Picture: Darwin and Descartes.This piece in the New Scientist suggests that creationists and their sympathisers are seeking to open up a new front. They think that the apparent insolubility of the problem of qualia means that materialism is on the way out; in fact, that consciousness is ‘Darwinism’s grave’. Cartesian dualism is back with a vengeance. Oh boy: if there was one thing the qualia debate didn’t need, it was a large-scale theological intervention. Dan Dennett must be feeling rather the way Guy Crouchback felt when he heard about the Nazi-Soviet pact: the forces of darkness have drawn together and the enemy stands clear at last!

The suggested linkage between qualia and evolution seems tortuous. The first step, I suppose, assumes that dualism makes the problem of qualia easier to solve; then presumably we deduce that if dualism is true, it might as well be a dualism with spirits in (there are plenty of varieties without; in fact if I were to put down a list of the dualisms which seem to me most clear and plausible, I’m not sure that the Christian spirit variety would scrape into the Top Ten); then, that if there are spirits, there could well be God, and then that if there’s God he might as well take on the job of governing speciation. At least, that’s how I assume it goes. A key point seems to be the existence of some form of spiritual causation. Experiments are adduced in which the subjects were asked to change the pattern of their thoughts, which was then shown to correspond with change in the activity of their brain; this, it is claimed, shows that mind and brain are distinct. Unfortunately it palpably doesn’t; attempting to disprove the identity of mind and brain by citing a correlation between the activity of the two is, well, pretty silly. Of course the thing that draws all this together and makes it seem to make sense in the minds of its advocates is Christianity, or at any rate an old-fashioned, literalist kind of Christianity.

Anyway, I shall leave Darwinism to look after itself, but in a helpful spirit let me offer these new qualophiles two reasons why dualism is No Good.

The first, widely recognised, is that arranging linkages between the two worlds, or two kinds of stuff required by dualism, always proves impossible. In resurrecting ‘Cartesian dualism’ I don’t suppose the new qualophiles intend to restore the pineal gland to the role Descartes gave it as the unique locus of interaction between body and soul, but they will find that coming up with anything better is surprisingly difficult. There is a philosophical reason for this. If you have causal connections between your worlds – between spirits and matter, in this case – it becomes increasingly difficult to see why the second world should be regarded as truly separate at all, and your theory turns into a monism before your eyes. But if you don’t have causal connections, your second world becomes irrelevant and unknowable. The usual Christian approach to this problem is to go for a kind of Sunday-best causal connection, one that doesn’t show up in the everyday world, but lurks in special invisible places in the human brain. This was never a very attractive line of thinking and in spite of the quixotic efforts of those two distinguished knights, John Eccles and Karl Popper, it is less plausible now than ever before, and its credibility drains further with every advance in neurology.

The second problem, worse in my view, is that dualism doesn’t really help. The new qualophile case must be, I suppose, that our ineffable subjective experiences are experiences of the spirit, and that’s what gives them their vivid character. The problem of qualia is to define what it is in the experience of seeing red which is over and above the simple physical account; bingo! It’s the spirit. To put it another way, on this view zombies don’t have souls.

But why not? How does the intervention of a soul turn the ditchwater of physics into the glowing wine of qualia? It seems to me I could quite well imagine a person who had a fully functioning soul and yet had no real phenomenal experiences: or at any rate, it’s as easy to imagine that as an unsouled zombie in the same position. I think the new qualophiles might reply that my saying that shows I just haven’t grasped what a soul is. Indeed I haven’t, and I need them to explain how it works before I can see what advantage there is in their theory. If we’re going to solve the mystery of qualia by attributing it to ‘souls’, and then we declare ‘souls’ a mystery, why are we even bothering? But here, as elsewhere with theological arguments, it seems to be assumed that if we can get the question into the spiritual realm, the enquiry politely ceases and we avert our eyes.

It is, of course, the same thing over on the other front, where creationists typically offer criticism of evolutionary theory, but offer not so much as a sniff of a Theory of Creation. Perhaps in the end the whole dispute is not so much a clash between two rival theories as a dispute over whether we should have rational theories at all.


