Tag Archives: physicalism

Iron-Man Dualism

One common argument against substance (mind-body) dualism runs as follows. We know that consciousness is dependent on the brain, because when the brain is damaged it adversely affects consciousness and mental function. (You can prove this point to yourself experimentally by hitting yourself hard on the head with a brick.) Furthermore, it is argued, when brain function ceases altogether, consciousness disappears. (Don’t try to prove this latter point to yourself experimentally; just take it on trust.) Therefore, contra substance dualism, the mind — if it’s a real entity at all — must be ontologically dependent on the physical structures of the brain. We should be physicalists of some kind.

I come across this argument all the time in the writings of naturalists, but it strikes me as a blatant non sequitur. At most it shows that there’s a causal relationship between the mind and the body, which substance dualists insist upon anyway. (The so-called “interaction problem,” which is concerned with how there can be causation between physical and non-physical substances, is a different challenge to dualism, one I don’t propose to address here.) The fact that increasing damage to the brain leads to increasing mental impairment doesn’t at all imply that the mind cannot exist apart from the brain.

Here’s an analogy to elucidate why that’s so. Imagine a spaceship of the kind familiar from sci-fi movies. In this spaceship, the cockpit doubles up as an escape pod. In normal operation, the cockpit is attached to the main ship; whenever the ship moves, the cockpit moves with it, just as it should. If the ship is attacked with (say) photon torpedoes, the cockpit is buffeted about along with the rest of the spacecraft. When the ship is damaged, all of its systems can be affected; thus the operation of the cockpit can be impaired by damage to the ship in which it is housed.

If the ship becomes so badly damaged that it can’t move at all, the cockpit is stuck along with it, since it’s fixed to the ship. But if the spaceship is completely blown apart, the cockpit functions as an escape pod: it can detach from the doomed ship, and once detached, it can move freely again. (In line with a Christian eschatology, we could even extend the analogy such that if the parts of the ship are recovered and reassembled, the cockpit can be reattached — but that’s not necessary for the point I’m making here.)

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My students know that I have very mixed feelings about Wikipedia. On the one hand, it can be invaluable for quickly obtaining or checking uncontested facts about names, dates, locations, and sequences of events. It can also be a useful starting point for research; it often provides a serviceable orientation to a topic and can point you to some useful sources. Even so, Wikipedia can be desperately unreliable and biased when it comes to controversial issues and even some matters that shouldn’t be controversial. (I have a folder on my computer named ‘Wikidpedia’ where I collect particularly egregious examples.) It’s well known that the ‘community’ of Wikipedia editors is ideologically skewed compared to the general population, such that some topics simply cannot be represented in a balanced and responsible fashion (see here for one embarrassing example).

Anyway, I recently came across an almost laughable case of Bad Wikipedia. For reasons I don’t remember now, I found myself consulting the entry on ‘Reality’ (insert your own punchline here). Here’s how the article began:

Reality is all of physical existence, as opposed to that which is merely imaginary. It is the name for all of physical existence, but the word is also used in a declension to speak of parts of reality that include the cognitive idea of an individual “reality” (i.e. psychology), to a “situational reality,” or a “fictional reality.”

The term is also used to refer to the ontological status of things, indicating their existence, but this is simply the idea of giving names to smaller “realities,” and seems vague and academic without the idea of physical existence as the first “reality,” and the others being smaller parts.

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