|Exit Epiphenomenalism: The Demolition of a Refuge|
|The authors systematically present an analytical argument against epiphenomenalism, the argument from the justification of the assertion of the existence of consciousness.|
Exit Epiphenomenalism: The Demolition of a Refuge
published in 2003 in the online Journal of Non-Locality and Remote Mental Interactions, Vol. II, Issue 2
by Titus Rivas & Hein van Dongen*1
article examines the background, implications and merit of the position
of epiphenomenalism. Most of all, the authors systematically present an
analytical argument against epiphenomenalism, the argument from the
justification of the assertion of the existence of consciousness. It is
shown that whereas epiphenomenalists claim to know that consciousness
exists, they implicitly deny the possibility of knowing consciousness,
since (according to their position) consciousness cannot have any
influence on our knowledge. Similarly, the authors examine and reject
the position of parallellism. Parallellism implicitly states it knows
of the existence of an unknowable physical world. Consequences are
mentioned for philosophy and empirical science.
this article we ask ourselves whether epiphenomenalism is a tenable
position. Epiphenomenalism is the thesis that the mind or consciousness
in the Cartesian sense of subjective experience (which comprises both
perception and thought, and emotion and volition) is an epiphenomenon
of the brain and therefore completely impotent. Firstly we will briefly
situate epiphenomenalism within the philosophy of mind. Furthermore we
will offer a sketch of its significance for contemporary philosophy and
for empirical science. Then we will also give attention to the
arguments that have been presented in favour of the position. In the
second part we will look at the arguments that through the passage of
time have been used against epiphenomenalism. In this part we will also
present an argument that we believe demonstrates better than any other
its internal inconsistency. Finally, in the third part, we will ask
ourselves what consequences the disqualification of epiphenomenalism
(as a tenable position) should have, both for the philosophy of mind
and for philosophy in general, as well as for the empirical sciences
based on these.
holds that all mental phenomena, processes or conditions are nothing
more than epiphenomena (by-products) of cerebral processes. Hereby one
does not intend to say that the mental could not exist apart from the
the physical (although this is indeed implied by it), but that the
mental does not have any influence on reality. The subjective mind does
exist, but it is not "efficacious", i.e. it cannot be the cause of
anything, neither within its own mental dominion, nor within the
physical world *2. For this supposed mental incapacity people have
created illustrative images, like that of the steam whistle of a
locomotive. The sound of the steam whistle constitutes a real
phenomenon, but it does not influence the functioning of the loc, it is
only an epiphenomenon of it *3. In a similar way, there are conscious
experiences that are inevitably caused by cerebral processes. Just as
the steam whistle does not influence the functioning of the locomotive,
neither does consciousness influence the cerebral processes by which it
Ontology and causality
is an answer to the question of the causal influence of the mind or
consciousness upon reality. The answer is that the mind does not
exercise any influence. The mind is always only an effect and never a
cause. As such, epiphenomenalism may be classified within so called
physicalism. Physicalism states that everything that exists is the
result of the laws which are valid for the physical world. It is
important to make a sharp distinction between physicalism and
materialism. Materialism is an ontological position that states that
the only thing that really exists is matter -traditionally: "atoms in
motion". Physicalism is not an ontological position [clarification 2004:
in the sense of a position about the stuff or entities reality is made
of ], but only speaks of the types of causality that may exist [remark 2004: in this sense it may of course be called an ontological position after all, namely about the ontology of all possible forms of causal efficacy rather than about the ontology of real, existing
entities]. Also despite the possible existence of an uncountable number
of entities that never could be included in definitions of matter, only
the material entities can exercise a causal influence. This leads to
the conclusion that epiphenomenalism truly is physicalist. However, it
is not a materialist position because the very reason that is given for
the incapacity of consciousness consists of the fact that consciousness
is not material. Thus, epiphenomenalism is a dualist physicalist
position *4. There also are other forms of physicalism, which do have a
materialist character. Thus, an identity theory cannot recognize either that the subjective mind as such would be efficacious,
because conscious life following this thesis is in the objective sense
identical to certain physiological events in the brain, and therefore
the subjective or 'phenomenal' properties don't matter causally in the objective sense.
On the other hand, the eliminationist positions naturally deny any
influence by the mind, for the simple reason that acording to them the
mind does not even exist. Within the philosophy of mind,
epiphenomenalism is frequently used as though it were a synonym of
physicalism. For this reason the identity theory is frequently called
"epiphenomenalist" as well. This kind of confusion does not facilitate
the debate over epiphenomenalism. Some of the arguments defended are
either against or in favour of certain other kinds of physicalism. It
is for this reason that we stress again that epiphenomenalism has a
dualist ontology. It is this ontology that following the physicalist
principle leads to the conclusion that there is indeed a mental life,
but that that mental life does not exert any influence upon reality.
