Are humans intuitive dualists? Mitch Hodge replies.

Last October, a post by Paulo Sousa based upon a paper by Mitch Hodge generated much discussion on this blog. Mitch Hodge has kindly replied to the critics. I made it an independent post to avoid the comments thread to Paulo's post becoming too bulky _ Olivier.

I want to begin by apologizing for my late entry into this discussion, particularly since it is my own article being discussed. My delay should not be seen as a reflection of how important I have found the discussion thus far. Indeed, I have been following each post with interest and have been thinking about them for some time. Let me begin my post with some preliminary considerations.

While my article addresses Bloom’s conjecture that we humans are intuitive Cartesian substance dualists, many of the criticisms that I present against that position can be used against other forms of mind-body dualism. The most pressing, I think, is the growing evidence that (at least in the West) that the soul is not intuitively considered to be intensionally identical to the mind (Journal of Cognition and Culture, 8: 1-2, p. 99-115). This is important because the soul is that part which is essential to Western afterlife beliefs. What remains to be extracted from this distinction, however, is what relation the soul has to the mind and the body, for certainly it has metaphorical linguistic relations which it shares with both the mind and the body. My suspicion at this point in my research is that the soul allows for the continuation of the social identity of the individual which requires both physical and mental aspects of the individual to continue.

This brings me to what I hoped would be one of the important “take-away” messages of my article.

I think many academics involved in this research might be too eager to assume that the folk are dualists of one sort or another. Dan Sperber asks above whether we are substance dualists or properties dualists. What is not being asked is whether humans are dualists at all (at least at the intuitive level). There is more evidence, in fact, that we view a “complete” person in a tripartite fashion rather than a dualist fashion (see my paper, 397-398). What is unclear is whether those three parts are properties of the person, the person itself, or whether any of those parts are disposable while the person remains.

I think one of the points that confuses people when I talk of embodiment is that they assume that the person must maintain the same body. But this is not what embodiment, particularly the social embodiment which I employ, entails. We are capable of recognizing a person whom we have not seen in decades as the same person, but we do not do this merely from only mental characteristics or only physical characteristics. There are numerous cues that are involved in identifying the person as the same person we knew decades before such as mannerisms, speech patterns, general facial patterns, memories, beliefs, etc. In addition, we also use their social roles to identity them, such as the offspring of so-and-so or their position or title. Furthermore, it is the social role that they had in relation to us that is believed to survive death. Now, what I would argue that is that some sort of embodiment is required to be imagined in order for that social role to be imagined to be carried out. This is what I mean by social embodiment. This is also why neither reincarnation nor spirit possession is a real problem for what I have in mind, in response to Paulo Sousa.

Next, let me make a few points in direct response to Emma Cohen who presented a more poignant critique of my paper.

Firstly, I find it incredibly difficult to make sense of the claim that I missed Bloom’s broader “common-sense” dualism account by focusing in too narrowly on his substance dualism claims in two ways. On the one hand, Bloom uses common-sense dualism and Cartesian substance dualism interchangeably and equates the two. On the other hand, if common-sense dualism is not Cartesian substance dualism, then what exactly is it? There are numerous problems facing anyone who tries to claim that we see manifestations of human action as either solely mental or solely physical, none the least of these is emotions. This is a point to which I tried to draw attention in my paper.

Secondly, I find it far too generous an interpretation of Bloom’s work to claim that he is close to Dennett’s intentional stance/physical stance distinction, which I propose as an alternative interpretation of the empirical findings thus far. In fact, I have difficulty even imagining how such an interpretation can be applied to Bloom since he avoids any and all stance talk and speaks of states and substances exclusively. Perhaps I am missing something here, but I think such an interpretation is far afield of what Bloom has in mind. Moreover, what I am cautioning about Bloom’s work is that it might be taking those of us interested in such questions in the wrong direction. Just as philosophy of mind has had a hard time disentangling itself from the dualism of Descartes, I fear that the psychological community might be too eagerly embracing such dualism as well (although this time applying it to the folk rather than the well-informed academic—a role reversal as I mention in the opening of my paper). I am just not convinced that dualism really has earned a place just yet at the table in discussing the folk ontology of a person. After all, that the folk really are dualists has not be proven—it has either been assumed or provided for by presupposed academic categories.

