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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