Dualism in the Movies

What Is Dualism?

Dualism is the age-old belief that there are two sorts of stuff in the universe: physical stuff (the stuff that constitutes brains and bodies and stones and trees and cats), and mind stuff (or “soul” stuff, if you like). It found it’s most cogent expression in Descartes’ Meditations, where early on he remarks that there is one thing clearly, distinctly, and uniquely possessed by the mind: Thinking.

Thinking is another attribute of the soul; and here I discover what properly belongs to myself. This alone is inseparable from me. I am — I exist: this is certain; but how often? As often as I think; for perhaps it would even happen, if I should wholly cease to think, that I should at the same time altogether cease to be… I am therefore, precisely speaking, only a thinking thing…

Whatever else he might be, it is definitely the case that Descartes is a thinking thing. Go ahead and doubt the existence of what we usually think of as the real world — stones, trees, and cats. Say that it’s all an illusion, or a dream, or that there’s an evil demon deceiving us about the true nature of things. But one thing that’s certain is that if Descartes is being deceived, Descartes is being deceived — even if his mind is being fooled about things, it is his mind that is being fooled.

Well, if the mind has this certain specialness that the rest of the world (if it exists at all) doesn’t, then the mind and the body must be separate sorts of things:

[B]ecause I know that all which I clearly and distinctly conceive can be produced by God exactly as I conceive it, it is sufficient that I am able clearly and distinctly to conceive one thing apart from another, in order to be certain that the one is different from the other, seeing they may at least be made to exist separately, by the omnipotence of God; and it matters not by what power this separation is made, in order to be compelled to judge them different; and, therefore, merely because I know with certitude that I exist, and because, in the meantime, I do not observe that aught necessarily belongs to my nature or essence beyond my being a thinking thing, I rightly conclude that my essence consists only in my being a thinking thing [or a substance whose whole essence or nature is merely thinking]. And although I may, or rather, as I will shortly say, although I certainly do possess a body with which I am very closely conjoined; nevertheless, because, on the one hand, I have a clear and distinct idea of myself, in as far as I am only a thinking and unextended thing, and as, on the other hand, I possess a distinct idea of body, in as far as it is only an extended and unthinking thing, it is certain that I, [that is, my mind, by which I am what I am], is entirely and truly distinct from my body, and may exist without it.

Here is dualism: the idea that mental and physical substances are of an entirely different kind from one another. And, in fact, the idea goes further — mind-stuff is inherently non-physical. It doesn’t exist in space-time (otherwise it would just be a variety of physical stuff), and it doesn’t need the body in order to exist.

Dualism in the Movies

Hollywood, always up for exploiting a good philosophical idea, has a proud history of using dualism to good dramatic effect. There are a plethora of mind/body transfer stories told on film.

Here Comes Mr. JordanAnd early film taking full advantage of dualism was “Here Comes Mr. Jordan”, in 1941. The story has our hero, a boxer named Joe, die in a plane crash at the start of the film. Unfortunately, the death was a mistake, due to the slip-up of an absent-minded angel. Joe wasn’t really supposed to die for a good long time. (We can use this example to talk about determinism. Maybe someday…) Joe, obviously, isn’t happy about this, and so God allows Joe’s soul to be transferred into the freshly dead body of a corrupt millionaire, just murdered by his wife. Misadventures ensue, as the personhood — the identity — of Joe tries to navigate his way in a new body, in new circumstances.

The key for our discussion here is that Joe’s mind — his personhood; his soul — is completely separatable from any physical body. It is a different sort of stuff entirely, and can be housed in any host body by a sufficiently powerful supernatural being.

You might, at this point, be thinking the following very reasonable question: But how does this non-physical mind stuff actually interact with a physical body? Well, that’s a damn good question, and sits at the core of many criticisms of dualism. We usually think of causation as a purely physical process. Billiard balls smash into billiard balls and make them move; atoms collide into atoms, generating heat and occasionally atomic detonations; you push a door in order to open it; an avalanche crushes trees beneath its mass;… physical objects and physical movements cause other physical objects to move. How is a non-physical thing (a mind) supposed to cause anything physical to happen? If you’re a dualist, you’re in trouble here. The mind (a non-physical thing) thinks that you should raise your right hand; the physical hand moves. What is the causal chain here? Descartes postulated that the mind finds its way into the brain via the pineal gland; but this is really no answer — it just delays the answer. The new questions becomes: How does the mind interact with the pineal gland? And we are back at square one.