Dualism and psychogenic causality
is one of the answers that dualists give to the question of
psychogenical causality: the influence of mind on reality. It is the
only completely physicalist answer within dualism. There are also two
other dualist positions concerning this question. On the one hand we
can find parallellism, that maintains a partial physicalism. According
to parallellism the mind does exert causal influence upon its own
mental reality, but not upon physical reality. As in the case of
physicalism, the material world would be completely determined by
physical laws. An important difference, however, is that the material
world does not influence the mind either. There would be a complete
parallel causality between the two kinds of domain of reality. On the
other hand there is interactionism, which also rejects physicalism
within the material world. Following interactionism matter and mind
both exert a causal influence upon themselves and on each other.
Implications of epiphenomenalism
the philosophical sense, the major implication of epiphenomenalism is
that what we do or feel is never caused by what we experience or have
experienced. This implication goes much further than the negation of
free will. As subjective beings, we are completely impotent confronted
by the processes of the material world. We cannot exert any influence
upon them, but we are completely determined by them. Our relations with
reality, our relation with ourselves, with other persons, with objects,
etc., are completely caused by physiological processes in the brain.
relations never initiate anything. Thus, epiphenomenalism
anthropologically implies an "imprisoned" consciousness that can
undertake absolutely nothing and never has any power over itself.
Naturally, this metaphysics has great consequences for the axiology and
ethics. In fact, axiologically epiphenomenalism implies that all our
values are biogenical; there are no values that would not be
epiphenomena of neurological processes.
Anything that we human
beings experience as transcendent to the purely biological, such as
beauty, truth, or friendship, is in fact nothing more than the impotent
product of physiology which is exempt of any value. This approaches a
nihilist axiology. Why for example do many people find a certain opus
of Beethoven moving?
Exclusively because their brains react in a
specific way (causing emotions) to a certain auditive structure and
because that physical reaction causes a certain positive subjective
sensation, and never because of the qualitative experience of beauty
itself. In the field of ethics not only do such concepts as
responsibility lose their meaning, but any ethical ideal should be seen
as exclusively caused by cerebral processes. The only kind of ethics
that might be reconciled with this, is a strictly descriptive
naturalism. In other words, the moral domain is completely determined
by amoral neurology.
In psychology, epiphenomenalism implies that
everything which is relevant for behaviour and cognition can in
principle be completely simulated by machines (computers). The same
goes for animal psychology and ethology: if human consciousness does
not exert any influence, then the same must naturally hold for animal
With regards to neuropsychology and psychiatry
epiphenomenalism agrees with the thought that they should be completely
determined by biology. In the case of psychiatric disorders it is
therefore always essential to emphasize physiology (biopsychiatry).
parapsychology *6 which studies paranormal phenomena which occur under
experimental conditions, is hardly conceivable given the presuppostions
of epiphenomenalism. Various parapsychologists consider their
investigations as a possibility to evaluate the hypothesis of direct
interactions between mind and physical reality, i.e.: investigations
that aim at extrasensory perception, and at psychokinesis, by which the
mind would exert influence outside its physical motoric apparatus *7.
Arguments in favour of epiphenomenalism
opt for the epiphenomenalist position is not an arbitrary choice. In
fact it consist, as has already been said, of a combination of dualism
and physicalism. With the dualist element, epiphenomenalism avoids the
objection against materialism that it would deny the existence of
consciousness which it itself would need as a philosophical current, or
which would reduce consciousness to something material and therefore to
something unconscious *8.
For the remainder of this article,
our attention will be directed towards the physicalist aspect of
epiphenomenalism, not to its dualist ontology, which is shared by us
*9. Therefore, this essay will explicitly not deal with any form of
materialism, because -just like the epiphenomenalists and other
dualists- we think it is evident that there are aspects of the
subjective mind which apriori cannot be considered material in any way.
In other words, the ontological debate should therefore be taking place
before the debate about causal efficacy, not during, let alone
afterwards. The mingling of these two questions that clearly differ
from each other has already caused a lot of confusion. Although such
may be very impopular, we won't follow then the materialist fashion and
we will only deal here with the problem of efficacy within a dualist
Epiphenomenalists present the following argumentation
for their physicalism: 1. From a theoretical point of view, it is more
parsimonious to adopt the physicalist position, because a) the physical
laws are as far as we know valid for all types of physical
organization, including the human organism and its brain *10. b) there
is not a single empirical bit of evidence for a psychogenic effect on
reality *11. 2. Interactionism is "inconceivable". It would boil down
to "magic", as Jackendoff puts it *12. How could something mental cause
something material? We will immediately leave this second point aside.
