Consciousness / mind · Mockery · philosophy · Politics

Cartesian Dualism

More unedited whining about the “””””skeptic””””” community. I did it without even mentioning Sam ‘Fascists Understand Islam Best’ Harris though, so I am basically super proud of myself irght now. 

Substance dualism, most often associated with Descartes, is the position that the mind is ontologically irreducible to the physical (neurobiology) and is instead a different type of substance. This follows from the observation that mental states possess properties which are in principle incapable of being accounted for by anything we would consider a scientific description. To quote the IEP[1]:

In more detail, the challenge arises because it does not seem that the qualitative and subjective aspects of conscious experience—how consciousness “feels” and the fact that it is directly “for me”—fit into a physicalist ontology, one consisting of just the basic elements of physics plus structural, dynamical, and functional combinations of those basic elements.  It appears that even a complete specification of a creature in physical terms leaves unanswered the question of whether or not the creature is conscious.

For physicalism to be true there must be a necessary connection between the physical facts of the world and the mental facts of the world; however, if there is a possible world in which the physical facts are the same and yet there is no consciousness, this means that such a necessary connection does not exist. Substance dualism is one response to this issue, and not a particularly popular one, but I want to emphasise it because it is, apparently, the only form of dualism that certain communities (the obnoxious New Atheist / skeptic communities) are aware of.  And this is a post to make fun of those types of people, not actual philosophers who form their opinions after, not before, reading books.

‘Skeptics’ are almost universally in love with physicalism, and they react with revulsion to the mere suggestion that there could be an aspect of the world which does not fit neatly into their Scientistic metaphysics. Their response to the Hard Problem is especially aggressive because immaterial consciousness would, supposedly, open the door to all kinds of spooky stuff: ghosts, near death experiences, the afterlife, or even, *gasp* God. Typically, they will use a computer analogy: consciousness is the software, and the brain is the hardware. This, so it goes, banishes any mystery back into the realm of the supernatural; after all, nobody looks at a computer and sees two substances. The mind is just a working brain. 

This psuedo-identification of mind and brain supposedly resolves the non-problem of consciousness, but, ironically, this is what being haunted by Descartes’ ghost looks like. While rejecting the idea that the mind is a separate substance, they nevertheless accept, and even sharpen, a deep ontological split between mind and body.

Traditional, Input/Output View of Mind and Body

In this picture of the world mental activity is restricted to the head, and the rest of the nervous system is relegated to the role of inert machinery: the senses capture information and input it into the brain; the brain processes this information and outputs orders to the body; and the body carries out these orders and, in doing so, finds more information to input. If dualism is such a disaster for positing essential differences between mind and body, is not this picture the exact same disaster cloaked in physicalist language? There has been no rejection of dualism here, it has merely been transformed into a form consistent with a society which fetishises science and technology. They’ve killed God but kept Judeo-Christian values.

What actually has to be attacked is the very idea that there is anything but a cloudy distinction between mind and body.


To get an understanding of what this might mean, let’s look at a somewhat analogous situation: attitudes toward the genetic ‘code.’ Take Richard Dawkins’ view in The Selfish Gene[2]in which organisms are portrayed as genetic vehicles – the genes run the show, and organisms are a tool through which (anthropomorphized) genes propagate themselves; this understanding is still very common outside of the scientific community (I am in no position to talk about the consensus of the field itself!). The role of the environment is acknowledged, as selection occurs at the phenotypical level, but as an external force; genes are seen as blueprints for an organism, and the more successful blueprints, measured by the structure’s performance, are used in further generations[3] – this split is akin to the traditional, mistaken mind/body split. But there’s a problem: DNA and RNA are incapable of carrying out their tasks in a vacuum – they require the environment of a cell, and privileging the ‘code’ in this manner mystifies what is actually happening; not just the ability to express but the nature of the expression relies heavily on other systems (ie the cell’s self-maintenance[4]) which, in turn, rely on further systems and environmental factors. It’s a dynamic interplay between numerous mutually reliant factors and is, essentially, an activity of the entire organism. You can distinguish between DNA and the rest of the organism, and talk about the role of genetic code, but what you cannot do is treat the organism (and its systems) as nothing but a vessel for the driving force of selfish genes. The point is not that DNA cannot express itself in the absence of the rest of the organism, and its environment, but that the roles of DNA and other factors in determining phenotype are murky and intermingled. 

