Philosophy of Religion 15: Enough already!

Suppose a first year student wrote this (about mind-body substance dualism):

There are no very persuasive arguments against dualism … Dualism is commonly mocked rather than argued against.

Then we’d berate this exhibition of sheer ignorance. We’d send the student away with a long reading list. Start, say, with the second chapter of Armstrong’s classic Materialist Theory of the Mind. Or perhaps chapters II to V (over fifty pages of careful unpicking and assessment of various arguments, pro and con) of Smith and Jones’s Introduction to the Philosophy of Mind (yes, folks, it is still in print after 22 years: buy, buy while stocks last!). And we can, of course, add a lot more. The reason the vast majority of contemporary philosophers of mind reject naive substance dualism has nothing to do with mockery, and everything to do with the fact that that there are so many weighty problems with it that it has long since become, at the very least, a badly degenerating research program.

But that quotation doesn’t come from a first year student but from Murray and Rea’s book, at p. 266. I boggled when I read it, and despair. It really is pretty difficult to take authors who can write something like that seriously any more. My patience is at an end, so I’m going to stop. I’ll not say anything then about their feeble discussion of “evolutionary models of religious beliefs”, where they don’t even mention Dan Dennett. And I’ll not say anything about their equally feeble discussions of the status of morality.

This is not a good book. In fact, as readers of this blog will have come to suspect, I think it really is overall a rather bad, too often weakly argued, one. It is published in a prestigious series, and — especially since student texts don’t tend to get widely reviewed — it could end up being widely read (no doubt a lot more widely read than my Gödel book which rubs shoulders with it in the series!), corrupting the minds of the youth. What was CUP thinking of?

15 thoughts on “Philosophy of Religion 15: Enough already!”

  1. You may have wanted to use this opportunity to actually criticize their arguments for dualism, rather than defend your silence by appearing to be offended by their remarks.

  2. To see a criticism of Dan Dennett’s argument against Dualism, see Plantinga’s audio lecture Against Immaterialism. He gives it a good tidbit.

  3. Good policy: write textbooks to be transparently clear to not very bright undergrads (and not very bright logicians too).

  4. Suppose someone said “Atheism is commonly mocked nowadays, rather than argued against.” Would you read this as saying that there are no philosophically interesting arguments against atheism in the literature? Hardly. (Or, if you would, you’re not reading it in a sensible way.) The natural reading is the face value one: by and large, theists think (rightly or wrongly) that their arguments have succeeded and are now complacent about the truth of their view. Likewise, if someone said “The existence of evil is utterly baffling on theism,” would you think that she was saying that theists haven’t bothered to try to answer the problem of evil? No (or, if you would, you’re not reading the claim sensibly). The natural thing to infer from a claim like that is that the person saying it doesn’t think that the existing responses to the problem of evil succeed in dispelling the mystery. So, sure, maybe some undergrads will read Murray & Rea the way you do. But they wouldn’t be very bright undergrads.

  5. Murray and Rea wrote, to repeat, “Dualism is commonly mocked rather than argued against”. In the context, this is likely to convey to a student reader a quite erroneous impression of the state of play in debates in the philosophy of mind. Likewise their earlier (if anything worse) remark “Consciousness is utterly baffling on materialism” will convey a totally misleading impression of the state of play of work on consciousness in the last fifteen or twenty years. But there it is. Others can now read the relevant pages and make up their own minds as to whether their remarks on the philosophy of mind pass muster.

  6. What’s wrong with being “dismissive” toward those arguments? They don’t find the usual anti-Cartesian arguments (yours included) persuasive…so they’re ingorant and ought to be berated? That’s a pretty bizarre standard of ‘ignorance’.

  7. Well, let’s not argue the toss about the word “serious” (in my idiolect, I wouldn’t at all call the Ontological Argument “serious” — though you might learn serious stuff from disentangling it). If Murray and Rea didn’t mean to be dismissive about the arguments contra Cartesian dualism, again so be it. But their comment will be read as dismissive by their student audience.

