Destroying Descartes' Dualism

Science of the Soul? ‘I Think, Therefore I Am’ Is Losing Force

. . . as evolutionary biologists and cognitive neuroscientists peer ever deeper into the brain, they are discovering more and more genes, brain structures and other physical correlates to feelings like empathy, disgust and joy. That is, they are discovering physical bases for the feelings from which moral sense emerges — not just in people but in other animals as well.

The result is perhaps the strongest challenge yet to the worldview summed up by Descartes, the 17th-century philosopher who divided the creatures of the world between humanity and everything else. As biologists turn up evidence that animals can exhibit emotions and patterns of cognition once thought of as strictly human, Descartes’s dictum, “I think, therefore I am,” loses its force.

René Descartes', lacking the knowledge that science offers us, conjured up another unsuccessful version of the ontological argument in which he conceived of a body-mind dualism connected at the pineal gland.

I'm never sure whether dualists interpret the evidence so as to exclude reductionist materialism because it is counterintuitive or because they wish to believe in the possibility of the continuance of their personal consciousness after physical death. I expect that it is both, and I think that their assumptions are unfounded.

I'll illustrate with a simple example. If your family doc taps your patellar tendon below the knee to test your 'knee-jerk' reflex, the neurophysiological and muscular responses are quite simple and could easily be fully 'tracked' in an animal model. (patellar reflex)

There is no need to invoke a 'knee-muscle-spirit' to explain what has happened. Your experience, though, is not directly of stretch of the Golgi tendon organ, neuronal firing, and actin-myosin sliding. You feel the tap and feel an involuntary muscle contraction. Modern dualists would undoubtedly accept the physical explanation for this experience without even thinking that a spirit-mechanism need be invoked.

However, dualists conveniently ignore the fact that this simplest reflex lies on a spectrum of neurophysiological activity/experience that extends up to consciousness. They ignore the extremely high likelihood that experiences that result from the complex, emergent system that is our plastic, input-programmed brain represent the same types of phenomenology.

They ignore the fact that the brains of different individuals become active in predictable neuroanatomical areas when those individuals engage in equivalent behaviors. If our brains were mere antennas for the mind, then we should expect to see idiosyncratic neuranatomic responses.

They conveniently ignore Occam's razor, which indicates that the most parsimonious, not necessarily the simplest, explanation is always to be preferred. They usurp the fact that highly complex physical phenomena are difficult to tease apart, and they distort this techical 'uncertainty' into metaphysical argumenta ad
that permit the desired conclusion.

Scientific methodology was 'invented' to counteract precisely such wishful unthinking. For my comments above, Sam [Harris] might join Lee Siegel in declaring atheism damaging to imagination. However, I think that trying to conceptualize how things and people really function is more difficult than simplistic, intuitive, flights of fantasy. That's what makes it interesting!

~ salient, here. [I have added italic emphasis and links]

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