  1. 1. Gorm says:

    The physicalist account of qualia is that it is, in principle, reducible to the physics of brains. But here’s a question: What brains and what physics are we talking about? Is it brains and physics as experienced interpretatively by the physical brains of neuroscientists? Or is it the true or real brains and physics themselves, which, so far at least, are far outside the grasp of science?

    Physicalist monism seems plausible to me, but very impractical as a frame of mind. I’m not suggesting that we take ontological dualism seriously, but I don’t think we can dispense with some kind of dualist conception, at least not just yet. What I propose is a dualism of true reality on the one hand and virtuality on the other, the latter here being understood as the experiential or phenomenal reality rendered somehow by real brains and real physics. Viewing experience as a virtual reality in this way allows one to identify more directly with one’s experience (as opposed to thinking that a more true approach would be to do like the Churchlands and try to translate experience into neuroscientific terms), because one is this virtuality. Trying to reduce it to physics is of course crucial for science, but it is derailing for the sense of self, and unnecessarily so. Subjectivity as we know it today is not something illusory that will be disposed of once we get our theories right, but the very stuff of our subjective being. Virtuality is a kind of fiction, to be sure, but not one you can dispel without at the same time dispelling subjectivity. I’m even inclined to use the word soul in connection with virtuality, devoid of the Christian connotations of course.

    I think that even when (or if) we reach a physicalist explanation of subjectivity, a virtualist or fictionalist dualism of the kind I’ve tried to sketch out will continue to play an important role for us, for practical reasons. The same practical reasons that I think lead many to fight for ontological dualism today. A future theory of subjectivity will be too complicated for our modestly equipped brains to handle, at least for practical purposes. Like quantum physics, it will be so strange and difficult that it will be irrelevant for everyone except a few frontier theorists, for whom the relevance is almost entirely theoretical and detached from the rest of their lives.

    I believe that to acknowledge the value of dualism in a virtual variety would be very good for the physicalist cause. What do you think?

  2. 2. Peter says:

    In essence, I agree, Gorm. I don’t think many people, even materialist monists, would claim that a single account of the world can exhaust everything there is to be said about it. We certainly at least need to address the world on different levels of description – in fact, on more than just two. So in practice any sensible view of the world has at least two and usually many more aspects to it. It may well be that this is what impels people into dualism; but philosophically, dualism is one of those concepts (like omnipotence, perhaps) that is just drawn too strong to make sense, and needs dilution for safe use. So while I basically agree with your point, I wouldn’t call that dualism. It might be that the best thing would be for us all to stop worrying about whether a theory is ‘monist’ or ‘dualist’, and just discuss the theory itself.

    What would be interesting would be a good attempt to explain why the world needs different levels of explanation, how many there are, how they relate, and which levels are fundamental in any particular sense (it looks as if the account given by physics is fundamental in some sense, for example). Alas, I don’t know of any good theorising along these lines that gets very far.

  3. 3. Lloyd Rice says:

    As you know, Peter, I’m not much of a philosopher. I like your comment that we should perhaps stop worrying about whether a theory is A or B and just discuss the theory itself. But I am not sure what you mean by different levels of explanation. I believe you are comparing the way we can apply the scientific method to what we observe “out there”, but it does not seem to work for what we see “in here”. I believe that, before too many more years have passed, we will pretty well understand the math of consciousness. But I do not believe that will get us any closer to being able to “break down” the “in here”. Is that what you are saying?

  4. 4. Michael Drake says:

    “it’s as easy to imagine that as an unsouled zombie in the same position”

    Exactly, so. This is what I call the hard problem for dualism:

    The move from the hard problem to dualism relies on the notion that if physicalism is false, we need to appeal to nonphysical, or “intrinsic,” properties to account for consciousness. But unless we construe intrinsic properties as essentially conscious-making, zombies are every bit as “clearly and distinctly” conceivable even on the dualist’s picture.

