|The Causally Efficacious Psyche|
|The theory of the Non-Efficacy of Consciousness or epiphenomenalism (and other
non-reductive forms of physicalism) may be influential, but the author
shows why they inevitably must be rejected as incoherent|
The efficacy of consciousness and psychological theory: a short comment|
by Titus Rivas
The theory of the
Non-Efficacy of Consciousness or epiphenomenalism (and other
non-reductive forms of physicalism) may be influential, but the author
shows why they inevitably must be rejected as incoherent. It is time to accept the analytical disqualification of physicalism and integrate its consequences into theoretical psychology. The ultimate criterion for the a priori-tenability of any fundamental framework for theoretical psychology is to be found in reason rather
than mere social consensus.
more than once tried to show that subjective awareness, how ever
precious it may be for us as conscious subjects, is at best the tip of
an enormous mental iceberg. Sigmund Freud already pointed at the
existence of unconscious or subconscious emotional and motivational
processes which in his view would determine most of our behavior. His
student Carl Gustav Jung added the concept of a collective subconscious
to his own brand of analytical psychology.
scientists such as Ray Jackendoff stress the importance of what is
sometimes called the 'cognitive subconscious' i.e. subconscious
computational processes at the basis of what we perceive, think, feel,
want and do. Jackendoff goes even further than Freud and than other
cognitivist scholars in claiming that consciousness (in the sense of
subjective awareness or the phenomenal mind as he terms it) has no efficacy,
which means that it can have no impact upon the subconscious,
computational mind whatsoever. He lucidly terms this standpoint the
hypothesis of the Non-Efficacy of Consciousness. Jackendoff has based his hypothesis partly upon empirical evidence for the striking importance of subconscious computation but even more on the philosophical consideration that any efficacy of consciousness would boil down to magic. It would imply an non-material phenomenon with subjective and qualitative, physically unregistrable dimensions to have a causal impact on the non-subjective and non-qualitative functional processes of the physical brain. Implicitly, his Non-Efficacy of Consciousness equals a form of what philosophers traditionally call epiphenomenalism. According to Jackendoff consciousness qua subjectivity would primarily be non-efficacious or an epiphenomenon (a powerless by-product of the physical world) because of its non-physical nature, properties or aspects.
At the section of Theoretical Psychology at the University of Utrecht (The Netherlands), René van Hezewijk, Rob
de Vries and some of their graduate students organized meetings for
anyone interested in a serious discussion of Jackendoff"s book Consciousness and the Computational Mind.
It was during such a meeting that as a student I fully realized the
impact of his hypothesis of the Non-Efficacy of Consciousness. I was
surprised by the fact that it was taken so seriously, as personally I
was searching for a unification between cognitivism which accepted data
from psychological and neuropsychological experiments and field
studies, and a Neo-Cartesian dualistic type of humanist psychology
which accepted the existence of an efficacious subjectivity. To me,
both the existence of subconscious cognition and an important role for
an irreducible, qualitative and subjective consciousness seemed
obvious, in human and 'even' in animal psychology. Therefore, I
wondered how anyone could seemingly swallow Jackendoff"s standpoint so
One of the organizers
of our discussions of the book, Rob de Vries, formulated an analytical
argument against the Non-Efficacy of Consciousness, saying that it was
strange to state that we could describe our conscious experiences if
they were not having an impact upon our computational mind. However, I
realized that Jackendoff would counter this argument by saying that
what we described would be the subconscious percepts and concepts
leading to our conscious experiences rather than those experiences
themselves. Surprisingly, this remark of mine seemed to have solved
the problem, whereas for me it was just the beginning of a discussion
of it. As I repeatedly tried to show during our meetings, I believed
that this rebuttal was untenable since it implicitly contained a
logical contradiction. I wrote Jackendoff an answered letter about it
and even spoke with him personally at an international conference. As I
see it, Ray Jackendoff was not able to show any flaw in my
argumentation and even seriously considered a reductionist 'escape route' rather than admitting the dreaded 'magical' possibility of any type of conscious efficacy.
The logical contradiction within any non-reductive hypothesis of the Non-Efficacy of Consciousness
my view, Rob de Vries was right to expect a logical contradiction
within the theory of epiphenomenalism or more generally Non-Efficacy.
How could we discuss the contents of consciousness if it had not any
type of causal impact upon our cognition? The formulation of his
argument just needed some additional sophistication. An
epiphenomenalist might claim that we simply do not think or talk about
the contents of consciousness but exclusively about its non-conscious,
computational substrates or causes. Even if this might usually be so -for
example if we are discussing the results of psychological experiments
which use self-reporting techniques- there certainly is one clear-cut
case in which the rebuttal cannot by any standard make any sense.
Whenever we want to dwell on consciousness as such, i.e. consciousness qua consciousness,
we need conscious experiences to have an impact on our cognitive
processes. Even if we had an innate concept of consciousness, referring
to such a concept would not suffice to explain our knowledge of the
existence of consciousness. For us to know that there are such things
as subjective experiences, those experiences must inevitably have
causally affected our cognitive apparatus.
think this argument is logically sound and shows that there are two
logically tenable possibilities in the debate about the causal impact
of subjective awareness: either one accepts the reality
of both an irreducible consciousness and its efficacy, or one rejects
both. Non-reductive physicalism simply does not make sense analytically.
