Is Dualism Still in Play? Australian Philosopher David Chalmers on the Relation of Mind to Matter

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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3 Responses to Is Dualism Still in Play? Australian Philosopher David Chalmers on the Relation of Mind to Matter

  1. Peter Smith says:

    I love the clarity of David Chalmers’ reasoning.

    The bad news is that dualism is indeed alive and well. Every time you use a computer you are experiencing dualism. It is the dualism of hardware and software, computer chips and software programmes. The programmes I write are not ghosts in the machine, they are intellectual products that have no physical form, their meaning is not determined by their physical expression. My programmes have no weight, no texture, they are wholly immaterial but they are not ghosts, they have real existence and they perform real functions.

    My computer/programme dualism even has the equivalent of neural correlates. Place my motherboard under an infrared scanner and then run certain programmes. Sure enough, when it plays music the sound chips glow hotter, when it does graphics work the graphics processor glows hotter. And so what? Studying which chips glow hotter will not even begin to explain the function, depth and organization of my programme. It will say nothing about the variables, functions, classes and objects that make up my programme. It will say nothing about the intent of the many parts of my programme. That intent can only be discovered by reading my programme, not by infrared scans of the motherboard. That line of investigation is a complete and utter dead end which is incapable, even in principle, of explaining the function of my programmes.

    As long as we bandy about tendentious and intellectually dishonest phrases like ‘ghosts in the machine’ we are deliberately blinding ourselves to real possibilities. The example of the computer and its software is a tangible demonstration of the real possibilities in dualism. My software is no ghost.

    • Santi Tafarella says:

      I’m not sure your analogy works if you think of existence from a Buddhist perspective (as opposed to a Hindu or Western monotheistic perspective).

      In other words, what’s the added ingredient to H2O molecules (in sufficient numbers together) that makes for the experience of water? Nothing. It’s just that H20 molecules in sufficient numbers coming in contact with the eye or touch makes for the experience of water. H20 is water. We derive our knowledge of H20 from experience (to now allude to Hume rather than the Buddha).

      Put another way, H20 could have been experienced in a gazillion ways (as purple and muddy, for example), but by experience we know it to be clear and wet. But that doesn’t mean that there is a clear and wet ghost in interaction with the H20 molecules, it’s just the strange and lawful nature of their being in our experience of it.

      In a sense, water is experienced in the way it is experienced because of the way it interconnects with the whole cosmos. Likewise with consciousness. What if consciousness is what brains do at a certain level of complexity in the cosmos that we live in–just as H20 molecules take on their characteristic properties at a certain level of collection together?

      This would make consciousness no less mysterious. It would still originate with the First Cause (God), but it would eliminate the need to posit something from outside the cosmos to explain it. Mind is something this cosmos does under certain circumstances just as water is something this cosmos does under certain circumstances. We know this by experience, and needn’t posit “brain plus” or “water plus.” We just posit brain and H20 in interaction with the interconnected cosmos and say, “Wow!”

      But if we take the molecules of water apart, the water disappears, and if we take the brain apart, the consciousness disappears. As the Dalai Lama says, “No flower in the flower.” The manifestation of the flower is now, in the presence of the conditions for the flower, but if you look elsewhere, by cutting open the flower, there is no flower essence or “flower plus” that makes the flower. It’s right here in the interconnection, and nowhere else.

      Anyway, that’s an alternative possibility–in dualism we might be chasing “a black cat in a dark room that isn’t there.” A truly full explanation of consciousness may require a full explanation of the interlinked cosmos in a given moment–and of the creator (or if it is all chance, a multiverse) that brought it into existence. In other words, it may be something that cannot be spoken, and in which we thus reach an impasse. Maybe consciousness, like water, is our experience of “the spontaneous Buddha nature”–the whole interconnected shebang–in this moment.

      • Peter Smith says:

        Santi,
        in dualism we might be chasing “a black cat in a dark room that isn’t there.”
        Before the advent of computers some 70 years ago that statement might have carried some weight for the simple reason we had no possible way of conceiving how dualism might work. But that statement had been made sadly irrelevant by advances in computer technology and brain science.

        It was the advent of computers that changed everything, because in computers we have a practical, working demonstration of dualism. Now we can conceive of how it could work in brains. The discovery that the working of our brain is essentially electrical in nature, consisting of the patterned firing of neurons, has given added weight to the possibility of dualism. Today much work has been done on the computational theory of the mind and it is a well accepted sub-discipline. The possibility that our mind can be uploaded to a very large and powerful computer is now a serious subject for discussion in academic circles. We are beginning to conceive of the mind as a very large, complex computer program running on an extraordinarily complex computer.

        What is this except dualism? True, it is not the dualism conceived of some 200 years ago but then that is inevitable, given the advances in science. However it remains dualism, reconceived in modern terms.

        There are unsolved problems, the main one being how a programme can achieve consciousness and the artificial intelligence people are working hard on solving this problem. As you know, I believe it is likely that consciousness is a fundamental property of nature(as postulated by David Chalmers). One can imagine consciousness as being a fundamental field permeating the Universe and igniting consciousness in suitable brain cells. In a similar way, the Higgs boson field permeates the Universe and gives particles their mass.

        You dismiss my analogy with one phrase, but that is not good enough. You counter with the analogy of water and ice which seems not even remotely similar to the subject. This involves a phase change resulting in different properties. The brain-mind issue is not simply a matter of the appearance of new properties. It is about the appearance of highly complex behaviour, on the one hand, and the ability to generate unlimited amount of abstract, immaterial ideas on the other hand. This is not a change in properties, as exhibited by ice, this is the appearance of an entirely new order of very high level behaviour. Your analogy does not even remotely make the grade and seems contrived.

        In other words, it may be something that cannot be spoken, and in which we thus reach an impasse.
        Yes, I agree with this. We lack the terms and concepts to describe a hidden God. We still try to do that but the result is inevitably a contradictory melange of ideas and language. Think of my Observer Scientist and Formicarium example. How could the ant-philosophers possibly describe the Observer Scientist?

        This is the place to introduce a new term, the God of the Boundaries. Atheists scornfully dismiss the God of the Gaps, which I always think of as an interesting example of thinking by slogans, but I agree with them that there is no God of the Gaps. If a God exists who created the laws of nature then a God of the Gaps is incoherent, since God created the laws of nature as his means of operating the Universe. There should be no gaps but we should expect to find boundaries. In this sense I think science will turn out to be religion’s most powerful friend. We have already found one such boundary, the birth of the Universe in the Big Bang. The origin of the laws of nature seems to be another such boundary. It might well be that we are discovering another boundary in consciousness but much more research needs to be done before we can make a definitive conclusion. The nature of life itself might turn out to be another such boundary but I remain undecided on that.

        But one thing is clear, if God exists, then as we extend science it will encounter boundaries that delimit the edges of possible knowledge. These boundaries will be the outline of God. The existence of the boundaries will be the best evidence for the existence of God. I am sure that in the future we will find that science is religion’s best friend.

        No flower in the flower
        That is a lovely, catchy phrase but try saying ‘no computer in the computer’ and you will see how inapplicable the phrase is. In the case of the flower, its form, its ‘flowerness’, is an irreducible whole. In the case of the computer we are not talking about form but about function and its function is subdivisible. Catchy phrases or aphorisms are beautifully formulated verbal contrivances that encapsulate an important idea but their beauty often blinds us to their applicability.

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