Criteria and the Failure of Dualism and Materialism
My own brief statement
of the chief criteria for an acceptable solution to the mind-body
problem—that it be (1) naturalistic, (2) parsimonious, (3) internally
coherent, and (4) adequate to the relevant facts—corresponds closely to
Chalmers” brief list (1995, pp. 201, 211-12).
His formulation of the
fourth criterion, however, speaks not of “facts” but of “coherence with
theories in other domains,” which might be thought to reflect nervousness
about the idea of theory-transcendent “facts” to which a theory should be
“adequate.” Chalmers does, however, seem to presuppose the reality of
such facts in saying, against eliminativists, that experience “is the
central fact that any theory of consciousness must explain” and also in
adding, as a further criterion, “overall fit with the dictates of common
sense” (pp. 206, 212).
It is, in any case,
this final criterion, under a particular construal, that I would make the
primary aspect of “adequacy to the facts.”
Due in part to an
ambiguity as to its meaning, common sense has fallen on hard times. As
Searle (1987, p. 215) says, “the general form of the mind-body problem has
been the problem of accommodating our common-sense and pre-scientific
beliefs about the mind to our general scientific conception of reality.”
This accommodation can often seem more plausible than it is, thanks to the
Two very different
kinds of beliefs, Searle (1992, p. 48) points out, often get subsumed
under the rubric of common-sense (or “folk”) beliefs, especially by
eliminativists: “[T]hey claim that giving up the belief that we have
beliefs is analogous to giving up the belief in a flat earth or sunsets.”
To clarify and emphasize the distinction at issue, I employ a
terminological contrast between hard-core and soft-core
commonsense beliefs, only the latter of which can intelligibly be rejected
in the name of science (or anything else, such as mystical experience or
revelation, for that matter).
common-sense beliefs are those that we inevitably presuppose in
practice, even if we deny them in our theories. Indeed, if we try to deny
them, we presuppose them in the very act of doing so. If there are any
such beliefs, they would be “common” in the strongest possible sense,
being common to all human beings of all times and places. If such beliefs
exist, denials of them in our theories would involve us in violations of
the law of noncontradiction: we would be simultaneously denying
(explicitly) and affirming (implicitly) the propositions in question. Far
from being candidates for elimination in favour of supposedly more certain
ideas, accordingly, a cluster of such beliefs would itself provide the
most fundamental criterion for judging other candidates for belief.
common-sense beliefs, by contrast, are beliefs that are considered
commonsensical by some group but that are not necessarily presupposed
universally and that can be explicitly rejected without pain of
selfcontradiction. Examples have already been given: the belief that the
earth is flat, that the sun goes around the earth, that the ultimate units
of nature are vacuous, and that these alleged vacuous actualities exert
all the causal efficacy in the universe.
To rephrase Searle’s
statement: the mind-body problem has seemed hard, even intractable,
because modern philosophers have tried to accommodate hard-core to
soft-core common sense, rather than vice-versa.
Putting it this way, of
course, presupposes that hard-core common-sense beliefs do indeed exist.
Hume famously provided two examples. Although, thanks to his version of
empiricism, he could provide no theoretical justification for belief in
the external world and causation (in the sense of real efficacy, not
simply constant correlation), he pointed out that, in “practice,” he had
to presuppose these beliefs. (Hume, of course, used these presuppositions
of practice to supplement his theory, not, as I am advocating, to
Chalmers (1995, p.
206), saying that “[e]xperience is the most central and manifest aspect of
our mental lives" has pointed to a third. I would insist upon at least
three more: our awareness of norms and mathematical truths, the efficacy
of conscious experience for our bodily behaviour, and genuine freedom (in
the sense of choice among alternative possibilities).
With regard to the
first of these latter three, Jaegwon Kim (1993, p. 215) points out,
against eliminativists, that our activities of deliberation and evaluation
presuppose that “we regard ourselves as agents capable of acting in
accordance with a norm.” The norms that we presuppose can be classified in
terms of the traditional trinity of truth, beauty and goodness.