“Here Comes Mr. Jordan” was remade in 1978 as “Heaven Can Wait”, with Warren Beatty.

Heaven Can Wait

And ever since there has been no shortage of dualistic cinema to amuse us and make us question our philosophical takes on the philosophy and metaphysics of the mind.

Actually, there were several Disney flicks that got in on the dualistic action, before “Heaven Can Wait”.

1959’s “The Shaggy Dog”, starring Fred MacMurray as an unfortunate soul who gets transferred into a dog’s body:

The Shaggy Dog

In 1976, the franchise was continued with “The Shaggy D.A.”, starring (if you can call it that) Tim Conway as another unfortunate mind-transfer victim, into another dog’s body. (“The Shaggy Dog” was, naturally, remade in 2006 with Tim Allen, and a million dollars worth of computer graphics.)

“Freaky Friday” was another Disney movie that might have been the first actual mind-swap movie:

Freaky Friday

In this movie, a daughter and a mother actually swap minds — the mother’s mind takes up residence in the daughter’s body, and vice versa. A clearer illustration of dualism at work can’t be found. The mind “stuff” is completely separable from the body, and indeed can be transferred into a new body with the right sort of voodoo.

Dualism has, of course, also found its way into horror movies. Of course, every ghost movie, or life-after death movie, can be said to be dualistic in its nature. But one of the funniest expressions of dualism in a horror movie comes from the “Child’s Play” franchise, wherein the mind/soul of a murderous psychopath is severed from his own body and transferred into a talking children’s doll. The mind stuff doesn’t even need a brain, apparently! And it can control the doll’s movements to the extent of being able to wield knives and run relatively fast.

Child's Play

Other Philosophies of Mind

Dualism eventually gave birth to behaviorism, which begot physicalism, which begot functionalism. This isn’t the place to discuss all of these, but suffice it to say that functionalism is closely tied to the field of artificial intelligence, and thus is tied to a stack of other movies, from “2001” to “The Matrix”. But we’ll save that for another post.

Personal Identity and Brain Swapping

When last we left this perplexing topic, many of you were trying to get me arrested for a crime another I committed. (I say “many of you” even though only my mom and my lawyer were trying to do that, but my circle of friends has scant points about it, so ‘many’ it was.) When we are looking at memories as the signpost of identity-pointing, there are detours aplenty. Today, we are going to move on to the third of the potential candidates for identity fixing: the physical body.

Are You Your Body?

The pros and cons of the body as a candidate for personal identity here are pretty intuitive, and much of them we have seen earlier (with memories), if in slightly different form. The body is easily recognizable, and, in fact, is how we identify others. Slight changes, such as haircuts or tanning, seem to do little to distort or erase the recognizable features. However, which features matter the most? How many of them are necessary to maintain if one’s identity is to remain constant? Suppose you gain or lose three hundred pounds, you may well feel and be unrecognizable to both yourself and others. Are you a different person?Many soldiers are returning from Iraq and Afghanistan with missing limbs; are they different people? Both examples will result in the individual’s feeling different, but is that enough for identity to change as well? Think of the liquor store example from my previous post. How would that apply here?

Suppose that I rob the liquor store, but instead of getting hit by a car I instead cut off one of my arms.

Losing an arm

Is the the one-armed man the guilty person (I know Harrison Ford’s answer)?

What if I gain a lot of weight during the six weeks the police look for the robbing murderer?

Getting fat

I doubt there is much controversy to either of these scenarios, and almost every one of you is going to think that identity has remained constant, that the same person is still there or here or whatever, even if that same person is not exactly the same (what’s the difference?, you might wonder, and good for you, you wondering person; the topic of identity when not dealing with people is going to be dealt with soon).

Remember when we talked about the Ship of Theseus, and I suggested that there are some who suggest that every possible change results in new identity. Such an individual, if she is consistent, would have to say that I am not the person who robbed the liquor store because I cut my fingernails or because I removed some hair. Such a person, though, is not really a person in the traditional sense of the word ‘person’, but is more of a collection of experiences that are joined together. Such a person cannot recall her first date, as all her recollections belong to someone else, just as such a person cannot look forward to a happier time in her life, as it will not be she that is enjoying that time, only someone who looks and thinks much as she does.

