Duel with a Dualist

Professor Roger Fleming had taught this course many times before. Philosophy 101 wasn’t his favorite. It was an undergraduate introduction to philosophy class that seem to attract the most arrogant, snot nosed, spoiled rich kids at his sprawling urban institute for the overprivileged. It wasn’t like the advanced graduate classes that attracted serious students that could challenge the limits of his knowledge. As he prepared for the first day of the fall semester he thought he could go on autopilot and ignore the rude comments he sometimes got when minds would wonder during some of the more tedious lectures.

“Rene Descartes is considered the father of modern philosophy,” he said at the beginning of his second lecture. “The issues he dealt with are still being debated today. Everything since Descartes can be considered a footnote to his works. He believed there are two types of substances: Mental and physical. He held that the material substance and the mental substance interacted through the pineal gland n the center of the brain. Where did he get this idea? He visited morgues in Paris looking for a part of the brain that was singular. The brain has two hemispheres that are like mirror images and he felt there couldn’t be two points of interaction. The pineal gland looks like a pearl on top of a pedestal and there is only one. It looked some kind of privileged organ. His theory called Cartesian dualism has been a disaster for philosophy since no one has a theory how two substances with nothing in common can influence either. Dualism has been abandoned for monism, and most scientists and philosophers are materialists, believing that the mind is an emergent property of the brain due to its complex connections of neurons. There are a smaller number of monists who believe that consciousness is fundament and the material world does not exist independent of consciousness. These philosophers are called idealists or mentalists. Some of them are panpsychists who believe that all matter has some proto-consciousness, even an electron.”

After the professor paused, a hand shot up in the first row. “Yes, do you have a question? Please stand up and say your name.” The lanky, young man in the first row stood up. “My name is Alan. Professor Fleming, why do you say that dualism was a disaster for philosophy? It makes a lot of sense to me. We have a material body and a soul or psyche. When Freud was translated into English, his translator took the German word Freud used, which was “seele”, properly translated as “soul”, and translated it instead into “psyche” to strip it of its religious implications. But either way, there is a spiritual, non-material aspect to life which is separate from the material world. Maybe we would have been better off to explore that instead of abandoning it.” Professor Fleming nodded, a faint smile on his face, pleased that someone was actually listening to his lecture. “That is an excellent point”, the professor replied. “It certainly seems that way to us. After all, we have a body and mind, and some religions preach that there is an extended mind or soul that survives the death of the physical body. However this is not a scientific view as there is no evidence of such a thing as a disemboweled mind. Mystics have been attempting to conjure up spirits of the dead for centuries and they have always been proven to be charlatans.” The student thought a while and continued, “Maybe we can’t contact the spirits of dead, but that doesn’t mean that consciousness doesn’t have an independent existence. Maybe the universe is made of consciousness and the brain is like a receiver can tune it in. It’s like a radio that is broken. It can no longer receive radio signals, but the signals are still out there. You wouldn’t say the content or message of the radio waves can be explained by studying the material contents of a radio.” “Very well,” said the professor. “But every radio tuned to the same station gets the same signal. The contents of our consciousness is not the same for everyone, is it?” “Now you are getting into the distinction between a collective and personal consciousness,” Alan replied. I believe we have both, and the analogy is that we have our own personal station shaped by our experiences. It cannot be explained by neurons in the brain or any other material substance.” “I’d love to continue this fascinating discussion, but I have to move on as we are running out of time, the professor replied. Alan, why don’t you see me during office hours?”

The next week Alan walked into Professor Fleming’s office during his posted walk-n hours. “It’s good to see a student so engaged by the material,” the professor said. “Are you considering philosophy as a major?” “I’m only a freshman,” replied Alan. “I’m just sampling different subjects now before I make up my mind. The professor nodded and replied, “It would be useful to distinguish between two forms of dualism: substance dualist and property dualism. Substance dualism is the belief that body and soul are two different substances. Property dualism that says at body and soul are different properties of the same body. In other words, although the world is composed of just one kind of substance — the physical kind — there exist two distinct kinds of properties: physical properties and mental properties. It was the first form is the kind that I was saying has been a disaster because it leads to the insoluble mind-body problem. Are you a substance dualist, body and mind are completely different stuff?”

Yes I am.

But you do believe the two interact? You can think you want to raise your arm, and your arm goes up?

Yes, of course.

How does it all happen if the two substances have nothing in common? Where is the point where the interaction occurs? The pineal gland is just a silly answer.

Descartes got that wrong. It’s not a place in the brain. The mind doesn’t have a physical location in space.

If your brain were destroyed, would you still have consciousness?

No, not a personal consciousness. We use the brain to generate our personal consciousness, but there will always be a cosmic consciousness. Have you heard of John Wheeler’s theory of the participatory universe?

Yes, I have. What is your understanding?

Wheeler suggested that reality is created by observers and that no phenomenon is a real phenomenon until it is an observed phenomenon. The observers’ consciousness is required to bring the universe into existence. Wheeler summarized his theory as “it from bit.” The material substances derive their existence from information — a series of binary choices or bits.

You do know that Wheeler was a physicist who came up with this theory late in life and it was widely discredited by other scientist and philosophers?

Yes, but that doesn’t mean it’s not true. How many other theories were discredited until they were proven to be true?

It flies in the face of everyday experience. Matter can clearly exist without mind, but where do we see mind existing without matter? Did the big bang happen if there was no one there to observe it? Well, we are here, so I guess it did.

What I am saying is that the big bang was not a physical event, and that is not why we are here. I know you think the big bang created matter, then life began, and we evolved brains that can think. I’m saying the sequence is reversed. Consciousness is fundamental, it’s the stuff the universe is made from, and the big bang was the consciousness willing the universe into existence.

Is this cosmic consciousness God?

No, I’m not saying that. It’s not a separate supernatural being of the Old Testament. I agree with Spinoza, that there is no separation between man, nature, and God.

The professor glanced at his watch. “I’m afraid my office hours are coming to a close. I see your point of view, but I’m afraid it seems like the kind of fuzzy headed mysticism that science is supposed to avoid. Nevertheless you defend your position well and it can be true. If you would like to write up your beliefs and submit it for extra credit, you are more than welcome.” After Alan left, the professor leaned back into his chair and smiled. Maybe Philosophy 101 wasn’t going to be so bad this semester after all.

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