The Dualist’s Predicament

In philosophy of the mind, there are two major camps:

  • The physicalists, who claim that everything is physical, and therefore mind is nothing more than physical brain: an extremely sophisticated biological computer.
  • The dualists, who believe that mind consists of a physical brain, as well as a non-physical aspect, such as a soul, for example.

The debate is roused by the problem of explaining sentience.

Physicalists like to consider themselves the “non-superstitious” camp. Physical science is after all what advanced human-kind and gave us cars, computers and rockets to the moon. So surely physical science must ultimately be capable of explaining everything.

Dualists, on the other hand, believe that sentience does not have a purely physical explanation, no matter how sophisticated, and no matter how many rockets we send to the moon. They believe that there is something physically inexplicable about the fact that we each have a first-person perspective/awareness.

Science has traditionally been the technique of putting things into black-boxes and modelling the black-box’s input-output behavior with the aim of stripping it of it’s mysterious character. This objective approach has served science well, and physicalists adopt it instinctively. Consciousness, however, is a private phenomenon that won’t show up at the box’s interfaces. We can’t access the box’s consciousness from an external perspective, just like you can’t feel my pain when I drop a hammer on my toe.

Imagine a man closing his eyes and insisting on an objective definition of what orange looks like. Impossible for color, and equally impossible for sentience. After all, the experience of color is a component of conscious experience. By insisting on looking at the brain from the outside only, physicalists “close their eyes” to the very phenomenon they are trying to explain.

If you tell a completely color-blind man that this is different from this he will disagree. In fact he won’t know what you are talking about. “What do you mean ‘this is different from this’?” Likewise, if you offer a refutation of physicalism grounded in subjective reality, the physicalist won’t know what you are talking about. Physicalism survives where consciousness is invisible, and if you invite the physicalist over to where consciousness is visible, his emotional attachment to objectivity usually proves too strong, ironic as that is.

In the next post (Refuting Physicalism Subjectively) we will explore such a line of reasoning. But remember, consciousness gives us our view from inside the box! To ignore subjective reality is to ignore consciousness itself.


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