Why would anyone wish to believe that he or she is a combination of a body and a disembodied mind or soul?
One should never underestimate human ingenuity in search of support for implausible views. The idea that human beings (not, usually, dogs or newts) consist of a body and a mind or soul is older than history, but the reasons for the belief are not empirical. Dualists remain in the majority in today’s world, if only because almost all religions involve belief in an afterlife. There are even a few philosophers who are dualists, protecting the reputation of their profession to provide representatives of every view, mad or sane, invented by mankind.
A genealogy (in Nietzsche’s sense) of dualism would patch together such thoughts as these: that the phenomena of consciousness seem so amazing that one simply cannot believe they end with bodily death; one cannot believe that the people one loved or feared have vanished with death—they seem asleep, and must be somewhere, still watching; one hopes, wishes, or needs to believe that one will re-encounter the dead one loved; ignorance, timidity and the superstitions they prompt give rise to legends and beliefs about continued existence in other forms; religions promote belief in an afterlife variously to keep control of people with the prospect of posthumous reward and punishment, simultaneously solving the problem of religion’s inefficacies in this life (petitioning the gods so rarely works; the bad seem to flourish; promising a just afterlife pre-empts disaffection); and so on.
More reflective prompts to dualism turn on considerations about the essentially different nature of material and mental phenomena. Physical objects have locations, weights, heights, colours and odours, whereas thoughts and memories do not. A more modest form of dualism recognises that there are two kinds of things one can say about brains—that they are objects inside skulls, and that they are involved in the production of thoughts and desires. But this is not the metaphysical dualism of, for example, René Descartes, for whom mind and matter were two essentially different substances, and this latter is what is needed for afterlife beliefs.
What has rightly been called the “hard problem” of consciousness—how it arises from brain activity—has yet to be solved. But the shortest answer anyone can give to a dualist who hopes this leaves wriggle room for minds or souls is this: hit someone hard enough on the head, and a mental function regularly correlated with the resultantly damaged part of the brain will be lost or compromised. That covariance is enough to render profoundly unpersuasive any of the reasons offered in support of dualism.
Sent in by Cliff Anthony, Zambia. Send your philosophical queries and dilemmas to AC Grayling at email@example.com