    Consider Al. On the assumptions of dualism, Al comprises or instantiates extrinsic properties ? and certain intrinsic properties ?. The dualist postulates that ? and ? are necessary and sufficient conditions for phenomen-Al.* Yet we can just as “clearly and distinctly” as in the original case conceive of zombie-Al, who is a duplicate of phenomen-Al in respect of both ? and ?, but who is nonetheless phenomenally void.

    This means that the zombie argument defeats dualism in just the same way it defeats physicalism. In fact, it would defeat any ontology that isn’t stipulated a priori as containing ingredients essential to consciousness.

    *SIDE NOTE: The argument is the same for substance dualism, except that ? alone (construed as a class of nonphysical substance) is postulated as necessary and sufficient.

  5. 5. Peter says:

    No, Lloyd, I’m not really talking about internal experience. All I’m really saying is that even hard-line materialists don’t think that a particle-and-forces description of the world (I know that’s a bit of a naive characterisation of the view of modern physics anyway) is exhaustive. There is a sense in which the account of the world given by physics is complete, but it doesn’t tell us about the rules of football, or how money works, or tigers behave; but these are all interesting entities which are capable of rigorous and worthwhile research and discussion at another level.

    As a result, if you’re desperate to label someone a dualist, you can nearly always find some superficial justification somewhere in the world view (Ha! So you believe that people are somehow transmuted into ‘players’ without their physical composition changing in any way, and that they then compete for immaterial entities knowns as ‘goals’ – what kind of materialist are you supposed to be??!?).

    (I don’t mean, btw, to imply that the ontology of football isn’t a meaty subject in itself.)

  6. 6. Alex says:

    Hi Peter, I’m a long time lurker here, I must say congratulations on a fabulous website – you do a wonderful job and it’s much appreciated!

    I don’t know whether I count as a creationist sympathiser, but as a Christian and someone with great interest in science, I think it’s a pity the ID movement have got their hands on this.

    I think a lot of people quietly think ‘materialism’ is on the way out in the sense that it’s retreated from the more trenchant claims to universal dominance over all questions which I can certainly remember being advanced in many quarters of academia and public life when I was at school, and which lives on in the sort of polemic which folk like Prof Dawkins bring out each year for the Christmas book trade (I very much respect him as a biologist, just not as a commentator on religion). You mention that ‘even hard-line materialists don’t think that a particle-and-forces description of the world … is exhaustive’ but I suppose I actually disagree with that, there do seem to be a great many public and academic thinkers who would characterise their view in exactly that way, and that view filters into many other discussions in other fields.

    I think that a confluence of things is making people ask questions about ‘materialism’ as it has been proposed at various points. I think that the ID crowd ask these questions very badly and for the most flagrantly biased ends, but there are subtler and more interesting voices, such as that of the philosopher John Leslie, and many ‘scientific’ theologians, who look at it in a far more enlightened way, as a broadening of perspective about the levels of explanation possible in the universe.

    I think it’s legitimate to view consciousness, cosmic fine-tuning, and certain interpretations of quantum physics as being ‘cracks’ in what ‘materialism’ has meant, certainly to the layman, but also to many scientists and philosophers. The definition of matter itself has been stretched so far that ‘materialism’ in a strict sense is rather unintelligible, outside of the axioms of physics which themselves lead either to the multiverse or to ‘design’ of some sort, both of which are essentially non-answers.

    Sorry for rambling! Cheers!


  7. 7. Peter says:

    Thanks, Alex – not rambling at all!

    You might sympathise with what David Chalmers has to say about all this (I’m very grateful for his kind mention, incidentally): I think he probably speaks for a lot of people in seeing some deficiencies in the materialist account so far as consciousness is concerned while not wanting this to go the way of ID and creationism.

    It is my impression that a majority of opinion now acknowledges that what you might call ‘steampunk materialism’ (along with GOFAI views of consciousness) needs some extension or development, although I think most would look towards an improved materialism rather than something more radical. You’re right that the degree of enthusiasm varies. (But I do believe that even Richard Dawkins would acknowledge the validity of different levels of explanation.) For me the really fundamental issue is not materialism or monism so much as naturalism.

