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Dualism is the philosophy of mind where the mind is nonphysical and independent of the physical brain. While the idea goes back as far as Zarathustra, it is Descartes’ formulation which is usually what we mean when we speak of dualism. Descartes believed that the mind is made of an immaterial substance and is the seat of consciousness, while the brain is where intelligence resides. Of course, this postulation of an immaterial substance accounting for the mind is without basis and, like the ether, never verified.

In researching what I hope will be an interesting blog on the placebo effect and ran across a paper by M. Beauregard. The same Beauregard that wrote a sophistry-laden book with Discovery Institute hack Denyse O’Leary called The Spiritual Brain (I refuse to provide a link to Amazon to legitimize that kind of dreary crap – the overview printed on the jacket alone was enough to make me nauseous). You can already see Beauregard’s bias in a review entitled “Effect of mind on brain activity: evidence from neuroimaging studies of psychotherapy and placebo effect.” The presumption that the mind is a separate entity from the brain is obvious from the title. He’s under the mistaken belief that phenomena such as the placebo effect can be explained by mind-brain duality. I suppose it can, but it is totally equivocal with the explanation that the mind and brain are inseparable.

Just because the two explanations are equivocal in and of itself doesn’t mean that dualism is wrong. Rather, it is the spectacular failure of dualism to explain certain other phenomena (which I will get to) that does. I find it difficult to believe that Beauregard is unaware of these problems and is being selective about where he invokes it to avoid having to deal with what I see are insurmountable problems for dualism. The problem for people like Beauregard is that while dualism and monism both explain phenomena such as the placebo effect, other phenomena, such as personality alterations following brain injury, can only be explained by monism.

Typically, scientists want to publish their papers in the most widely read journals as possible. Journals such as Cell, Journal of NeuroscienceNature and Science are high on the list. The Journal of Alternative Medicine not quite so high. The usual modus operandi is to aim high, go next lower if it is rejected. So if you want an indication of where a paper stands in regards to the relevant scientific community, take a look at the journal’s citation index. To give an idea just how neuroscience views dualism, this paper was published in the Nordic Journal of Psychiatry. Yeah. Not exactly the Journal of Neuroscience.

Being an empiricist, I’m not swayed by purely philosophical arguments. That’s not to say philosophy isn’t useful. Science has little place in the arena of ethics, for instance, or art and literature (though more to say than most people think). But every philosophical argument for a position seems to have a counter argument. Sorry, philosophers, but wherever it is possible for science to have its say, I see it as the ultimate arbiter over such squabbling. When we don’t know the answer to a question, I don’t view philosophy as a solution – only a speculation awaiting verification. Too often and too easily philosophical arguments are destroyed by an ugly fact.  Perhaps I shouldn’t say ‘too easily’, since the fact falsifying the argument isn’t always so easy to obtain. But once available, facts can be lethal to philosophy.

Dualism is no different. The ‘subjective argument in favor of dualism’, or the ‘argument from reason’, which is remarkably similar to Alvin Plantinga’s truly laughable ‘evolutionary argument against naturalism’ (something else I want to blog on), don’t hold any sway with me. But the worst argument for duality has got to be the ‘causal interaction’ argument, which invokes a miracle to explain all mind-body interactions. On the face of it, it is the parsimonious explanation for mind-brain duality, but it is really the laziest. Seriously, I have no words with which to convey my contempt for such an argument. It is lazy because it invokes a whole host of unsubstantiated requirements – that god exists, miracles happen, etc. It is indistinguishable from “I don’t know how the mind-brain interaction happens. It just does, so there!”

My first question for something where science can indeed have a say is, “What does the science say?” A lot, actually, and none of it bodes well for dualists. While this may sound like a philosophical argument, it is not – how can an immaterial mind interact with a physical brain? One of the most important parts of a scientific explanation is a demonstration of how, a mechanism of action. Without answering the ‘how’, there is no explanation. Descartes thought that the mind interacted with the brain through the pineal gland. But there is no reason why we shouldn’t take the liver over the pineal gland. Nor do Descartes or his followers give a mechanism of action and it simply begs the question. Dualism thus fails to give a mechanism for interaction with the brain, and thus also fails in providing a means for differentiating between mind-brain duality from a brain providing us with an illusion of a non-corporeal mind. If such an interaction occurs, we should be able to measure something in the brain that can only be explained via dualism. This is just not the case. If the mind is a product of the brain, no such problem exists for monists.

