Aug 29 2009

William Lycan gives dualism its due

William Lycan is a professor of philosophy at the U of NC, and identifies himself as having been a materialist (speaking specifically about the nature of the brain) for thirty years.  However, he is also one of a rare breed who is willing to actually apply skepticism to his own position. He has recently written a paper which is soon to be published in the Australasian Journal of Philosophy entitled Giving Dualism its Due. The abstract states

Despite the current resurgence of modest forms of mind-body dualism, traditional Cartesian immaterial-substance dualism has few if any defenders. This paper argues that no convincing case has been against substance dualism, and that standard objections to it can be credibly answered.

He is not about to change his mind with regard to materialism or dualism, but he’s being honest about the supporting arguments for both dualism and materialism:

Being a philosopher, of course I would like to think that my stance is rational, held not just instinctively and scientistically and in the mainstream but because the arguments do indeed favor materialism over dualism. But I do not think that, though I used to. My position may be rational, broadly speaking, but not because the arguments favor it: Though the arguments for dualism do (indeed) fail, so do the arguments for materialism. And the standard objections to dualism are not very convincing; if one really manages to be a dualist in the first place, one should not be much impressed by them. My purpose in this paper is to hold my own feet to the fire and admit that I do not proportion my belief to the evidence.

He is also rather quick to address the parsimony argument (Occam’s Razor), which is essentially that all things being equal, the simplest explanation is the best (that is, materialism is simpler than dualism). He is also quick to point out that all things are not equal and that parsimony is a “very posterior reason.”

I will confess that he quickly goes over my head, as I am simply not up to speed on the topic, and I haven’t finished the paper, though I did skip to his conclusion (a trick I learned reading legal analyses):

I mean to have shown here that although Cartesian dualism faces some serious objections, that does not distinguish it from other philosophical theories, and the objections are not an order of magnitude worse than those confronting materialism in particular. There remain the implausibilities required by the Cartesian view; but bare claim of implausibility is not argument. Nor have we seen any good argument for materialism. The dialectical upshot is that, on points, and going just by actual arguments as opposed to appeals to decency and what good guys believe, materialism is not significantly better supported than dualism.

Yet, I am inclined to believe, the charge of implausibility is not irrational or arational either, and I would not want this paper to turn anyone dualist. Have a nice day.

Food for thought.