The Failure of Dualism to Adhere to Today’s Scientific Empiricism

In  J.J.C Smart’s “Sensations and Brain Processes”, he explores the relationship between the mind and body, specifically delving into the shortcomings of the theory of Dualism. As we learned last week by reading Churchland, Dualism distinguishes the mind from the body, categorizing consciousness as unable to be investigated by empirical science. Within this school of thought are a variety of sub-theories such Substance Dualism, Popular Dualism, and Property Dualism. Smart however, asserts that “there are no philosophical arguments which compel us to be dualists” (Smart 143). In other words, Smart fails to see the logical reasoning behind Dualism, and instead proposes his Identity Theory of the Mind. Under this school of thought, while there is a slight distinction between mental states and brain processes, there are no non-physical properties. Although the physical properties may be vague or difficult to comprehend, they are still all physical properties.

In his attack on Churchland’s notion of Dualism, Smart states: “[the idea] that everything should be explicable in terms of physics except the occurrence of sensations seems to me to be frankly unbelievable” (Smart 142). Smart does not see why sensations should be granted such scientific leniency. His Identity Theory of Mind highlights the failure of Dualists to explain why sensations are not subjected to the same logical scientific expectations.

However, Smart does spend considerable time grappling with the notion of sensations. He uses the example of pain to ultimately highlight the nuances between a mental state and a brain process. An ache is a “report of a brain process”, but it is not the same as the sensation of feeling pain (Smart 144). Thus, his thesis does not state that a sensation can be directly translated into a brain process, but does explain that the two are inextricably correlated. Sensations and mental states can exist, just as by-products of specific brain processes.

When I initially reach Churchland, I found myself siding with the Dualists. Specifically, I identified with the notion of Popular Dualism, which envisions the mind as a “ghost in a machine”. Yet, this week when I read Smart’s attack on Dualism my opinions began to shift. Churchland’s account of Dualism was initially compelling enough to allow me to overlook information and experiences I have obtained in Psychology and Neuroscience classes. I realized I had been swept up in the rhetoric of Churchland’s Dualism and had forgotten the scientific basis behind Smart’s objection’s to Dualism. Every day, more and more current research reveals biological connections behind mental processes that we as a society have always struggled to pinpoint with empiricism. Thus, I find myself siding with Smart. However, as I was reading these two pieces I began to ponder the role of religion in this discussion. As a self-described unreligious individual, how is my perception of my mind/body/spirit connection potentially skewed from that of someone who has grown up religious? I would be interested to hear from peers with religious experiences to see if they believe their opinions on Dualism have been shaped by their religion.

9 thoughts on “The Failure of Dualism to Adhere to Today’s Scientific Empiricism

  1. I do agree that my perspective on dualism has been shaped by religion, as I have been brought up to believe that my soul body and mind tend to exist in harmony. However, I actually want to raise the issue of reductive materialism, and intertheoretitc reduction. Specifically how do you reconcile the fact that “when I think I act”. At the end of the day all previous theories about the connection between mind and body can be explained by science in that the mind is almost entirely control of the body. However, at the end of the day we also must recognize the fact that we do not entirely understand all aspects of the human mind.

    For example many foolishly believe that the human mind is capable of telekinesis, telepathy, and other superhuman feats, but since humans are not using their minds to their utmost potential, we are currently able to accomplish these amazing feats. In reality, the mind is not superhuman, but it is still not entirely understood. One could theorize that it is these unexplored aspects of the human mind that is responsible for the degree of randomness in human experience. Moreover, one could also argue like Arthur Koestler does in his novel “The Ghost in the Machine”, that it is the primal instincts of early humans, which our more advanced brain functions are built on, that are responsible for our random and unexplained behaviors.

    However, accepting either conclusion still results in the fact that our mind and bodies are indeed connected just in a way that we do not concretely understand. Therefore we can accept and therefore reduce all previous theories about the connection between the mind and body to one concrete sentence “The Mind controls the body, but we still do not entirely understand the mind”.

    1. I completely agree with this argument. I am somewhat religious, but despite that relation, I feel though there are some things that could possibly be attributed to being products of brain states, or brain states themselves, but there are other attributes to our mental lives that we do not completely understand. And I honestly think that is just fine. Instead of trying to be in control of everything and trying to be all knowing about every single thing, some things we just have to admit that we just don’t know and we don’t understand (instead of trying to make theories that discredit information that we don’t have full knowledge of.)