If we cannot conceive of a psychogenic influence, then the somatogenic
causation of the psyche is even more inconceivable, and it is on such
"magical" causation that epiphenomenalism is explicitly based. We may
add that any causality is essentially mysterious *13. In what follows,
we will only consider acceptable the argument from parsimony. The
principle of parsimony is important within the philosophy of science
because it can lessen all kinds of unfounded speculations.
Arguments against epiphenomenalism
our exposition of epiphenomenalism, it is about time we consider the
counter-arguments. By the way, according to Hodges and Lachs *14,
philosophers have attacked epiphenomenalism more often than that they
have defended it. One can imagine their motivation quite easily, if we
look at the hardly attractive implications of that position for all
kinds of fields.
Within the counter-arguments presented we can
distinguish between four types: intuitive objections, arguments against
the parsimony of epiphenomenalism, an argument against the validity of
the position, and finally logical arguments directed against the
internal consistency (coherence) of epiphenomenalism.
First we will discuss the arguments presented that we know and then we will present our own analytical argument.
intuitive objections *15 against epiphenomenalism are obvious.
Epiphenomenalism does not harmonize at all with the image an average
person cherishes of him- or herself. For common people it is evident
that if they shout sometimes, it may be because they feel angry, or
that if they smile to someone, it is because they feel sympathy towards
that person, etc. *16 Epiphenomenalism goes against this intuitive
concept of the existence of psychogenical causality. It would 'debunk'
it, as it were, in the following sense: "People may believe that their
conscious experiences matter causally, but they're just wrong, it only
appears to be so. In fact, only cerebral processes and structures can
have a causal impact on reality" *17. The intuitive argument that our
daily speech would show innumerable examples of the importance of
consciousness, is, of course, equally weak; in other words, language
reflects such ideas as are conceived of by (common) people, and those
ideas can, as has already been said, be completely erroneous. We do
share the intuitive objections mentioned, but we are aware that in
debates concerning epiphenomenalism they are not of much weight.
Arguments regarding parsimony
the arguments regarding parsimony one can make a subdivision between
arguments that go against the epiphenomenalist's argument 1(a) and an
argument against 1(b), both mentioned above. That is, against the
universality of the laws of physics, and against the lack of empirical
evidence for psychogenical causality.
Arguments against the universality of the laws of physics:
Argument based on evolution theory
evolutionary argument was already entertained by William James *18 and
recently it has been defended once more by Karl Popper *19. According
to William James, the properties of consciousness indicate its causal
efficacy. First of all consciousness probably becomes more complex and
intense in the course of animal evolution. In this sense it is similar
to a physical organ. Secondly, consciousness would be a kind of
"selective agency", an instrument to make decisions with. Thirdly, the
nervous systems which get more complex at every stage of evolution, do
not only seem to adapt better every time, and to get more flexible each
time, but also they seem to get more unstable with every evolutionary
It is for this reason, that consciousness would have
originated, following James, as it makes choices, and thus prevents the
brain from being lost in chaos. This is due among other reasons to the
fact that only consciousness has something to choose, 'matters has no
ideals to pursue'. Thus consciousness raises the probability of the
maintenance of biological life. On this point, James reasons as
follows: This plausible image offers a justification of the existence
of consciousness. If consciousness does not matter, why would it ever
have originated during evolution? Karl Popper formulates it as follows:
'If natural selection is to account for the emergence of the World 2 of
subjective or mental experiences, the theory must explain the manner in
which the evolution of World 2 (and of World 3) systematically provides
us with instruments for survival" *20.
