Re: NATURAL-BORN DUALISTS: A Talk with Paul Bloom

Responses by Jesse Bering, Marvin Minsky, Jaron Lanier, Paul Harris, Pascal Boyer, Paul Bloom replies; Mark Mirsky

Jesse Bering

Touché to Bloom, who, in the face of centuries of systematically addled philosophical and religious rhetoric on materialism, dualism and, God forbid, that variant of dualism, occasionalism (which provides for an interactionist proviso of divine inspiration of will), has begun to breathe new life into these old intellectual headaches by putting infants' and children's souls, or at least their conceptions of souls, under the experimental knife. This is precisely where they've belonged all along; and shame on the rest of us developmental psychologists for not having the gumption to do it much sooner. Social psychologists, like Wegner, though not deliberately couching such work in pseudo-religious terms until recently, started looking at these sorts of empirical questions decades ago.

The implications of common-sense dualism aren't necessarily pleasant ones, but they're critically important. I say they're not pleasant not because the data are beginning to reveal a series of ineluctable disproofs of true souls, the absence of which can never really be established but which most of us simply take as self-evident, but rather it's just sad to know that even infancy isn't completely characterized by a zombie-like insouciance, which would be nice to experience at some point in our lives – at least, while sober. (When Sartre said that Hell was other people, he wasn't referring to their bodies).

Yet I'm suddenly struck, and troubled by, the image of Bloom in his admirable search for the illusion, delicately carving up the intentionality system – where he suspects the image of the soul to be housed – with the steady hands of a surgeon (much unlike Descartes' clumsily scratching at his pineal gland). I'm troubled because upon serving up to us these veridical truths, which I believe them to be, on a cold, sterilized surgical tray, that large contingent of lay theologians and fools (take your pick) who we all know so well as our family and friends, if they really understood what Bloom was getting at, would be quick to knock it away while casting reductionist aspersions on it.

Then again, perhaps this isn't much of a problem at all because, as he well knows based on the pessimistic tone of his interview, Bloom's endeavor to map the cognitive anatomy of dualism is forever doomed to be obscured by the illusion itself, fated to remain in the elitist provenance of cognitive scientists. These people (present company included) are often as prepared to handle the humanistic applications of common-sense dualism as a bunch of blind men on a battlefield are prepared to fight war. I've found myself befuddled by precisely such applications, when, fresh from graduate school and presenting my findings on the cognitive bases of afterlife beliefs to a religious audience (we all make mistakes early in our careers), a doubtful priest asked what he was to tell his parishioners; that their beliefs in literal immortality were fantastical byproducts of their inability to simulate their own nonexistence? My clever response was an involuntary shrugging of my shoulders. (By the way, if you're an extinctivist, or otherwise doubt that cognitive biases are behind 'mature' afterlife beliefs, consider the difficult-to-wrap-your-head-around fact that you will never know that you've died.)

But this put me to thinking that, indeed, there really is something intrinsically unsatisfying about the reality of materialism, and so it is up to us researchers who've started getting our hands dirty with the abstract guts of the soul to know what to do once we've killed it altogether. It's nice to know that someone like Bloom's got his hands in the mechanics of this illusion with me, fishing around, and so now the real question becomes, once the empirical evidence for common-sense dualism (or intuitive, folk, or naïve dualism, if you prefer) stacks up beyond the Brights' mere beautiful soliloquies, and the good skeptics have each been run off by the developmental data, what then?

Marvin Minsky

Regretfully, I'll violate this usually sound principle:

"Don't pay any attention to the critics. Don't even ignore them!" — Sam Goldwyn

Except for just this one remark: Almost everything Bloom says seems sound, except that everyone should be repelled by the ancient (and probably innate) tendency of both infants and adult psychologists to see the world in dumbbell terms. I will be more tempted to read the rest of his stuff when and if he reaches the stage of tri-viding things into three or more realms.

Jaron Lanier

This would all be so much easier if one set of beliefs had clearly demonstrated itself to lead to better human behavior at large scales. Religion has brought us the inquisition, the Buddhist sarin gas cult, al Qaeda, the Peoples' Temple cult, and so on, but reaction against religion has brought us Stalin and the Cultural Revolution. In terms of numbers, I think atheists/materialists probably killed more people than religious fanatics in the last hundred years, though it seems as though they might have a hard time keeping up in the coming years.

