Substantival dualists believe …., neuroscientists believe …

In the philosophical literature, it is common enough to find
phrases such as “Substantival dualists believe …” and “Neuroscientists believe …”  Yet, these can be dramatically different from
an epistemological perspective.  The
former will often state a definition or logical consequence of what it is to be
a substantival dualist, e.g. that there are two distinct materials capable of
independent existence.  The latter will
typically be a sociological claim, about what all, many, or most
neuroscientists believe, e.g. that the mind is reducible to biochemistry.  The first one might be able to know “from the
armchair,” where the second would probably require some valid and reliable sociological
methods, e.g. surveys.  So, you can sort
of see how one might get on a slippery slope to X-Phi.


  1. Hi Ken, that is a very interesting contrast. As you suggest, the appearance of difference may be due to the way in which the two communities are picked out. In order to be a substantival dualist one must agree to certain claims, e.g. that there are two distinct materials capable of independent existence. These claims are virtually analytic to substantival dualism, and so deducible from the armchair as plausible beliefs of a substantival dualist. If one did not endorse them, it would be questionable whether one really is a substantival dualist.

    In contrast, there seem few (any?) claims that one has to endorse in order to be a neuroscientist. Being a neuroscientist seems a fuzzy Kuhnian matter: studying certain kinds of problems, employing certain methodologies, working within certain institutions, etc. Consequently, few beliefs of neuroscientists can be deduced from the armchair because there are few (and perhaps not any) beliefs that are analytic to being a neuroscientist.

    However, one could imagine that the community of substantival dualists have a diversity of opinion on certain other claims closely related to their interests, e.g. whether both substances have causal powers. In this case, when reporting ‘what substantival dualists believe’, one would adopt the sociological mode of reporting, since there is no apparent compulsion to adopt a belief one way or the other on this issue in order to be a substantival dualist.

    All the best,

  2. Brandon N. Towl

    Is this surprising? When one says “I’m a substantival dualist”, one is claiming a commitment to a specific philosophical theory or doctrine. But when one says “I’m a neuroscientist”, one is reporting on one’s career (and perhaps the credentials that come with them). It would be natural, I assume, to suppose that there are some beliefs entailed by the holding of a philosophical position; but what sorts of beliefs are entailed by having a certain career? (Besides, perhaps, those beliefs that reflect one’s basic training and practical requirements, like “I must show up to lab on Monday”).

  3. I regret to disagree but being a neuroscientist really imply to be committed with some epistemological claims, not similar to declare oneself as substantive dualitst, but closer.

    Being a neurosceintist is declare that mind and brain are inseparable as a cardinal motto.

    Though as a consequence of pursuing an “empirical” profession like neuroscience this imply to be open to whatever fact is supported by evidence, and things can be rewrite.

  4. kenneth aizawa

    In truth, my point is not about neuroscientists per se, but could have been about biologists or computer scientists or just plain scientists.  But, let’s run with neuroscientists.

    The claim that mind and brain are inseparable is kind of loose, but you can have folks like John Eccles, who was apparently some sort of substantival dualist.  But, there are other cases of folks who do things like study the biophysics of calcium channels.  Aren’t they neuroscientists and can’t they be pretty non-committal about the mind?  Aren’t there some neuroscientists who really hate “philosophical” issues, such as those pertaining to mind, and who would prefer to stick to “the hard facts”?

    Finally, it does still seem that a neuroscientist’s commitment to following the evidence is not a definitional (armchair) matter, but a sociological fact.  Take astrologers.  Let me go out on a limb and say that they do not really follow scientific methods, where neuroscientists do.  How could one know this difference but by looking at actual social practice?

  5. kenneth aizawa

    Yes, a philosopher might adopt a sociological approach to substantival dualists, but isn’t the more standard approach to divide substantival dualists, to stick with the original example, up into logical categories, rather than to invoke sociological categories?  So, one might distinguish between interactionists and pre-established non-interactionist forms of substantival dualism.

    More significantly, why would a philosopher want to take the sociological tack for substantival dualists?  Philosophers sometimes make more or less tacit sociological claims that, say, neuroscientists believe that P as a way of providing evidence that P.  That’s one prima facie reason for the sociological tack about (neuro)scientists.