Now, the problem with the
evolutionary argument is that its proponents don't realize enough that
not all individual parts of an organism need to be functional from the
point of view of evolution theory *21. A bear may for example have a
thick and warm skin which is also very heavy. The warmth of the skin
contributes to the bear's survival, but the weight does not. The weight
is an inevitable epiphenomenon of the fact that the skin is thick and
warm. Thus it is well conceivable that something inevitably originates
as a consequence of a certain organization of genes without it having
any importance for evolution itself. Therefore, it is incorrect to
sustain that epiphenomenalism would inevitably contradict
(neo)darwinism. It is not necessary for consciousness to have a
positive effect in order to be conserved as a possible effect of
evolution, but exclusively that it would not affect the probability of
survival and reproduction in a negative way. This is precisely what is
the case according to epiphenomenalism: Consciousness does not have any
impact on anything, neither positive nor negative. With regards to
James's argument *22 of the "selective agent" that consciousness would
be: this is explicitly attacked by Ray Jackendoff. In reality,
Jackendoff holds, it is a subconscious, 'computational' process of
concentration and selection of certain information, that would in many
cases effectively lead to experiences of conscious attention. The real
selection and choice would thus take place at a subconscious level, not
based on subconscious objectives and motives, but on its hypothetical
subconscious "substrates" (= the hypothetical physiological structures
Implication of teleology
argument supplied by William James, states that in cases of cerebral
lesions certain functions can be suppressed and that afterwards they
apparently can be transferred to other parts of the brain, which might
indicate an efficacy that only can be related to consciousness. The
problem with this argument is that it might be the case in fact that it
should be explained by a kind of pre-wiring of the brain that would
allow several parts to adopt several programs. There is no reason why
it should be consciousness that would cause the transfer of functions,
but it could be just the interactions between the demands that life
imposes on the organism and the physiological possibilities of which it
still disposes. The supposed teleology might in theory be just
Argument against the lack of empirical evidence for psychogenic causality:
Beloff *23 is the main opponent of epiphenomenalism who founds his case
on paranormal or PSI phenomena, viz. extrasensory perception (ESP) and
psychokinesis (PK). Beloff believes that only PSI phenomena can
demonstrate the efficacy of the mind. He explicitly rejects all the
other types of argumentation. This attitude can be compared to that of
Ray Jackendoff who holds that he could only be convinced by empirical
data that his position is incorrect. Jackendoff does not say, however,
what kind of phenomena these data would entail *24.
his view only PSI phenomena might refute epiphenomenalism, Beloff
considers parapsychology as one of the most important means of
regaining our dignity and awareness of our human worth. He holds also
that there are valid reasons to suppose that PSI phenomena really do
exist. Furthermore, he states that PSI phenomena can be explained most
easily by forms of psychogenic causality. Not only there is no evidence
whatsoever that the brain might have completely unknown powers that
might result in PSI phenomena. But also, he is convinced that PSI
phenomena would show the same intentional activities as the ones
studied by common psychology. Although it is conceivable that PSI
phenomena are caused by something completely different from both mind
and brain *25, this is not at all a plausible hypothesis.
Ayer *26 states that epiphenomenalism is defined in such a way that it
would never be possible to refute it. In our opinion, however, PSI
phenomena might be considered as phenomena, the physicalist explanation
of which approaches zero to such degree, that the pretension of
parsimony loses its power *27. Also, we think that parapsychology has
sufficiently demonstrated that the existence of PSI is plausible. When
philosophers such as William James *28, Gerard Heymans*29, Henri
Bergson *30, and H.H. Price *31 included these phenomena in their
philosophy of mind, the data were still more controversial than they
are today. In the meantime, the evidence for the incidence of these
phenomena is of such quality that some publications about them are
accepted by journals of science *32 and also for example by the eminent
American Association for the Advancement of Science.
physicists seem to be inclined not to reduce the phenomena to
autonomous physical processes, and they even include them within models
that show interactionist properties *33. It might be emotionally
difficult to seriously accept the existence of PSI phenomena, but at
the end of the twentieth century this should not be an obstacle anymore
to the right assessment of the abundant evidence in this field.
Argument against the validity of epiphenomenalism
argument was also presented by Karl Popper *34. He holds that if a
reasoning is really only realized on a physiological level, the
epiphenomenalist cannot maintain the validity of his or her own
position. The possible validity of epiphenomenalism is not a physical
property but should be seen as a positive judgment on the position
based on abstract principles. Popper does not consider this point as a
refutation of epiphenomenalism, but he does conclude that the
epiphenomenalist cannot use any argument to defend him- or herself, as
that would imply the recognition of the impact of immaterial
principles. We agree with this argument of Popper. If the
epiphenomenalist states that in the real world the only things that
matter are physical entities, why does (s)he bother then about such
things as "truth" and "validity"?
Arguments against the internal consistency of epiphenomenalism
Several arguments have been formulated according to which
epiphenomenalism contradicts itself. All of these arguments are
structured as follows:
Epiphenomenalism does itself mention
consciousness, while denying for example its efficacy. This implies
that consciousness in one way or another has had an effect upon
epiphenomenalism's argumentation and upon the ideas on which it is
The argument from the knowledge of contents of consciousness
crudest form of the argument mentioned above states the following: Some
epiphenomenalists are talking about all kinds of contents of
consciousness, such as for example the experience of colours or sounds,
and they hold at the same time that none of these contents would have
any impact on reality. How is it possible then that those very same
epiphenomenalists talk about contents of consciousness?
version of the argument, however, can still be refuted by
epiphenomenalism. While talking about the contents of consciousness,
one does not have to be talking, according to epiphenomenalism, about
the contents themselves, but in fact only about the specific
physiological substrates that constitute the supposed cause of any kind
of subjective experiences *35. A proposition such as 'I see the colour
red' would thus be caused completely by the supposed physiological
correlate of the content of the consciousness concerned. That there
would be such physiological substrates for any conscious content that
exists, is a basic principle of epiphenomenalism: All subjective
experiences would be caused by cerebral structures or processes *36.