The second problem for dualists is the problem of deep personality changes following brain injury. If the mind and brain are separate, the mind is the seat of consciousness (and presumably personality) and the mind communicates with the brain only to pull the puppet’s strings, why would a brain injury alter who a person is? The classic case is that of Phineas Gage. In 1848, Gage was blasting rock to build a rail line when a charge prematurely exploded, sending the tamping rod he was using through his frontal lobe. Amazingly, he was conscious following the accident, but some time later, physician Dr. John Martyn Harlow wrote

The equilibrium or balance, so to speak, between his intellectual faculties and animal propensities, seems to have been destroyed. He is fitful, irreverent, indulging at times in the grossest profanity (which was not previously his custom), manifesting but little deference for his fellows, impatient of restraint or advice when it conflicts with his desires, at times pertinaciously obstinate, yet capricious and vacillating, devising many plans of future operations, which are no sooner arranged than they are abandoned in turn for others appearing more feasible. A child in his intellectual capacity and manifestations, he has the animal passions of a strong man. Previous to his injury, although untrained in the schools, he possessed a well-balanced mind, and was looked upon by those who knew him as a shrewd, smart businessman, very energetic and persistent in executing all his plans of operation. In this regard his mind was radically changed, so decidedly that his friends and acquaintances said he was ‘no longer Gage.’

There are many similar examples of frontal lobe injury producing similar personality changes. How does duality explain such deep personality changes? It doesn’t, of course.

In a similar vein, if the mind and brain are independent, how do antidepressants work? LSD? A host of all sorts pharmaceuticals which alter personality? Again, duality can not explain this. But if “the mind is what the brain does“, as Stephen Pinker puts it, alterations of brain activity, through changes in neuronal metabolism or neurotransmitter release/uptake, are all that is necessary to explain why neuroactive substances also affect on the mind.

So, why do people insist on maintaining duality when the evidence from the neurosciences all points to a mind produced by the physical brain? First, we do have a strong illusion that the mind is separate from the brain. And it is a very strong illusion indeed. But that we simply perceive the mind to be independent of our body is not evidence that they are separate.

Second, it is necessary for certainly religious concepts. Here, I am thinking of the ‘soul’ and ‘free will’. I’ve always viewed the soul as a scientific explanation for the mind. A bad scientific explanation, to be sure. One for which there isn’t a shred of evidence for, and not for lack of looking. Douglas MacDougall attempted to determine if the soul had any weight (and failed). For anyone interested in a real explanation of the mind, I suggest Stephen Pinker’s How the Mind Works.

In the next segment I will lay some neuroscience on your ass and discuss what it has to say about ‘free will’.



  1. Thanks for visiting my post. It is fun to see we wrote on the same thing today. In my earlier post I agree with Bloom that Dualism, as you agree, is a strong cognitive illusion and probably in-born. Thus, Dualism is our default setting. I think my view of many selves (agreeing with Pinker’s computational model) captures the dualist insights with a modified monist model. (In actuality, both these terms may be wrong because they were created by folks who really had no understanding of mind — and we are barely getting there now).

    • Wait till I get through the experimental study of free will. I may get that done today. Not much else for me to do. Our MRI is awaiting a hardware upgrade and things are generally slow. There’s some really cool and bizarre stuff in that area of the literature.

  2. In my experience “debating” with ardent dualists, pointing out the correlations between the brain mind is never enough. The real killer argument comes from the split brain patients. When the corpus collosum is cut to reduce severe epileptic seizures.

    Quick sketch:
    In this case the patient can be shown an object with one side of the brain (using the opposite eye), be able to sketch the object but not say its name. The same object can be shown to the other side and the person will be able to say its name but not be able to describe the object.

    If dualism is true (and processing takes place outside the brain) then it would seem that the “mind” has also been split along with the brain.

    • Another excellent example, but I was trying to concentrate on brain injuries which altered who a person was more fundamentally. People that have their corpus collosum cut typically aren’t fundamentally altered as far as their character is concerned. From a dualist point of view, one could argue that the brain provides the mind with the split information. I don’t think the same can be said for those brain injured individuals whose personalities drastically change.

  3. Hello Shamelessly Atheist,

    The Phineas Gage case yes their was significant personality changes however that is not incompatiable with dualism. Based on the fact that the issue is the brain producing mind and consciousness like a productive function? or is the brain a receiver of the mind.?

    As far as the split brain experiments go they no where near demonstrates their are two separate conscious selves.

    There are a lot of powerful arguments that the view that materialism is right.

    • There is little question that the mind produces the brain, and there is no argument for dualism which addresses any of the issues here. Some of the arguments are plain silly, like how does the brain produce ‘free will’. Contra-causal free will (as I discuss elsewhere) is a mere illusion.

