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?
Regretfully, I'll violate this usually sound principle:
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.
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.
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
that given this natural predisposition, we will find it difficult
a belief in the soul despite advances in neuroscience.
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.
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
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.
(This would be reminiscent of Jack Nicholson's classic portrayal of a colonel being cross-examined in the movie A Few Good Men.
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
* 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.
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.
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