The Most-Mentioned Problem for Dualism Disarmed

The most mentioned problem for dualism (see earlier posts for what dualism is and why it is important. Edit: By the way, what I mean by ‘dualism’ here is substance dualism) is the interaction problem. It goes like this: physical things and mental things have a different set of properties: physical things have volume, mass, charge, location, etc. Mental things, such as thoughts or minds, do not have these properties. If this is true, then how could a mind ever have an effect on the physical world? At best they would be epiphenominal, that is, causal floaters that can effect nothing. Thus if dualism is true there is no way for, say, my mind to move my body. But since our mental states do affect our bodies, dualism cannot be true. Our mental states either are physical, realized by the physical, or don’t exist in the sense we think they do.

My answer: The problem of physical causation is not specific to dualism. David Hume has famously attacked the notion of causation, showing that it is a meaningless concept if it refers to anything above and beyond mere regularities (given empiricism). “Necessary connexions” (his spelling) are leftover useless metaphysics, as they cannot be traced to anything we experience with the senses.

Later on the logical positivists were fine with this reduction of causation to regularity. But then if physical causation is mere regularity, why can’t non-physical things stand in regularity relations with physical objects? I see no reason why they couldn’t. That is, whatever answer anyone has to Hume regarding problems with causation work both for mental and physical causation. Other analyses (such as David Lewis’s counterfactual analysis) can also work with minds/thoughts too.

So there is no special problem for dualism regarding causation.


8 thoughts on “The Most-Mentioned Problem for Dualism Disarmed

  1. So, the separate substance enters into constant conjunctions as ordinary objects do, with the same regularity requirements (at some level), the only difference being that we know, obviously by some means other than observing its commerce with everything else we experience, that it is a separate substance. Why not just make this assertion from the get-go and dispense with the metaphysical extras? – unless you wish to have your cake and eat it too.

  2. An interesting point. If I understand correctly (please advise) you are saying that there isn’t a justification of the mental being different from the physical due to its standing in the regularity relations.

    The best answer I can think of is that mental qua mental is experienced differently than physical things in that it is experienced directly and first-person-ly (if English allows me to mangle it so); physical things are only experienced indirectly and third-person-ly.

  3. I am not so sure there is a clear distinction between our experience of physical and mental objects, especially if you stick to constant conjunction without necessity. I experience my own consciousness only as it is relative to my previous state of consciousness, and I anticipate my future awareness based on the differences between the two, just as I experience the notes in Tchaikovsky’s 5th. To take a step back from analogy, there is a regularity relation in my physical experience of the notes and the mental state that I identify with that music as well. The two can only be understood as a unity, if only as they participate in a regularity relation in my experience. If you wish to say they are separate substances, it’s OK, I just don’t think it adds to our understanding. Think about it this way: does it make sense to speak of “pure mentality”? Is a mind without content, with no experience, conceivable or is that an absurdity?

  4. ” I experience my own consciousness only as it is relative to my previous state of consciousness, and I anticipate my future awareness based on the differences between the two, just as I experience the notes in Tchaikovsky’s 5th.” I suppose someone like Hume would say that that’s how I experience the self (I’m asking for this sort of rebuttal, of course, as I’m bringing Hume into this to try to defend, of all things, substance dualism). But mental states (considered apart from self) are in general are experienced directly/immediately, whereas physical objects aren’t, no?

    But there does seem to be a problem with self on this view. Here I back away from Hume. Self seems to me to be an a priori concept. It also seems to be a precondition to experience, and not merely a set of experiences. I’m not sure if a self without content is possible, but it still seems that self is something to be distinguished from the experiences it has.

  5. The a priori notion of self, I have to disagree with , at least as a discrete entity, for the reasons above and a few others which will lead to a morass, I’m afraid.
    But I’m interested about what you mean by direct perception regarding mental states. Are you talking about intentionality here, or something else?

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