Monday, July 19, 2004

Are we born dualists? And if so, should we be concerned?

I belong to a reading group. Yesterday evening we discussed Descartes' Baby: How the Science of Child Development Explains What Makes Us Human, by Paul Bloom, Psychology Professor at Yale. quotes from Publisher's Weekly,
"Bloom's central thesis is that what makes us uniquely human is our dualism: our understanding that there are [both] material objects, or bodies, and people, or souls."
No one in the reading group thought the book itself was very good. It rambled on, skipping from one point to another, without an overall coherent structure. But the issue it raises is central to how we look at the world. (By the way, Bloom does not argue that dualism is true, only that we are wired to see the world from a dualistic perspective.)

My perspective is that dualism is an exaggeration. It is an unfortunate consequence of setting in stone an explanation of real phenomena about which we have yet to develop adequate terms. Here's the problem.

When you think about someone you know, you don't think of that person in terms of his or her brute physical substance -- although you may picture that person in your mind in terms of his or her overall appearance, which is different. You don't think about hair follicles, or blood cells, or internal organs, or the partially digested food in the person's digestive tract. You think about the person in terms of his or her personality: what is it like to be with the person, what does the person like or dislike, what scares the person, how intelligent is the person, is the person outgoing or shy, what makes him or her laugh or cry. Even when we think of a person sexually, we think of how the person feels and reacts when touched in a certain way; we don't think of touching as an interaction between two (lifeless) physical substances.

This becomes especially clear when we consider how we think about corpses. We don't think about a corpse as the same as the person who died -- even if the person just died a moment ago. We tend to distinguish between a person and a person's body. We think about the substance of a person and the personality of a person as two distinct things. Try running define: personality to see a nice collection of definitions for personality. Many of these definitions capture quite well what we think of when we think of a person.

In the preceding, I used the term personality. But the term personality seems to refer to a collection of properties or characteristics of a person. We don't think of a person's personality as being the person himself or herself.

So if a person's physical substance is not the person, and the person's personality is not the person, what is the person? Certainly it is isn't a person's hair follicles or internal organs that cry when the person is sad. It doesn't even make sense to apply the notion of being sad to hair follicles and internal organs. Nor is it consistent with our use of the term to say that the personality was afraid when something frightening happened. We just don't use the term personality that way. So what was sad, or afraid, or intelligent, or angry, or happy, or reckless?

Traditionally we have used terms like soul to refer to the person and the word personality to refer to ways of describing a soul. In other words, we reify (another great word) what we think of as the person as something separate from the physical realm but something to which personality-related terms apply.

In doing so, we become dualists.

And what choice do we have? What other options are there?

The answer is a longish story, but the short version of it is this. There are lots of processes in the world that persist in a relatively constant form over an extended period of time. Think, for example, of a book club. The actual members of the book club come and go. (This is similar to the fact that the physical substance of a person's body comes and goes.) The location at which the book club meets may vary over time. The frequency with which the club meets may vary also. Yet we have no problem talking about a book club as a thing even though there is virtually nothing physical about it that is constant. (Along similar lines, do you remember "the oldest established permanent floating crap game in New York" from Guys and Dolls?)

We have no trouble talking about a book club as (if it were) a thing or Nathan Detroit's crap game as (if it were) a thing; yet we don't insist that either has a soul. Each can have a personality, but you don't need a soul to have a personality. All you really need is persistence.

So it seems to me that we are indeed dualists in that we do see the world as consisting of more than just physical objects. But being dualists doesn't necessarily mean that we believe that the world is divided into two distinct realms: the physical and the spiritual.

We quite reasonably see the world as consisting of more or less static physical objects and more or less dynamic (but persistent) processes -- and that seeing the world in these terms is quite useful. There is nothing all that mysterious about it.

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