  6. kenneth aizawa


    So, think of this.  Among those philosophers who write about what neuroscientists believe are those who dislike armchair philosophy.  But, then aren’t many of the claims about what neuroscientists believe armchair sociology?  There would seem to be some tension here.  How do these philosophers live with themselves?  Maybe they do not see a problem, given their long practice with describing what, say, substantival dualists believe.

  7. Eric Thomson

    But, there are other cases of folks who do things like study the
    biophysics of calcium channels.  Aren’t they neuroscientists and can’t
    they be pretty non-committal about the mind?  Aren’t there some
    neuroscientists who really hate “philosophical” issues, such as those
    pertaining to mind, and who would prefer to stick to “the hard facts”?

    This is very common in neuroscience.

  8. I´m not so sure about the point you are trying to make, Ken.

    What you are trying to argue is that some philosophers show reluctance to armchair philosophy when in fact they are doing it when talking about what neuroscientists do or believe, and then you differentiates between a priori beleives derived from holding a metaphysical standpoint and a posteriori believes derived from pursuing a professional career.

    For me is “non sequitur”.
    A given science even if it is a form of life (a profession)have some “metaphysical standpoints” and in neuroscience i belive is: the principle that mind and brian are inseparable.
    Other thing is that actually neuroscientists have no idea how to gap the distance, or have sparse knowledge, about how to cover the distance between molecules and mind.

    Being a neuroscientist imply some a priori believes: you have to do experiments, make observations… a committment with the scientific method.

    Is possible too that astrologers use the scientific method, but only half of it, and then, they part away from it.

    And because Eccles believe in “psychones”, or inmaterial entities, this is not proof that neuroscientists don´t really believe that mind and brain are inseperable.

    Perhaps because under the influence of Popper, he just launched a conjecture to refute something that he can´t proved by the technical and knowledge available at the time in relation to the mind/brain interactions.

    And if neuroscientists working on ion channels are pretty non-committal about the mind or “hate” philosophical issues, so much the worse for them!(a phrase i heard from Eric)

    We know that for a nerve cell to fire requires the generation of an electrical signal (ion channels), nerve cells interact with other nerve cells, they form neural networks, and neural networks are responsible for cognitive functions, and cognitive functions are responsible of behaviours, and seeking knowledge, learning, free will, moral decisions,… are behaviours, behaviours that have been the old questions of philosophy.

  9. kenneth aizawa

    What you are trying to argue is that some philosophers show reluctance
    to armchair philosophy when in fact they are doing it when talking
    about what neuroscientists do or believe, and then you differentiates
    between a priori beleives derived from holding a metaphysical
    standpoint and a posteriori believes derived from pursuing a
    professional career.

    For me is “non sequitur”.

    Ok.  So, let me connect these two ideas in a different order.  Some philosophers detest armchair philosophy, but then do armchair sociology.  (They make sociological claims about what neuroscientists believe without using any sort of real sociological documentation for this. )  So, why do they do this?  One answer is the superficial similarity between “What substantival dualists believe …” and “What neuroscientists believe…”  Philosophers get comfortable with the former, so easily slide to the latter.  (Maybe another and better answer would be that those same philosophers just don’t want to do real sociology.)

    But, in truth, I can be more concessive about what one has to believe to be a neuroscientist, even though I don’t find your case fully convincing.  For the sorts of claims I have in mind are different.  I’m thinking of claims like neuroscientists believe that the mind is reducible to the brain.  That looks like a sociological claim, rather than a definition of what it is to be a neuroscientist.  So, one might wonder, well, what percentage of neuroscientists are agnostic about this (as Eric suggests might happen frequently)?  What percentage of neuroscientsts reject this for religious reasons?   Are the religious anti-reductionist neuroscientists more prevalent in the U.S. than in Europe? 
    Or, take the claim that neuroscientsts reject multiple realization.  That looks to be a sociological claim as well.

  10. Eric Thomson

    The result of a sociological survey would likely depend on the type of neuroscientist. Different scales select for people with different degrees of impatience for speculation. The lower-level you go, the less speculation typically required. For instance, single channel biophysics. As you go higher in levels, from circuit to systems to cognitive neuroscience, people tend to be more open to philosophical ideas, tend to have a stronger background in formal philosophy training, and will almost always have an opinion about the relation between mind and brain.

