Jul 092012

I’ve recently been debating a handful of people about the validity of mind-body dualism, most notably the Cartesian Dualism proposed by Rene Decartes (of cogito ergo sum fame: I think, therefore I am).

The modern brain sciences leave little room for doubt that conscious minds are entirely a product of physical brains, but the Cartesian notion that consciousness is somehow a phenomenon that exists independently of its physical substrate has proven remarkably persistent.  It is odd how insistently – even desperately – some people (including some extraordinary philosophers) cling to the idea that consciousness is somehow a magical phenomenon that transcends the physical world.  The experiences of consciousness – the deep azure blue of a summer sky, the crisp taste of an orange, the quiet contentment of sitting beside a fire – are stunning in their richness and variety, but must they also be something more than just jostling atoms, sparks of energy and patterns of information in order to be beautiful?  Must they transcend the world of flesh and dust in order to be miraculous?

Those who cling to dualism seem to need to believe that consciousness is be something more than just the regular, old, dirty, grubby, undignified stuff of matter, energy and information.  This need strikes me as very much like the need to believe in the supernatural in general: in gods, in fate and karma, in higher powers and purpose, in magic.

If science were to show that consciousness is just another emergent property of complex systems, would our egos be bruised in the same way that they were with scientific discovery that the Earth is not the center of the universe?  Human beings seem to have an innate need to feel special, and among philosophers the attachment to dualism despite any supporting evidence (and much evidence to the contrary from the modern brain sciences) strikes me as egotistical in precisely the way that other forms of faith and superstition so often can be.

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