Why Are There No Molecule/Water Dualists?

The question. I had a question pop into my head yesterday morning: Why are there no molecule/water dualists in the same way that there are brain/mind dualists?

The obvious answer: Because there is nothing at stake religiously. We all presume that H2O molecules are not merely correlated with the phenomenon of water, but the cause of it. Using Occam’s razor, we have no need to postulate anything more going on. No gods; no devils; no ghosts. The presence of large numbers of H2O molecules together, in a particular temperature range, is both necessary and sufficient to account for the existence of bodies of water (whether in a cup or a whole ocean). Take away the H2O molecules and the water that was there ceases to exist.

Monistic atomism (or, in this case, “monistic moleculism”) makes scientific reasoning about water–or anything else–possible. Things are in a causal relation to their constituent parts and the systems to which they belong.  They are emergent properties of those parts and systems. Take away the underlying parts and systems of a thing, and you take away the thing itself because we live in a monist world, not a dualist one.

Put another way, to get science going, what appears to the eye must be causally related to what does not appear to the eye: the molecules, atoms, and systems we do not readily see, but can discover.

What does it mean to say, “H2O molecules are correlated with, but do not cause, water”? If things and their constituents are only correlated, never in causal relation, then there is no end to the spirits that we might postulate to account for what we see. All bets are off. When material and system causation is abandoned (or considered insufficient to a full explanation), spooks take their place. Absent evidence, anything that is logically possible can enter the mix of hypotheses. This is great for theology and voodoo, but a nonstarter for science.

Do you believe water has free will? A molecule/water dualist (if such a person exists anywhere on the planet) would presume that there is a natural realm over here, where the molecules of H2O are present, and a supernatural realm over there, on which water is actually dependent and takes its most essential manifestation. Thus if you were a molecule/water dualist, you might theorize that water is ultimately determined by a spirit acting behind it, and that water itself might even have, in some sense, free will–the power to contra-causally interfere, at least periodically, with H2O molecules. Perhaps, in ancient Greece, it was some variety of this sort of dualistic thinking that gave birth to the god Neptune, the personal force behind the behavior of the sea.

But molecule/water monism makes more sense, obviously. It presumes that the phenomenon of H2O and water are one; they are flip sides of the same coin. In this scientific age, we are all molecule/water monists without the least intellectual fuss or doubt. There is no one around who even contests this (so far as I know). So we are done.

But we’re not done. Because religion is not done. Religion–most especially, the monotheistic religions–cannot let go of the brain/mind split. The brain is over here (with matter); the mind is over there (with God). For monotheists, brain states are only correlated with mind states; they are not in a strictly causal relation. If anything, the mind is said to actually control the brain from the spirit realm (not vice versa).

That, at any rate, is the theory. But why this theory?

Why brain/mind dualism won’t go away. Brain/mind dualism keeps alive the hope that we might go on living after death. That’s why it won’t go away. You wouldn’t say of the evaporation of all the water in a kettle that its kettle form still exists as an entity in heaven; that its demise in the form of kettle water in a particular kettle shape is merely in this physical plain; that the water still exists in a spiritual realm. That would be silly.

But many do say this of the human mind after consciousness “evaporates” from the brain at death. Other things might be in causal relation (as H2O is to water), but not neurons and the mind. We may all be molecule/water monists, but not all of us are brain/mind monists. Indeed, most of us are not. Of all things in the cosmos, the mind is generally taken to be sui generis–a special case.

Anyway, that’s how I thought about this yesterday. And I was pleased with my analogy, and how it exposed errors in the reasoning behind brain/mind dualism. I thought I had hit upon something relevant–and perhaps even new.

But I was also looking last night at a book about the philosopher John Searle and found that–dammit!–there is already a name for this sort of counter-argument to brain/mind dualism: causal supervenience.

Causal supervenience. The term was actually coined by Searle. In John Searle (Cambridge 2003), Barry Smith, the volume’s editor, writes the following (12): “In The Rediscovery of Mind, Searle’s theory of intentionality is set within a naturalistic ontological framework of what he calls ‘causal supervenience’.” And Smith quotes Searle as writing the following (Ibid.):

[Consciousness] is a causally emergent property of systems. It is an emergent feature of certain systems of neurons in the same way that solidity and liquidity are emergent features of systems of molecules.

