Substance Dualism and the Substance Problem

One of the big problems I have with substance dualism is “how does the soul work?” With monist theories of mind, there are still plenty of unknowns, but there’s a large tapestry of interacting causes and effects we can trace. When someone gets brain damage in region X, it tends to cause problem Y. When there’s an amount of drug X in the system, the production of neurotransmitter Y is inhibited, reducing brain function Z. It’s a complex system, but from what I can tell, it has pretty good predictive value.

Not so much with the soul. It just does complex consciousness stuff without any explanation. You can call that a “mystery” but it says “brick wall!” to me. It doesn’t help that some people misunderstand and abuse Occam’s Razor to claim that souls should be favored as an explanation because they’re allegedly simple. If that were how Occam’s Razor worked, anything could be said to work through “simple” magic, and we’d get nowhere. It’s also heavily against what I’ve seen of the universe: Simple objects have simple interactions. It’s only when you have complex systems that complex behavior results. If you want to assert something so counter-intuitive, you’ll need something other than special pleading to convince me.

One common argument is an analogy: Brain damage, drugs, and such reduce conscious behavior because the brain is like a radio or television, and the soul is like a transmitter, so damage to the radio messes with the reception. I realize this is just an anecdotal account, but that certainly defies my experiences as a conscious person. When medication makes me sleepy, I’m not a fully awake, conscious person in the ether, trying to control a less responsive body, I get sleepy. I’m a teetotaler, so I’ve got to ask: When you get really drunk, are yelling at your body for making stupid decisions?

One persistent annoyance I have is that the non-physical substance posited by dualism is described in terms of what it’s not. Attempts at analogies comparing physical objects to other physical objects, like matter and energy, only serves to spread confusion while allegedly sounding profound. What’s the deal? Opposite that, I’ve seen a lot of assertions that “material” things like brains can’t have consciousness, with no explanation given. Why not? What identifiable properties or circumstances are preventing it?

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5 responses to “Substance Dualism and the Substance Problem

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

  2. To play devil’s advocate, sometimes some new phenomenon really can only be defined by what it isn’t. Heck, even some old things can be defined that way, like “cold” or “dark”. However, most of the time some very tight constraints can, at least hypothetically, be placed on those sorts of definitions. When defining what a “soul” is, it’s never described as anything’s “exact opposite”, except using words that already MEAN the exact opposite, but that duelists would never call a soul. Someone might say a soul is the “opposite of non-life”, so you can point to a bacterium, and not a one will say that a bacterium is a soul. Sometimes it is defined in positive terms, but the definition is never accurate enough to rule out things they would never say are souls. For example, I’ve heard a soul defined as “the unit of decision making”. Well, I could point to an if-then statement or a while loop in programming and ask if that is a soul. Not a one will say that’s even a portion of a soul (actually, the notion of a subdivided soul seems really offensive to a lot of them, but AWESOME to us fantasy and sci-fi nerds, considering how often it appears in fiction). I’ve also heard it defined as “that unit of self awareness”. Again, a self-analyzing program in a computer checking the consistency of the operating system against itself, or similar consistency checking proteins in a cell checking on DNA mutations never gets to be called anything close to a soul, it’s completely different. (Again, this seems to be based on their notion that a “soul” is immutable as the atom (atoms themselves being shown to be very mutable indeed).)

    I don’t mind tossing out the word “soul” now and again myself, but usually only as metaphor. As such, I can give a definition. It’s nothing terribly precise, but it’ll do a lot better. My definition is that it’s the phenomenon of awareness and decision making itself, described as a package. I have no marriage to any notion of a soul as anything other than an emergent result of a process, and that process takes place, at least for now, in brains. My concept of a “soul” can be subdivided into its parts just fine, and is subject to redefinition as new understanding comes in. It isn’t immutable, it isn’t an independent thing in itself in any sense other than the sense that a running computer program is a thing in itself, and really it’s just a word to describe and house a collection of concepts.

    It’s certainly far more useful.

    On a related note, there’s the common definitions of “god”. Again, the common complaint is they are nonsensical and lack any clear definition of what god is. Again, I’ll play devil’s advocate. Some people in this complaint go as far as to say they need a definition of some sort of physical object like a shape, texture, mass, or wavelength. I won’t go that far, because I can envision the universe as a running program with god as a background administration task. In a video game world one can talk about a background set of computer code that has not a single iota of manifestation as any “physical” object in the game world itself, or anything that could be called “physical”. It’s just, say, some garbage collection code running around removing unused data, or a set of commands that inserts monsters into the game world. A “god” could easily be like that, and in every sense that people mean when they say the word, it would be “formless”. HOWEVER, that is as far as my devil’s advocation goes. What a computer program or function is has a very precise mathematical definition. If a religious person was willing to make the claim that their god was a mathematical function or programmatic object running “in the background” but not an object inside the physical portion of the universe, with no x,y,z coordinates, that would actually BE a meaningful definition. I still wouldn’t buy that it exists, and even a computer program exists within time and exists ON something, some sort of mechanism running the code, and we know that computer programs exist because we have evidence, but still would have no reason for a god to exist. My only point is, there actually is a definition of god that actually fits that “formless outside the universe” definition the faithful love so much. I just don’t think too many would adapt that sort of definition.

    • I think you misunderstand. I don’t know where you got opposites from, since I don’t think mutually exclusive categories are necessarily opposites. I’m talking about the idea that “not natural/not material” isn’t a useful or coherent description. If we’re talking about something exotic that has been discovered, as opposed to dreamed up, we usually have some positive traits because presumably it’s doing something observable that brought it to our attention in the first place. Dark matter, for example, has mass and exerts gravity, though it is exotic because it doesn’t otherwise behave like familiar baryonic matter.

      Of course, the problem with “supernatural” is, well, how would you know to categorize it as such, instead of just labeling it as an exotic natural thing? What properties make this alleged distinction between natural and supernatural?

  3. We’re in agreement there. I was only saying that, at least hypothetically, I’m not opposed to defining something by what it’s not as long as there’s some tight constraints. It also really helps to have reason to think that something is even there to begin with, to actually get those initial constraints.

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