Are humans intuitive dualists?

Chinese Afterlife Chinese afterlife (from Hodge's paper)

Mitch Hodge has just published an article questioning the hypothesis that human intuitive reasoning about other persons supposes a type of Cartesian mind (or soul)-body substance dualism (see Journal of Cognition and Culture 8, 2008), a hypothesis that has been defended by researchers such as Paul Bloom (see Descartes’ Baby). Hodge draws heavily on the fact that cross-cultural representations of the afterlife invoke embodied beings. Although I’m not convinced that afterlife conceptions provide the type of strong evidence supposed by Mitch Hodge, the article raises interesting conceptual and empirical questions about the nature of our intuitive understanding of other persons. Here is the abstract:

This article presents arguments and evidence that run counter to the widespread assumption among scholars that humans are intuitive Cartesian substance dualists. With regard to afterlife beliefs, the hypothesis of Cartesian substance dualism as the intuitive folk position fails to have the explanatory power with which its proponents endow it. It is argued that the embedded corollary assumptions of the intuitive Cartesian substance dualist position (that the mind and body are different substances, that the mind and soul are intensionally identical, and that the mind is the sole source of identity) are not compatible with cultural representations such as mythologies, funerary rites, iconography and doctrine as well as empirical evidence concerning intuitive folk reasoning about the mind and body concerning the afterlife. Finally, the article suggests an alternative and more parsimonious explanation for understanding intuitive folk representations of the afterlife.

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  • comment-avatar
    Dan Sperber 31 October 2008 (13:13)

    There is a lot of interest in Mitch Hodge’s article, but as Paulo Sousa rightly suggests, showing that afterlife is typically seen across culture as embodied fails to provide strong evidence against the view that humans are intuitive Cartesian dualists. After all, one can have a Cartesian dualist conception of dead people just as one can of living people. I am not saying this in defense of the view that Hodge criticises. As he points out, Cartesian substance dualism is a position that has its own philosophical problems revolving around the issue of the relationship between the thinking substance and the extended substance. Descartes had a hard time with it, and so have had his philosophical followers. Does the folk theory face the same problems, and if so how does it cope with it, to the extend that it does? Or is folk ontology happily dualist – or pluralist – about properties and unconcerned about substances?

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    Paulo Sousa 1 November 2008 (17:02)

    It seems to me that, for the intuitive folk ontology, at least some basic commonsense physical properties like weight are not attributed to mental states, although these may not be attributed to the vaporous body of ghosts and spirits either, which complicates the matter. On the other side of the problem (the one related to the criterion for personal identity), I think beliefs in possession and reincarnation also weaken Hodge’s argument, although an unspecified notion of individual essence (that is, not necessarily related to mental properties) may be at stake here. Also, it may be that there are conflicting intuitions in this respect – an intuitive notion of person whose criterion is tied to mental properties and an intuitive notion of person tied to both mental and body-physical properties. Interestingly, as Mitch Hodge suggests, cognitive work on religion that emphasizes counter-intuition as an important property of religious representations seems to suppose that the intuitive conception of a person is tied to both mind and body-physical properties.

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    Arnaud Halloy 6 November 2008 (09:47)

    I would like to very briefly illustrate another anthropological use of ”intuitive dualism”, but also make a general comment about the cognitive approach of culture it implies.
    In a recent article, Emma Cohen (2008), relying on Bloom’s theory, argues that intuitive person-body dualism underpins Spirit possession’s conceptualization (what she calls “Executive possession, by contrast with “Pathogenic Possession”, that fits better with Boyer and Liénard’s theory of ritual motivation). As she notes it, bodies and persons are perceived mainly through two parallel cognitive systems – “folk-psychology” and “folk-physics”- that give rise to mental representations that “never fully achieve coherent integration”. Spirit possession’s conceptualization, as she defines it, would be characterized by “the agency of the host (often) represented as withdrawing from the body or assuming a passive role in relation to the control of the body, which is subsequently occupied or animated by the possessing agent”.
    I find her argument quite convincing, but not entirely satisfying. If, as I believe they do, cognitive constraints actually facilitate cultural transmission by making some concepts more “catchy” and memorable, do we have here the ultimate (and unique) explanation of cultural transmission, as many cognitive anthropologists argue? I don’t think so. Pragmatic conditions in which such concepts are actually enacted are crucial if we want to reach a better understanding of why cultural phenomena such as possession are so successful. It is through action and, most of the time, in special environments such as ritual activities, that concepts are connected with affects, relational patterns and material environments (places and artefacts). And this is because they are actually embedded in such contexts that they are even more “contagious” and successful. Identifying the “possible cognitive causal mechanism” is an essential step for a better understanding of cultural transmission. But the next one consists in giving flesh to our brains by embodying them in situations where they cognitive mechanisms are worked out or “hijacked” in specific (but also recurrent) ways. But sorry, I am getting out of the dualism debate.
    Cohen’s references are: “What is Spirit Possession? Defining, Comparing, and Explaining Two Possession Forms”, in Etnos, vol. 73:I, March 2008, pp. 101-126

