Agnostic epiphenomenalism?: Response to a comment
by Titus Rivas
In 2003, Dr. Hein van Dongen and I published the paper Exit Epiphenomenalism: The Demolition of a Refuge, the English translation of our Spanish article Exit Epifenomenalismo published in 2001. The analytical argument we present in these articles against the position of epiphenomenalism runs as follows:
(1) Epiphenomenalism uses the concept of consciousness, as it states that there is such a thing as consciousness, which has got properties that are not material or physical, etc.
(2) Epiphenomenalism thus holds that its concept of consciousness refers to a real part of reality, namely to the (presumably) epiphenomenal but irreducible world of mental experience.
(3) We have to be aware that even if the concept of consciousness had been innate, the reality to which it refers - phenomenal consciousness - could only be established through introspection, i.e. by establishing that there are such things as conscious experiences. Epiphenomenalism starts from the reality of phenomenal consciousness and it is based on the (introspective) evidence for the existence of conscious experiences.
There may be an innate concept of consciousness or not, in any case epiphenomenalism uses subjective experiences as a touch stone for such a concept.
After all, it is absurd to think that the reality of something might be established on the basis that we have a concept of that entity (take for example the case of the unicorn). The only valid reason for supposing there really are conscious experiences is therefore the introspective observation that there are such experiences. If nobody introspectively observed subjective, phenomenal experiences, there would be no reason to suppose that there really is such a thing as consciousness.
Epiphenomenalism is forced therefore to found its unconditional acceptance on an introspective contact with that very same phenomenal consciousness. Such a contact, however, equals a causal effect by consciousness upon the conceptualization processes of the person who contemplates his or her subjective, phenomenal experiences through introspection.
By the way, it is not necessary to conceive of the impact of consciousness in this process as a conscious 'act'. It suffices to conceive it as a 'factor', comparable to the causal status of an object perceived during the process of perception. In this respect, we might rephrase Berkeley by saying: 'percipi est movere' (to be perceived is to move). This view clearly contrasts with that of David Chalmers who seems to believe a real entity can make a difference for our knowledge without at the same time exerting a causal influence. Chalmers seems to overlook the fact that in order to have a realistic concept of something that entity must be somehow represented in memory which means that the non-causal influence on knowledge postulated by him must in the end have a really causal effect after all.
(4) Thus, epiphenomenalism internally contradicts itself. It states that there would be a valid reason to postulate phenomenal experiences, but proclaims at the same time that these experiences are completely unknowable, by denying them any causal impact. The inevitable conclusion therefore is that epiphenomenalism should be disqualified for good.
Does epiphenomenalism really need to state that there are phenomenal experiences?
Several of our readers assumed that they could tackle our argumentation by denying that epiphenomenalists need to claim there really is such a thing as phenomenal consciousness. They agreed that it would be irrational to deny that claiming that something exists implies claiming to know that the thing in question exists. In other words, they agree that if epiphenomenalism claims that there really are phenomenal experiences, this entails that epiphenomenalism claims to possess knowledge of their existence, which leads to the inconsistency of claiming to have a type of knowledge, which according to one's own position it would be impossible to possess.
Now, our critics proposed a new definition of a more sophisticated epiphenomenalism which would not include any claims about the reality of consciousness. This new type of epiphenomenalism would accept the idea that any type of knowledge of consciousness is simply impossible. It would truly be an agnostic type of epiphenomenalism.
However, this new type of epiphenomenalism is really unlike the more traditional forms, precisely because of its agnosticism. Traditional epiphenomenalism implicitly appeals to the most basic human experience, namely that we are subjective beings with an inner, phenomenal life. The new, "conditional" type of epiphenomenalism proposed by some of our readers simply states that IF there is consciousness, THEN it will be epiphenomenal.
More importantly, the proposed agnostic epiphenomenalism faces another problem, namely that it implies that there can be no good reason to believe in the existence of consciousness anymore, which also implies there can be no good reason to take a epiphenomenalist position! Anything we think about consciousness could not be based on introspection. Agnostic epiphenomenalism gives consciousness the status of a figment of our imagination that just might correspond to something real. This has nothing to do anymore with the original role epiphenomenalism was thought to fulfill: accepting the reality of consciousness while denying its causal efficacy. It is like putting up a strawman of one's own position just to prevent the opponents from defeating it.
- Rivas, T., & Dongen, H. van (2001). Exit Epifenomenalismo: La demolicion de un refugio. Revista de Filosofia, vol. LVII, 111-129.
- Rivas, T., & Dongen, H. van (2003). Exit Epiphenomenalism: The Demolition of a Refuge. Journal of Non-Locality and Remote Mental Interactions, Vol. I, Nr. 1. February 2003.
This online paper was published on txtxs.nl in 2011. It was written a few years before.