    I hope I didn’t come across too Dawkinsian above, incidentally: I really would be interested in a serious Theory of Creation so long as it came up to the standards of reasoning required in science and philosophy, and it might well be that a Christian theory of spiritual causation would have something useful to say, just as St Augustine on predestination is still worth reading in connection with free will. Causation, in my view anyway, has remained one of the big mysteries ever since Hume. (Whoops! Another big hole in materialism for creationists to latch on to…)

  8. 8. Kar says:

    Peter, very glad to see my favorite topic came up again.
    Just to get this off my chest as quickly as possible: The hard problem is still the hard problem whether consciousness arise from some “natural” process or was created by a supernatural being. The pseudo solution by invoking a God as the ultimate cause is just that we introduce a brick wall beyond which we claim it is unknowable. That is what I don’t like about ID.

    However, some form of dualism, if you have to label it that way, is perhaps within my intellectual grasp. The heart of the problem that lead some people to explore the possible dualistic nature of consciousness is of course the hard problem. To follow David Chalmers’ argument, it is very hard to imagine (not for the lack of imagination, contrary to what the Churhlands proclaimed) a linkage between the existence of the self and some particles arranged in a special fashion with some interacting forces among them.

    Let me give it another angle of attack here. Most first year gradual students in physics learn quickly that if you want to simplify some Feynman diagram calculation, you need to set the Plank’s constant to 1, speed of light to 1, and so on and so forth, and use the so-called natural unit, in eV, as opposed to the metric system, the SI units. One may look at it as a trick to simplify calculation without carrying those cumbersome proportionality constants which often carry many many zeros after the decimal point. However, it is not that simple. Once you set Plank’s constant and the speed of light to 1, the entire physical universe reduces to only one kind of unit: The unit of length. Any physical quantity in this universe can in fact be measured in units of length, and nothing else. Mass carries the unit of 1/length, so does energy. Time is length, because the speed of light is just a ratio between two lengths (time and space) and so it carries no unit, just a pure number, and is 1. Force has the unit of 1/length. Temperature has the unit of 1/length. Entropy, like information, is a dimensionless quantity. Electric charge is a pure number without dimension (unit) because it is just the fine structure constant, a unitless coupling constant in QED. Any physical quantity we can find, can be measured in the unit of powers of length or the inverse powers of length. The deep implication is, as is not always explicitly pointed out, that this is a universe of length, and nothing else but LENGTH. Anything we can manipulate, it is length. Now, someone really have to make a big leap of faith to claim that a universe of length can come up with something call consciousness. That is the gap that is the cause of the hard problem.

    As huge amount of evidence suggest, there is a 100% correlation between the physical brain and experiences. The Ah ha moment experienced by Mary the color scientist when she first experiences red has to have a corresponding physical change in her brain. If one can introduce the same physical change in her brain by other means (direct injection of chemical, direct electrical pulse to the brain, anything), she will experience the same ah ha experience of seeing red, which she could not have gotten from her study of color science alone. In essence, this nullifies the claim that the experience she has is spiritual, something extra, because it is just a physical change in the brain, not unlike some experience one has when someone is high on drug. However, correlation is not what we are after, explanation is. The hard problem remains: why would some change in some material in this universe cause me to experience something? Why would some change in things that can be measured in units of length cause me to experience something?

    One more point: The hard problem goes away if one takes the third person perspective. Years ago, two friends started talking about the next (21st) century being the dawn of the true study of the brain and consciousness because of the advance in brain scan equipments. One friend said, “Aren’t you going to fall into an “endless-loop” by studying your own consciousness?” The other friend responded, “No no no. You don’t understand. I want to study your brain and its relationship to your consciousness, which will be easy. I don’t want to study my own brain and my own consciousness. Because it will be hard.” Now we call them the easy problems and the hard problem.

    Because of the hard problem, some of us are forced into something beyond pure physicalism, the physicalism in a world of length.