The argument from the origin of the concept of consciousness
did our concepts regarding subjective experiences come from? This is
the question which is raised by the second version of the logical
argument. S. Shoemaker holds that it is qualia which are the cause of
the existence of a belief in the existence of qualia. Following
Shoemaker *37, one could maintain that people would think, talk and
write about the concept of consciousness because they have formed this
concept on the basis of consciousness.
Thus formulated, the
argument is still not strong enough *38. First, according to the
epiphenomenalists one could still well imagine a conceptual
representation of consciousness within a system that does not possess
any consciousness itself, but only an innate concept of consciousness.
Secondly, talking about consciousness does not in itself prove anything
regarding the presence of such consciousness, because one could also
program a computer in such a way that it would produce verbal output
about the concept of consciousness.
The argument from wondering about consciousness
*39 states that consciousness does not have to be the cause of a
concept of consciousness, but it does have to be the cause of the fact
that "people are bothered by problems of consciousness". However, if it
is possible that there is an innate concept of consciousness, which is
not excluded by Elitzur, then the emotional interest concerning the
strange concept of consciousness could be explained away as a
subjective epiphenomenon of a purely physiological phenomenon.
Physiological substrates of wondering about the supposedly innate
concept of consciousness would lead to an experience of wonder and
The argument from the justification of the concept of consciousness
ourselves know three authors that completely independently from us have
reached the following version of the logical argument against
epiphenomenalism, they are: Michael Watkins, Dennett*40 and John
Reacting to an essay by Jackson of 1982 *42, Michael
Watkins wrote a short article in the journal 'Analysis' *43. Jackson
had defended in his essay the existence of epiphenomenal qualia which
are completely impotent, i.e. qualitative aspects of subjective
experience. To this Watkins reacted in the following way: 'Beliefs
about qualia cannot be justified on the basis of qualitative
experiences since those experiences do not cause those beliefs. The
only evidence we have of qualia is our direct experience of them.'
Daniel C. Dennett published in 1991 his 'Consciousness explained' after
the formulation by Watkins and also after a first formulation of this
argument by one of us *44. Although starting from a different
philosophy of mind, functionalism, he shows in a similar way that
epiphenomenalism is incoherent or internally inconsistent, and that for
that reason it does not deserve any serious philosophical attention
*45. On page 403 he says literally: : 'So if anyone claims to uphold a
variety of epiphenomenalism, try to be polite, but ask: What are you
talking about', and on page 405 he concludes: 'There could not be an
empirical reason, then for believing in epiphenomena. Could there be
another sort of reason for asserting their existence? What sort of
reason? An a priori reason, presumably. But what? No one has ever
offered one -good, bad, or indifferent- that I have seen.'
to Stokes (1991) John Foster has stated in a discussion of the subject
that if epiphenomenalism is valid, anything said by its proponents
about mental events would lose its meaning as there could be no impact
of such events on their own thought and words. In other words, the
supposed validity of epiphenomenalism is self-defeating.
philosophers have exactly hit the point in our opinion. In order to
clarify this, we will present our own independent formulation:
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, 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
(3) We have to be aware that even if the concept of
consciousness had been innate, the reality to which it refers
-consciousness- could only be established through introspection, i.a.
by establishing that there are such things as conscious experiences.
Epiphenomenalism starts from the reality of consciousness and it is
based on the (introspective) evidence for the existence of conscious
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 would introspectively observe subjective
experiences, there would be no reason to suppose that there really
would be such a thing as consciousness.
Epiphenomenalism is forced
therefore to found its unconditional acceptance on an introspective
contact with that very same consciousness. Such a contact, however,
equals a causal effect by consciousness upon the conceptualization
processes of the one that contemplates his or her subjective
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 *46. 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 (1996) 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 (be it mental or neural) which means
that the non-causal influence on knowledge postulated by him must in
the end have a really causal effect after all. (Added May 2005: A similar mistake seems to have been made by Alexander Staudacher in his 2002 lecture Qualia-Epiphenomenalism Revisited at the Mental Causation-Conference at Bielefeld)
Thus epiphenomenalism internally contradicts itself. It states that
there would be a valid reason to postulate mental experiences, but
proclaims at the same time that these experiences are completely
unknowable, by denying them any causal impact *47. The inevitable
conclusion therefore is that epiphenomenalism should be disqualified
A possible defense by the epiphenomenalists would be
at first sight that in this analytical argument we would encounter a
dubious kind of 'justificationism', as not all theoretical entities
must be justified directly by observations. Is it not enough that the
entities would make a difference for the predictions that follow from
the hypothesis? Perhaps this defense may seem to set the
epiphenomenalist free from the need of founding his or her certainty
that there really is such a thing as subjective awareness. However, the
contrary is true. Even if we would take the case mentioned seriously,
this would still lead us to the conclusion that consciousness needs to
make an impact, even if only indirectly, on the predictions about
reality, and that influence would not be reconciliable with
epiphenomenalism either *48.
