Soviets (another attempt to avoid death Gray chronicles) had their Lenin Cubes and many good Communists had one.

    I hope and pray (to whom I have no idea) that this is not all there is. But until someone contacts his Aunt Millie, documents it and the video shows up on Ghost Hunters, send in the clowns.

    1. Xeno Post author

      None of us know with 100% certainty, so it is fun debate.

      Despite all my arguing with Alex and other dualists, I’d LOVE IT if the brain was just a sufficiently complicated structure for consciousness to live in and when we die, our consciousness moves on to some other structure as soon as it can find a good home.

      That would be a great belief in terms of living an enjoyable life and not worrying about the end.

      As a person who believes that we come from nothing and return to nothing, I’m not afraid of being dead, but I’m put off by the crossing over part. It can be peaceful or horrible, depending on what straw you draw. The quickest most painless way would be this:


      Not that I’d want to take all the other people with me, but if I have to go…

Leave a Reply