Thursday, October 16, 2008

Taking care of dualism

Here is a book review from Science of What Science Offers to Humanities: Integrating Body and Culture by Edward Slingerland (you may need access to Science to read the full review).
To describe his project, Edward Slingerland could hardly have chosen a more direct title than What Science Offers the Humanities: Integrating Body and Culture. Coming from an academic career in Asian studies and theology (as a nonbeliever), Slingerland (a co-founder of the Centre for the Study of Human Evolution, Cognition, and Culture at the University of British Columbia) prepared by spending the past five years reading widely and deeply in cognitive neurosciences and the philosophy of science. Although he mainly focuses on consciousness, his overall task is to address the befuddled dualism that still dominates most of our intellectual disciplines.

Slingerland's central theme is that everything human has evolved in the interests of the materiality of the body. He identifies objectivist realism and postmodern relativity, both insufficiently attentive to the body, as the major epistemologies to be swept away, followed by the dualism of body and soul. For Slingerland, the presiding genii behind such a cleansing are George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, with heavier debts to Johnson [whose terse summary of embodiment in (1) appeared too late for Slingerland to reference]. They view all thought and human behavior as generated by the body and expressed as conceptual metaphors that translate physical categories (such as forward, backward, up, and down) into abstract categories (such as progress, benightedness, divinity, immorality). These body-driven metaphors, Slingerland writes, are a "set of limitations on human cognition, constraining human conceptions of entities, categories, causation, physics, psychology, biology, and other humanly relevant domains."
And sure enough, he addresses the issue of self, consciousness, and dualism head-on:

Our million billion synapses produce a "person" with the illusion of a self. Slingerland holds that "we are robots designed to be constitutionally incapable of experiencing ourselves and other conspecifics as robots." Our innate and overactive theory of mind (that other people, like ourselves, have "intentions") projects agency onto everything--in the past, even onto stones and trees. The "hard problem" for philosophy of consciousness (to use David Chalmers's phrase) remains: what are thoughts, cogitations, thinkers, qualia? Chalmers's solution, alas, swept away Cartesian dualism only to sneak his own magic spook, conscious experience (for him, on par with mass, charge, and space-time), in through the back door (2, 3).

Slingerland starts with Darwin and eventually follows Daniel Dennett so far as to agree that consciousness can be done full justice through third-person descriptions that require no mysterious, unaccounted-for, nonmaterial, first-person entity as substrate. Thus the famous "Mary," who intellectually knows everything there is to know about color despite having been sequestered for life in a color-free lab, will recognize red the first time she steps outside (4). And Thomas Nagel's famous bats don't know anything about bathood that we can't figure out for ourselves from observation (5). No first-person construct, no locus of consciousness, need be invoked.

The next step, if you want to go so far (the jury is out), is to eliminate consciousness altogether, because there's nothing for it to do that can't be done without it. And with it, you need a spook to keep the show on the road. Choose your insoluble problem: eliminate consciousness altogether as superfluous or explain it (if there's really a you who makes such choices). Slingerland prefers the first option.

Here is his conclusion regarding the mind-body dualism:
His conclusion, which I can hardly do justice to here, is relatively satisfying. He notes that although we don't have great difficulty knowing that Earth revolves around the Sun while feeling that the Sun is rising and setting (Dennett's favorite example of folk psychology), "no cognitively undamaged human being can help acting like and at some level really feeling that he or she is free"--however nonsensical the notion of agencyless free will (i.e., "choices" without a self to make them). Still, once the corrosive acid of Darwinism [to use Dennett's figure from (6)] has resolved the body-mind dualism into body alone, some but not most of us are able "to view human beings simultaneously under two descriptions: as physical systems and as persons."
Oh boy - here is free-will again. I like Dennett's analogy here - and I'm quite happy to have just an illusion of control. I think it is great how Slingerland wants to bring developments in cognitive science (and other related areas) into the humanities. Here is a link to the book.