Epiphenomenalism turns out to be
a kind of obscurantism, an erroneous representation of (part of)
reality in favour of conceptions that are considered indubitable, i.e.
of physicalism *49, and of the irreducibility of the subjective mind.
We might say that it is a 'refuge' for those physicalists who are not
blind to their own subjectivity *50. The argument described above shows
clearly that physicalism can no longer believe that it is safe from
radical dualistic attacks.
Implications of the disqualification of epiphenomenalism
disqualification of epiphenomenalism is, as we have just seen,
inevitable. Now, we will give attention to the consequences of the
disqualification of epiphenomenalism. Ray Jackendoff stated in 1989,
confronted by our version of the argument from the justification of the
concept of consciousness, that it might be wise to reconsider the
reality of subjective experiences. Dennett has even a more extreme
position. Starting from his own formulation of our analytical argument,
he concludes that no one is conscious, at least not in the common,
'mysterious' and qualitative sense of the term *51. Both authors
conclude in other words from the irreconciliability of physicalism and
dualism that the concept of consciousness should be eliminated, i.e.
sacrificed to the protection of indubitable physicalism *52. In fact we
might qualify this as a contemporaneous form of blind and unfounded
On the other hand, it is interesting to note that both
thinkers do not opt anymore for the materialist identity theory, but
directly for an eliminative materialism, which denies the existence of the subjective mind (in this context, this may also concern an eliminativist position on phenomenal consciousness within a generally reductive ontology). This is so, because the identity theory also holds
that only the so called 'objective' side to the subjective mind, i.e.
the brain (or part of it), would have an objective impact on reality.
However, this is impossible, as we have already seen, because for the
justification of postulating a subjective mind, it is necessary to
believe that subjective mind is efficacious qua subjective mind, and
not only in the so called 'objective', physiological sense, as identity
theory would have it.
Therefore, as we are not going to imitate
the opportunistic denial of consciousness, we will have to look for
another variant with regards to psychogenical causality within dualism,
unless we would go for idealism, which is a conception we will not
discuss in this paper.
The disqualification of parallellism
authors *53 stress that parallellism and epiphenomenalism have a lot in
common. Both positions state that for each and every subjective
experience there is a physiological correlate. The difference is,
however, that this correlate according to epiphenomenalism is the
substrate of that experience, whereas according to parallellism it
would only involve a parallel correlate. Now, parallellism should be
disqualified for a similar reason as the one given against
epiphenomenalism, it even is the mirror image of our analytical
argument. Epiphenomenalism cannot reconcile its certainty that there
really is such a thing as a conscious mind with the implied
impossibility of knowing the existence of consciousness. Parallellism,
on the other hand, cannot reconcile its certainty that there really is
a material world with the purported inability of that world to have an
impact on the psyche. In other words, on the one hand, there would be
no doubt according to parallellism that there is a physical world, but
on the other hand it follows from the supposed parallel and strictly
separate causality that the physical world cannot have any influence
upon the psyche. Thus there is once again a contradiction: We know with
certainty of the existence of a physical world, while at the same time we
are certainly incapable of knowing that same physical world.
only interactionism is left as the sole possibility *54. This implies
that the acceptance of the existence of irreducible subjective
experiences (apart from the existence of a material world), or dualism,
logically leads to interactionism.
It seems that intuition was right. We certainly do count as subjective
beings, we doubtlessly have an impact upon ourselves, upon our lives
and upon our social and physical environment.
Also, axiology and
ethics cannot be reduced to biogenical epiphenomena. In (human)
psychology and in ethology and animal psychology *55, it should from
now on be clear that consciousness is important for experience and
behaviour. Apparently, it is at least a source of conceptualization.
Any current or theory within these sciences that would be fundamentally
irreconciliable with the existence of psychogenic causality, should be
made aware of the untenability of the positions of epiphenomenalism and
parallellism. We are not, to paraphrase Huxley, 'conscious automata'.
in neuropsychology and psychiatry the point of departure should be that
there really are effects of consciousness upon processes in the brain.
Cerebral processes are therefore not the only internal causes of
behaviour and experience, but so is subjective awareness.
A psychiatry that wants to be beneficial cannot limit itself therefore to a purely physiological treatment.
the scientific theoretical status of parapsychology (which almost by
definition contrasts with physicalism) is no longer an apriori problem
within the framework of interactionism.
