A New Kind of Dualism

Lessons from the Game of Life


David Banach

Department of Philosophy

St. Anselm College


A precise understanding of a thoroughgoing mechanism, such as that provided by using the model of a cellular automaton program (e.g., John Conway’s Game of Life), not only clearly reveals the limitations of mechanism, but suggests a new kind of dualism.

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Stephen Wolfram’s A New Kind of Science[1] envisions a new kind of experimental science based upon simulations involving cellular automata[2] whose complex regularities cannot be practically predicted from simple rules.  Philosophers, such as Daniel Dennett, have been interested in the most famous of these cellular automata systems, John Conway’s Game of Life[3], for somewhat different reasons.[4]  The simplicity and transparency of these systems make them an ideal medium for investigating the relationship between the observed regularities of nature, the laws that give rise to these, and the reality that implements the laws.  In particular, I believe that the clarity these models provide allows us to formulate a clear model of mechanism, to see its limitations, and to formulate a precise idea of how consciousness might involve non-mechanical processes.

            Conway’s Life involves just three rules governing each pixel or cell and based upon the eight surrounding pixels.  If we use this as a model of the physical world, the pixels represent the most fundamental particles, and the three rules constitute the fundamental laws of Nature.  What is surprising is that these simple components and rules give rise to a vast and complex array of patterns which exhibit their own regularities and behaviors.[5]  When one looks at the Life world one sees not a world of pixels, but a world of complex objects exhibiting their own sets of regularities. Yet we can see that all of these entities are merely the result of the simple rules that govern the pixels and nothing else.[6]

            One of the first statements of mechanism was provided by Plato in the Timaeus (48e-56c) in his Way of Necessity.  Here he describes how the properties of the various types of elements are necessitated by the geometrical properties of the fundamental particles that compose them.  He also saw clearly that the Way of Necessity was not self-sufficient; it required a Receptacle or Medium, an active agent or demiurge to set up the initial conditions, and a more fundamental set of realities that provide the source of the rules that necessitate the actions of blind matter.  In the Life world, the pixels that constitute this world must have a medium, in this case the screen.  There must be a more fundamental reality which implements the program, in this case the computer itself.  Finally, there must be some agency that is responsible for the actual operation of the program, in this case the factory that made the computer, the programmer, and the user who pushes the button to run the program.  The essence of mechanism is external compulsion by some substrate neutral rules or algorithms.[7]  Such a mechanism cannot be self-sufficient.  Everything cannot be pixels; there has to be a screen on which the pixels exist and a computer to run the program.[8]  Getting clear about the nature of mechanism reveals that reality can’t be mechanical all the way down. [9]

            My new suggestion will be that consciousness arises from mechanical systems organized so as to systematically exploit their non-mechanical properties.  The Life world shows that every mechanical system has mechanical properties, the substrate neutral properties of the elements and their program driven behavior, as well as non-mechanical properties, call them primal properties.  In this case the primal properties are those that the screen and computer have in the real world.  Sometimes these primal properties intrude upon the mechanical world.  I can unplug the computer, take a hammer to the screen, or wave a magnet over the memory chips to disrupt the program.  Normally we design systems that run programs to be very resistant to this type of influence.  But in certain cases we find it essential that elements in our algorithms are systematically affected by primal realities outside the system.  We call these things input devices. A keyboard, a mouse, a GPS system are all mechanical devices contrived to be affected systematically by things outside of the system.[10]  Items outside the system are re-presented within the system by these devices.  My suggestion is that consciousness arises from mechanical systems constructed so as to involve input devices that interact with non mechanical, primal realities.[11]

            My suggestion has the advantages of according with the fundamental feature of consciousness (that it occurs only in highly organized physical systems); it allows real causal interaction in both directions; and it is naturalistic and has verifiable implications.  My main point, however, was merely that mechanism, clearly understood, implies another primal level of non-mechanical reality and makes possible, even plausible, the existence of an interaction between the two levels outside of that mediated by the rules or program of the system.[12]  All that remains is to provide a name for this new kind of dualism.  As we know, the name of a view may sometimes be more important than its content.  With tongue firmly planted in cheek, I christen this new kind of dualism Materialistic Dualism, for it is the kind of dualism that only the most thoroughgoing of materialisms makes possible.

[1] Stephen Wolfram, A New Kind of Science (Wolfram Media, 2002).

[2] Simple computer programs that manipulate pixels on a grid according to simple rules.

[3] The game was introduced to the public by Martin Gardner in  “The fantastic combinations of John Conway's new solitaire game ‘life’,” Scientific American 223 (October 1970), 120-123.  A good introduction to the philosophical issued raised by the game is William Poundstone’s The Recursive Universe (Contemporary Books, 1985).

[4] Dennett has used the Game of Life to discuss the nature of physical patterns, the anthropic principle, and freedom and inevitability in deterministic systems.  See Daniel Dennett, "Real Patterns," Journal of Philosophy (January 1991), 88(1):27-51; Darwin's Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life, (Simon and Schuster, 1995), Chapter 7; and Freedom Evolves, (Allen Lane Publishers, an imprint of Penguin Books, 2003), Chapter 2.

[5] Paul Rendell has even designed a Turing Machine within the Life world, so in principle, all computable processes could be simulated in the Life world.  The original paper, Paul Rendell, “A Turing Machine in Conway’s Game of Life,” March 8, 2001,can be found at http://www.cs.ualberta.ca/~bulitko/F02/papers/tm_words.pdf.  Rendell’s page describing the design is at http://rendell.server.org.uk/gol/tm.htm .

[6] Many modern Dualisms attempt to characterize consciousness as this type of emergent property, which arises from the interactions of matter and is, at least logically, distinct from them.  The clarity with which we can see the conditions of the Life world, however, allows us to see another possible form of Dualism

[7] See Daniel Dennett’s account of algorithms in Darwin's Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life, (Simon and Schuster, 1995), Chapter 2 for a nice summary of the essential features of mechanism.

[8] Of course, any particular program can be running on a virtual machine within another program.  (If a Turing Machine can exist in Life, we could implement another Life world on that Turing Machine.)  Still, it should be clear that it can’t be virtual machines all the way down.

[9] One might be tempted here to identify the different levels of reality necessary for mechanism with the two substances of Substance Dualism.  There are a number or reasons not to do this, but the most important of these is that consciousness is exhibited, insofar as we know, only in certain types of highly organized physical systems.  Further, matter is not a substance in the Life world but derives its existence from the medium and the program.  There is also no reason to think that the primal reality that underlies mechanism is particularly non-natural, spiritual, or soul-like (if any of these words has content here).  In fact, if the rules that govern mechanism are substrate neutral, there is good reason to think that we can’t know the nature of the fundamental reality that runs our world.  (Could a Life world inhabitant tell if its world was being run on a PC or a MAC?)

[10] Of course, in the Life world implemented on a PC, this is hard to imagine since computers are designed to be shielded from outside influences, but if we imagine an implementation in some other functional system, say John Searle’s  system of strings and beer cans ("Is the brain's mind a computer program? ," Scientific American 262(1, 1990):p. 28), it is easy to imagine some particular pattern of actions in the system attracting  interference from forces outside the system, say a horde of thirsty college students.

[11] It is beyond the scope of this paper to argue that such a view is indeed true, or even plausible, as an explanation of human consciousness.  Indeed it is not clear that I would even want to do so, though I do think the proposal might be provocative in the study of role that input devices and representation play in intelligent neural or computer systems.

[12] It may indeed be the case that a better account of how natural processes and laws work may not have these limitations, and this may be a research project even more worthy of attention than this new kind of dualism.