Philosophy Majors Take Note: Dualism Is on the Comeback
Posted on 28 March 2013, 0:04
For many years academic philosophers have been waging a campaign, often stealthily, sometimes openly, against the age-old doctrine of the soul that most Americans over 30 were raised on. This doctrine is known as dualism. It’s the belief that matter and spirit, or body and soul, are different kinds of reality and can exist independently of each other. It gives scope for the satellite belief in an afterlife—the body dies, but the soul, being a different sort of thing, escapes death and goes on. I’ve been watching this campaign with increasing concern as reports of teen and early adult suicide pour in. Countless college freshmen watch their family traditions come under fire from philosophy profs they can’t match wits with. Does a materialist philosophy that denies the existence of the soul lead to pessimism in the here-and-now? It’s a fair question.
According to most of these professors, the brain’s chemistry produces consciousness. In academic philosophical circles this position is sometimes called property dualism: Consciousness is a property of the brain. It has several versions, but what they all share is that without a functioning brain, there can be no conscious experience—or qualia, to use the current academic jargon. That means that when you’re dead, that’s the end of you—unless God works a miracle (as a few Christian philosophers think).
Property dualism isn’t the “real deal” that philosophers like me support. The real deal is known today as substance dualism. We think consciousness can exist even where there is no physical stuff at all, and exist more intensely, more purely. Physical matter is the partner we dance with for as long as we live on a physical planet. It’s not a property of an active physical brain, and it’s not caused by the brain. Rather, the brain is an instrument of consciousness. The brain doesn’t cause consciousness; it facilitates it. The difference in these two words is crucial. And that difference is too often lost on defenseless college students.
Substance dualism (henceforth ‘dualism’) holds that the invisible mind, or self, or soul interacts with the brain in some intimate and mysterious way—no one has a clue how “the dance” actually works—but is not reducible to it. An analogy, which I often use in my university classes, might be helpful. Consider the way sunlight interacts with a prism. White light flows in one side and comes out the other broken up into the colors of the rainbow—a process known as refraction. The brain is like the prism, refracting the light of the self: The pure consciousness of the self is broken up into the myriad experiences of everyday life. As long as the prism remains intact, it refracts white light as intended—just as a healthy brain collaborates with the self in the production of normal conscious states. Note that the light is not identical to the prism, just as the self is not identical to the brain. Yet they work in a seamless harmony, the prism making refraction possible.
Yet the self does depend on its brain—a healthy one at that—for its proper functioning for as long as it’s locked in interaction with the brain. Try chipping a prism and see what happens. The light doesn’t refract. Damage a brain, and the self can’t think coherently, if at all. Destroy a brain, and then what? Does the light stop shining because the prism is shattered? No. It just doesn’t shine through the prism anymore.
Dualists believe that when the brain stops working, the self, like the sun, keeps on shining—only not through a physical brain.
But is there any evidence for this?
The evidence for a robust, full-bodied dualism like the one sketched above is available and impressive. But it’s almost never presented in philosophy classes, where materialist assumptions about the nature of the self are seldom seriously questioned. This monopoly on human thought on so serious a subject is, to say the least, unfair to students. It leaves the impression that there is no purpose to life other than what we invent for ourselves, that there is no afterlife and thus no victory over a dreaded death, and that there is no ultimate accountability for the decisions we make in life.
I would be among the first to endorse these unhappy conclusions if that was where the evidence pointed. But it doesn’t. If philosophers would allow themselves to study with care the full range of parapsychological phenomena—from the near-death experience, to deathbed visions, to children’s memories of what they take to be a previous life, to alleged communications from the dead—many would tiptoe away from their too-hasty conclusions and perhaps approach the mind-body question in a more balanced way. Others would at least be puzzled.
Here is a single example that should make an open-minded philosopher rethink his unexamined marriage to materialism. A three-year-old girl, the daughter of peasant farmers in Brazil, speaks of a time and place she remembers but that has no connection to her present circumstances. She names her husband, her children, and other relatives, and tells of events that happened in the village where she lived up to the point of her death, which she vividly recalls. Researchers hear of her and take her to the village, which she has never seen in her present life. She easily navigates through the winding lanes of the village to ‘her home’. Her ‘children’, now older and much bigger than she is, are playing in front of her old home, and she sees them. She runs up to them in delirious joy and uses the same terms of endearment once so familiar, and her memories of events in the village are vouched for by its inhabitants. Hundreds of such cases are available in the works of Ian Stevenson, the University of Virginia parapsychologist and the world’s most famous reincarnation researcher up to his death in 2007.
Equally impressive is a seven-year-long chess game played between two grandmasters, one living and the other dead, through a medium who had no knowledge of chess. This case, involving 48 moves, has been elaborately studied, and there is no explaining it along materialist lines, whereas if one assumes the survival of the ‘dead’ grandmaster, there is relatively little mystery.
The kind of research that Stevenson and others have done, and that continues today, is only the tiniest tip of an immense iceberg, utterly neglected by most academic philosophers.
I’d recommend Chris Carter’s Science and the Afterlife Experience as a starter. Carter is an Oxford-educated Canadian philosopher with an encyclopedic grasp of the history of psychical research and the philosophical skills to build imposing arguments around it. He enjoys the esteem of many of the world’s foremost psychical researchers, most of whom think his marshalling of evidence deals a near-fatal blow to materialism. He writes lucidly in the language of everyman.
No one should pretend, however, that dualism is without problems of its own. The self’s interaction with the brain remains highly mysterious. But so does the production of consciousness from the dance of chemicals in the material brain—the equally mysterious “explanation” provided by materialists. Which is less mysterious? How can we decide? We would be left with a standoff if weighing these two mysteries against each other were all we had to go on. But that is not the situation at all. The ever-growing mass of scholarship and research being done on psychic phenomena tips the scale in the direction of dualism.
Stafford Betty is a professor of religious studies at California State University, Bakersfield, and author of The Imprisoned Splendor and The Afterlife Unveiled.
The Imprisoned Splendor is published by White Crow books and available from Amazon and other book stores.