  8. Yes, but that’s not what they implied. There might be lots of “serious” arguments but no very persuasive ones. (No one would doubt that the Ontological Argument is a “serious” argument; but pretty much everyone agrees that it’s “not very persuasive”.) And they did acknowledge that “there is a lot to be said for materialism”…though nothing “compelling”. Honestly, I’m not a dualist myself; but the objection you’re pushing against them here (like a lot of the others you’ve raised, actually) seems to be based on a sloppy and uncharitable reading of their text.

  9. Thanks for the Lycan link! Not that it really changes my reaction to Murray and Rea, for context is all — and it is one thing to invite beginning students (or anyone else come to that) to reconsider the usual arguments against Cartesian dualism, and it is another thing to imply in context that there are no serious arguments to be reconsidered. And as for Lycan’s discussion, it is fun: but the points he makes don’t make dualism any the less a degenerating research program.

  10. an immaterial thing

    Hmm… Hacking said of electrons that if you can spray them, they’re real. Bodies are composed of things like electrons. Bodily death is hard to define, but it can happen; and if the mind persists after that (way after the fuzzy grey area), maybe still finding aches and pains (just not in its old body) then substance dualism is true, pure and simple. Chomsky schmomsky.

  11. For those who think that substance dualism is a viable option (and also for the die-hard materialist): Chomsky has argued that in the post-Newtonian world the mind-body problem has lost its meaning (and hence its status as a problem), not because of the inherent problems with dualism, but because it is impossible to define the notion of body. These views are expressed in “Language and Mind”, “New horizons in the study of language and mind”, …

  12. There is a fine metaphysical line between property and substance dualisms though. Cartesian dualism makes most sense given Monotheism, as then there is an underlying monism, a reason for the two substances, mind and matter, to interact in certain ways and not others.

    Robert Audi agrees (in Quinn and Taliaferro’s Companion to the Philosophy of Religion) that substance dualism is dismissed too easily. I was recently reading Searle, and he really did dismiss it badly. Basically his argument was that physics is closed, by definition. Chalmers takes a similar line…

    But if the interaction works through the openness of quantum mechanics, then substance dualism does not require psychokinesis, just micro-psychokinesis, and it only needs it to operate within the brains of humans (although there is some slight evidence that it can stretch beyond there, evidence that would have to be stronger than it could currently be, if substance dualism is true, for it to seem persuasive, of course, but evidence that would have motivated further research had it been evidence for a more popular theory).

    What makes this sort of dualism substantial is that such minds don’t supervene upon the physical world as it is known to the physical scientists (chemistry and particles and such), but survive bodily death. So it would be silly to dismiss the approach just because one could say that if there are such minds then they should be called “physical” (as should Heaven and God, presumably, if they exist).

    Of course, an alternative argument against substance dualism could insist that we do have overwhelming empirical evidence that physics (in the ordinary sense) is closed, that all quantum effects are random, even those of the sort that would not be random under substance dualism if Popper was right about the nature of the interaction. But is there any such evidence? Have scientists really investigated such things seriously? People seem to be leaping from the absence of miracles to the falsity of substance dualism.

    I’ve not read the books you mention, but I seriously doubt (on the basis of all that I have read) that they do address such issues. Anyway, what of the fact that the big argument for substance dualism (under Monotheism) is that the alternatives all have very persuasive arguments against them. Are we robots? Does the Earth have a mind?

    I don’t mean to mock, but it would be easy to. The difference is not that the alternatives are studied a lot, that is up to the researchers, it is that substance dualism is dismissed for reasons that are terribly weak, philosophically. People don’t say that they find it (since they find Monotheism) uninteresting, they mention physical closure and act as though substance dualism is known to be false.

  13. Careful! I explicitly (and with malice aforethought) was talking of substance dualism. I agree that property dualisms are something else entirely.

  14. Dualism is commonly mocked, and I’d also agree there aren’t any very persuasive arguments against it, which is one reason why Dennett et al didn’t find it easy to knock down David Chalmers (though he was a property rather than substance dualist).

    If the statement were from a first year, ignorance might rightly be suspected, but because they’d only be beginning their study of the field, not because the claim could only be based in ignorance.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top