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December 15, 2007



"...the brain and mind are perfect isomorphic representations of each other."

This could be a misleading sentence. There's certainly nothing in the mind isomorphic to, say, the nuclei neurons. Also, they are only representations of one-another in the sense that they map functionally. So, a more (possibly needlessly) erudite version would be that minds and brains always have isomorphic functional mapping.

On a more general note, I do have a de-facto ontological split between the physical and logical. I think there's a more-or-less set number of atoms of various kinds in my office chair, though I don't know how many and it more or less doesn't matter for it being a chair. Also, the square root of 143,243,772,881 has a certain block of numbers in decimal representing the millionth part through the googolth part, even though I don't know them. The second fact is a logical fact, not a mental one, because those numbers certainly aren't in *my* mind, and it's fairly likely no one (on Earth) has ever had those in mind. But if we did the calculations, everyone everywhere would discover the same decimal sequence.

Does this imply dualism? Perhaps of a sort, but neither does it require it. We certainly wouldn't put liquid water and ice in the same category for all purposes - woe to the driver who does so - but neither is there any reason to regard them as ontologically dual.

Further, the mind has a fairly difficult time regarding itself. What was I thinking five minutes ago? Much of the time, I don't know the answer. Typing "potato" is voluntary, but I can't discriminate volition in each of my keystrokes. I have no trouble believing it's there, and can dimly remember a time when I was poor enough of a typist for the volition of each stroke to be available to me, but at this point, it's just not, under normal circumstances.

Berkeley proposed an alternate monism in which everything was thoughts in the mind of God. In this mind, evidently, there were many sub-minds incapable of grasping the total mind - a familiar situation for anyone studying information theory. No subsystem can ever fully represent the supersystem unless it is a fractal, in which case there's only an iterative difference between the subsystem and the supersystem: there's no further information to be represented. At the end of the day, we gain nothing from saying we're all thoughts in the mind of God, since we end up with the same relational dynamics, but I suppose at the time it sounded like is solved something. The laws of information always apply, since they're mathematical.

I have no trouble with the proposal that the physical instantiations are like so much ice in the H2O of the logical universe. Are electrons (very much more elaborate) cousins of prime numbers, or e? I don't see why not. Indeed, I'm not really sure how it can be otherwise, though I have no reason to insist on it.

It's awesome in the denotative sense of the word that we subsets get to contemplate the whole of which we are a part. Is that whole of two ontological pieces or one? I can't tell any more than a Hawaiian tribesman would have been able to tell (prior to it melting) that a snowball was water.

Of course, I don't think anyone disputes that all of existence is, in some sense, one by virtue of being part of existence itself. We're really talking about how to divide that existence at its natural seams. The division between instantiated being and logical being seems a natural one to me. If Nathan wants to further divide it into conscious and unconscious I can see reasons to do that as well. Of course, if this comes with an insistence that the two are foundationally untranslatable, however, then I'd want to hear a lot more reasoning.

Joyless Moralist

I think you need a different definition of 'monism.' I consider myself a monist too, but I wouldn't identify with the position you laid out. 'Monism' merely means 'thinking that all existence is fashioned from some basic stuff.' You imply that that stuff is necessarily "most basically" physical or material, but this is not the only view that should be classified under that general heading.


JM, which of us is "you"? I don't think Tom is assuming that monism equates to physicalism. Rather, he's a monist of the physicalist type. Of course, I think differences between monisms are basically a function of verbage rather than substance.


I should unpack slightly - whether we call it physical matter or thoughtstuff or some kind of mathematical concreta, the object of monism is the same if the rules are the same. If every electron is a thought in God's mind, having the particular properties with respect to all the other subatomic thoughts, then there's no substantive difference between such thoughts and physical matter.

Now, if there's another kind of thing that follows totally different rules, then it makes sense to treat it as ontologically discrete. Modern physics treats fundamental particles this way to the extent that the fundamental rules that control their behavior differ, but of course the goal of reductionistic sciences is to bridge such ontolological divides and simplify down to the fewest explanations possible. If, say, soulstuff follows different rules that can never be simplified down to unity with the physical/god's thoughtical/math concretical, then we need some form of dualism. Of course, it could also turn out that gravity can never be unified with the strong and electroweak forces*, and that's a sort of dualism as well. I'm not aware of any reason to believe it will turn out that way except that we haven't yet unified the two, so I'm going to assume that there's still a unifying explanation out there.