With regard to truth,
we presuppose that there is such a thing, that it is (generally) good to
know and speak the truth, as distinct from falsehoods, and that there are
various sub-norms (roughly, the rules of logic) for ascertaining truth, or
at least detecting error. Closely related is our ability to perceive “the
Platonic, mathematical world,” recently discussed by Roger Penrose (1994,
With regard to beauty
and goodness, no amount of awareness of the relativity of aesthetic and
moral judgments can eliminate our presupposition that some things really
are more beautiful than others, some actions and attitudes really better
Although much effort
has been expended to try to portray all values, including logical and
mathematical truths, as creations (rather than discoveries) of the human
mind, we cannot live apart from presupposing otherwise—a fact that Nagel
(1986, pp. 143-5) well brings out (in spite of holding a worldview that is
doubtfully compatible with the genuine objectivity of normative values).
With regard to the
efficacy of consciousness for bodily behaviour, William Seager (1991, p.
188) observes that “it presents the aspect of a datum rather than a
disputable hypothesis.” Explicitly bringing out the hard-core common-sense
status of the “axiom of the indispensability of the mental,” Ted Honderich
(1987, p. 447) says that its main recommendation is “the futility of
contemplating its denial.” In a phrase reminiscent of Charles Peirce’s
criticism of “paper doubts,” Honderich says of epiphenomenalism, “Off the
page, no one believes it.” Likewise Searle (1992), who includes “the
reality and causal efficacy of consciousness” among obvious facts about
our minds (p. 54), endorses the “common-sense objection to eliminative
materialism” that it is “crazy to say that . . . my beliefs and desires
don’t play any role in my behavior” (p. 48).
More controversial is
freedom, in the genuine (incompatibilist) sense. For example, McGinn
(1991, p. 17n) says that “it is much more reasonable to be an
eliminativist about free will than about consciousness.” Even Honderich
(1993) and Searle, in spite of denying epiphenomenalism, affirm
determinism. However, in Searle’s case at least, this affirmation is
coupled with a recognition that it cannot be lived in practice.
Pointing out that we
can give up beliefs in a flat Earth and literal “sunsets,” Searle
(1984, p. 97) says that “we can’t similarly give up the conviction of
freedom because that conviction is built into every normal, conscious
intentional action.” After saying that “[s]cience allows no place for the
freedom of the will,” he adds that “we can’t act otherwise than on the
assumption of freedom, no matter how much we learn about how the world
works as a determined physical system” (pp. 92, 97).
Nagel’s (1986) position
is similar. In spite of seeing no way to give a coherent account of
freedom (pp. 110-7), he says: “I can no more help holding myself and
others responsible in ordinary life than I can help feeling that my
actions originate with me” (p. 123).
I turn now from the
criteria themselves to the question of whether materialism or dualism can
fulfil them, beginning with materialism.
With regard to the
issue of our awareness of norms, McGinn (1991, p. 23n) includes as one of
the major problems of a (materialist) physicalist account of consciousness
the question: “how a physical organism can be subject to the norms of
rationality. How, for example, does modus ponens get its grip on
the causal transitions between mental states.”
The problem can be
phrased in terms of causation: given the acceptance by McGinn (1991, p.
55) of billiard-ball causation as paradigmatic, it follows that “causal
relations between . . . abstract entities and human minds . . .
[would be] funny kinds of causation” (p. 53).
The problem can also be
posed in terms of perception: from a materialistic perspective, we
perceive only by means of our sensory organs, which can perceive only
other physical things. Norms and other nonactual entities—whether they be
called ideas, ideals, possibilities, abstract entities, conceptual
entities, eternal objects, or Platonic forms—are clearly not physical.
The ability to know moral, aesthetic, mathematical, and logical principles
seems to presuppose that we have a nonsensory mode of perception, which
materialism cannot allow.
To turn to the other
issues: McGinn, Nagel and Searle all agree, as we have seen, that freedom
is not consistent with materialism. Indeed, evidently the only
materialists who think otherwise are those, like William Lycan (1987, pp.
