ANALYTICAL ARGUMENTATION AND THE THEORETICAL FOUNDATION OF PSYCHICAL RESEARCH I: ARGUMENTS FOR THE CAUSAL EFFICACY OF MIND
'PARAPSYCHOLOGY' IS NOT synonymous with the study of anomalous phenomena. If it were, such things as extraterrestrial UFOs, the monster of Loch Ness and the Yeti would all classify as parapsychological issues. Instead, parapsychology and psychical research concentrate on specific kinds of anomalous phenomena, which are linked in some way or other to the realm of the human or animal mind. Such phenomena seem to indicate that the mind transcends the limits of the brain. For example, apparent precognitive experiences indicate that the mind has a power of foreseeing the future, something which the brain as a purely physical system must clearly be incapable of. Similarly, real memories of a previous life would show that a particular mind is not equivalent to the activity of a particular brain, but survives brain death and can be linked subsequently to a new brain.
Now, the scholarly study of paranormal phenomena cannot take place outside any (at least implicit) philosophical framework. Like any other type of scientific research, it has to operate with notions of ontology and causality that precede empirical theorizing. Such notions make a big difference to the nature of our studies. For example, if we had good analytical reasons to believe that the personal mind survives death, we would not bother so much about just demonstrating empirically the reality of personal survival, but would rather concentrate on exploring the exact nature of that phenomenon.
In this short series of two papers I will be concerned with general philosophical questions that bear on parapsychology and psychical research, namely the efficacy of consciousness and the ontological nature of memory.
The main philosophical position among empirical scientists, notably psychologists, regarding the issue of the causal efficacy of consciousness is still epiphenomenalism, a term derived from the original medical term 'epiphenomenon' which means by-product. Epiphenomenalism holds that consciousness is just 'a by-product of the brain and that it is therefore completely impotent. As John Beloff has pointed out, epiphenomenalism is one of the manifestations of so called 'physicalism'. According to physicalism, absolutely everything that takes place within reality is solely and wholly the product of physical laws acting upon physical entities. Now, epiphenomenalism contains at least two propositions. One of them is an ontological proposition about consciousness, namely 'Consciousness cannot be a physical phenomenon, but it does exist'. This is a dualist position. The other proposition concerns causal efficacy, namely 'Only physical entities are causally efficacious'. This is the position of physicalism I have just mentioned. Combined, they lead to the conclusion that consciousness cannot be causally efficacious, precisely because it is not a physical entity. Some authors talk about 'materialist' forms of epiphenomenalism, but this clearly must be incorrect, as it is the non-physical nature of consciousness which — if you accept physicalism — would make its efficacy unthinkable.
Objections against epiphenomenalism
Several objections against epiphenomenalism have been formulated according to which epiphenomenalism would contradict itself. These arguments are structured as follows: Epiphenomenalism implicitly claims to possess knowledge of consciousness, as it states that consciousness is real, but non-physical and therefore non-efficacious. This implies that consciousness has in some way had an effect upon the ideas on which epiphenomenalism is based. If consciousness can be known to exist and to be non-physical, it must have some effect on the cognitive apparatus so that this apparatus can "realize" that consciousness exists and is non-physical.
The argument from the knowledge of contents of consciousness
The crudest form of the argument mentioned above runs as follows: Some epiphenomenalists are talking about different kinds of contents of consciousness, such as for example the subjective experience of colours or sounds, and they hold at the same time that none of these contents would as such have any impact on reality. How is it possible then that those very same epiphenomenalists talk about contents of consciousness?
This version of the argument, however, may 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. A proposition such as 'I see the colour red' would thus be caused completely by the supposed physiological correlate of the content of 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 produced by cerebral structures or processes.
The argument from the origin of the concept of consciousness
Where did our concepts regarding subjective experiences come from? This is the question which is raised by the second version of the logical argument. Shoemaker (1975) holds that it is subjective experiences themselves which cause a belief in the existence of subjective experiences. Following Shoemaker, you 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. Formulated in this fashion, the argument is still not strong enough. First, according to the epiphenomenalists, we 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 a 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 the justification of the concept of consciousness
Reacting to an essay by Jackson (1982), Michael Watkins wrote a short article in the journal Analysis(Watkins, 1989). In his essay, Jackson had defended the existence of epiphenomenal subjective experiences which are completely impotent. To this position, Watkins reacted in the following way: "Beliefs about qualia [subjective experiences] 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 notorious Consciousness explained. Although starting from a different philosophy of mind, namely reductionist functionalism, he shows in a similar way that epiphenomenalism is incoherent. On page 403 he advises: "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."
My own independent formulation of the same point, essentially dates from the late '80s:
(1) Epiphenomenalism accepts the reality of consciousness, and especially acknowledges its non-physical nature.
(2) We have to be aware that even if the concept of consciousness would be innate, the reality to which it refers — consciousness — could only be established through introspection, i.e. by establishing that there are such things as conscious experiences. Epiphenomenalism accepts the reality of consciousness and that position is based on the (introspective) evidence for the existence of conscious experiences.
There may or there may not be an innate concept of consciousness, in any case epiphenomenalism uses subjective experiences as a touchstone 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 such things as 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 own unconditional acceptance of subjective consciousness on an introspective contact with that very same consciousness. Such a contact, however, equals a causal effect, brought about by consciousness, upon the conceptualization processes of the person who contemplates his or her subjective experiences through introspection.
(3) 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, denying them any causal impact. The conclusion is therefore that epi-phenomenalism should be disqualified for good.
The analytical rejection of any type of identity theory and of parallellism
This kind of analytical reasoning can also be used to show that identity theory and parallellism must a priori be wrong. Identity theory in any of its many manifestations holds without exception that only the postulated 'objective' side to the subjective mind, i.e. the brain (or part of it), would have an objective impact on reality. However, this is irrational, as we have already seen, because to justify the postulating of a subjective mind, it is necessary that that subjective mind is efficacious as such, and not only in the so called 'objective’, physiological, sense, as identity theory would have it. If brain physiology alone would be efficacious, we would never know of the existence of consciousness in its subjective (true) sense.
Parallellism, on the other hand, states as we know that matter can have no impact on the mind. But if that were correct, how could we have any notion of matter? It would not be justified any more to accept, as parallellism does, the reality of matter, if matter would never let itself be known by influencing the mind. Therefore, parallellism can be said to be just as inconsistent as epiphenomenalism. This view of ours largely concurs with that of Douglas M. Stokes (1993), who states: "Parallellism seems, however, to be a needlessly complex doctrine. After all, observers are led to postulate the existence of the physical world in order to explain certain regularities in their sensory experience. If the physical world is assumed not to cause one's sensations, there is no need to postulate its existence at all. To do so would be to violate Occam's razor" (p. 57).
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Titus Rivas (M.A.), a philosopher and psychologist, is director ofAthanasia, a foundation for the study of survival after death and the evolution of the personal soul.
Notes- For this series I am greatly indebted to my friends Hein van Dongen and Pablo Campo for their valuable suggestions and comments. I would also like to thank Dr John Beloff for his interest and suggestions.
-Two other scholars have to my knowledge formulated similar, though apparently not exactly identical arguments: John Foster (1989) and the Dutch "mentalist" Rene Marres (1986). However, my argument is not the "standard" one as some of my Dutch critics have erroneously commented.
This paper was published in the Paranormal Review, 1999, 10: 33-35.