This grimmest of competitions must be assessed if one metaphysics is to be promoted over another. Is there any pragmatic angle on the dualism debates?

Maybe. Is it possible that modern religiosity is defined in part by "Science Panic?"

While it's true that biology and information science are on the verge of closing in on results that cut very close to the most intimate human experiences, it's also true that the popular press tends to overstate progress, and there are multitudes of people awaiting the day when a professor from the Ivory Tower or worse, a corporation that has licensed his ideas, will be able to redesign the genetically-influenced beliefs and desires of children or realize other science fiction terrors. Is it possible that dread of this imminent attack on human identity can help explain the simultaneous worldwide emergence of religious extremist movements? While religious fanaticism has never been absent from human affairs, something unusual seems to be going on now. Religious extremists have become unusually powerful in American Christianity, Israeli Judaism, Indian Hinduism, and so on, all at the same time, to say nothing of what is going on in Islam.

Isn't this precisely the moment when scientists ought to learn some tact? Why not try to make friends instead of announcing to the world that we know better? I applaud Paul Bloom for displaying sensitivity to this problem, though I'm afraid I don't see things quite his way.

What sort of program might scientists adopt to decrease the chances of destructive levels of Science Panic?

My thoughts:

Avoid condescension. Perhaps people need to be comforted, but comfort must be offered humbly by an equal, not a know-it-all. We're all in this human condition together.

Be very careful not to over-state. Reformers have to live by higher standards than those they hope to reform. In the dualism debates, it's important to not speak as if something is understood merely because it ought to eventually be understandable. Tone matters. Maybe someday there will be a better understanding of the mental mechanisms of self, and it will turn out that these are so wondrous that scientists are the ones who sound the most enthralled and mystical. Assessing something before the details are known makes it sound duller than it probably is. That has been true of every aspect of the natural world I've learned about and it would surprise me if the self turned out to be any different.

Be honest that philosophy is hard. There isn't just one dualism. There are those who hope to live after death, or who believe in God, and Bloom addresses their beliefs. But there is also the simpler dualism, based on the existence of awareness or experience in itself, which doesn't equate to either God or afterlife. That kind of soul is the only thing that is not reduced if it's an illusion, and I can just report to you I have it. I wrote a funny paper once suggesting that you could only detect the experiential kind of soul in one special case: A professional philosopher will reliably take a position on dualism based on whether she has internal experience or not. There's a danger that a researcher who doesn't happen to have this weird internal experience thing will sound ridiculous when declaring that it's an illusion to someone who does have it.

Pity us poor rational dualists. We have internal experience and yet no beliefs about God or Afterlife. We have more to lose. What I wonder: Are you absolutist non-dualists pretending not to have experience in order to soften the terror of your own deaths?

Paul Harris

Paul Bloom argues that: (i) many adults are dualists—they believe in the separate functioning of the mind/soul and the body; (ii) such dualism has its roots in infant cognition; and (iii) that given this natural predisposition, we will find it difficult to abandon a belief in the soul despite advances in neuroscience.

This is a neat story but I don't believe it. I think the debate is—and should be—between two different forms of dualism: secular dualism and religious dualism. It should not be between thoroughgoing materialism and religious dualism—as implied by Bloom. Secular dualists claim that: mental states are different from, but dependent on, brain states; mental states cease at death given their dependence on the brain; there is no soul—if, by that, is meant a set of psychic processes that survive death. Religious dualists claim that there are some special mental states—those involving the soul—that are ultimately independent of the brain and survive death. Ongoing research, including some of our own, points to the existence of secular dualists as well as religious dualists.

First, we find that most professed non-believers assert that all processes (mental, as well as bodily) terminate at death. By contrast, professed believers claim that only bodily processes cease at death—some kind of spiritual/mental existence continues.

Second, if a belief in the soul had its origins in infancy then a belief in the afterlife should be widespread in childhood. Yet, in our research we find that that many elementary school children insist that all processes, mental as well as bodily, cease at death. These 'discontinuity' judgments are especially frequent if the death is placed in a secular, medical context. It is only when the death is framed in religious terms that they acknowledge that some processes—especially mental processes—survive death.