Thirdly, in answer to your three specific claims of mistakes in my reading of yours and Barrett’s paper (Journal of Cognition and Culture, 8:1-2), I want to explain how that reading of your paper came about. Before explaining that, however, let me say that this in no way implies that the numerous caveats to your findings were neither seen nor ignored. The problem I had was that the caveats were inconsistent with previous claims. Let me start with your claim that your research question did not claim to support the dualism of the sort defended by Bloom. The first sentence of the abstract of your paper where you cite Bloom for the dualism that you will be using leads me to believe otherwise. While I do not want to make an intentional fallacy here, between that opening sentence and the statement, “Below we present the findings of two experimental studies designed to probe further the nature of dualistic thinking, in particular to identify the constraints that dualistic thinking operates within (p. 25),”it certainly sounds to me like you providing evidence of Bloom’s dualism. Secondly, if you are earnestly ascribing to dualism, then how are we to read the following claim about the displacement model that you research? “This possession concept entails the complete displacement of a single agency by another, such that a bodiless agent effectively acquires the body – but not the mind – of a physical being (p. 26).” If you are a dualist, then a “living” person normally has mind and a body. There is nothing else from which to compose a human. Then you make the claim that must associate the mind with identity if the thinking really is dualistic as you propose: “According to the displacement view, possession is not normally conceived as a ‘mind’ occupying a body, but as a bodiless person occupying a body (p. 44).” Now, I fully understand how and why you make the caveats you do concerning the nature of persons and identity, but if your paradigm for possession truly is based on mind-body dualism, then you have nothing more to base identity on, and you make it clear that the body is not the criteria for identity. Am I just over thinking this?

Finally, however, let me sincerely apologize for the oversight on the “transplant”-“transfer” distinction. Clearly that distinction was thoroughly discussed in your paper and I ran roughshod over it in my presentation. Certainly the outcome of your research was that the mind transfer was treated as a mind transplant though you did not present the questions as a transplant. Here, I should have been much more careful and diligent in my presentation of your work. My apologies.

Again, I wish to thank all for their thoughtful responses in this thread and I hope that my own will foster its continuance.


  • Olivier Morin
    Olivier Morin 9 January 2009 (14:58)

    You write that “the soul is that part which is essential to Western afterlife beliefs”, and it is indeed a widespread opinion that, for Christians, our afterlife destiny is chiefly about the survival of an immortal soul distinct from the body. I’ve heard it repeated everywhere. Yet that is just not the explicitly held belief of Christians, at least of Catholic Christians.

    The Apostle’s creed states that Christians believe in the resurrection of the body on Judgment Day, and there is considerable scriptural support for that claim (see Romans 8, 11,23). Resurrection of bodies is important for two reasons: first, it allows the Lord to punish sinners in their flesh (i.e. they feel real pain for their sins, not metaphorical pain). Second, as far as the righteous are concerned, it fulfills Jesus’ (and Paul’s) promise to save us from death, litterally. Mere survival of the soul would not allow that.

    Of course, the status of resurrected bodies poses many problems (from the sheer impossibility of it all, to the problem of knowing which version of your body will resurrect – your body as a child, your body at the time you died, presumably not in a very good shape? etc.). One might argue at length that resurrected bodies are different from the human body as we know it in important respects. But even with these caveats, I don’t think one can say that a strict dissociation between body and soul is a crucial component of Christian afterlife beliefs. Exactly the reverse is true of the official dogma.

    One might want to show that in this case, Christian beliefs have nothing whatsoever to do with the scripture, the Creed or the teachings of the Church, but then I would like to know what exactly one calls Christianity.

  • Paulo Sousa
    Paulo Sousa 11 January 2009 (04:02)

    I think the question about mind-body (property or substance) dualism is still an important one in the discussion, even if not the one focused by your article. And I think spirit possession and reincarnation still poses a problem to your position on personal identity: even if, for the sake of indentifying a specific person, one will tie the person to some kind of body (whatever the body), the fact that people believe that a person can move from one body to another body seems to imply a strong difference between the person and any specific body (in other words, identification procedures do not necessary tell about conceptual structure).

  • K. Mitch Hodge
    K. Mitch Hodge 12 January 2009 (15:19)