113-14), who construe freedom to be compatible with determinism, which, as
Nagel (1986, pp. 110-17) and Searle (1984, pp. 87, 92, 95) see, is not
to speak of freedom as we presuppose it.
With regard to the
efficacy of conscious experience (which is a necessary condition for the
affirmation of human freedom), the writings of Jaegwon Kim are revealing.
At the end of a recent book containing essays devoted to this problem
written over a period of nearly twenty years, Kim (1993, p. 367) concludes
by saying that materialism seems “to be up against a dead end.” With
regard to the very existence of consciousness, several materialists, as we
have seen, are now admitting that they cannot explain how it could have
McGinn (1991, p. 45),
explicitly connecting the difficulty with the criterion of naturalism,
[W]e do not know how
consciousness might have arisen by natural processes from antecedently
existing material things. Somehow or other sentience sprang from pulpy
matter, giving matter an inner aspect, but we have no idea how this leap
was propelled . . . . One is tempted, however reluctantly, to turn to
divine assistance: for only a kind of miracle could produce this
from that. It would take a supernatural magician to extract
consciousness from matter. Consciousness appears to introduce a sharp
break in the natural order—a point at which scientific naturalism runs out
Searle, to be sure,
thinks he has solved this problem, but, as pointed out by several fellow
materialists, such as Seager (1991, pp. 179-80), there is no analogy
between the unproblematic types of emergence (or supervenience) cited by
Searle (1992, p. 14) and the (alleged) emergence of conscious experience
out of wholly insentient matter. Besides the fact that the very existence
of consciousness is problematic, furthermore, “the unity of
consciousness,” says Nagel (1986, p. 50), “poses a problem for the theory
that mental states are states of something as complex as a brain,” and
Searle (1992, p. 130) agrees. Nagel’s statement points to the feature of
materialism that most accounts for its distinctive problems: its equation
of the mind with the brain.
By virtue of conceiving
of the mind as a full-fledged actuality, dualists have several advantages
over materialists. They are able to affirm the reality, unity, and
self-determining freedom of conscious experience. The distinction between
mind and brain also opens up the option of affirming the mind’s capacity
for nonsensory perception—an option exercised by some dualists (e. g. ,
Beloff, 1962; 1994). Finally, dualism’s (numerical) distinction between
mind and brain provides a necessary condition for affirming causal
interaction between them, which most dualists do affirm—both the causal
efficacy of the body for the mind and (epiphenomenalists aside) the
efficacy of the mind for the body.
However, due to the
fact that this numerical distinction is also an ontological difference of
kind, implying that the mind in the body is like a “ghost in a machine,”
dualists cannot explain how this interaction is possible. For
example, Geoffrey Madell (1988, p. 2) admits that “the nature of the
causal connection between the mental and the physical, as the Cartesian
conceives of it, is utterly mysterious.” He also concedes the
“inexplicability” of the emergence of consciousness, both in the course of
evolution and in the development of each embryo (pp. 140-1).
essentially agree (e.g., Lewis, 1982, pp. 38-9). Some dualists, in fact,
use the impossibility of understanding mind-body interaction
naturalistically as an argument for the existence of a supernatural deity
(e.g., Swinburne, 1986, p. 198); but that, of course, is to violate the
naturalistic criterion. Dualism, in sum, while not failing as completely
as materialism, is far too inadequate to be considered an acceptable
As suggested by this
summary of the problems of the two hitherto dominant theories, an adequate
theory would need to combine the strengths of each. Like dualism, it
would affirm the (numerical) distinction of mind and brain, but, like
materialism, it would not think of mind and brain as ontologically
different kinds of actualities.
The next and final
section will briefly sketch such a position under the rubric of
“panexperientialist physicalism.” Although it has usually been assumed
that materialism and physicalism are equivalent (e. g. Kim, 1993, p.
266n), or at least that physicalism entails materialism, I am here
proposing a nonmaterialistic form of physicalism.
David Ray Griffin Page