      If the brain is simply a receiver, then how on earth is the case of Phineas Gage and others like it at all compatible with dualism? The fact that the receiver is damaged should in no way affect fundamentaly who a person is. And how does the receiver work?

      Dualism offers no answer to how the mind interacts with the material brain. With the computational theory of mind, the first question is easily answered (the structures doing the computation are damaged and thus corrupted) and the second is moot.

      I stand by what I said. Dualism is silly.

      • Oh. My. GOD! You actually linked to an article that thinks reincarnation and NDEs are REAL?!?!?!?!? Credibility = 0. NDEs can be produced by high-stress stimulus (as experienced by fighter pilots in high-g training) and electrostimulation during open-brain surgery. They are completely subjective experiences and not at all real. And I will not stoop to discuss reincarnation. What next, astrology? Let’s stick to REAL science here!

  4. Rather you like it or not their is strong evidence that nde’s are evidence for an afterlife. Let me explain why, yes their is deep level brain activity in deep levels of the brain. However, EEG can read the cortex of the brain and when flat lined people still have nde’s and obe’s. The flat line EEG indicates their is very little brain activity left in the cortex when blood flow is cut to the brain when someone goes into cardiac arrest. Jason Braithwaite said that those deep lower processes of the brain is more than sufficent to account for near death experiences. However it order for his theory to work. Their would have to be evidence that stimulating those processes of the brain when someone is flat lined can bring about complex though processes etc that are reported in nde’s.

    I quote

    “By late 2008 an advertisement for a previously unknown public appearance by Gage had been discovered, as well as a report of his physical and mental condition during his time in Chile, and a description of what may well have been his daily work routine there as a long-distance coach driver. This new information suggests that the seriously maladapted Gage described by Harlow may have existed for only a limited time after the accident—that Phineas eventually “figured out how to live” despite his injury,[40] and was in later life much more functional, and socially much better adapted, than has been thought”.[41]

    So as we see that his personality back, however their is good reasons to doubt Harlows account.

    I quote

    “The uncertainty of Harlow’s sources for the changes he describes in Gage, combined with the fact that he waited almost twenty years (between his first and second papers) to communicate those changes, constitute one of the main puzzles of the case.”

    So as we still it is looking more and more less likely that he suffered dramatic personality change to the point of showing evidence for full blown mind-brain dependency. This case is often cited by full blown support for very strong mind-brain dependency. But as i have shown it’s no where near supportive of it.

    As far as free will goes ok go away deny the all so obvious. How do you explain why a person’s arm goes up. Now you can say well that is the thing with the arm sometimes it goes up and sometimes it doesn’t. But the fact is it does.

    The chinese room argument, put forth by philosopher John Searle, is a powerful argument that shows why computationalism is wrong. The many world’s interpretation if correct would show that quantum immortality is possible that when a person dies. Consciousness continues on to another parellel universe.

  5. So as we still it is looking more and more less likely that he suffered dramatic personality change to the point of showing evidence for full blown mind-brain dependency. This case is often cited by full blown support for very strong mind-brain dependency. But as i have shown it’s no where near supportive of it.

    The case of Phineas Gage is consistent with living examples of personality change that neuroscientists study today. Casting aspersions on the documentation of Phineas Gage ignores that everything that was originally observed is observed in persons suffering frontal lobe injury. Gage is a poster boy for a whole class of brain injured people whose personalities are irrevocably fundamentally altered for life. Such people lose their ability to inhibit emotions and NEVER GET IT BACK!!!! There is indeed plasticity, but this helps you not one jot – the person affected is still fundamentally different because of it, and plasticity is a well-known and well-understood property of the brain. Thus, you’ve shown exactly this: nothing.

    As to the ridiculous notion of NDEs, the very same effects can be induced under conditions of oxidative stress in the brain or electrostimulation. Nothing further than the brain itself is required to explain these effects. Similarly, even migraine can cause weird visual effects that are often interpreted as being mystical in nature. It is near certain that Ezekiel was a migraine sufferer. Complex thought during the experience is not required, since details are added after the fact by people experiencing them. Is comlex thought required of fighter pilots in training when they are rendered uncounscious by high-g forces inducing visions exactly matching so-called NDEs? I don’t think so. Nor has anyone that believes in this stuff explained how a mind, without eyes or a visual cortex with which to interpret the impulses sent down the optic nerves, sees anything during these events! It never ceases to amaze me that people will jump to unsupported conclusions even when there is a perfectly good explanation in front of their noses.