    Of course, Anibal is right that the narrative center of gravity in neuroscience is that animal minds are a feature of animal brains. There are exceptions, of course, and the most common response (I would predict), especially as you get to people studying the lower-level phenomena, is a shrug of the shoulders.

    However, the influence of people like Koch, Crick, and Logothetis is probably strong, largely because their views resonate with what most people already think. If someone at SFN (the big neuro meeting) advocated dualism, she would certainly get a cantankerous response compared to someone that advocated some naturalistic theory (and note this would only likely happen in the intro of a talk which people tend to ignore anyway).

    I’m just one person trying to remember his experiences in the culture of neuroscientists. But one thing I’m pretty sure about is that the things “neuroscientists believe” are of the vanilla type ‘voltage-gated ion channels generate action potentials.’ OTOH, we’d need to operationally define that. It is possible there are some fringe neuroscientists who still don’t believe in ion channels. What proportion of such people needs to exist before we are blocked in the claim that it’s what neuroscientist’s believe?

    As has already been pointed out by almost everyone, the big difference is that one appelation is of a substantive claim (that substance dualism is true), while the other simply demarcates a group of people engaged in the scientific study of nervous systems. So as has been said, it’s comparing what follows from adhering to substance dualism with what follows from being a member of a group. It’s sort of a strange comparison.

  11. Hi Ken, a sociological characterisation of the beliefs of substantival dualists can be useful since in some cases it may confer justification. In the case the neuroscientists, one of the reasons why appeal to what they believe appears to confer justification is the transfer of warrant via testimony. The neuroscientists have beliefs about certain matters that one has neither the expertise nor the time to fully check. By trusting the consensus among neuroscientists on these matters, one can gain justified beliefs—warrant is transferred via testimony.

    There seems no reason why a similar mechanism cannot operate in the case of philosophy. I may not know all the arguments against, say, interactionism among substantival dualists, but if I trust to the cleverness and ingenuity of the people working on that topic, there seems no reason why I cannot gain justified beliefs via their testimony. One cannot do all the work oneself in philosophy: one cannot provide an analysis of every substantial concept and claim one employs, or check the reasons for claim. A ‘sociological’ characterisation of what substantival dualists believe can therefore potentially carry some epistemic weight. For example, claims in the literature like ‘Few substantival dualists believe in interactionism’ appears to signal not just a brute sociological regularity in a community (as an anthropologist might report), but also that there are good reasons against believing in interactionism.

  12. Eric Thomson

    A good poing, but this is one of the big differences between philosophy and neuroscience. There is hardly ever consensus in philosophy, and when there is it is still a good idea to see for yourself what they are saying, to work through the reasoning yourself.

    For instance, when I was thinking of philosophy grad school there were many people who tried to convince me that it was passe to think that neuroscience could contribute to our understanding of the mind, that this was based on outmoded “identity theory” thinking. I notice that appeals to consensus are often used as a club in philosophy when things aren’t quite as obvious as they might seem.

    Of course, there are some fads in neuroscience, but the center of gravity is fairly well-grounded experimentally.

    When it comes to philosophical expertise I take the advice of Deep Throat from the X files.

    I’m trying to think of some exceptions….perhaps description of theorems, results in mathematical logic. Perhaps a description of the consensus and historical development of ideas, but not a belief in the content of such things without the reasoning used.

    Philosophers are very good at poking holes in theories posed in natural language. That’s what I tend to use them for.

  13. kenneth aizawa


    At a general level, these claims are true.  But, there are specifics that limit this.

    In the first place, I am thinking of the context of journal articles.  In that context, one does not typically cite the fact that substantival dualists believe that P in support of the conclusion that P.  This can happen, of course, but it is more likely when, say, P is tangential to one’s main point.  By contrast, I think it happens relatively often that philosophers report that (neuro)scientsts believe that P in support of an important conclusion that P.

    Second, it is one thing to cite neuroscientists as believing that there are voltage gated sodium channels, but another to say that neuroscientists believe in multiple realization or reductionism.  In the sodium channels case, it is pretty plausible to suppose that neuroscientists have the expertise required to speak with authority.  In the philosophical cases, however, it is less clear that neuroscientists will up on what philosophers mean by these things.  Put it this way, neuroscientists can get along doing neuroscience without much concern with philosophical niceties.  One consequence of this is that they can run roughshod over philosophical issues.

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