Baked into this is my assumption that soulstuff would still follow some discoverable rule set. If the notional soulstuff follows no rules, then it would be indistinguishable from (i.e. identical with) a universal stochastic constant and would qualify for only the most nominal of ontological categories. The phenomenon of 'will' would amount to "Everyone's actions are a cluster around those characteristic of their personality described by probabilistic function W of P." If soulstuff is to form a constructive component of the individual's will, it must have some internal structure.

*The way I imagine this is if it turns out that there's an adjustment equation based on an arbitrary constant. We'd probably never be quite sure we aren't missing something that would make it all make sense, but presumably after enough years of no progress we'd at least begin to suspect that there might not be another solution.

Nathan Smith

In response to Tom, let's assume for the sake of argument that Tom's interpretation of Newton's 3rd Law of Motion and its ramifications is correct. How do we know that Newton's 3rd Law of Motion is universally true? Given Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle I don't see how it could ever be empirically tested if we move far enough down the size distribution. I've hashed this out before under the heading of "the necessity of agnosticism about mind-brain supervenience"; Thomas Nagel has also crushed this position to the ground. The bottom line is that neither logic nor experience supports Tom's assumption of the universality of Newton's 3rd Law of Motion as a premise for physicalism. It is simply blind faith, and those of us who try to question and reason are prohibited from accepting it by our epistemological honor.

I'm not convinced by JM's claim to be a monist. When Tom argues that (in JM's words) "all existence is fashioned from some basic stuff," I think he is saying something meaningful. When JM says it, I am not at all sure. If she means that everything consists of "being," I think this is a tautology: "everything that exists consists of that which exists." The question here is: Is the mental and spiritual life of man reducible to a material basis or not? If JM says no, she should probably admit that-- horror of horrors!-- she agrees with Descartes on this matter.

I'm also not convinced by Nato's "ontological split between the physical and logical... Does this imply dualism? Perhaps of a sort, but neither does it require it. We certainly wouldn't put liquid water and ice in the same category for all purposes - woe to the driver who does so - but neither is there any reason to regard them as ontologically dual." We don't regard ice and water as ontologically dual because they're both reducible to a substance consisting of the same molecule. Is the logical similarly reducible to the physical? How? If not, dualism is implied.


Newton's 3rd Law has not only been empirically tested to be true, but it's also a logical necessity. If a thing could act on another thing without being influenced reciprocally, then perpetually motion machines would be possible; the laws of thermodynamics would basically be broken; you'd be able to add infinite energy to a system, which is beyond our simple Human capacity to even conceive of. If Newton's 3rd Law is not true, then no other physical laws make any sense or carry any weight; all of Human empirical "knowledge" would have to be abandoned, and everything would be taken on "faith" (which not coincidentally is very convenient for your philosophy).

Joyless Moralist

Well, this is quite annoying. I've typed a fairly lengthy comment explaining what I understand to be the difference between monism and dualism, and I can't post it because I'm told that my comment is marked as "possible spam." I have no idea why; there are no links in the post, which is what usually creates the problem on our blog. It's still sitting on my screen, so if anyone knows how to get around this problem, I'll gladly share my enlightened words. :)


At JM: A Meep! of sympathy. I've run into similar (but not quite the same) problem, and it is both infuriating and befuddling. I could only suggest you cut and paste into a text file, restart the browser, then paste back in. Or maybe just wait a few hours, that can work if it's a server SNAFU.

Of course, maybe Typepad is just sick and tired of people hyping the latest hot definition of Monism all over the place.

Joyless Moralist

There are now several threads on which I might post this, but since this seems to be the most recently active, I'll just leave it here.