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Data of the authors of 'Exit Epiphenomenalism: The demolition of a refuge'
Rivas, MA (psych. & phil.) (1964) is a graduate of systematical
philosophy and theoretical psychology. His main fields of theoretical
interest include, in alphabetical order: animal psychology and ethics,
axiology, general psychology, metaphysics and parapsychology. He has
published articles about various topics within these and other domains
and a book on parapsychological reincarnation research,
"Parapsychologisch onderzoek naar reincarnatie en leven na de dood".
van Dongen PhD (phil.) (1957) has been a student of Dutch litterature
and graduated in philosophy at the University of Amsterdam. One of his
responsibilities is that of editor of the Dutch journal Prana. He has
recently published a book, written together with Hans Gerding titled
'Het voertuig van de ziel', about the hylic pluralism of the Dutch
Correspondence should go to: Titus Rivas, Darrenhof 9, 6533 RT Nijmegen, The Netherlands, firstname.lastname@example.org
earlier Spanish version of this paper was published as"Exit
Epifenomenalismo: La demolicion de un refugio" in Revista de Filosofia
(Universidad de Santiago, Chile), 2001, vol. LVII, 111-129.
content of the Spanish paper is practically identical to this English
version, the main exception consisting of our present remarks about the
position defended by David Chalmers.
thanks go to Rob de Vries, John Beloff, Ray Jackendoff, Michael Watkins
and David Chalmers for their advice and correspondence. Furthermore we
are especially grateful to René van Delft, Dick Bierman, Bob van Dorp,
Eric de Maeyer and Esteban Rivas for their comments. Finally we are
indebted to Peter N.J. Diederen Jr. for having put at our disposal his
2. Eccles, 1977, pp. 17-18.
1898, pp. 31-38; James, 1891, p. 129. James also mentions as other
images: foam, aura, or melody. A contemporary symbol is the small light
or buzzing noise in computers which indicates that they are working,
but which does not exert any influence upon their functioning. An
additional symbol is that of a shadow.
4.Beloff, 1987, p. 215; Bergson, 1944, p. 40; Hodges & Lachs, 1979, p. 515.
5. See for example: Van Rooijen, 1985, pp. 379-383.
We refer here to parapsychology as the empirical study of anomalies, in
which the possible existence of those anomalies is not a priori denied
and in which the investigation is focussed at the study of their
reality. In other words, we are not talking about the sociological or
psychological study of 'paranormal' experiences which is based on the
hypothesis that the phenomena are not (or cannot be) real.
7. Bierman, Van Dongen & Gerding, 1991.
8. Beloff, 1988, p. 217.
We hope it is clear that apart from eliminationism we also discard the
various types of identity theory, functionalism and emergence
materialism. In practice all of these positions can from an ontological
point of view be seen here as forms of materialism, as all of them hold
that the mind does not constitute a separate domain of reality, but
that it can be seen -and this sense be reduced to- an "interior side",
"pattern" or "level" of matter.
However, matter can by definition
never be subjective, neither in a special manifestation of it nor on
some kind of mysterious level. As Karl Popper has shown (p. 81, etc.)
the negation of this fact leads to a pseudo-materialism which really is
a kind of idealism, or to a definitory confusion (a form of
obscurantism) in which the term "matter" becomes something like
"reality" so that it cannot fulfill a distinctive function in the
debate any longer.
10. For example according to Leibniz, see Stokes, 1993, p. 45.
11. Jackendoff, 1988, personal communication. Compare this with: Heymans, 1933, pp. 85, etc.
12. Jackendoff, 1987, pp. 311-317.
James, 1891, pp. 136-137; compare: Crane and Mellor, 1990, p. 192. One
of the best passages about this question can be found in Bolzano, 1970,
pp. 86-87 (in our own free translation): " However, we have to
presuppose the existence of immediate influences [in nature]... Because
if we do not absolutely deny all mutual influences, if we do not want
to maintain, against common sense, that in the whole of creation there
would not be a necessary coherence between entities anywhere, if at
least we do no want to do that, then we must admit there also exists
some kind of immediate influence.
Because if such a thing would
not exist, how could there be any indirect influence? However,
immediate influences whether they occur between [ontological]
substances that are individual or between complex objects or between,
on the one hand individual simple entities and on the other hand
complex entities, presuppose in all these cases something
14. His source for this is "Shorter Oxford English Dictionary".
15. Compare: Roger Penrose, 1989, 527.
16. J. Shaffer, 1965, 100-101.
17. William James, 1891, 138-144.
18. Karl Popper (with Eccles), 1977.
19. Karl Popper, 72, etc.
20. Compare this also with Roger Penrose, 1989, 528.
René Marres, 1985, 161-162. We also refer to the more recent English
translation of the book by Marres from 1989, In defense of mentalism: A
critical review of the philosophy of mind.