    And Stephen Pinker, Daniel Dennett and others have shown why the Chinese Room thought experiment is utterly wrong. Read their stuff if you dare. Start with Pinker’s How the Mind Works. The computational theory of mind has been of humungous benefit in understanding how the mind works, including testable and falsifiable hypotheses, whereas duality offers nothing.

    Please cite evidence for parallel universes. Conjecture is why people believe in dualism. And as for the free will thing, do read up on the science of volition. The processes which initiate, say, an arm going up begin about ONE SECOND PRIOR TO THE CONSCIOUS DECISION TO RAISE THE ARM. What this means is that the mind deludes itself into believing that the action occurred through conscious volition when it clearly can not have been so. This is a huge problem for those supporting contra-causal free will. Just because the arm goes up does not indicate free will. Spurious logic again.

    Please stop with the pseudoscience and spiritualistic crap. Use some critical thinking skills and accept that there are things that we don’t have the answer to instead of immediately jumping to garbage non-explanations!

  6. I forgot to add a link to the true story of what happened to Phineas Gage

    “The strange case of Phineas Gage,” History of the Human Sciences

    I quote from the following link above

    After his death, Gage slowly morphed into the lecture room legend. According to Kotowicz,

    ” Most of the subsequent descriptions of Gage were based on hearsay. Some of them were quite florid; Gage was portrayed as having fits of temper when not getting his own way, as being disinclined to work, as having a reduced libido, as being an aimless drifter and so on. A typical description of him would say that before the accident Gage had been a diligent, reliable, polite and socially adept person: after his accident, he subsequently became uncaring, profane and socially inappropriate in his conduct”.

    In neurophilosophy we learn this

    The Documentary Evidence

    Kotowicz begs to differ:

    However, after examining closely the accounts of Phineas Gage as given by the doctors who knew him, Harlow and Bigelow, one must conclude that the supposed psychopathic traits are not evident.

    The drastic discntinuity was not so much between Phineas Gage pre- and post-tamping rod but between Phineas Gage (1823-1860) and the lecture room legend.

    What we can learn from contemporary accounts of Gage’s post-trauma life is this: For a while after the accident, he drifted, and even ended up briefly in P. T. Barnum’s freak show, exhibiting himself and the tamping rod. But he then settled down and worked a year and a half in a stable. Later, he went with a friend to Valparaiso in Chile where he cared for horses and drove a coach and six for eight years.

    Kotowicz points out the obvious,

    Working in stables is not a job for a psychopath. Horses are very sensitive and they require discipline and calm; they have to be attended to regularly, seven days a week, and work begins early.

    Malcolm Macmillan of Deakin University School of Psychology in Victoria, Australia, where he maintains a Phineas Gage page. He writes:

    Most of the accounts of Gage’s life after 1848 are strange mixtures of slight fact, considerable fancy, and downright fabrication.

    Now contrasts all of the above information to this materialist account of Phineas Gage’s personality.

    • Read the above comment in which you are already refuted. Also, no one has ever said that Gage was completely non-functional. However, the only job he could hold – that of a stablehand – is completely in line with his fundamental inability to interact with other people. What do stablehands work with? HORSES! Not people. What a lame argument.

  7. That is not what i am saying, what i am saying is the fact that materialist’s use this case to support their argument the problem is it no where nears support their argument. As is shown by Harlow and Kotowicz. Yes Steven Pinker and Daniel Dennett supporting epiphenomenalism, that is basically one of the most problematic theory to hold.

    • Baloney. You completely ignore every reason I gave you why the case of Gage and many other well-studied cases of frontal lobe injury fully support the brain producing the mind. Brain is injured, personality altered. Nowhere have you refuted this. No matter how loudly you deny it.

      The computational theory of mind has produced testable hypotheses which pass every test in neuroscience. Where did duality take us? Nowhere. It is a just-so story.

  8. Tell me why so many people believe in ‘free will’, a more or less identical non-concept. It’s because people are stupid, unreflective and don’t follow through with the logic of ideas. Most beliefs most people have about anything are habitual, inherited and/or emotional. For the record, lots of atheists – humanists, liberals and pseudo-skeptics – are some of the most credulous retards in the world when it comes to their secular religions.

    Most people are, and will remain, retarded losers who believe just about anything that makes them feel good. Welcome to the Planet of the Apes.

2 Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. […] From the Desk of Shamelessly Atheist… Periodic Rantings of a Godless Disciple of Science 100% pure Atheist concentrate – undiluted by baptismal water! « Dualism – Why do people cling to such archaic nonsense? […]

  2. […] first started this series with a look at duality and why it is utter nonsense. Commenter leo1500 didn’t like my use of Phineas Gage as an […]

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