Materialism and Dualism: What is the Relationship Between Mind and Matter?
Are the mind and the body separate or is the mind simply what the brain does? This is the crux of the materialism-dualism issue. I argue that the answer is one of monism, but not as described by materialism.
There are a number of materialist positions, but to my understanding, what binds them is that the universe is fundamentally comprised of matter, there is no special realm of the mental. The most common materialist position, to my understanding, is that the mind is what the brain does. (Side note: I am saying “to my understanding” a lot because I haven’t been in a John Vervaeke Cognitive Science class in a while, so to CogSci readers out there, feel free to verify or refine my statements!). There is a lot of evidence for this position. Cognitive scientists and neurologists have produced mountains of evidence that changes in the structure or functioning of the brain–by brain injury, drugs, brain stimulation, and so on–produce changes in phenomenological experiences and cognitive functioning. As a corrolary, changes in the mind (e.g., via meditation) produces both temporary and lasting changes in brain structure and functioning. An argument against dualism is that if the mind is fully distinct from the material, then one should not be able to affect the other. How can a thought–a completely unphysical component of the mental realm–move a material physical arm to pick up a carrot? Mind affects matters and matter affects mind. If the two are on completely different planes of existence, how are they interacting with each other?
Just as materialism poses difficult problems for dualism, dualism swiftly returns the favour. The main dualist rebuttal, to my knowledge, is a very intuitive and compelling one which relies on our plain everyday experience. It boils down to this: the mental and the physical are qualitatively distinct. There is something qualitatively different about a thought and a brick. This sentiment is reflected in folklore such as “sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never hurt me”. Bringing the rebuttal into cognitive neuroscience, people such as philosopher of mind, David Chalmers, have pointed out that even if we were to map out the full brain state of, say, anger, there would be something qualitatively distinct between the physical brain state and being mad. The two may be in one-to-one correspondence—sharing token identity, in philosophy lingo—but they are fundamentally distinct.
So how do we reconcile these positions into a coherent position that acknowledges the strengths of each position and addresses the weaknesses. The way that I have gone about this is by first acknowledging a few premises. Firstly, mind affects matter and matter affects mind. Secondly, as the dualists point out, the two definitely seem to be of qualitatively distinct types. Thirdly—and this is where we start adding onto what we’ve already discussed—humans do not have anything like an objective perception or comprehension of our worlds. We cannot perceive everything (e.g., extremely high-pitched sounds), we perceive categorically (e.g., we see red and orange in a categorical A & B sense, rather than seeing a continuous range of pigment along the colour spectrum), and who knows how the world “really looks”, as if from the eyes of an objective perceiver. Given our unobjective categorical perception of the world, just our minds create artificial sharp discontinuities along the continuous colour spectrum, perhaps our minds also create an artificial distinction between what we call mental and what we call physical. Our only access to what we consider mental (e.g., thoughts, feelings, perceptions) and what we consider physical (e.g., sticks and stones) is mental. Perhaps in objective reality, assuming such a thing exists and that I’m not typing on an imaginary computer to imaginary readers, what we categorize as mental and physical, respectively, exists on a common plain of existence. We may artificially splice this single monistic plain into separate distinct sub-realms, must as we sharply distinguish red from orange, but such a splicing may not reflect the objective.
This way of viewing the issue is one of true monism. It is similar to the materialist position in that it puts the mental and the physical on the same plain of existence, but it differs on how it describes that plain of existence. If our minds create artificial discontinuities between continuities such as colour, phonetic perception (i.e., perception of linguistic sounds such as the /b/ in /brick/), and so on, it is conceivable that we do the same when it comes to mind and matter. Given that the two interact, they must meet on some common plain. Perhaps they share some common core elements. Perhaps the atoms of the universe. The atoms of existence.