It is not particularly controversial to say that the mind is embodied, that it is part of an organism; however, it is controversial to say that the mind itself is to some degree constituted by bodily and wordly activities. This the difference between saying that neuroscience needs to pay more attention to the body’s role in their theories of cognition and saying that bodily activity is constitutive of cognition. I am going to do a great disservice to the complexity of this discussion by limiting myself to the above analogy and one example of how the body is involved in cognitive processes: as various non-neural structures that take on cognitive work.

A 2008 paper by Susan Cook, Gesturing Makes Learning Last[5]describes an experiment in which children were required to gesture when learning new mathematical concepts. Compared to the control group, children who spoke but did not gesture, the gesturing children had much better concept retention. Importantly, the impetus for this research was a ton of previous work that demonstrated that gesturing, spontaneous gesturing, could predict whether a task will soon be learned; that gesturing facilitates the learning of new tasks; and that gesturing is associated with greater retention of learned tasks. The introduction of the paper briefly summarises some of this research (2).  The distinction in this experiment was to isolate gesturing as a variable to ensure that it was not just a byproduct of some other process. Empirical data like this, in addition to our own phenomenology (when I am trying to explain a concept to someone I feel a deep need to use pen and paper as a means of processing my thoughts) is what calls into question the traditional mind/body division. Since I can’t help myself, it’s also worth briefly considering some implications to this sort of distributed workload: the divide between body and world is as much at risk as that between body and mind, as humans and other animals routinely use the environment to aid in cognition (not to mention the impact caused by environmental cues).

Socio-political Implications and Applications / More Off-Topic Whining

I almost managed to do it. I almost managed to avoid getting political. But that’s the problem: if the conception of a human being isn’t political, I don’t know what is.

Once the hard division between mind, body, and world is erased, a different understanding of life can follow: a focus on life as activity rather than as being; not substance, but process. To be alive is to be in constant exchange with the surrounding environment. An organism is continually taking in foreign material, continually being affected by its world, and continually affecting its world. It is embodied and embedded, situated in an environment that it is both shaping and being shaped by. This applies to society as well, as people are embedded within an enormous web of relationships, from natural environment to social institutions to workplace to other individuals, and these relationships are continually in flux, shaping and being shaped by each other. You can see this sort of attitude in Marx[6]:

Nature is man’s inorganic body – nature, that is, insofar as it is not itself human body. Man lives on nature – means that nature is his body, with which he must remain in continuous interchange if he is not to die. That man’s physical and spiritual life is linked to nature means simply that nature is linked to itself, for man is a part of nature.

Marx took this view of man, as a part of nature constantly and consciously producing and reproducing itself, both being constrained by and manipulating the natural world, and through it recognised that human society is undergirded by relationships of production and that a society’s ideas, values, and institutions are tightly connected to its material relationships. This means that our social organisation is historically contingent, the product of ever-fluctuating social relationships, and that, therefore, any social organisation is vulnerable to change.

We can progress with this line of thinking to see human beings as not so much abstract atoms, as the mythical individual, but as crystallizations of overlapping fields, roles, relations. For example, a man is a father, brother, son, accountant, depressive, philanthropist, male, female, and so on — he can be anywhere from none of these things to all of them simultaneously, slipping in and out of roles and forever escaping an exhaustive description. In understanding institutions as the product of social conditions that preceded them, and realising that these institutions continue to shape and be shaped, to be constituted, by eternally changing conditions, we can recognise them for what they are — institutions that came about with purpose and actively reproduce the conditions of their existence — and subject them to real critique. The American municipal police system arose out of the urbanization that came with industrialization and the need for ‘social control’ (strike breakers, basically), and failing to understand institutions as social activity is what allows for diversity training to pass as a solution to police violence.

Or even to see the mental health field for what it is: inherently apologetic of the status quo, by naturalising society as an eternal, normal state of affairs and diagnosing the individual with disorders, disorders which find their origin in the individual. In this process of reconciliation the individual is abstracted from society; diagnoses which reflect political and social attitudes are essentialised as biological; and society, despite being in continual, dynamic flux with the individual is absolved of blame.

whatever I’M DONE with this

sources or whatever

[1] Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy’s article on The Hard Problem

[2] This is a naive understanding of Dawkins, who is not a genetic determinist and puts real emphasis on the phenotype’s role, but it’s instrumentally useful. Possibly unfair to have referenced him at all, but the title is rhetorically convenient – do not take this as more than an illustration. The important takeaway is the general concept of genocentrism.

[3] Borrowing heavily from Thompson’s Mind in Life, “it is thus conceptually and ontologically distinct from its contingent material expression in the cell, organism, or body” (186).

[4] See Maturana and Varela and autopoiesis.

[5] Found here (pdf)

[6] Estranged Labor (1844 Manuscripts)


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