There is, no doubt, a need to distinguish what precisely is meant by these terms 'monism' and 'dualism.' It may well be that we just don't mean exactly the same thing when we speak of them... I'm not quite sure what it would mean to say that everything that exists is "reducible" in the same terms as everything else. I think that everything that exists either is, or else is created by, a rational God -- is that good enough? So, I do think that reason underlies all existence; on the other hand, I am not committed to the idea that discernable natural laws (such as Einstein's theory of relativity) are properly basic and exceptionless. In fact, I positively deny that this is the case.

For me the terms 'monism' and 'dualism' summon thoughts of the pre-Socratics and Plato, and also Augustine, who might be called a convert from a dualistic to a monistic metaphysical view. The dualistic one was represented, for Augustine, by Manicheism, and the monistic by Christianity; the philosophical difficulties of monism drove him to a dualistic view, and Plato (mainly as mediated by some representatives of his school) helped him sort them out.

The type of metaphysical view that I would call 'monist' holds that there is a single scale against which something can be judged to exist or not to exist, and this same scale can be used to measure all things. So, we attack other metaphysical questions (what is an excess or a deficiency? how is movement possible? etc.) by considering ways in which being and non-being can be combined to produce the array of things that we see.

A dualist view, by contrast, explains change and contrast by positing two ontologically distinct worlds that somehow rub up against each other, or perhaps clash with each other. Change is explained by one world taking control of aspects of the other, or perhaps gaining ground in its battle against the other. Contrast is obviously explained by the contrast of these ontologically distinct worlds.

Consider a Christian and a Manichean looking at a pair of rosebushes. One is healthy and blooming beautifully, while the other is brown and sickly. The Christian might explain the difference by saying, "the healthy rosebush is closer to what a rosebush should be; it has more being. The sickly one, by contrast, is deficient in several respects, and thus has less being." Thus, the difference is explained by each having more or less of one single "currency." The Manichean, on the other hand, might explain the difference thus: "the healthy rosebush is the better one, and therefore we can see that it contains more goodness. But the sickly one is an eyesore and a shame, and thus we can see that it contains more badness. One represents the works of the good forces in the world, and the other mainly the works of evil." Or something like that.

Anyway, this is what I mean when I assert that a Christian must be a monist. We deal in single-scale philosophy, not clash-of-forces philosophy, and this must necessarily be so because God created everything that is (and, in greater and lesser degrees, created it in his image.) We might accurately note differences of many kinds between the things that exist, but no ontological differences we posit can go all the way down to the most basic fabric of reality.

Maybe this won't seem very important to Nathan, but I think it will turn out to have many important ramifications for things like the mind-body problem. I don't want to sign on to a mind-brain identity theory or anything like that, but I do think it's important to note that Nathan doesn't have the full story when he talks about mortal bodies and immortal souls. It seems his idea is that the "real" you is your non-material soul, and that bodies are like little ships into which your consciousness is transplanted for the course of your human life.

Joyless Moralist

I guess it would make sense for him to say that, because I believe that was more or less the view espoused by his hero, Descartes. But this is *not* a Christian way of understanding things. We do, it is true, hold that the soul is separated from the body at death. But Christians also believe in the *resurrection of the body*! In other words, at the final judgment, your body will be perfected and given back to you for all eternity. The aspect of Christian belief is vitally important to the present discussion. We see that, in the Christian view, man is by nature an embodied creature. You might be able to draw certain meaningful distinctions between his material and non-material components, just as you can draw meaningful distinctions between his hands and his feet, but it is important to understand that these are *fused* in a human being, so that neither is more truly part of his identity. In our most perfect state, we will have both. And the fact that these can be fused together into a single entity shows that they aren’t utterly ontologically distinct. We are not dealing with two totally separate worlds bumping up against each other, as Descartes suggested. (Whether or not he actually thought that is a different question.) We’re dealing with one single universe that is all ordered around the underlying logic of God’s creation, so we shouldn’t be surprised to find that any hard-and-fast ontological distinctions we want to draw will tend to break down in places.

Ha ha, I beat you, typepad! By breaking the comment down into two pieces it somehow worked. Thanks for the suggestions, Nato.


Regarding Monism vs Dualism, my view is consistent with JM's, minus the god-stuff.



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