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    Emma Cohen 6 November 2008 (22:46)

    I can’t resist coming in on this discussion, but am short on time. Just to say… I also don’t wish to derail the discussion, but what is an ”ultimate explanation”? I have never heard that phrase used by anyone, including the cognitive anthropologists I have read. Most cognitive anthropologists I know are at pains to stress that there are further factors that may interact in important ways with those identified in their theories. Some even go beyond handwaving in the direction of ’contextual’ factors, specifying what those additional factors might be, and generating precise hypotheses that inspire further research. Increasingly, through an often painstakingly slow process of data gathering and theory building, the explanatory power and scope of the theories become more apparent. (Perhaps this is what is meant by progressing toward a ”better understanding”?) I find this approach very satisfying – but, with Arnaud, I (as yet) find my own accounts not at all satisfying! More thoughts on Hodge and dualism v. soon

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    Olivier Morin 6 November 2008 (23:13)

    If I may jump in for an editorial comment: feel free to disgress and talk of spirit possession all you like. If one comment gets too long or too far from Paulo’s original point, I’ll just turn it into an independent blog post, and the discussion around it will move there. Actually, if you (Emma or Arnaud) wish to post just a line or two to start up a new discussion from, you’re more than welcome.

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    Emma Cohen 7 November 2008 (19:43)

    Thanks Olivier! Just a few comments on topic (I hope). I found Hodge’s paper very interesting. But a little frustrating too. Bloom DID make that point about us all intuitively endorsing a strong substance dualism, and so exposes himself to criticism on that particular statement. My overwhelming feeling, however, was that in light of Bloom’s broader common-sense dualism account, Hodge focussed a little over-enthusiastically on the substance- non-substance claim – more enthusiastically than Bloom’s writings at large might merit. I guess what I’m trying to say is that, while the paper raised some very interesting issues, it also misses the point somewhat, and therefore the value of Bloom’s core contribution. This contribution, as I see it, is closer to Hodge’s ’alternative interpretation’ to do with the physical stance and intentional stance than Hodge seems to realize.
    Having said all that, I think that one of the most valuable theoretical points made has to do with the distinction between mental/psychological properties and the property of enduring identity, aspects of persons that in English are commonly termed as ’mind’ and ’soul’. I think that Bloom’s account blurs some important distinctions here, by virtue of the fact that it portrays person perception exclusively in terms of physicality alone on the bodily side and psychology alone on the social side. It seems to me that there are probably several intuitive expectation sets that are activated when we perceive and reason about people, and that don’t fit neatly within the domains of intuitive psychology or intuitive physics.

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    Emma Cohen 7 November 2008 (19:45)