In other words, Searle makes the same analogy between H2O/water and brain/mind that occurred to me yesterday. Alas, there is no new thing under the sun (at least for me).

Are we done with God? Causal supervenience doesn’t wholly eliminate the possibility of God existing. It is wondrous, after all, that mind would emerge from matter (and that there is matter at all). It’s also wondrous that we would experience the color green as green and ice cream as ice cream (even as we know that the physical and system properties that underlie our experiences of these are neither green nor taste like ice cream). So God might ultimately be behind the psychedelic magic of our conscious experience (as flavorless molecules are behind ice cream), having figured out, prior to the beginning of creation, a clever way to make mere patterns of atoms rustling in the void evoke the experience of qualia in minds–and even evoke minds themselves.

The key to conscious experience, it would seem, is somehow in the patterns of relations that atoms are in; the information those patterns carry, and how the information is “read-off” by brains (once brains come into existence).

God may thus be the colorless and blobby thing at the beginning of time (or, rather, prior to it) that isn’t really a thing at all; the paradoxical “I AM THAT I AM” that, though lacking color and properties, makes everything else colorful and full of properties. Perhaps God achieved this trick by arranging energy, matter, and physical laws in just such a way that the Big Bang went boom in the manner She hoped it would. (If the boom didn’t go according to plan, it means that we are part of a botched experiment by an incompetent tinkerer.)

In other words, maybe God is an alchemist working with matter and time, not a magician pulling rabbits out of hats. Maybe there is method to the madness.

But the only God that seems wholly consistent with the alchemist God (and causal supervenience) is the Deist God–the God that concocts a potion and let’s it do its work of itself.

And maybe that’s what we are: an emergent property “from the womb of time” (or from God’s chem lab, you pick the metaphor). That is, maybe we are the emergent property of our neurons in the same way that water is an emergent property of H2O. Perhaps that’s the way God set the whole shebang up.

If so, that would make God both a molecule/water monist and a brain/mind monist. It would also mean that the dualist varieties of orthodox monotheism have had it wrong for a very long time.

All this reminds me of a saying in the gnostic Gospel of Thomas: “If matter came from mind, what a wonder! If mind from matter, how much more wondrous still!”

Strict materialist monism does not eliminate the ontological mystery (the mystery of being). The sun, like the Dude in The Great Lebowski, abides.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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4 Responses to Why Are There No Molecule/Water Dualists?

  1. keithnoback says:

    What about the wetness, sir? If you’ve not explained the wetness, then you’ve explained nothing! The True Mystery resides in the wetness.

    • Santi Tafarella says:

      Well, there are lots of qualia we associate with water: wetness, color (blue, green, or clear), how it tastes and feels when we drink it, its temperature when we put a toe in it, etc.

      I am conceding that wetness and the other qualia associated with water have zero in common with the non-wet, non-colored, tasteless molecules from which they come–and yet those qualia do come from those H2O molecules (in interaction with our brains). I’m prepared to live with the mystery of how that happens; of water as an emergent property (at least until science, at some point in the future, tackles and explains it).

      But perhaps an emergent property like the experience of wetness never can receive a full and satisfying explanation. Maybe it is a permanent mystery. But that doesn’t mean that water is not causally explained by the presence of H2O molecules. Likewise with mind. Philosophers like Searle and most scientists would say: mind is an emergent property of neurons firing. And, if God exists, that may be the way that God makes minds.

      • keithnoback says:

        I’m just kidding. We’re no more likely to find the Nessie in Water vs. H2O, than we are the one in the lake. But I think you are right to think that we shouldn’t expect to find a complete explanation for epiphenomena in the explanation of their primary phenomena. If dreams are a process of sifting memory during sleep, should I expect the explanation of the dreaming process to tell me why the werewolves in my dreams have white spots on their noses?

      • Santi Tafarella says:

        Good point. And as to the humor, sorry I was being obtuse. It’s not always easy to discern when one is ironically parodying the conservative religious attitude and when one is advancing it seriously. That, in itself, is telling. : )

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