    The kind of dualism I can accept/imagine is the type that is similar (just an analogy, not to be carried too far) to the dualistic relationship between computer software and hardware. The Sims family may be very aware of their “physical” properties, such as the “size” of their “house”, how high they can jump, when they are supposed to go to school, etc, in the Sim world, all set forth by the rules in the software (their laws of physics). But they can hardly perceive the existence of the CPU, on which their very own existence depends. If we are the Sims, can we really imagine something outside of our “physical” realm, which is the software world, the world defined by the laws set in the software, the so-called laws of “physics”, and realize that there is something else (the CPU) that is so fundamental to our existence, and perhaps, be responsible for our experience as well? This is the question I am struggling with.

    Didn’t I just give some ammunition to the creationists. I can hear them asking: Who wrote the program?

  9. 9. Peter says:

    Thanks, Kar – interesting comment. Just to pick up on that last analogy, I hope it’s not like that, because however clever the Sims family is, they’re never going to be able to work out the real ground of their existence. If they’re very clever, they might work out the underlying algorithm of their world, but they’ll never be able to tell that they’re running on a PC (or a Mac), still less anything about the world their host computer is in. That’s a bit depressing – but maybe that is carrying it too far.

  10. 10. Gorm says:

    I just posted an entry on my own blog where I try to address the problem of different levels of explanation from a virtualist perspective. It was originally intended as a comment here, but it got to be too long and too off-topic for that.

    Btw, “steampunk materialism”, what a wonderful term! I can’t wait until I find an occasion to use it!

  11. 11. Mike says:

    Steven Novella recently commented on this on his blog, and came to the conclusion that you almost come to, which is that creationists are not interested in offering theories and alternatives, but getting rid of the scientific method and rational discourse entirely.


  12. 12. Jonathan says:

    Thank you for this interesting post. I completely agree with Alex, I’m afraid this is a bad development. The meaning of physicalism has been stretched very far to allow it to account for consciousness. This has lead to different types of legitimate critique of neomaterialism/physicalism in the past years. I suspect that this critique might come under fire because it’s going to be associated with creationism.

  13. 13. Eric Thomson says:

    One important difference is that in schools we don’t teach that consciousness is just a physical process. So it isn’t clear who they are fighting. Most neuroscientsts are pretty careful to discuss the neuronal ‘correlates’ of consciousness or some such.

    So this seems to be a standard objection to materialism: the consciousness problem. What else should we expect?

  14. 14. bipolar2 says:

    ** So, you want a unified science of “mind”, free of religion? **

    • a shamanistic flight ends in “soma sema”

    “Help! I’m trapped inside. In here! Can’t you hear me screaming? Left alone, open only to the eternal Judge and Executioner. Singing out of tune am I? Well, considering that Pre-established Harmony is Your problem. . . God . . .” — Tedious interminable blather.

    According to the great classicist E. R. Dodds, the archaic Greeks, the last of whom were Sophocles and Thucydides, the archaic Greeks weren’t burdened with the “sin” of dualism.

    Blame it on other ancestors. In the dreamtime the very first shaman turned herself into a gander surveying herds of Irish Elk. Descent through Pythagoras via Plato via Plotinus, then Augustine, and sluggishly through the guts of xianity, brings one eventually to this very blog.

    • when is a theory really dead? (for that reason Democritus laughs)

    What about the line of descent through Xenophanes and Democritus? Haven’t you found Epicurus’ soul atoms yet? Round, smooth, distributed throughout the body, moving as “quick as thought.” Or, an easier problem where is the atom of heat which makes up that seemingly weightless fluid called caloric? (What’s wrong with these physicalisms?)

    Is Higgs’ Boson a Boojum? Something omnipresent yet conspicuously absent. Something of a Snark to be sought with “pitchforks and Hope.” Something which *must* be because Higgs demonstrated that it must. If this sounds a little like the ontological argument for God, don’t be surprised. (Why spend €6.4 billion on the Hunting of the Snark?)

    • look for a scientific, but soulless psychology, which is not a physicalism

    I only “see red” when I’m angry. Otherwise, I see red things. In just the same way I see the sun rise, red over the horizon. No substitute drawn from scientific explanation needs to replace these everyday locutions in an everyday context.

    Mind/body and mental/physical are aftereffects of the dead God. Two sides of the very same counterfeit bill.