    These might have to do with identity tracking, agency-detection, life-force expectations, biology expectations, etc. The intuitions delivered within these domains might combine and come apart in interesting ways – e.g. notions about the cremated ashes of a loved one might entail intuitions about physicality and identity, but not about mentality and biology. Approaching things in this way, we might be able to begin to account for the success of certain cultural representations that possibly present problems for Bloom’s account, e.g., ., the widespread idea that body parts are not separate from “the person”, but that the person is in some sense contained in the very material of one’s body parts (e.g. heart), or the cross-culturally recurrent notion that one can absorb something of the agency or identity of an animal or human by eating them, or by receiving their body parts in transplant surgery. It’s a huge empirical question as to the specific conditions under which people combine and unbuckle psychological, physical, biological, and other properties in their various concepts and intuitive theories about persons (and bodies (living and dead), body parts, robots, cremated ashes, etc.).
    Speaking of transplants… with regard to the Cohen & Barrett study reported on page 404, Hodge gets three pretty fundamental things wrong: the research question investigated (it had nothing whatsoever to do with whether identity is conferred by minds, and by minds alone); the research methodology (it was a transfer, not a transplant – v. important because the actual question concerned whether people would implicitly reason about a transfer – one person’s mind going into another person’s body – in terms of a transplant); the interpretation of data (nowhere is it argued that the data support Bloom’s claim or that people ’intuitively believed in mind/body dualism’). In any case, thanks Paulo for starting this thought-provoking thread! Sorry to be so long-winded…

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    Ilkka Pyysiäinen 11 November 2008 (21:47)

    Hi Emma! You ask what is an ultimate explanation. I wonder if Arnaud Halloy, who uses the term,is referring to Ernst Mayr’s distinction between ”ultimate” and ”proximate” causes. Functional biologists were concerned with the immediate, “proximate,” causes governing the responses and behaviors of an individual, while “ultimate” causes have been incorporated into the individual system through many thousands of generations in natural selection. They are responsible for the evolution of the particular DNA code of information with which every individual of every species is endowed. The ultimate causes are studied by evolutionary biologists.
    As André Ariew (2003, 554) thinks, this distinction actually boils down to the distinction between “causal explanations of developmental events, and population-level explanations of evolutionary events.” Here proximate causes are defined in terms of the causal capacities of structural elements (Ariew 2003, 555). Ultimate causes actually are not causes. They rather are evolutionary explanations that “range over statistical attributes of a population, not dynamical properties of individuals,” that is, they are “statistical explanations of population-level phenomena” (Ariew 2003, 560–61). Evolutionary explanations thus cannot be replaced by “the complete causal story about how each individual in a population lived and died.” Evolutionary explanations deal with the statistical properties of evolving populations (Ariew 2003, 561). Ultimate causes thus should not be mistaken for “ultimate motives” of individuals. We cannot reason from adaptations to the unconscious motives and desires of individuals.
    So, to the extent that cognitive science of culture relies on selectionist and epidemiological explanations, it provides explanations that – indeed – “range over statistical attributes of a population, not dynamical properties of individuals.” Cognitive science of culture thus often provides statistical explanations of population-level phenomena: religion, for example,is possible because humans, on the average, tend to behave in certain ways. And, to the effect that we use explanations referring to evolved cognitive (and emotional) capacities, the cognitive science of religion also provides “ultimate” (evolutionary, distal) explanations. I deal with some of this in my forthcoming work.
    References Ariew, André. (2003). Ernst Mayr’s ’ultimate/proximate’ distinction reconsidered and reconstructed. Biology and Philosophy 18, 553–65. Mayr, Ernst. (1961). Cause and effect in biology. Science 134, 1501–06.

  • comment-avatar
    Dan Sperber 18 November 2008 (14:49)

    In today’s New York Times, an article entitled ”Found: An ancient monument to the soul” reports that:

    ”In a mountainous kingdom in what is now southeastern Turkey, there lived in the eighth century B.C. a royal official, Kuttamuwa, who oversaw the completion of an inscribed stone monument, or stele, to be erected upon his death. The words instructed mourners to commemorate his life and afterlife with feasts “for my soul that is in this stele.”

    ”University of Chicago archaeologists who made the discovery last summer in ruins of a walled city near the Syrian border said the stele provided the first written evidence that the people in this region held to the religious concept of the soul apart from the body. By contrast, Semitic contemporaries, including the Israelites, believed that the body and soul were inseparable, which for them made cremation unthinkable, as noted in the Bible.”

    ”Circumstantial evidence, archaeologists said, indicated that the people at Sam’al, the ancient city, practiced cremation. The site is known today as Zincirli.”

    All this seems to indicate that 1) dualism is ancient, and 2) it is not universal.

    The finding was made by David Schloen and Amir Fink, and more info can be found here

  • comment-avatar
    K. Mitch Hodge 6 January 2009 (16:15)

    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 [i]Cartesian[/i] 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 [i]same[/i] 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.