Third, contrary to Bloom—or at least contrary to Max—most older elementary school children do not assume a disconnection between their identity and their brain. Say we ask them to contemplate a brain transplant with a pig. The pig, we tell them, gets their brain and then the pig is asked: "Are you 8-year-old Max or are you Garby the pig?" Most 8-year-olds assert that the pig will reply: "I'm 8-year-old Max."
In sum, many children and some non-believing adults acknowledge that their thoughts, sense of identity, and mental processes, while not identical to brain processes, are dependent on brain processes, and will cease when they die. They are secular dualists.

So, how does a belief in the soul arise? My guess is that religion—like Bloom—sets up a false opposition: materialism, on the one hand versus religious dualism on the other. Ordinary folk—who have the defensible intuition that mental processes are not identical to brain processes—resist materialism only to fall into the hands of religious dualism. They should stay where they are—and just re-assert their secular dualism. They have nothing to lose but their souls.

Pascal Boyer

Paul Bloom's research does not just show that we are dualists, committed to an immaterial mind or soul that has no simple ties to the physical world, but also that we are, in a deep sense, incurable dualists. However scientifically literate we may become, our intuitions are still firmly rooted in commonsense dualism. This may be unfortunate if you think that people's commitment to what is patently untrue is always a Bad Thing. But in this case I think the alternative is equally unpleasant. Our sense of morality is grounded in the notion of uncaused volition—I want what I want because I want it, and that's that—and therefore in our idea of an immaterial soul. Naturally, you could build a morality based on scientific fact rather than dualist fiction, you could be a moral being and literally think of your thoughts as patterns of neural activation, but... that would be so difficult to maintain, so against the grain of our intuitions, that few if any people could sustain this kind of thought for any time at all.

Paul Bloom's arguments also point to the extraordinary mystery of our ordinary thoughts, to the fact that commonsense thinking is anything but banal. Consider this: because we are dualists, we think we have (or rather we are) an immaterial mind that floats about with no physical implementation. We think of our brains as something we use. Now we also think of our bodies as things that are governed by our thoughts: when I want to raise my hand, lo and behold, it does rise. How is that possible? How could our thoughts have an influence on meat and bone stuff? The interesting thing about that is not the question itself (it is entirely created by dualism and once you abandon dualism it vanishes) but the fact that no-one is bothered by the question. That is, there is a wide gap in our commonsense world-view, and unless we are born or made philosophers, we just don't care .

Another fascinating consequence of Bloom's research is that it explains more clearly why we have religion the way we do. There is one (misguided) view of religion that is, unfortunately, widespread among intelligent people and especially scientists. I call it the "sleep of reason" interpretation. According to this view, people have religious beliefs because they fail to reason properly. If only they grounded their reasoning in sound logic or rational order, they would not have supernatural beliefs, including superstitions and religion. I think this view is misguided, for several reasons; because it assumes a dramatic difference between religious and commonsense ordinary thinking, where there isn't one; because it suggests that belief is a matter of deliberate weighing of evidence, which is generally not the case; because it implies that religious concepts could be eliminated by mere argument, which is implausible; most importantly, because it fails to explain why religion is the way it is. Religion is not a smorgasbord of irrefutable beliefs. It generally boils down to two kinds of notions, either of immaterial spirits or gods, or of artifacts with intentional powers. In both cases religion is grounded in the powerful dualism that is part of our commonsense world view, as described by Paul Bloom.

Paul Bloom

I appreciate the remarks on my interview by Jesse Bering, Pascal Boyer, Paul Harris, Jaron Lanier, and Marvin Minsky. The main issue that energized commentators was the relationship between common-sense dualism, religion, and science, so I will focus most of my response on this issue.*

As Jaron Lanier points out, there are dualists and there are dualists. The dualism that I discuss is that the soul—which houses memories, desires, and consciousness—is immaterial; it is distinct from the body. This is the view articulated by Rene Descartes, but it is also expressed by Plato, Aquinas, and Augustine, as well as by many others.

And it is mistaken. As Pascal Boyer puts it, dualist fiction clashes with scientific fact. Lanier uses the phrase "the dualism debates", but while there is no consensus as to precisely how mental life emerges from a physical brain—different variants of physicalism and functionalism duke it out—the physical basis of experience is not a matter of debate, at least not within contemporary science and philosophy.