    Paulo Sousa remains unconvinced that embodiment really plays a substantial role in identity, and because of this, thinks that mind-body dualism should still be considered in explaining the folk ontology of a person. But this confuses two separate arguments that I present in my paper. One is that mind-body dualism (particularly Cartesian substance dualism) does not capture the intuitive folk ontology of a person as supposed by many. The second is that deceased individuals are imagined as socially embodied. While the latter might be dependent on the former, the former is independent from the latter. In other words, my position on social embodiment might be wrong, but that in no way affects my arguments against understanding the intuitive folk ontology of a person in terms of mind-body dualism. Let me flush this out further. First, recall that in my paper (p. 404) I am careful to state that humans can think in terms of mind-body dualism (even Cartesian substance dualism), but that does not entail that it is the intuitive position of the folk. So it could be the case that possession and reincarnation beliefs are based on mind-body dualism without making mind-body dualism their intuitive position (the theologically correct/incorrect distinction comes to mind here). This also might explain why these beliefs are not pancultural. Second, as I pointed out in my previous post, even Emma Cohen is careful to state that believers do not properly characterize what is believed to possess the body of another in the case of the displacement model as a mind. If this is the case, then mind-body dualism does not explain possession beliefs. Third, I pointed out (p. 398, following Lillard) that there are several cultures that have no conceptual corollary to the European-American concept “mind.” With this being the case, it is hard to understand how mind-body dualism is intuitive in the sense of being the default cognitive disposition of the human mind. Fourth and finally, I argue (p. 407) that researchers thus far are interpreting some of the empirical findings by the lights of presupposed psychological categories, and these categories may not reflect the intuitive folk conceptual structure at all. All of these points are independent of the role that embodiment may or may not play in afterlife beliefs, yet they still call into question whether mind-body dualism is a valid interpretive scheme to understand the intuitive folk ontology of a person.

  • Emma Cohen
    Emma Cohen 14 January 2009 (22:24)

    I think there are more points of agreement than not. But let me just clarify a couple of things on possession. The study on mind-transfers did not investigate whether people are intuitive mind-body dualists (or whether they “intuitively believe in mind-body dualism”) but rather looked at how people reasoned when asked to put on their ‘dualist hat’ (which, I might add, they appeared to don with ease and in consistently similar fashion across the population). Possession, whether people talk about it using something like our English term ‘mind’ or not, likewise requires that people put on a dualist hat. It’s not so much that the mediums with whom I worked were careful not to use the word ‘mind’ – they just didn’t. They would say, rather, “I leave my body, I switch off – the entidade (or ‘spirit’) comes in”. But even if they had used ‘mind’, there would be no reason to suppose that the term refers to what I think of as ‘mind’, or what Descartes thought of as ‘mind’, or Bloom, or to assume that we’ve discovered mind-body dualism of Cartesian ilk underpinning possession. By the same token, that people don’t use the term does not in itself warrant the claim that possession isn’t explained or underpinned by mind-body dualism; or that in cultures where we fail to encounter something like the term ‘mind’ people do not have a similar concept or some intuitive or reflective notions about agency, intention, belief, and so on, and (under certain conditions) can (intuitively) conceive of the potential independence of these capacities from the bio-physical body. So, what did people see as coming unbuckled from the body in possession? Through extended observation of possession episodes, and listening to how people talked about it, I discovered the kinds of capacities that are thought to get “switched off” when someone is possessed – mainly agency (i.e. executive control over action, such as speech, voluntary movement, etc.) and memory. Their heart continues to beat, their lungs still fill with oxygen, their limbs continue to work, and so on, but one’s agency is divorced, or displaced, from one’s body. So, possession appears to entail the separation of what we might commonly refer to as one’s ‘mind’ from one’s body, and ‘trance’ refers to the suspension of what we might call ‘mental’, and not physical, capacities and aptitudes. Notions about soul flight are very similar in this regard and appear to entail the idea that ‘mind’ and body can both continue to function while separated. So, there seems to be reason to suppose that possession, as it is commonly conceived, subscribes to a form of radical mind-body dualism. But ‘mind’ is one of those words that really exercises academics working in this area because it is often assumed, even when one protests otherwise, that one must be talking about a Cartesian ‘mind’ (and that this is culturally localized). This usually leads to accusations of ethnocentrism and imposition of western categories, etc. I suspect that – although more problematic in some ways – this might be part of the reason Bloom talks about souls instead. It’s part of the reason I talk about ‘bodiless agents’. But using such cumbersome terminology as ‘bodiless agent’ or ‘executive control’ in our actual study would probably have created more problems than it would have solved. As I said, I think we probably agree on a lot. More data is required to settle some of the outstanding questions about the conditions under which people don their dualist hat spontaneously and those in which a monist stance may be more readily adopted.

