Monday, May 22, 2006

Cartesian dualism


Two arguments have often been put forward by sophisticated critics who ought to know better, which purport to rule out radical dualism as a non-starter. Neither, as we shall see, stands up to examination, but their continued popularity is a clear indicator of the desperation of its critics. The first, which troubled even Descartes, is that, if mind and matter have nothing in common, how can they even interact? Now the implicit assumption behind this objection can only be some such principle or axiom as: if A and B are cause and effect then A and B must have something in common (over and above their belonging to the same causal sequence). The question then arises: is such a principle a logical necessity, a necessity of thought? Or is it a universally valid empirical truth? Now, so far as I can see, no logical necessity is involved. For example, if an event A never occurred without being preceded by some other event B, we would surely want to say that the second event was a necessary condition or cause of the first event, whether or not the two had anything else in common. As for such a principle being an empirical truth, how could it be since there are here only two known independent substances, i.e. mind and matter, as candidates on which to base a generalisation? To argue that they cannot interact because they are independent is to beg the question.

The second spurious argument concerns the dualistic interpretation of perception. If, as is alleged, we require a self or subject to scan the phenomenal field and make sense of it, then, surely, we need a second self or homunculus to monitor the experiences of the first self or subject and are thus launched upon an endless regress. Dennett calls the model we are here defending 'the myth of the Cartesian Theatre' (Dennett, 1991, Chapter 5). But, whatever may be the shortcomings of the traditional view of perception, the endless regress argument does not apply. If perception is a process which requires both an object and a subject, so be it. What we then have is just a two-term relationship. This no more lends itself to an endless regress than any other two-term relationship. For example, the fact that I need to have my passport stamped in order for it to be valid, does not imply that the stamp, in turn, has to be validated by being stamped and so on ad infinitum. Perception, like 'authorisation,' just is a two-term relationship.

It says something about the desperation of those who want to dismiss radical dualism that two such phony arguments should repeatedly be invoked by highly reputable philosophers who should know better.


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