Common-sense dualism and the self

While doing background reading for an upcoming longer essay on our sense of self, I’ve spent some time reading articles from ages past. Well, no, they’re not that old, but in the online world, where last week is ancient history, they might as well be.

One article that caught my eye is psychologist Paul Bloom’s 2004 EDGE presentation, “Natural-Born Dualists.”

Now, I’ve been hard on dualism here, especially the kind that claims that there’s what’s physical and then there’s what’s not. Bloom’s article, rightly in my view, assumes that the spiritual claim is wrong. At the same time, he argues that the religious view of a “soul”  is widespread because it comes from the  “common sense” belief we have that our persons are different from our bodies.

Bloom, a one-time collaborator with Steven Pinker, is a Yale professor of psychology and the author of books like Descartes’ Baby: How the Science of Child Development Explains What Makes Us Human. He uses the term “common sense dualism” to describe our persistent tendency to see our bodies as things and our selves as persons.

When we describe the purely mechanical parts and functions of our bodies, we speak objectively. Our bodies are not ourselves. They belong to us:

… we feel as if we occupy our bodies. We possess them. We own them. Because of this, we talk about my brain, or my body, using the same language of possession that we use when we talk about my car, or my child. These are things that we possess, that we are intimately related to—but not what we are.

This dualism is central to religious conceptions of immortality, of course, but as Bloom notes, it’s also present in non-believing materialists. Even if we reject the notion of a spirit realm to which our “souls” go when we die, we have no trouble imagining ourselves outside our bodies. Bloom cites the popularity of movies like Big and Freaky Friday, not to mention stories like Kafka’s “Metamorphosis.”

Bloom argues that dualism of this sort is one of the core tensions in intractable social issues like stem cell research, cloning, and abortion. If my body is a thing, I own it, and I can do with it what I like, including controlling its reproductive functioning. It’s my body. If the fetus is a person, an independent self, then its “soul” trumps “my body.” Of such clashes of perception and emphasis are moral dilemmas made.

Bloom reports research, his own and others’, that supports the idea that our “common sense dualism” is innate, not learned. Even very young infants have a version of it, the experiments indicate.

If dualism is the foundation of transcendent religions, and if a sense of it is inborn in us, Bloom believes that it will hard to disavow.

The clash between dualism and science will not easily be resolved, and the stakes are high. The same sorts of heated controversies that raged over the study and teaching of evolution over the last hundred years are likely to erupt over psychology and neuroscience in the years to come.

Commenting on Bloom’s view of a clash between dualism and materialism, Harvard educational psychologist Paul Harris proposes a different contrast — “I think the debate is—and should be—between two different forms of dualism: secular dualism and religious dualism. It should not be between thoroughgoing materialism and religious dualism.”

Harris notes that secular dualists reject the life-after-death stories of the religious, yet they also reject the pure reductionism of those who argue that the self is merely the mechanical action of the brain.

In sum, many children and some non-believing adults acknowledge that their thoughts, sense of identity, and mental processes, while not identical to brain processes, are dependent on brain processes, and will cease when they die. They are secular dualists.

The stance of the secular dualist can be seen as an expression of the belief that while the self comes from the mind that brain produces, it is a localized perception of the experiences of a particular mind, experiences which are personal and non-replicable. In other words, the self is a dynamic representation that cannot itself be fully represented outside of the mind that produces it.

That is the one kind of dualism that I can — and do — accept.

2 thoughts on “Common-sense dualism and the self

  1. Is this saying much more than the reductionist view that self is a product of the workings of the
    physical eg the view that self is the awareness in the brain of deviation from equilibrium?

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