Few of you think like that, though. But why? If you are not in the memory camp and the physical features have changed beyond recognition, why is a person still the same even after extensive physical changes? What’s that? Sorry, the sound on my computer is muted — what are you saying at your screen as though Skype were on and our conversation was being passively monitored by virtuous government agencies? Ah, I see. Thoughts! The thoughts have not changed. Good! It’s almost as though you knew where I wanted this post to go. Thanks!

Thoughts and Brains

Of course, by ‘thoughts’ what your philosophically ignorant train of thinking was suggesting was the brain. What most members of the physical camp believe to be the defining feature of identity anchoring is the brain. So long as you have the same brain, you are the same person.

Another way to get to the brain is by elimination. Which parts of the body matter? For the body, that is pretty simple: beards, arms, legs, livers, ears, moles, etc., are all pretty superfluous. The part that matters is the brain. How much of the body matters? Really, again, almost all of the body is superfluous except the brain. What if the brain is damaged and the thoughts no more work good? Well, that is not the same brain then, is it? As far as which parts matter and how much of those parts matter, what am I, a brain scientist? (Yes. Yes, I am. Not in the United States, of course; regulations and all that have proven quite the obstacle to my life goals).

The solution to those worries is normally dealt with by a kind of common sense functionalism. Most of us don’t know Broca’s area from the pubic bone, but if you cannot remember anything from last night back, your brain… it don’t work too good. So the parts and amounts that matter for personal identity are the ones, whichever they are (and brain scientists know which those are), that affect the functioning of the brain.

Simple enough then. You are your functioning brain, and wherever it goes, so go you. Right? Right. Right? Well, dammit.

Swapping Brains

Let’s swap brains, then, you and I, and see where we go. Who wakes up in a svelte killing machine of evolutionary perfection and who wakes up in body aimed at child predation? No, no. There are no trick questions on this site. You will wake up, most of you think, in a body not originally yours. If the swap is permanent, maybe your personality will change based on how people around you treat you (either with sexual fearsomeness or with fear of your sexual perversity), but you are still basically the same person. You are your brain.

Note that this is different from those mind swap movies that are made every other week or so. In those instances, it is, or seems to be, the memories that are swapped and not the brains. A brain-based identity theorist watches those movies and laughs (partly at their sheer delightful hilarity) because the only change is that the individuals involved wrongly believe themselves to be someone else. How could they be, though, since their brains are still where they have always been?

There is really no way to confound anyone’s intuitions about the brain as it relates to identity, is there? Hahahahahahahahahahahahaha! Sorry, sorry — whoo, man. You really had there for a minute. Alright, let’s get to the confounding.

Suppose a man, let’s call him Gary, was born with half a brain. This happens, you know. Gary can still function and get about, but he only has half a brain. Maybe he cannot recall as much stuff as you can, maybe his motor skills are shaky in places, but he is a person and his name is Gary. Everyone okay with this?

Now let’s suppose that another person, Harry, has a regular, whole brain. But, egads! Harry is hit by a crazed Canadian driver and the resulting life-saving operation leaves him with half a brain. Now, this is not how it would work, but let’s suppose he still has around half his memories and the like. Is anyone here, aside from the identity-extremists, going to suggest that Harry is no longer Harry? Harry is still Harry even if only half of his brain is there since Harry can still function, to some degree, to some recognizable degree, as Harry used to.

Alright, and if we were to swap Harry’s half brain and Gary’s half brain, I suspect that you are going to think they, the people, go whither their brains do. Fine, fine. And if there was a third person, Terry, who lost his brain altogether, where is Terry? Gone. Right.

Brain swaps

What about this, though (and this is due to philosopher Derek Parfit): let’s take Gary’s half and Harry’s half and put them together into Terry’s head. Who is that? It has half of each person’s brain (well, I guess, it has all of their available brain, so whatever) and, so, we are suggesting here, it has half of each person’s memories, is it both Gary and Harry? If not, why not?

If Harry with a brain in his head was still Harry and not dead, then Harry’s half with Gary’s half should make them both be (please try not to laugh) who they once were. Can the one body be two persons? What if both Harry and Gary had had whole brains that we split, combining one half from each in two separate bodies? Can two bodies then be four persons? Oh, philosophy, what have you done to our so carefully coddled beliefs about all that is personally identical in the world?

Next Time…

Next time: clones! And light sabers! And sex!!! But mostly, and only, just clones.