Substance Dualism and the Language Problem

I’m gushing over Qualia Soup, again, and my last post got me motivated to thinking about a point in his two part video on Substance Dualism: There’s often a shift in perspective we don’t think about when we talk about experiences. The example he gives is someone saying “I decided to move my arm, and then my arm moved.” If you’re not already familiar with the idea I’m talking about, you might not notice the change from first person to third person. That’s what I’m going to be focusing on for the moment.

“I decided to move my arm…” is a statement made from first person. We experience making decisions differently than we perceive other people making decisions. If I had some high tech scanner aimed at the subject, I would see the appropriate parts of his brain firing up, his motor cortex sending signals to his muscles, which then move his arm. I can’t experience someone else’s decision from that first person perspective because my brain isn’t hooked into theirs, but I can see the neurons firing.

“…and then my arm moved.” is effectively a third person view because outside observers can see the movement. It’s publicly accessible information.

It’d be similar to watching the inside of a computer as it runs a program. While someone at the controls with a monitor might be experiencing a game without any knowledge of the calculations going on in the background, I can see the same events happening from a different perspective. If it’s a racing game, the player, serving the role of the conscious part of a mind, is going to see a first person perspective of his car driving around the track while I’d see the data values for his car’s coordinates, direction, and so forth changing over the course of the game.

From a layperson point of view, the correlation between the decision and the arm movement is mysterious, just like how the computer’s operation of a game is mysterious. People can operate their bodies, sometimes in very adept fashion, without knowing the detail about which muscles are doing what at any given moment. The “simple” act of walking has long been a challenge for robotics because engineers essentially had to consciously learn the mechanics of something they can do unconsciously.

I think that supposed mysteriousness is one factor behind the popularity of dualism, essentially bridging the supposed gap between mind and body with magic, when, from my monist description of the event, there is no gap, only information that is not available to the first person perspective by default. Thus, it seems to me that the “mind-body problem” is a consequence of assuming substance dualism, leading to non-parsimonious self-contradiction instead of describing a real mystery. Remove the assumption of souls, and you remove the problem. Keep the soul, and you have to find a way that something that’s defined as non-interactive with the physical can interact with the physical.

The third person view might feel detached and difficult to interpret, but that doesn’t mean it’s an invalid way to look at the events. No perspective is perfect, and monist theories of mind are constructed to take that into account and seek to form the most consistent picture possible, which often includes explaining causes for error in individual experiences. Any adult should be able to recognize that his or her experience and memory aren’t completely reliable. It can be a hard blow to the ego, but it’s true. We make mistakes, and many familiar mistakes are inherent in human nature. That’s why we don’t blindly accept someone’s word about events and try to question our own perspective when an inconsistency is found. Science can be said to be the pursuit of a more impartial, more consistent, and more complete third person perspective by integrating multiple different perspectives, filtering out as many sources of familiar errors as possible.

4 responses to “Substance Dualism and the Language Problem

  1. Pingback: Rupert Sheldrake’s Science Delusion — Part 2: Delusions of Dogma « Spirituality is No Excuse

  2. I come across this kind of thinking in my work quite often. I work with autistic kids (as a social worker, not as a trained psychologist) but something about that condition, more than any other, seems to provoke people’s personal beliefs about the soul into trumping their professionalism.

    On the one side, belief in a soul can lead to recognizing civil rights of people who can’t actively assert them; but on the other, it can lead to ignorant and stupid assumptions that an autistic person has a “perfect soul” which “can’t incarnate” completely or come to full expression via the body. So then they try to “heal” them, in ways that are not just demeaning and useless, but invasive and damaging.

    For example —
    “Amy also said she had seen autistic children improve after being treated with a controversial therapy known as “packing.” That involves wrapping nearly naked children in wet, cold towels in an attempt to “reconnect” them with their bodies.”

    I still hear of therapists here in Germany who believe in the old “refrigerator mom” theory, which blames mothers for causing autism by being “emotionally cold”, and then trying to “heal” the mother/child bond” through extreme measures like forcing them to hug for 20 hours a day non-stop until the “inner resistance” is “broken down”. It all seems to me to be based on the idea of a “perfect soul” failing to incarnate.

    At least professionally people need to realize that the science doesn’t back up those ideas, so they have no right to use their professionally gained access to these kids to act out their fantasies. But a lot of them don’t even realize they’re acting on a set of unsubstantiated assumptions.

    For me it also demonstrates the general need for atheists to actively promote civil and human rights, to allay fears that the loss of the soul doesn’t mean devaluing the individual. In fact quite the opposite would be the case, in this instance.

    Again, thanks for helping me clarify my thoughts on this, with these excellent posts!

    • It’s a very good point to bring up autistic children and the myths. What particularly stands out to me about the rationale is that it could be applied to anyone who’s different in any way, whether it’s a neurological quirk, “deviant” personality, or lack of religion.

      Frankly, one observation I’ve made about the idea of souls is that it’s easy to deny them to a hated group.

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