Thursday, January 01, 2009

Why Dualism?

Cartesian ghost in the machine dualism is a very prevalent philosophy of human nature: One has to be mentally proactive in order to be able to think round it, and unless a determined effort is made to unthink it, it is the default philosophy of many religions and the prototype of a wider cosmogony of spirits and matter.

In preliterate societies spirits are not just about ghosts in human machines but also about entities that haunt and inhabit rock and tree. In fact preliterate animism is returning to western societies in the form of neopaganism. Amongst Evangelical, Pentecostal, and Charismatic (=EPC) Christians the ‘ghost world’ is also an extended and elaborated affair that goes well beyond a belief in the ghosts encased in human bodies. EPC Christians envisage an Earth populated by numerous spirit beings haunting the material world and yet distinct from it. EPC Christians are likely to distinguish themselves sharply from all forms of paganism and yet there are aspects of their doctrine, particularly fundamentalist EPC doctrine, suggesting a subliminal connection with it.

Fundamentalist versions of EPC Christianity are never really very clear about the created status of Satan and the so-called spirit world. Anyone who believes the early chapters of Genesis to be a comprehensive literal account of creation has little to say about the fall and creation of Satan or of a spirit world in general, simply because the first chapters of Genesis say next to nothing about these subjects. Moreover, if one believes that the history of the world doesn’t extend much further back than 6000 years there is little room for the creation of a spirit world and its presumably checkered history. In fact in fundamentalist circles it is usual to believe that it is only the fall of man that has corrupted the world of created matter and not Satan. The creation Cosmogony of Christian fundamentalism, then, goes straight in with an up running spiritual world of angels, demons and Satan. Effectively the fundamentalist Christian believes the spirit world is uncreated and thus distinct from created man and matter thereby blurring the distinction between divinity and spirits as in the preliterate model.

Thus in some ways, then, fundamentalist Christianity is not so far removed from a preliterate weltanschauung. And yet there is great inconsistency here. The New Testament Biblical picture is that only God is uncreated and all else is created, spirit beings and all - see Colossians 1:16ff. The essential NT dualism is one of God verses everything He creates and not a spirit verses matter dualism; if pressed, however, the Christian fundamentalist will admit this. But why is the effective belief in a spirit versus matter dualism so prevalent? Why does it seem to reign supreme in the religious world? As a world view what is it trying to come to terms with? What is it trying to explain and make sense of? What needs does it satisfy? Please excuse me at this point as I swap into a mode that involves some anthropological hand waving as I attempt to guess the answers to these questions.

I think there are a variety of reasons why matter/spirit dualism is so favored and some of those reasons revolve around attempts to come to terms with the problem of suffering and evil (cf. gnosticism). Also, the left/right brain dualism of accountable and reducible cognitive processes versus unaccountable irreducible intuitions may have a bearing. But there is one factor that, in my opinion, stands out above the others and this is that sentient humanity perceives itself as standing over and against an apparently insentient surrounding world of phenomena and noumena. Preliterate societies come to terms with this dualistic discontinuity by associating sentient spirit stuff with everything around them and thus maintain a semblance of homogeneity in their worldview. However, for us in the industrial west the apparent insentience of matter has been thrown into sharp relief with a mechano-instrumentalist paradigm that sees matter in terms of the patterned behavior of insentient yet autonomous elementary material noumena. This paradigm has become so developed and successful that it now looks to have the potential of giving us the very opposite of the preliterate diet of spirits with everything: instead the materialist turns the tables and views human sentience as an illusion and an aspect of material insentience thus bringing about a different kind of continuity of ontology. This, of course, won’t do for the religious mystics who have simply reacted by reaffirming with even great vehemence their dualism and assert the existence of a competing spiritual world, thus throwing the matter vs. spirit dichotomy into such sharp relief that it echoes the Gnostics loathing of matter and a belief in a material world controlled (if not created) by a Satanic spirit who competes with God’s Spirit.

As a fairly conventional Christian theist I accept what I believe to be a fundamental New Testament form of dualism; that is, God versus the created order. But apart from that and within the created order itself I’m inclined to reject a matter versus spirit dualism. I have always been attracted to positivist, phenomenological and idealist philosophies, and believe mind stuff to be the primary ontology. There are therefore other ways of removing the awkward discontinuity between mind and matter.


a said...

Gosh Timothy I had to break open the dictionary window for that. I will have to take several reads to get clear on that but I will give it a go!!
Would you allow me to send you a copy of Pembers "earths earliest ages, Its a wonderfuly disturbing read that has helped me no end.
oooooohhhhhhhh clink clink ooooohhhhhh !!! (thats a ghost!!)

Thoughts said...

Perhaps Cartesian Dualism arose because once Descartes had tracked information into the brain he was left with no place from which this information could be seen. He resorted to an unextended place, a point in space, called the "Res Cogitans" (or soul). See Dualism is a physical problem and The nature of the soul.)

Timothy V Reeves said...

Thanks for your thoughts "Thoughts". From your two articles:

Personally, I do not believe that Descartes was right. Certainly he was right to notice that there is a problem modelling the form of the mind using primitive materialism but he was wrong to abandon physics. He should have said "I don't know how a pattern in the brain becomes a mind, maybe people in a thousand years time will figure out how a pattern in space and time can also be at a point".

So what are you? You are the events distributed in the space and time in your head - what people call a "mind". Now, really, you knew that all along didn't you? A man is his mind.

How your mind is made is a complete mystery. As a scientist I would guess that its components such as events, space and time, are the stuff of the ordinary world and we just don't know how they can come together as a mind. Another name for this spatio-temporal mind is the "soul".

I tend to agree.

I like your tentative probing nondogmatic approach to this difficult subject.