A Materialist Philosopher Defends Dualism

I recently stumbled across a paper by a highly-respected philosopher named William Lycan. This article is quite remarkable, in at least three ways.

1. It defends Descartes’ supposedly-discredited theory of substance dualism, updating René’s ideas while retaining his basic claim that mind and matter are two radically different sorts of stuff.

2. The author of the paper does not think dualism is true. In fact he thinks that physical reality is all there is – no souls, no spiritual kingdoms, no immaterial deities. But he has also concluded that the case against dualism is fairly weak:

“Cartesian immaterial-substance dualism has few, if any, defenders. This paper argues that no convincing case has been made against substance dualism, and that standard objections to it can be credibly answered.”

3. Lycan wrote this paper after engaging in a systematic process of role-reversal, imagining himself as a dualist, to see what sort of case he could make. He candidly comments:

“I have no sympathy with any dualist view, and never will. This paper is only an uncharacteristic exercise in intellectual honesty. It grew out of a seminar in which for methodological purposes I played the role of a committed dualist as energetically I could. That was a strange feeling, something like being a cat burglar for a few months.”

In Bridging the God Gap I suggest that friends who disagree about religion try a role reversal, but it’s amazing to find someone who has actually done this. So many people find it frightening to take someone else’s lifestance seriously. This is one of the ways in which we drastically, and unnecessarily, limit ourselves.

Lycan also provides support for a bottom-line agnosticism about the big questions of life. We all need to form opinions about the nature of reality, but we do not need to assume that we’re right. He comments on “a general tendency in philosophy: When working in one area, we feel free to presuppose positions in other areas that are (at best) highly controversial among practitioners in those areas. To take a limiting example, philosophers nearly everywhere outside epistemology presuppose that we have some knowledge of the external world. If we do have it – as I too presume we do – epistemology has delivered not one tenable account of how that can be so.”

Well, now, if we haven’t established that we can know anything about the external world, agnosticism about other matters follows rather easily, doesn’t it?

One more candid comment:

“Since question-begging is such an elementary and easily identifiable fallacy, why do we seasoned professionals commit it as often as we do? (I am no exception.) I believe the answer is a more general fact: that we accept deductive arguments mainly when we already believe their conclusions.”

Lycan’s paper, “Giving Dualism its Due,” was published in the Australasian Journal of Philosophy in 2009. You can read it at:


Roger Christan Schriner

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4 thoughts on “A Materialist Philosopher Defends Dualism

  1. A few bullet-point responses below, which a few minutes’ research show run along the lines of other responses to the paper. The point I’d really address: Lycan *does not quite* “defend dualism”. Really what he’s doing is working through various objections to dualism, and then lining them up again arguments for materialism (there are, strangely, only a few), in order to argue that “on points, and going just by actual arguments as opposed to appeals to decency and what good guys believe, materialism is not significantly better supported than dualism.”

    It is hard to reconcile the title of your post, “A Materialist Philosopher Defends Dualism,” with the conclusion of the paper: “I am inclined to believe, the charge of implausibility is not irrational… and I would not want this paper to turn anyone dualist.”

    In his analysis of dualism and materialism, all are punished. But at the end, Lycan is candid about not being persuaded that dualism is plausible. That said, the point YOU make in the post — that it is a useful, sympathy-increasing exercise, to imagine ourselves into the epistemic position of a different lifestance, is persuasive on its own merits. You just needn’t go to (relatively abstruse) academic philosophy to make it more so.

    1. Lycan writes, “The parsimony argument does not even come in the door until it is agreed that we can find nothing to distinguish mental states from neurophysiological ones.” Ah, but then it does come in the door, and once in the door, it seems good evidence for a *theory preference* in favor of materialism. (As the author allows for in his discussion of Papineau’s argument for materialism.) The author cites Newton’s own principle of parsimony; I cannot see why it is not useful when applied to the author’s own reasoning.

    2. Lycan makes a strange exception to Armstrong’s causal criterion, indicating the existence of numbers and sets as real entities whose causal powers are unidentified. This exception is itself controversial, and shouldn’t be held up as a point against Armstrong (who, we have reason to believe, was using real in an ontologically different sense).

    3. Lycan poo-poohs Ryle, whose objection to dualism is that Descartes “got the epistemology radically wrong”, saying that we “very easily” have knowledge of “what is going on in someone else’s mind.” I’d aver that there are significant linguistic and evidentiary barriers that have yet to be overcome before this kind of knowledge can be asserted. To give a token sample of the kind of barrier I mean: When I tell you “what’s on my mind”, I may be accurately reporting (a portion of) the verbal component of my state of mind, but this can hardly be said to be representative of the fuller state of mind. “What’s on my mind” cannot be collapsed to “what I say is on my mind.”

    4. Lycan’s characterization of the relationship between physical stimuli and mental experience is underinformed, and amounts to a misrepresentation. Obviously it is not the information content of “patterned retinal hits” that alone determine the visual experiences that result, but the functional activity of triggered neural responses that do so. Notwithstanding the problems with comparing the mind to a computer, here is an analogy: It is not the keystrokes that determine the figures on the screen, but the functional nature of the software that acts *in response to* the keystrokes.

    5. Lycan is right to draw a boundary between neuroscience and materialism per se, but then he immediately identifies the explanatory linkage between the two that reunites them in a single explanatory chain: materialism explains why neurological facts are highly relevant to mental facts. It is just this linkage that is absent in immaterialist accounts of the mind-body relationship.