      The example of pain for example, can have so many claims to why we think it’s brain state and it may seem plausible, but other properties of the brain like our thoughts, are not so clear in my opinion. I feel like yes, you may see our neurons firing, but we would never be able to tell exactly what we are thinking and why because we cannot see that aspect of our mind. I feel like even if this example is not precise and can be proved wrong, there are still many things we do not know about our mental experiences because we may be more complex than we give ourselves credit for. Nevertheless, I completely agree with the idea that “The Mind controls the body, but we still do not entirely understand the mind.”

  2. My opinion on dualism has been shaped by Christianity: every human has a soul, separate from the body. But it is hard not take science into account. All brain processes, such as thoughts and feelings, can be explained by science and chemistry. At this juncture in my life, though, despite that raw evidence, I still believe that people have souls and that they are separate from the body. No matter how compelling an argument is, that belief won’t change. Is there a way to account for people like me and reach a substantive conclusion about “the mind”? I don’t think so. I think people will continue to believe what they were taught even if raw evidence otherwise is presented to them. I do agree with Jared, though, I think his point that we do not entirely understand the mind is compelling and provides impetus for my beliefs.

    1. I agree with you in that I will always believe what I believe because of my religion. When science and religion mix, it is never a good mix. No matter what, it is hard to prove whether/where/why a soul exists. Minds and bodies are connected in unexplainable. Science and philosophy can attempt to answer the questions we pose but I’m not sure that we will ever reach a successful conclusion.

  3. I myself am not particularly religious either. I think, based on my knowledge of the teachings of most major religions, the concept of a soul, or some immaterial, non-physical being, is important and in fact, necessary. Even looking at most popular literature and media, which does not even need to have religious undertones, one can see dualist tendencies. There’s even a popular saying: “Mind over matter.”
    Personally, I find myself more inclined to the concept of functionalism. I think it has very strong arguments and with some slight tweaking (in dealing with the various arguments brought up against it, including its liberality in determining what a mind is which I disagree with), it can be a solid foundation for the philosophy of mind. What I particularly like about it is that it doesn’t conflict with findings in modern neuroscience and takes it into account in a way that most
    Neurochips are a strong possibility (especially recently) and there are neuroscientists who do study brain simulations on a large scale. This is an article about neuromorphic chips and engineers discovering ways to model the human brain ona chip (which is pretty amazing). Even more amazing, this article is already two years old.
    Here is a website on the Blue Brain Project, which is devoted to building a virtual brain on a supercomputer. There’s plenty of ground-breaking research in this field. brain
    This, undoubtedly, gives a lot of weight to Bostrom’s “Are We Living in a Computer Simulation” argument. It’s not nearly as far off as most people assume.

    1. Edit: …other philosophies of mind do not. Dualism and identity theory struggle with taking findings in neuroscience into account.

      (I left off this part of the sentence, my apologies)

  4. I have to agree with Hilleary and Natalie. Although I do not see myself as a religious person, I have been raised Jewish, and what I have learned from religion raises an issue with these thoughts. When learning history, there was always the constant battle between religion and science. Science tended to contradict religious thoughts. I do believe that your mind has an influence on your actions: my body would not result in an action to go rob a bank unless my mind and my thoughts decided upon this action; therefore, I believe in the connection between mind and body. Science courses throughout high school have also taught me a lot about brain processes and the ways we live, so with a combination of religion and science (ironically), I strongly believe in a connection.

  5. I found your argument very interesting. Specifically, your mention of the role of religion in the one’s philosophical beliefs because obviously the two are somewhat connected. As for me, I think its also possible to separate the two. One can be religious and believe that beings were created from a higher power, and still be a physicalist believing the mind and the brain are the same thing.

    And also, as to your statements about neuroscience disproving dualism, I think all that it really proves is that certain parts of our brains become active when something happens, but it doesn’t necessarily describe anything about the pain behind pain, or the blue visual sensation behind blue. However, one could also argue that the sensations one feels with pain is relative to previous brain processes from experience. So, perhaps memory, a brain process, explains the sensations we feel.

  6. I agree with your post. It is true that my religion makes me want to side with a dualist. I have encountered the idea of dualism in my church: the good and evil, God verses Satan and more. However like you, if I look in a scientific stand point, the idea of dualism does not make sense. How can one possible have separate mind and the body?
    I researched more myself in order to clearly look from the scientific stand point, and realized that if one is not religious, it is very hard to believe in dualism. For example, let’s talk about the zombie argument that we briefly discussed in class. Zombies apparently have functioning human body without any conscious state. And the reason that there are no zombies in real life is because that is simply not possible. Thus, mind cannot be separate from the body.

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