Lanier insists that he is himself a dualist, but he is using the term in an unusual way, to just mean that he has internal experiences. I would have thought that everyone has experiences (I certainly do!), but, in any case, this is not the sort of dualism I'm interested in. I have a similar reaction to Paul Harris' "secular dualism", the view that mental states are different from, but entirely dependent on, brain states. Whether or not this sort of property dualism is scientifically tenable depends on precisely what one means by "different from", but, in any case, my claim is that people are dualists in a much stronger sense. We are Cartesians; we think of body and soul as genuinely different substances.

Religion is not logically dependent on this sort of body-soul split. In fact, some religious frameworks explicitly disavow dualism, proposing, for instance, that afterlife involves the resurrection of the body, including the brain. Conversely, you can be a dualist without being religious. A common-sense dualist might not believe in God, miracles, heaven, karma, prayer, or anything else we typically associate with religion. A common-sense dualist might not even believe in an afterlife. Young children are dualists, but start off with no understanding of death, and hence no notion of life after death.

On the other hand, once we do learn about death, it is our common-sense dualism that makes it possible to believe in an afterlife—to believe that our souls (our selves) can end up in another body, or in paradise, or hell. This is the sense in which Harris' term "religious dualism" is apt—certain core religious beliefs are rooted in our Cartesian intuitions. This perspective on the relationship between dualism and religion is very much in sympathy with the general theory of religion outlined in Pascal Boyer's comments (which is not surprising, given how much I was influenced by his work on the topic.)

Harris is not convinced that people really are natural-born Cartesian dualists. Consider, however, that beliefs in immaterial beings and life-after-death shows up in every human culture. Even in modern communities, most people believe in God and believe in souls. Harris' explanation here is that belief in the soul is a consequence of religion. But this raises the obvious question: Why is it that humans are predisposed to construct religions that endorse dualism?

Actually I think a belief in souls often exists despite religion. David Myers pointed out to me that most mainstream Protestant theologians reject the idea of an immaterial soul, but he observes that the "people in congregational pews" have a very different view; they are dualists. In his book, The Problem of the Soul, Owen Flanagan gives an example from Catholicism: In 1999, Pope John Paul II stated that heaven and hell were not places where souls reside, but rather states of life involving being in relation with God or out of relation with him. The response by many devout Catholics was not submission to Papal infallibility—it was to wonder if the aged pope was losing his mind.

But what about the 10% of Americans who deny the existence of heaven, or the 3% who do not believe in a (immaterial) God? I would argue that even those who explicitly deny the existence of souls accept them at a deeper level. It underlies certain intuitions that we have about causality, morality, and personal identity.

As an illustration, consider our intuitions about brain-transplants. Harris is certainly right that adults and older children (though perhaps not younger ones) recognize that the self goes with the brain. If not, then movies such as Steve Martin's The Man With Two Brains, as well as many cheesy science-fiction flicks, would be incomprehensible. So yes, I recognize that if you scoop out my brain and put it in the body of a pig, then I would be that pig. Does this mean that we are actually not Cartesians, that we believe that mental processes are dependent on brain processes?

Hardly. After all, presumably Descartes himself would have this same intuition. This is not because he believed the self is the brain; it is because he believed that the self occupies the brain. When people say that the brain is the "seat of the soul", they mean this in quite literal way: the brain is where the soul sits. Because of this, the soul follows the brain, just like I would follow if you moved the chair upon which I am sitting.

In support of this analysis, note that children distinguish between what their brain does and what they do. In my interview, I gave an example from my son Max, but the general conclusion is backed by systematic research (by John Flavell, Angeline Lillard, and others). The brain is not responsible for all of mental life. You use your brain to solve math problems, for instance, but it is you that falls in love.

This understanding might not be so different from that of many adults. As I mentioned in the interview, people are often surprised to discover that certain parts of brain are shown to be active—they "light up"— in a brain scanner when subjects think about religion, sex, or race. This surprise reveals the tacit assumption that the brain is involved in some aspects of mental life but not others. Even experts, when describing such results, slip into dualistic language: "I think about sex and this activates such-as-so part of my brain"—as if there are two separate things going on, first the thought and then the brain activity.

This dichotomy was nicely expressed by the comedian Emo Phillips when he said: "I used to think the brain was the most fascinating part of the human body, but then I thought: 'Look what's telling me that!'."