As reductionism does not make sense empirically, the choice should seem
Knowledge by acquaintance as an alternative to causal conscious efficacy
I had formulated my argument against physicalism and found that no-one
I knew succeeded in showing that it was misguided, I wrote an article
about it with my friend Dr. Hein van Dongen for the Revista de Filosofía
of the University of Santiago (Chile). This was after I found that
three other scholars had published their own versions of our logical
argument against epiphenomenalism, namely reductionist Daniel Dennett
(in Consciousness Explained), idealist John Foster (in The Case for Dualism) and Michael Watkins (in Analysis). Naturally, we mentioned their own independent formulations in our paper.
months after its publication, I confronted David Chalmers with an
English translation of our article, who kindly sent me material on his
own position. Chalmers thinks that we must indeed posit a cognitive
influence of consciousness so that we can know that we have subjective
experiences, but that this influence is not a causal one. According to
Chalmers, we know that we are conscious subjects directly, by acquaintance.
Thus, a moderate, but still essential type of Non-Efficacy which would
allow for knowledge of consciousness can be saved. However, I realized
that this way out would only account for some kind of instantaneous,
ephemeral knowledge of subjective experiences at the very moment they
would occur. Any knowledge that would last longer than the moment
itself would require an impact of consciousness on memory. An impact which could not be anything else than causal.
Hein van Dongen and myself incorporated this insight into a second, English version of our paper for the Journal of Non-Locality and Remote Mental Interactions,
published this year. We also found out that Anthony J. Rudd had
responded in a similar way to the position taken by David Chalmers.
Partial epiphenomenalism, parallelism and identity theory
enthusiasts of the theory of Non-Efficacy have adopted a type of
partial epiphenomenalism. They grant the fact that epiphenomenalism
implicitly presupposes a causal impact of consciousness on our
cognition which makes it an incoherent position. However, they claim
that the efficacy of consciousness is limited to the mind and would not
affect the brain as a physical system. This is also an incoherent
position as Van Dongen and myself showed in our paper, in that partial
epiphenomenalism would not allow us to talk or write
about consciousness in any meaningful way, a point already made before
by John Foster. Partial epiphenomenalists (implicitly) claim that they
can do so, which entails that they simply cannot be right.
a causal impact on the mind which would not also affect the brain in
any way could mainly occur within a parallelist reality in which mind
and brain would never affect one another. Whereas, as we show in our
paper, parallellism should be rejected for a similar reason as
epiphenomenalism. Epiphenomenalism claims it possesses knowledge of the
existence of subjective experiences while it denies the possibility of
reaching such knowledge. Parallelism claims to have knowledge of the
existence of a physical world while it denies the physical world to
have a causal impact upon our cognition. Thus, both partial
epiphenomenalism and parallelism in general contain incurable logical
this even has an important implication for the tenability of any type
of identity theory which would deny that consciousness has an impact on
the 'objective' brain seen from a third-person perspective.
The efficacy of consciousness and theoretical psychology
theoretical acceptance of irreducible, subjective and qualitative
experiences within psychology can only be justified if we acknowledge
these experiences to have a causal impact on cognition. I have often
wondered what the problem would be if we simply did so. Scholars point
to the supposed magic this would imply, whereas the real
magic (in the sense of irrationality) would consist of accepting a
theory of which we already know a priori that it must be false. Consciousness is there and it must have an impact on the subconscious mind and the brain.
In fact, it is enormously important for the mind, as we would not be
talking or thinking about subjective experiences so much if it were
not. Without conscious efficacy we would not even be aware of ourselves
as conscious subjects and would lack self-awareness in this pivotal
than clinging to an obsolete, self-defeating physicalism, I think it
really is time to boldly accept a type of interactionism. A realistic or Neo-Cartesian interactionism in fact, which does not ignore any evidence for the role of subconscious processing.
acknowledgement of an irreducible and causally efficacious conscious
mind within theoretical psychology might make some of us feel awkward
in the context of a generally physicalist science. However, who is to
say that a logically coherent psychology could in principle never
contribute anything fundamental to our scientific world view? Are we
still subconsciously suffering from an inferiority complex in this
respect? If so, it is never too late to fight this irrational obstacle
As rational scientists we should value reason much more than any socially favoured doctrine.
here specifically wish to thank Hein van Dongen, Hank Stam, Rob de
Vries, René van Hezewijk, Emile van der Zee, Ray Jackendoff, Michael
Watkins, John Beloff, David Chalmers, Esteban Rivas and Anthony J. Rudd.
- Beloff, J. (1962). The Existence of Mind. New York: Citadel Press.
- Chalmers, D. (1996). The Conscious Mind. In Search of a Fundamental Theory. New York & Oxford: Oxford University Press.
- Dennett, D.C. (1991). Consciousness Explained. London: Penguin Books.
- Foster, J. (1982). The Case for Idealism. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.
- Jackendoff, R. (1987). Consciousness and the computational mind. Cambridge: MITPress.
- Popper, K.R., & Eccles, J.C. (1977). The Self and its Brain. Berlin: Springer.
- Rivas, T. (2003). Geesten met of zonder lichaam. Delft: Koopman & Kraaijenbrink.
- Rivas, T. (2003). Why the efficacy of consciousness cannot be limited to mind. Online paper, published on the website Kritisch.
- Rivas, T., & Dongen, H. van (2002). Exit Epifenomenalismo: La Demolicion de un Refugio. Revista de Filosofía, vol. LVII.
- Rivas, T., & Dongen, H. van (2003). Exit Epiphenomenalism: The Demolition of a Refuge.The Journal of Non-Local and Remote Mental Interactions, II,.
- Rudd, A. J. (2000). Phenomenal judgement and mental causation. Journal of Consciousness Studies, vol. 7, no. 6.
- Smythies, J.R., & Beloff, J. (Eds.) (1989). The Case for Dualism. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia.
- Watkins, M. (1989). The knowledge argument against the knowledgeargument. Analysis, 49, 158-160.
This paper was first published online in the early 2000s on my former personal website Kritisch.
|physicalism, philosophy of mind, interactionism, epiphenomenalism, efficacy, psychology, psychogenic causation, theoretical psychology|