Musings on Monism, Minds, and Alcohol
I’ve been over at H+ Magazine, reading through some random articles. The article that sparked my interest was one claiming to debunk the notion that we will one day be able to digitize our minds, uploading them onto computers. It’s a fun topic to think about, though the arguments in this paricular article are far from being well thought-out. That, however, is not what I want to write about. What puzzled me reading the piece and the response comments is the latent dualism that keeps shining through even in people who claim to speak from a naturalistic point of view.
It used to be – and in a lot of places still is – a common view that the mind and the body are two different, independent entities. This is dualism in a nutshell. Needless to say, the religious notions of a “soul” or an “afterlife” belong into this category. The idea that our personalities are somehow able to survive the death of our brains, our bodies being mere “shells” that our “real” self inhabits while walking this mortal plane.
This notion is philosophically quite dead. It just doesn’t hold any water, the evidence against it keeps piling up. It gets disproved more and more as we keep learning about how our brains work. For example, we now know for sure that damaging certain areas of the brain will lead to quite dramatic changes in personality, which strongly suggests an that the personality is more than loosely connected to the brain. Inhibit certain parts of the brain, and you’re essentially talking to a different person. There is no “soul” or “mind” that remains unchanged by damage to the brain. What’s more, one can affect different traits of a personality by inhibiting different parts of the brain. There is also some research about how psychopaths and sociopaths have brains that differ from the norm in quantifiable, very physical ways.
NOTE: If you’re interested in the topic, I suggest you look up the name Vilayanur Ramachandran. He’s a researcher especially interested in cases that blur the boundaries between psychology and neurology, and he has a lot of interesting things to say. A good place to start is this TEDtalk about mapping the brain.
The current school of thought goes by the name of Monism, which holds that there is only one kind of stuff: Matter. Everything in the universe is composed of little particles that move, and from that movement arises all the wealth of phenomena that is observable all around us. Yes, emotions too. This is quite simply the more plausible view because nobody has yet demonstrated the existence of anything that cannot be explained in the terms of matter in motion. It really does seem to account for everything that we observe. An interesting part in this plays information, but I have neither the time nor the knowledge to dwell on this.
Now moving on to the core of this post:
It amuses me how people who really think of themselves as Naturalists are still trapped in latently dualistic thinking. It becomes especially obvious when people talk about human beings, and use the phrase “body and brain” exactly like people used to use the phrase “body and soul” twenty years ago: as if the two were separate entities. Apart from the word, nothing changed – the views and the arguments are still the same. They just stopped believing in an afterlife and ghosts, but they still maintain that somehow, the brain is not merely an organ and as such a part of the body, but has to be viewed as a special, separate unit. To clarify: The brain is quite special, no doubt, but it is still part of the whole, and when I say “body”, that term should encompass the brain and not have that funny connotation of “everything except the brain”.
It reminds me of those people who will always speak of “alcohol and drugs”, as if, somehow, alcohol did not firmly belong into that category, like there was a difference of kind rather than degree.
It’s one of these cute little ways in which we humans constantly lie to ourselves about what we believe and do. I have heard the phrase “I don’t do drugs”, spoken full of conviction, from people who have blackouts from binge-drinking almost on a weekly basis. There’s an alcoholic who sincerely believes not to have an addiction problem. I wonder if the brain/body thing has similar self-deceptive origins, people who rationally convinced themself to hold a naturalistic worldview, but who still on some level emotionally cling onto old beliefs?
Makes me wonder if I do similar irrational stuff that is as glaringly obvious to others and which I am completely unaware of. Now that’s some food for thought.