  • K. Mitch Hodge
    K. Mitch Hodge 15 January 2009 (16:08)

    For the moment, let us leave Cartesian substance dualism behind—for it does, as you suggest, cause many preconceived problems (such as Bloom’s following of Descartes equivocation of the mind and the soul). A point that I was hoping would follow from my paper is simply that we might be rushing to judgment in claiming that humans are dualists at all when it comes to the composition of humans. In your final sentence, you seem only to allow that humans can be either dualists or monists. I am suggesting that the intuitive stance might be completely different than either of those. It is possible, as Neuroskeptic suggests above, that folk intuitions are entirely inconsistent. Yet, I fear we are locked into thinking that the folk are dualistic—in one form or another—without ever considering that there might be more to it than that. Why are we so quick to rule out a tripartite composition, or perhaps even more? This is especially pertinent in the case of afterlife beliefs. Just take the case of Western Christian beliefs. If you ask the typical folk on the street, what goes to heaven, more than likely they will say that it is their soul and not their mind (and this is a theologically incorrect view for Christians as Oliver Morin points out above). Now, you can assume, as Descartes and Bloom did, that the mind and the soul are the same thing and thus claim that the folk are dualists, or you can investigate as Richert and Harris did in two different studies and ask the folk whether the mind and soul are the same thing (JCC 2006, 6(3-4) and 2008, 8(1-2)). They found that the folk did not consider them the same thing, and if fact, they found that the folk did not necessarily endow the soul with the mental functioning that Bering found to continue after death in his studies, and the mental functioning that you found to be transferred/transplanted in your studies. In this case, the folk maybe ascribing to us mind, body and soul. And what do we do with other words like “spirit” or “will”? Could those be independent things that compose us as well? I am not supposing the answer at this point—I am sincerely asking. Another question worth pursuing is assuming that humans do think that the mind can be detached from their physical living body, do they really conceive of this entity totally disembodied? Do humans really have a conception of a disembodied mind? Or does the mind have to be encapsulated in something? (Thanks to my colleague Beth Heywood for pressing these questions to me.) All I am hoping is that we can back up and look at this question anew instead of rushing to claim that the folk are dualist in one sense or another. I am thinking that we might be surprised at what we learn. And just to clarify something, my view of social embodiment is not meant to imply that I think that the folk position is monist. I simply think that social embodiment is an essential component in afterlife beliefs—and that we are not immaterial minds floating in the ethereal aether of Heaven.

  • Emma Cohen
    Emma Cohen 16 January 2009 (13:41)

    Thanks for the great questions, Mitch. I agree that these issues should be investigated, particularly as I think that there is already some evidence that suggests that our ‘folk anthropology’ goes beyond a crude mind-body dualism. This was the main issue I raised in my post in the earlier thread about your paper. One of the merits of Bloom’s work, as I see it, is that he doesn’t start with Descartes’ and investigate whether folk intuitions resemble or match this particular philosophy – there’s no ‘reliance’ on Descartes at all in this sense (referring Renatas’s v. interesting post above). Rather, he starts with evidence about how human cognition develops and works, particularly in the domains of folk psychology and folk physics, and draws his arguments about our dualistic predispositions from there (i.e. about the incommensurability of the outputs of these two sets of mechanisms). I wouldn’t go as far as to suggest that Bloom’s account is incorrect, but simply that it might be nuanced or expanded further. We are more than entities that can think and love and bump into things – there is potentially a wider range of core cognitive domains than psychology and physics that may be activated when perceiving and representing persons. The notion of individual identity, for example, and the capacity to track identity and draw different causal inferences depending on the individual’s identity, seem to entail additional or different cognitive capacities that emerge early in childhood. And by Bloom’s logic, if these capacities occupy and operate in different domains, then we should expect distinct patterns of ‘dualistic’ fission along these fault lines also. So, for example, we could perhaps predict that insofar as these capacities are panhuman, we should find lots of examples of concepts cross-culturally about entities that are attributed some kind of person-identity but not mentality – ‘soul’ concepts might be based on such cognitive building blocks. I also think that some folk concepts of DNA might fall within this category. I think that if we are interested in developing cross-culturally generalizable predictions about how people carve up the world of persons, the level of basic causal cognition is potentially a more promising place to start than with the complex contours of developed cultural concepts such as soul, spirit, mind, etc. This would allow us to identify like with like cross-culturally – the beauty of approaching things in a more bottom up way is that, in addition to generating predictions about the emergence and spread of specific categories of concepts, we would potentially be able to do away with identifying a novel concept as, for example, “roughly like the Western concept of soul” (whatever that is) but rather as entailing specific, identifiable assumptions and expectations that arise in part from panhuman cognitive function. Eventually, we might even do away with interpretive glosses such as ‘mind’ or ‘soul’ altogether, and redescribe the various concepts we encounter in the ethnographic record more precisely in terms of the sets of intuitive expectation they entail. Perhaps my ‘mind’ is your ‘soul’??? I should probably end on that potentially disturbing note…