    There doesn’t yet exist a “psychology” — a unified language anchored in theory which treats ‘mind’ as an everyday metaphor. A soulless psychology will not be about bodies or behaviors. ‘Body’ and ‘behavior’ too are metaphorical notions and parasitical concepts.

    The irreducible locus of investigation must be culture — a vital, shared, abstract and material reality which only we humans are able to inhabit. Persons, language, and culture arose simultaneously. And, though supernaturalism still runs rife among the world’s cultures, popularity of belief is no criterion of truth. (That’s the significance of Tarski’s semantic theory of truth [‘p’ is true in language L p].)

    Explanations drawn from neuroscience, genetics, and evolutionary biology cannot be expected to provide a full account of culture. They were not designed to do so. They will not do so. There are no “minds” in everyday reality (nature) outside of culture.

    Science itself is derivative, a cultural artifact. This says nothing about the status of scientific knowledge. Of course, there is scientific knowledge. There is also progress in science. But, those are other issues.

    bipolar2 ©2008

  15. 15. Martin Woodhouse says:


    Something tells me I shall find myself contributing regularly to this splendid site, and I shall be doing so as a dualist and, in fact, a theist, which is the position I have reached after studying this matter for some fifty years now. This is not of course any kind of wisdom-born-of-age claim, but see


    I believe in the existence of a soul because I want to. It’s as well to get this out of the way right at the start, because repeated observation has shown me that, there being no sufficient proof, nor even balance-of-argument on either side of the “Dawkins-materialism vs Almighty-God” argument, the position taken by even the most intelligently disinterested person usually comes down to what that person happens, quite without proof or compelling evidence, to believe is the case.

    People are, in other words, natural believers or natural sceptics. I am the former because, put simply, I’m fairly close to the end of my physical life here on this planet and would like to think I am going on to Somewhere Else, as one goes from school to university. On the other hand, having been a scientist all my life, I cannot bring myself to ‘believe’ what cannot rationally be justified; and I have concluded that dualism and materialism are equally balanced in this respect. As ultimate explanations of The Way Things Are, both are in my view plausible, coherent and (naturally) incomplete.

    For now, the oar I wish to stick in is this. The ‘hard’ problem — how in the world can the physical interactions, the pure banging-around of collections of molecules arranged as a neural network give rise to the sensation of ‘red’? — is, and must inevitably always be, insoluble in scientific terms.

    This is not because of any intellectual or technical shortcomings in science; it is because no matter how sophisticated the means we may in the future devise for correlating brain activity with conscious experience, the only way we an determine the right-hand half of this experiment is by asking the subject what experience he or she is having. We will never know whether a field-mouse is conscious because we cannot ask it whether it is or not, and we have no other means of knowing — and whatever ‘conciousness-meter’ we may possibly invent or even conceive of will need, of course, to be calibrated against what it’s measuring, which will in turn require . . .

    Hence my view that consciousness is inaccessible by he scientific method. Which leaves the (red) ball squarely in philosophy’s half of the court.


  16. 16. Peter says:

    Thanks, Martin. As a dualist theist you may provide some useful balance (though I hope and believe we do have all shades of opinion dropping in here).

    The view that consciousness is inaccessible by the scientific method sounds a bit like Colin McGinn’s view that we can never understand the relationship between mind and matter because of ‘cognitive closure’.

    Personally, I’m inclined to agree that qualia are outside the realm of science – but I’m more inclined to say so much the worse for them!

  17. 17. Stephen Rizzo says:

    If physical properties are intrinsically experiential/phenomenal, no additional stuff needs to be posited. The laws of physics would simply be implemented by experiential stuff. Explaning consciousness becomes describing how a physical/experiential unity’s properties are shaped into an experience of what it is like to be that organism within its brain. This approach seems to allow experiences to be real, consequential, unified, and completely natural.

  18. 18. Kladiti says:

    We are born wet, naked, and hungry. Then things get worse.

  19. 19. Dexter says:

    This site really has all the information and facts I wanted
    concerning this subject and didn’t know who to ask.

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