|ARGUMENTS FOR THE CAUSAL EFFICACY OF MIND|
|Paper by Titus Rivas published in the Paranormal Review about the causal efficacy of mind.|
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
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
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
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
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
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
(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.
|psychical research, physicalism, philosophy of mind, epiphenomenalism, parapsychology, ontology, psychogenic, efficacy of consciousness|