Posted by: wtfwjd? | July 3, 2008

Philosophical question of the day

Is a dualistic approach the best way to think about the world, or is it not?



  1. it is not. basically it’s becoming harder and harder to be a dualist these days in the face of modern neuroscience.

    but i’m a pretty staunch materialist, so i guess i’m biased

  2. I didn’t mean metaphysical dualism so much — this was mostly a silly little joke about our tendency to take dualistic approaches to all situations — even dualism vs non-dualism is a itself dualistic approach.

    I’ve been doing some casual study of Zen Buddhism and as usual I’m a total dabbler here, but it basically says our tendency towards dualism in everything creates most of our problems. These philosophical constructs are just conceptual abstractions that have no basis in the present reality of this moment.

    Anyway, I’m pretty much a materialist too, maybe of the Daniel Dennett school though I do think Chalmers’ counter-arguments are strong. I still have a lot of reading I want to do about this. Consciousness and the mind/body problem fascinate me.

    So the obvious next question: as a staunch materialist do you believe in free will?

  3. it depends on what you mean by “free will”. as it happens this is what i wrote my undergraduate thesis on. but the short answer is that the common-sense understanding of free will actually makes no sense. we don’t want our choices to be causal, but if they’re truly not causal (i.e. random) they’re no longer rational.

    but if you’re asking whether i can freely choose to eat the piece of candy i have in my mouth right now, i would say “of course i can.” it certainly felt like a choice at the time and i can imagine making a choice that goes the other way. none of that takes away from the causes for my decision: the fact that i am hungry because skipped breakfast this morning and haven’t had lunch yet, my sweet tooth, and the fact that i have a big brief to finish today and have trouble getting serious unless i give myself some kind of treat.

  4. by the way, dennett wrote a book about free will called elbow room. i read it while writing my thesis 15 years ago.

  5. Yeah, I’ve been wanting to read that book.

    This subject fascinates me. I can’t see how we could have free will — but it sure seems like we do.

    There’s also the many-universes interpretation of quantum mechanics as discussed by David Deutsch and others. That, or even the observer effect wrt the uncertainty principle, might seem to introduce a small window for sentient beings to “choose” between various outcomes, but they’re not very big choices. More like tiny rolls of a die.

    Still, it sure seems to me like I make choices. Free will, if an illusion, is a pretty tough one to get rid of.

    Anyway, if we forget about Newtonian physics and everything that came after, there is a type of causal free will that’s not random and not deterministic, but it requires metaphysical dualism, I think. A non-material mind that is not acted upon by matter but is able to act on matter. Sounds crazy but electromagnetism and gravity do things like this. If you showed someone a battery powered radio who knew nothing of electromagnetic theory, he would have a hard time believing that the music didn’t originate inside the radio. It comes invisibly through the air, even through walls? Yeah, right. So knowing nothing about “mystery matter-controlling spirit energy” might we be making a similar mistake to think all “willed” human action originates from within the meat of the brain? A guy named John Eccles wrote a book called How the Self Controls Its Brain that offered up this type of proposition: an extra-material “self” that controls willed actions through something like an antenna in the brain.

    Anyway, interesting stuff. Go eat some lunch.

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