22. Ray Jackendoff, 280-283.
23. John Beloff, 1987, 218-225.
24. Personal communication.
Beloff, 1987, 220. Even if there had emerged completely new and still
unknown physical principles of the organization of the brain, we would
not expect those hypothetical principles to go against the physical
limitations of that same brain as an organical (physical) system.
26. Ayer, 1986, 221.
Compare: Ian Stevenson, 1987, 228. One might in theory still imagine
spontaneous correlations between physical events and mental states,
which could still be reconciled with epiphenomenalism.
28. William James, 1986.
29. G. Heymans, G., 1925.
30. Henri Bergson, 1944.
31. H.H. Price, 1940, 363-385.
D. Radin, & R. Nelson , 1989, 1499-1541 and also 'Onverklaarbare
relaties tussen het bewustzijn en toevalsprocessen'. Tijdschrift voor
Parapsychologie (1989). See: Bierman, Gerding and Van Dongen.
Bierman, Van Dongen and Gerding, 1992; this book contains contributions
by Brian Josephson and Olivier Costa de Beauregard, among other
34. Karl Popper, 81.
35. Rob de Vries, 1991, 10, 2, 75-76.
36. For a more extensive refutation of this version, see: M. Hodges en J. Lachs, 1979, 32, 515-529.
37. S. Shoemaker, 1975, 27, 29, etc.
38. A.C. Elitzur, 1989, 10, 9-10.
39. A.C. Elitzur, 9; Compare: Roger Penrose , 1987, 16; Penrose, 1989, 528.
40. Daniel C. Dennett in his already mentioned Consciousness Explained of 1991.
In fact, the Dutch philosopher René Marres also mentions in passing the
argument from the justification of the concept of consciousness.
However, he speaks of a paradox rather than a contradiction as he
states on page 183 of the book mentioned before: "Therefore, an
epiphenomenalist cannot hold that his belief in the existence of mental
processes is based on that same existence." Unfortunately, Marres has
clearly underestimated the value of this argument.
42. F. Jackson, 1982.
43. Michael Watkins, 1989.
See the paragraph 'Filosofische kritiek op het fysicalisme' in the
article by Titus Rivas (1990, pp. 10-11) or his more recent article
45. D.C. Dennett, 402-405.
46. The very phenomenon of introspection is in itself necessarily an act of a conscious subject.
There still is another way to demonstrate the logical structure of the
internal inconsistency of epiphenomenalism. Let's suppose a proposition
A which reads: We know of the existence of subjective experiences (or
'consciousness'). Another proposition B reads: We cannot know of the
existence of subjective experiences.
Proposition B implies a
proposition C, which reads: We do not know of the existence of
subjective experiences. If we substitute "we know of the existence of
subjective experiences" for a symbol D, epiphenomenalism can be
represented as follows: it holds D and not-D at the same time, which
clearly constitutes a contradiction.
48. Compare this with Dennett, 1991, 402.
The enormous influence that fysicalism has on the so called "hard"
natural sciences, can be seen for example in the following statement of
the famous cosmologist Stephen Hawking: 'We already know the natural
laws that govern everything that we experience in our daily lives."
Compare this with Churchland, 1990, 12: "It's a compromise between the
wish to do justice to a strictly scientific approach to the explanation
of behavior, and the wish to do justice to the testimony of
51. Dennett in his 'Brainstorms' of 1979 speaks of "mythical" where he mentions qualia.
In fact, the existence of personal consciousness, of our subjective
inner life, is the only thing that can never be doubted. Compare: from
a logical, analytical point of view it is possible to doubt that there
is a material world (which ultimately may lead to idealism) or that
there are other minds (the ultimate consequence of which might be
solipsism), but it is irrational to doubt that my own (irreducible)
inner of world of subjective and qualitative experiences is real.
53. For example: Karl Popper, 72.
54. We won't consider here exactly what interactionist (sub)theories are superior.
The presence of consciousness among animals is probable on the basis of
the so called analogy postulate. See: Esteban and Titus Rivas, 1991.
A few relevant links
- Agnostic Epiphenomenalism? Response to a Comment, by Titus Rivas
- The Causally Efficacious Psyche, by Titus Rivas
- The Doctrine of a Closed Physical Universe, by Titus Rivas
- There can be no strict parallellism between mind and matter, by Titus Rivas
- Why the efficacy of consciousness cannot be limited to the mind, by Titus Rivas
- Why we cannot do away with everyday causality: an epistemological argument, by Titus Rivas
|philosophy of mind, dualism, interactionism, epiphenomenalism, parallellism, consciousness, psychology, neurology|