Also if we really did think that mental life is the product of brain processes, then it would be incomprehensible that the soul could leave the brain. But in fact, even young children can understand stories in which someone leaves his body in a dream, or where a frog becomes a prince, or an evil villain takes control of a superhero's body. And they readily accept stories in which grandma dies but her soul ascends to heaven. The soul can leave its seat.


Lanier worries about the proper way to convey the insights of psychology and neuroscience, and he makes the provocative suggestion that the recent surge of religious extremism around the world is a response to the irresponsible presentation of recent developments in biology and information science, leading to the fear that science is going to destroy our most cherished values—a form of Science Panic.

I am skeptical. Even assuming that there are more religious fanatics now than there were twenty or forty years ago—and I have my doubts; religious fanaticism is like crime in the streets or disrespect by teenagers, it always seems to be at its worst right now—there is no reason to think that it has anything to do with science. (Of all the causes of September 11, irresponsible science journalism has to be quite low on the list.) This may be rough on our egos, but most religious fanatics pay no attention to all of the exciting research that we do. If Science Panic exists at all, it is going to be limited to the educated non-fanatics who take science seriously enough to worry about it.

I do not know the answers to Lanier's question about whether the world would be better off with more religion or less religion. I also need to think more about Boyer's claim that our moral intuitions—which we certainly would not want to lose—rest on our idea of an immortal soul. While I do think that our dualism has profound implications for our intuitions about right and wrong, my own view is that we would morally be better off as materialists. But this is a topic for another time.

In any case, I think Lanier is exactly right when he counsels: "Avoid condescension". To me, this implies that we should tell people the truth about what we have found, without exaggeration or sugar-coating. I cannot think of anything more condescending than withholding the facts out of concern that people would be unable to cope with it.

(This would be reminiscent of Jack Nicholson's classic portrayal of a colonel being cross-examined in the movie A Few Good Men.

Jessep (Jack Nicholson): You want answers?
Kaffee (Tom Cruise): I think I'm entitled to them.
Jessep: You want answers?
Kaffee: I want the truth!
Jessep: You can't handle the truth!)

How will this news about dualism go over? Not well. For everyone, denying the existence of the immaterial soul is unnatural and counter-intuitive; for many, it is personally upsetting and ethically repellent. I love Jesse Bering's story of when a priest demanded to know how to tell his parishioners that their belief in immortality is due to a limitation in their cognitive apparatus: "My clever response was an involuntary shrugging of my shoulders". I would shrug too.

In support of this pessimism, consider that, at least in the United States, attempts to communicate evolutionary theory could fairly be viewed as a great failure. Polls reveal that for every American who believes in Darwin's account of evolution, there are five others who endorse the Biblical alternative. Science has lost by a landslide. And I think it is a lot harder for people to give up on the soul than to give up on creationism. The origin of species, however interesting, is about the past, but the question of the immaterial soul concerns the future—your future, and the future of those you care about. It is one thing to deny the literal truth of religious texts; it is worse to actually expel people from heaven. Dualism might be, as Boyer puts it, incurable.

On the other hand, just as there are different dualisms, there are different ways to believe in dualism. People might be able to segregate their common-sense dualism from the rest of their beliefs, and only give into them it in certain specific contexts. A scientist can sincerely believe that the brain is the source of mental life … and just as sincerely pray for the souls of her dead parents. Harris' observation that people have different intuitions about life-after-death depending on whether the question is framed in religious versus medical contexts is consistent with this.

This benign schizophrenia might not please the scientific purist—or the theological purist, for that matter. But we are never going to rid ourselves of common-sense dualism. And so this sort of epistemological divide might be best anyone could hope for.


* I'm afraid that I will need a bit more detail from Marvin Minsky in order to understand his comment, and respond to it. He seems to have taken offense where none was intended—I was agreeing with the position of his that I quoted, not attacking it. As for his assertion that I think about the world in dumbbell terms, this might well be true, but it would be helpful if he gave an example or two.

Mark Mirsky

Paul Bloom's essay on "Natural-Born Dualists" is one of the most provocative and disturbing articles that I have read in the last few years. I have been wrestling with it now for several weeks and sending it on to others, wondering what its conclusions imply. Turning over the remarks about men and women as mental constructs, and the sense of disgust that viewing the human being as a creature without a soul seems to evoke, one sees a world of mass post-dualism and wonders what this bodes for human society. It's already gotten into the marrow of the fiction I am writing, dreaming.

A vote of gratitude to Edge for publishing this.

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