    • Dear Zachary,

      Thank you for making such detailed comments about this “abstruse” paper. I agree with much of what you’ve said, and I’ll sketch points of possible disagreement:

      Re: “It is hard to reconcile the title of your post … with the conclusion of the paper” – perhaps you and I have different definitions of “defend.” It seems to me that Lycan’s comments on dualism can be quite fairly categorized as a defense. If I had titled my post, “A Materialist Philosopher Converts to Dualism” or “A Formerly Materialist Philosopher Defends Dualism” that would have been inaccurate. Calling Lycan a materialist logically entails that he has not at this point been persuaded by dualist arguments.

      You commented that it is useful “to imagine ourselves into the epistemic position of a different lifestance,” and noted that I need not “go to (relatively abstruse) academic philosophy to make it more so.” Actually I was not mainly offering Lycan’s paper as evidence that the belief-reversal exercise is a good thing. I was offering it as an example of this unusual approach, and expressing amazement and admiration that he pulled off this exercise so well.

      Re item 1: Are you saying Lycan states that “we can find nothing to distinguish mental states from neurophysiological ones”? I read him as saying that, prima facie, they seem quite sharply distinguishable. But I actually disagree with Lycan here. I think we can bring in parsimony quite a bit earlier in the process than he suggests.

      Re 2: I am not mathematically informed enough to have an opinion about this point.

      Re 3: I agree with your analysis, but I don’t think it pertains to Lycan’s dismissive comments about Ryle. If I’m reading correctly, Ryle is the one who says we can easily know what’s going on in someone else’s mind, at least part of the time. Ryle’s point is that we know our own minds in much the same way that we know the contents of other minds, behavioristically. Very few agree with this Rylean idea today, though Dennett is sometimes sympathetic to it.

      Re 4: Again, you are quite right, and Lycan would agree that “the functional activity of triggered neural responses” are important in determining visual experiences. He is not trying to say that dualists explain the relation between brain facts and mental facts better than materialists – just that they can explain this relation in their own terms.

      Re 5: You state that “materialism explains why neurological facts are highly relevant to mental facts. It is just this linkage that is absent in immaterialist accounts of the mind-body relationship.” Yes, and Lycan says this counts in favor of materialism – but he also says dualism can concoct an explanation of the same data, perhaps involving “prodigious transducing.”

      Thanks again for these detailed, serious comments.

      Roger C. Schriner

  2. “Yes, and Lycan says this counts in favor of materialism – but he also says dualism can concoct an explanation of the same data, perhaps involving ‘prodigious transducing.'”

    True enough. Though, were I to encounter such an explanation (the dualist’s, not Lycan’s) given directly, I’d be prompted to demand of the claimant how it is more than ad hoc hand-waving. The dualist, naturally enough, might not agree that such an explanation IS ad hoc — but isn’t that because the dualist is prejudiced (the term is not pejorative here) by holding epistemic commitments that provide tacit, if hitherto unexamined, support for such an explanation?

    Which is a fact that gets to an important point about imaging oneself into the lifestance of another: It’s hard to do so wholly. One of the signal features of a belief one is convinced of, is the way it integrates with other beliefs so held. It is no straightforward thing to lift any one (or even several) of those beliefs, out of the epistemic environment of the believer’s outlook, and try to fit it into the complex of beliefs comprising another individual’s outlook — especially when the source mind and the target mind are committed to such widely different paradigms as materialism and dualism…. or, relevant to the larger themes you’re considering in this blog series, materialism and spiritualism, or atheism and theism.

    This difficulty of walking a mile in someone else’s epistemic shoes isn’t for me a reason NOT to attempt such work; but such work can be undertaken responsibly only when that difficulty is acknowledged. When it is not acknowledged, it is all too likely that the difficulty of integrating your belief into my outlook will look to me like a reason for dismissing your belief as nonsense.

    Perhaps religious traditions are a place to look for tools well-fitted to this task of trying out for size ideas that one thinks are unfounded; cf. theological approaches to “ineffability”; cf. The Cloud of Unknowing; cf. Zen/Chan Buddhism’s exercises in incongruity. (My position is that one can benefit from such traditions without subscribing to any kind of immaterialism, through the use of the kind of earnest irony Tolkein referred to as “secondary belief.”)

    Pardon the disarray of the above comment, which I realize now that I’ve come to the end of it; I typed it on the commuter train, long before the earliest time in the morning I should be thinking about such things.

    • Thanks for sharing some fine insights, especially about the difficulty of “imaging oneself into the lifestance of another”. I will add this to my lectures and workshops on theist-atheist communication. Although in a way it’s obvious, it does deserve special emphasis. One of the benefits of the lifestance-reversal experience should be a deeper realization of how very difficult – essentially impossible – it is to truly walk a mile in another person’s shoes. A worthy, though ultimately impossible, goal.

      You mentioned an idea of Tolkien’s. Does this quote from Corey Olsen sum it up well?

      A good story draws us imaginatively out of the Primary World, the “real” world that surrounds us, and into its own Secondary world, enabling us to invest in it. Tolkien calls this investment “secondary belief.” – http://www.festivalintheshire.com/journal5hts/5tolkienprofessor.html

      You mentioned that dualist’sexplanation of mind-body relationships amount to “ad hoc hand-waving” and I agree. That’s one reason I’m not a dualist.

      Although I admire Lycan’s attempt to be ruthlessly objective about dualism and materialism, I do disagree with some of his comments. At times he sets an unreasonably high standard for what counts as evidence, and in fact he says that philosophers “have not got any evidence.” Bill has a marvelous intellect, but I question such extreme skepticism.

      Roger Christan Schriner

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